Some people wait their entire lives to get to Alaska, while others can't wait to go back again and again. The rugged appeal of Alaska is vast, and there's a never-ending supply of memorable activities and experiences to draw first-time and repeat visitors. An Alaska cruise tour is the perfect way to see the state, from the parks and cities of its interior to its glacial shores and quirky outskirts. To ensure you see all that the 49th State has to offer (and it's a lot), we've rounded up a dozen don't-miss cruise tour activities that span land, air, sea and ice. Click through our slides to read about the top 12 cruise tour activities in Alaska and where to find them.
Before or after you board your cruise ship, there are plenty more intimate cruises to take -- and they come highly recommended. Sure, like many things in the state of Alaska, the outcome is weather-dependent, but so much is packed into one of these day cruises -- marine life, wildlife, glaciers, you name it -- you're almost guaranteed to see something. For the ultimate in ice viewing, we recommend a "26 Glacier" cruise on Prince William Sound. Located right by the cruise terminal in Whittier, these boats depart on multi-hour trips that might yield sea lion and Dall sheep sightings, and on a clear day (you guessed it), up to 26 different glaciers along College Fjord. Even better? Their no seasickness guarantee. For a focus on wildlife that comes complete with stunning vistas, sail Kenai Fjords National Park. A variety of companies operate day cruises from Seward, another major Alaska cruise homeport.
If you visit Denali National Park on the land portion of your cruise tour, consider popping up about 4,400 feet to the elevated tundra for a different view. This unique, treeless biodome consists of lichens and mosses atop permafrost, making for a rather springy step. Excursion operators offer heli-hike tours, launching you to tundra height in a helicopter (for the payoff of the view without the climb) and then leaving you in the trusty hands of a naturalist guide. Learn how to track the wildlife (caribou, wolves and grizzly bears) that graze here, and take in the spectacular atmosphere of being eye level with Alaska's mountain ranges. During a break, your guide might even reward your trek with hot chocolate and homemade cookies.
Riding the scenic railways of Alaska is a hallmark of any Last Frontier journey. Chances are, it's an included part of your cruise tour, and multiple legs mean the chance to see different routes. The railroad runs from Fairbanks in the north down to Seward, and popular segments include Anchorage to Seward or Talkeetna to Whittier. Pay slightly more to ride in the glass-domed rail cars for better views (you might catch eagles soaring overhead). Viewing platforms between the passenger cars allow for rail riders to get some fresh air and snap up-close shots of waterfalls and other stunning landscape tableaus. Dining cars offer local beer and cuisine, for an additional charge. Search the horizon line for moose while guides narrate the history and significance behind the wilderness flying past your window.
You've probably heard of kayaking the waterways of the 49th State, but enter a new era of water sports by standup paddleboarding (also known as SUP) in Alaska. This activity combines core balance and paddling as you stand upright on a large paddleboard. Liquid Adventures offers multiple kayak and paddleboard trips out of Seward, but perhaps the most stunning is to Bear Glacier. About an hour from Seward by small boat, Bear is the longest glacier in the park at 13 miles, and glowing blue icebergs and other ice formations surround it. Instruction is friendly to first-timers, and dry suits and gear are provided (including dry bags for your phone or camera). If you're looking for something more familiar but equally thrilling, try snorkeling in the frigid Alaskan waters. Snorkeling excursions are typically offered in Ketchikan.
On a perfect streak of luck, your visit to Alaska would be rife with whales breaching, bear cubs munching on unsuspecting salmon and families of sea otters cracking open shells and playing in the surf. The reality is that depending on when you cruise to Alaska, and factors like simply being in the right place at the right time, wildlife is unpredictable to spot (even when you're a local guide). To guarantee a close-up look at all of Alaska's most well-known inhabitants, consider visiting one of the state's excellent wildlife parks and sanctuaries. The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is an hour south of Anchorage, near Girdwood, and presents 90 acres of rehabbed animals like roaming bison and muskox, with a large area for the stars of the show: the bears. (Here's where you can take that award-winning profile of a grizzly.) Moving from land to sea, Seward's Alaska SeaLife Center is the place to observe puffins and harbor seals in a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to the importance of Alaska's marine ecosystem. For those most interested in avians, don't miss the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka.
Alaska is known for its eclectic cuisine (reindeer sausage is a staple and a heavy emphasis is placed on seafood and sourdough), but don't forget to wash it down with one of the state's numerous brews. Alaska has been experiencing something of a beer renaissance, and no matter where you go you're bound to find a brewery -- there are at least 30. Try Denali Brewing Company, located in the small town and popular Alaska cruise tour stop of Talkeetna, or patronize a brewpub in Anchorage (49th State Brewing, based in Healy, has an expansive location here; Moose's Tooth Pub & Pizzeria is also popular with the residents). Beer flights are always a great way to sample the many inventive varieties, but don't hesitate to order a pint of the local specialty, spruce tip ale. You'll find it at Skagway Brewing Company. If you discover yourself on a cruise tour in the Yukon, consider rallying for a sour toe cocktail in Dawson City. You'll definitely need a beer to wash it down afterward.
