You may also like
Train Heads Towards Alaskan Town (Photo: Holland America)
Train Heads Towards Alaskan Town (Photo: Holland America)

9 Best Alaska Cruise Tour Destinations

Train Heads Towards Alaskan Town (Photo: Holland America)
Train Heads Towards Alaskan Town (Photo: Holland America)
Assistant SEO Editor
Marilyn Borth

Last updated
Jun 30, 2023

Alaskan cruise tours, which are land extensions available before or after one-way Alaska cruises, are great options to explore the Last Frontier's interior. Alaska cruise tours offer a broader look at this rugged state, from the clouded peak of Mount Denali and all the way up to Fairbanks, the northernmost big city in Alaska. Some even take a step out of Alaska and dip into Canada's Yukon territory.

Offered by cruise lines like Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean, these Alaska cruise and land packages let cruisers go places that cruise ships can't reach.

To whet your appetite for Alaska's secret (and some not-so-secret) charms, check out our list of the nine best cruise tour destinations in Alaska.

1. Anchorage: Explore Alaska's Largest City up Close

Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska based on population, has its share of souvenir shops selling Alaska T-shirts and ulu knives (round-bladed instruments patterned after native utensils). But duck down a side street, and it oozes a Pacific Northwest hipster vibe with galleries proffering original paintings and organic, silk-screened T-shirts and coffee shops serving up monster breakfasts and spicy hot chocolate.

The city even gets a bit high-brow with the fabulous Anchorage Museum, which partners with the venerable Smithsonian to display native Alaskan cultural artifacts and modern art as indecipherable as moose tracks after a heavy snow.

Anchorage is nestled between the Chugach Mountains and the ocean, making it ideally situated for outdoor play. On Flattop Mountain, blueberry-pickers, trail-runners, dog-walkers and even the occasional moose test themselves against the steep climb to the summit (or linger on the gentler bottom slopes).

In the city center, bikers, walkers and rollerbladers can stretch their legs on the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail that rims the city. You can't walk very far downtown without passing at least one bike rental spot, if you're in search of a bike.

If you would rather see the city from the comfort of public transportation, then try the trolley tour with Anchorage Trolley Tours that begins and ends at the visitor's center. The trolley tours showcase various hot spots of the city and its outskirts, including Earthquake Park, Alaska Railroad Depot and Lake Hood Seaplane Base.

Down at Ship Creek -- not far from where Anchorage's one occasional cruise ship docks -- fishermen hope to catch their dinner in the form of a big, meaty salmon. Try your hand at the local pastime; a bait shack is located on the creek to rent anything you might need. Just be wary of the tide or you might get stuck in the mud -- and that quicksand-like mud is really no laughing matter, as it's highly dangerous.

2. Girdwood (Alyeska): Home to the Only Alaska Ski Resort

Girdwood (Photo: RoschetzkyProductions/

An hour south of Anchorage is Girdwood, home to Alyeska Resort, an award-winning luxury hotel and -- if you can believe it -- Alaska's only ski resort. Here, the mountaintop Seven Glaciers restaurant serves up fine (four diamond-rated) Alaskan cuisine (like mesquite-grilled Alaska salmon and bison rib eye) 2,300 feet above sea level, with views of Turnagain Arm and surrounding glaciers.

Floor-to-ceiling windows provide great views and abundant sunlight during long summer days. Take an aerial tram back to the hotel, or hike the switchback trail down the hillside. For a more down-to-earth local experience, the place to go is Girdwood Laundry, also known as the "Laundromall," voted America's best laundromat. It offers showers, internet, food, beer and T-shirt printing in addition to laundering services.

3. Seward: More than Just an Alaskan Cruise Port

Seward (Photo:Alberto Loyo/Shutterstock)
Seward (Photo:Alberto Loyo/Shutterstock)

You would be wrong to assume that Seward is just a cruise port. The tiny town that's tucked between glacier-topped mountains and Resurrection Bay is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park.

A bay cruise is a must on any cruise tour. On a rare sunny summer day, the bay blossoms into a menagerie of sea life: Orca families dive in and out of the waves, otters backstroke to their next meal and haughty bald eagles perch high in trees to look down their beaks at the fluttering seabirds and the dozing sea lions. The scenery's pretty spectacular, too, especially when low-flying clouds take a breather atop craggy island peaks.

