There are countless awe-inspiring things to do in Alaska, from the parks and cities of its interior to its glacial shores and quirky outskirts. Some people make visiting Alaska a once-in-a-lifetime experience, 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 to draw both first-time and repeat visitors, especially those on a cruise tour. A cruise tour is part cruise, part land tour, making it the sublime combination of traveling styles.
But what exactly are the best activities on an Alaska cruise tour to do, both for repeat visitors and first-timers? To ensure you see all that the 49th State has to offer (and it's a lot), we've rounded up nine things to do in Alaska on a cruise tour that span land, air, sea and ice.
Before or after you board your cruise ship, there are plenty more intimate cruises to take -- and they come highly recommended. Like many goings-on in Alaska, the outcome is weather-dependent, but there's so much packed into one of these day cruises -- marine life, wildlife, glaciers, you name it -- that you're almost guaranteed to see something.
We recommend a "26 Glacier" cruise on Prince William Sound for ultimate ice viewing. 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 -- think puffins, seals and whales -- that comes complete with stunning vista backdrops, 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 on a helicopter to the elevated tundra. 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.
Some helicopter tour companies in Denali offer an extra bonus for those curious and adventurous travelers: glacier landings. Soar alongside the great Mount Denali and its nestling mountain range -- and get the unique chance to land on a glacier and even drink the fresh, crisp waters.
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 Alaska Railroad travels from Fairbanks in the north down to Seward (and vice versa), and popular segments include Anchorage to Seward or Talkeetna to Whittier.
Ride along the serene Alaskan landscapes in the glass-domed rail cars for better views. 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.
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.
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 or Ketchikan, which is also a rehabilitation center for "raptors," or birds of prey.
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, like 49th State Brewing or Moose's Tooth Pub & Pizzeria.
Alaskan 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 sourtoe cocktail in Dawson City. You'll definitely need a beer to wash it down afterward because, yes, there's a real human toe in there.
An experience visiting a dog sledding camp in Alaska 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). Popular options include kennels way up in Fairbanks, a homestead tour with four-time former Iditarod champ Jeff King in Denali, a mushing school outside of Anchorage, and a helicopter ride from Juneau to a camp that's located atop Mendenhall Glacier.
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.
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. Holland America has a similar salmon fishing experience called "Savor My Catch" and is popular in Ketchikan.
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.
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 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. A Denali mountain viewing flight is also breathtaking -- especially if you land on the ice.
If you choose to go flightseeing in Denali either through your cruise ship or elsewhere, check your options carefully as some flights land on glaciers while others don't. For example, our flightseeing adventure on our Holland America cruise tour didn't have a glacier land (yet the helicopter ride did include a glacier landing).
Make sure to take to the skies (and not just for the flight home) at least once while you're in the Last Frontier. The views exceed expectations and make the bumpy ride worth it.