More than just meeting cute pups, an experience visiting a dog sledding camp teaches a lot about the state sport and also how climate change is affecting it. Due to receding ice and snow conditions, camps are constantly relocated throughout the summer months and each year, the Iditarod is being rerouted. But, when you get down to it, the huskies are incredibly adorable and a chance to actually ride a dog sled is something of a dream come true for many. There are tons of places to take a dog sledding excursion (yes, even in the middle of the summer), and they include kennels way up in Fairbanks, a homestead tour with four-time former Iditarod champ Jeff King in Denali, and a mushing school outside of Anchorage. Perhaps one of the most memorable dog sledding experiences is a helicopter ride from Juneau to a camp that's located atop Mendenhall Glacier.
At first shine it might seem like a tourist trap, but gold panning is a fun activity for the whole family and you'll walk away with a bit of Alaskan history (and maybe even a nugget of gold). The Klondike Gold Rush to the Yukon took place in the late-19th century, and as one of the great gold rushes, it brought thousands of people and business to surrounding areas like Skagway and Dyea. You can still find gold panning in both those cities, but also throughout Alaska; there are tours outside Juneau, at the gold mine attraction El Dorado in Fairbanks and in the tiny town of Hope, an easy day trip from Anchorage. Just outside Girdwood you'll find Crow Creek Mine, a historic mining settlement (still operational today) founded in 1896. Tour groups are small, and you pan right along the scenic river.
Dog sledding might be the state sport, but the most popular Alaskan pastime is fishing, by far. Whether it's for sport or for dinner, a fishing trip is an essential Alaskan experience -- especially when it comes to salmon. During the state's summer months (which coincide nicely with cruise season), various runs of salmon, trout and halibut practically leap from the water. Book a trip out and if you're doing it independently, consider having a guide -- they know the best spots to go and what's there. (Also, don't forget to pay for a temporary license, you can find them at local supermarkets.) The Kenai and Copper rivers are a spectacular place to start if you are on a cruise tour in that area of the Kenai Peninsula. Not a salmon fan? All the way down in Homer is where you'll find the choicest halibut. If you're feeling competitive, Seward's Silver Salmon Derby is always held the second week of August. And if you're booking with a cruise line, Princess Cruises offers a cool "Cook My Catch" excursion that begins with a trip out salmon fishing and ends with your most prized catch on that night's dinner plate.
If a cruise tour activity is done right, it will infuse a bit of Alaskan history and culture into it. But it's worth spending a few hours of your vacation to dive a bit deeper into the eight or so complex native cultures of Alaska and their still-thriving peoples. A fantastic place to do this is the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. Visit a village of traditional dwellings and witness dancing and storytelling firsthand from a younger generation of native Alaskans. A culture pass can be purchased that provides access to the center along with the Anchorage Museum, home to hundreds of native artifacts in partnership with the Smithsonian. The gift shop at the museum offers a great selection of native art and handicrafts for sale. Head to Ketchikan if you want to view the state's largest collection of totem poles. In Sitka, you'll learn about the state's former ties to Russia. Just about anywhere you'll go on an Alaska cruise tour will have a story to tell, so be sure to take the time to listen.
So much of Alaska's livelihood is based on its waters. Whether you just came off a cruise ship or you're headed out on a day cruise through the fjords, you still can't beat being inches away from the water on a float trip or Zodiac to enjoy a better connection with your surroundings and the wildlife that flourishes there. One of the most highly recommended float trips is down the Chilkat River through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. A guide takes you four or five hours by raft (from Skagway or Haines) through a region known for having abundant wildlife and the world's highest concentration of bald eagles. If you're cruising Alaska onboard an expedition vessel, they should make plentiful Zodiac trips to explore the immediate area around where you're sailing. If you're headed onboard a larger cruise ship, you can still book an independent Zodiac tour for a thrilling whale-watching excursion.
Arguably the most must-see cruise tour activity in all of Alaska is a chance to peer at the sights while soaring above. Flightseeing is an exhilarating (though expensive) ride in a small airplane or floatplane through mountain ranges and high above the mammoth animals, rivers and valleys that carve out the land below. Almost anywhere you stop throughout Alaska will offer an aerial perspective, and flightseeing is also incorporated into many other excursions: a glacier landing, tundra hike, dog sledding camp or a bear viewing trip. From Anchorage, fly with a company like Rust's Flying Service on adventure-packed day trips to national parks like Katmai or Lake Clark, where bears feast on seasonal salmon. A Denali mountain viewing flight is also breathtaking -- especially if you land on the ice! Make sure to take to the skies (and not just for the flight home) at least once while you're in the Last Frontier.
Updated November 21, 2019