4. Chug Along the Ineffable Alaska Railroad

Alaska Railway McKinley Explorer
Alaska Railway McKinley Explorer (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Many cruise tour itineraries include a trip on the Alaska Railroad, which stretches for 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks. The upsides of train travel are the double-decker, glass-domed cars that allow for nearly 360-degree views of Alaska's great interior wilderness.

Passengers recline in comfy seats, dine on regional cuisine like halibut tacos and berry pie in the dining area and snap photos from a small outdoor viewing platform.

The downside? Four hours is a long time to be stuck on a train with no stops, especially on stretches like the leg from Anchorage to Talkeetna, where the scenery is pretty but hardly spectacular.

5. Talkeetna: The Quirky, Inspirational Town with a Cat for Mayor

Talkeetna (Photo: EQRoy/

Talkeetna is a quirky little town located halfway between Anchorage and Denali on the train line and was the inspiration for the sitcom "Northern Exposure." To give you an idea, the town's first honorary mayor was a cat named Stubbs, who has since been succeeded by another cat named Denali in 2017.

Peek into Nagley's Store, a general store with eclectic merchandise -- pricy bananas and some ammo in one quick stop. Hobnob with climbers (or wannabes) at the West Rib Pub, which honors the sport of mountain climbing -- and fattens you up for the trek with a two-pound caribou burger that's topped with ham, bacon and the pub's trademark sauce.

Or pick up a memento -- like beaver teeth earrings -- inside Village Arts & Crafts. Don't forget to grab a craft beer across the street at the small (but growing) Denali Brewing Company.

6. Denali National Park & Preserve: Denali (a.k.a. Mount McKinley), Wildlife, Staggering Landscapes and More

Flightseeing near Denali
Flightseeing near Denali (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Denali National Park is the most likely spot to catch a mama bear grazing on berries with her twin cubs by the side of the road or watch a couple of caribou debating whose antlers are the biggest.

What many people don't realize is that there's just one road into the park, and if you sign up for the popular Tundra Wilderness Tour excursion, you'll sit on a school bus for eight hours, broken up only by sporadic bathroom breaks.

Wildlife sightings aren't guaranteed, especially if you don't bring your own binoculars. But it's worth the opportunity of sighting that majestic moose or exotic lynx along the stunning landscapes.

A bus ride into the park isn't the only worthwhile attraction in Denali. White-water rafting on the glacial Nenana River is popular, too. (You'll look quite stylish in your head-to-toe dry suit.)

Or visit the Denali home and training center of four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King on the Husky Homestead Tour. When you step off the bus, a handler will place a warm, wiggly husky puppy in your arms. You can ogle the doggy cuteness while learning about Alaska's most famous sled dog race and the training regimens of elite racing dogs.

If you'd rather soar into the clouds to get an up-close-and-personal view of Denali (a.k.a. Mount McKinley and the highest mountain in North America) and the rest of the Alaskan Range, then give a flightseeing excursion a try.

Note that these excursions tend to be rather pricey (in the hundreds of dollars), Denali is only visible to 60% of flightseeing guests due to weather conditions and the ride can get quite turbulent as they're in smaller planes. But, the views of the surrounding mountains, glacier and glacial rivers are simply spectacular -- and it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, after all.

If you aren't interested in flightseeing to see Denali, you could always sign up for a mountain wake-up call at your hotel. You'll get a call when the mountain becomes visible, whether it be 11 p.m. or 5 a.m.

Hardcore cruise tourists might be disappointed to know that climbing Denali is a multi-day adventure that requires permits and a flight to the mountain's base.

7. The Yukon: Canada's Territory that's Stuck in Time

Welcome to Canada's Yukon territory! (Photo: Marilyn Borth)
Welcome to Canada's Yukon territory! (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

If you're looking for a quirkier, off-the-beaten-track experience, then you may want to consider visiting the Yukon, the Canadian territory that borders Alaska. Holland America Line is the only cruise line that currently offers cruise tours that stop in the Yukon, but their itineraries are robust and rewarding.

The two hot spots in the Yukon you'd visit are Dawson (or Dawson City) and Whitehorse. Dawson is a small town that appears to remain in the gold rush era with dirt roads, wooden boards for sidewalks and building facades reminiscent of the Old West. Situated beside the Yukon River and amongst Klondike Valleys, the views are certainly welcoming.

But it's not just the natural splendor surrounding the town that's of particular interest; the Sourtoe Cocktail at Downtown Hotel that serves up booze with a garnish of a pickled human toe is intriguing, too. Give that a try (we sure did) if you are feeling especially courageous.

The infamous Sourtoe Cocktail (Photo: Marilyn Borth)
The infamous Sourtoe Cocktail (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

If you aren't a fan of having severed toes in your beverages, there is plenty more for you to do in Dawson. Meander around the downtown area to admire the architecture and Yukon River, take a shuttle bus to the Midnight Dome for stunning panoramic views of nature and the town or enjoy the gold rush-themed Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall. The performances at the latter are quite the talented spectacle, which get raunchier as the night progresses.

Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, is a bustling city about a six-hour drive south from Dawson and can be an enjoyable experience if you know where to go.

If you would rather get away from the chaos of a city, relax and unwind in Takhini Hot Springs instead, natural hot springs that have been a locally-operated spot for over 100 years and located just outside Whitehorse.

Nature enthusiasts' favorites abound nearby as well, like canoeing on the Yukon River, hiking the Miles Canyon and off-roading in the Carcross Desert, the world's smallest desert (which is interestingly found in Canada).

8. Skagway, Alaska: Home to the White Pass and Yukon Railroad

Skagway's White Pass & Yukon Route railroad (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)
Skagway's White Pass & Yukon Route railroad (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)

The White Pass and Yukon Railroad, also commonly known as the “Scenic Railway of the World,” begins in Skagway, Alaska. Skagway is a small city that doubles as a cruise port and is a popular destination on Alaska cruise tours, especially those that trek through the Yukon.

The indescribably scenic railway recently celebrated its 125-year anniversary and served as the link between Whitehorse and Skagway during the gold rush. Today, these vintage locomotives climb through mountains on round-trip rides from Skagway to the White Pass Summit (this is the farthest tourists can ride at this time), reaching a staggering 2,888 feet in elevation at its highest point.

Aside from this world-famous railroad, Skagway is a peaceful city that emits gold era authenticity amongst natural splendor while also offering up quirky things to do. Just for a taste, the Red Onion Saloon is both a lively saloon and a brothel museum (the establishment used to be a brothel during the gold rush).

Be sure to order the "Reindeer Fart" at the bar. Don't worry-- it's not as terrifying as the Sourtoe Cocktail in Dawson; it's quite sweet and includes fan favorites Bailey's, Kahlua and Peppermint Schnapps.

Or you could simply stroll around the charming city, admire the architecture and step into the intriguing shops that line State Street and Broadway Street.

9. Fairbanks: A Gold Panning Hot Spot in Alaska

Gold Dredge 8 in Fairbanks
Gold Dredge 8 in Fairbanks (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Fairbanks is the northernmost "big city" in Alaska, where many cruise tours begin or end. But cruise visitors are kept pretty separate from the folks who live and work there, with a slew of activities created especially for tourists.

Gold Dredge 8 serves as a monument to miners and visitors can take their own stab at panning for gold after riding a replica of a Tanana Valley Railroad train.

The Discovery paddlewheel riverboat tour jam-packs everything Alaskan into one trip, including a visit with a champion dog-musher, a tour of a faux Athabascan village and a floatplane demo.

If you can overlook the forced jollity and tourist-trap atmosphere, the tour is actually a great introduction to Alaska's history and culture. If you're looking for an adventure out of Dodge, consider a flight to the nation's least-visited national park, the Gates of the Arctic.

Related: The Best Time to Cruise Alaska: A Month-by-Month Guide

Publish date November 21, 2019
How was this article?

Get special cruise deals, expert advice, insider tips and more.By proceeding, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

© 1995—2024, The Independent Traveler, Inc.