Many Alaska cruise visitors ask us, "Alaska cruises offer hundreds of shore excursions-which are the best and most unique?"
Well, we've done the legwork for you, and you find the answers to that question here. Since our film crews have shot more than 150 Alaska cruise excursions in the past few years, we know them intimately.
But we aren't the only experts-so are the thousands of passengers who have taken Princess shore excursions, Holland America shore excursions, Carnival excursions, and all other ship excursions. Since cruise lines track customer satisfaction through surveys, we talked with senior Alaska cruise line executives for their thoughts on which tours consistently please their guests. We also asked Alaska shore excursion operators the famous question, "Of course, your shore excursion is best. But if yours is best, what's second best?"
The result is our list of recommended cruise ship excursions:
Alaska Shore Excursions By Town
Alaska Shore Excursions By Activity
Explore the rich ocean waters off Ketchikan while watching bald eagles and seals. Snap photos of Totem Bight State Park and Guard Island lighthouse, and cruise past rugged, remote islands. The company's custom-made vessels are perfect for these waters: big, stable, smooth, and powerful. There’s an open-air observation deck, plus a heated cabin with enough seats for everyone on board.
Thirty-year Ketchikan resident Rob Holston, a former school teacher and fishing-lodge owner, will be your captain on most outings, working with a crew of local deck hands and captains.
You're guaranteed to see bald eagles, and you'll pass numerous active nests. But this is not just a wildlife cruise. You'll also explore the rich human history of Ketchikan.
With huge granite cliffs rising straight up from the sea and the sheer beauty of the area, Misty Fjords offers a unique Alaskan flightseeing experience—very different from other Inside Passage areas like Juneau or even a Mt. McKinley flightseeing tour. This is a great chance for a truly Alaskan experience: to ride in a floatplane and land on a pristine wilderness lake.
Begin with an aerial overview of Misty Fjords National Monument and those granite cliffs. Just beyond is a series of small, remote mountain lakes that would be next to impossible to reach on foot. Your pilot picks out one of the lakes, lands the floatplane, and turns off the engine. You can step out on the pontoon, breathe in the fresh air and listen to the silence.
Seeing a bear is at the top of many Alaskan travelers’ lists, and summer is the perfect time to do it. From late July to September, there are reliable (but not guaranteed) bear-viewing opportunities outside of Ketchikan. You’ll fly in by floatplane and have an excellent chance for safe, comfortable viewing and photography of black bears feeding on salmon. Note that these are black bears, not brown or grizzly bears. If you want to see brown bears while on a Southeast Alaska cruise, your best bet is to take an evening nature tour to Haines in August and September.
A visit to Southeast Alaska is not complete without an introduction to the area’s original inhabitants, the Tlingit people. Their fascinating history and culture is one reason Ketchikan is such a special place to visit. Another important element of the town is the logging industry, which was one of the mainstays of the Ketchikan economy through the 1990’s. This tour introduces you to both.
The single most famous aspect of the Tlingit people is the totem pole. Most visitors know little about them, but the Saxman Village tour offers a deep look at the Tlingit culture overall, and particularly their totem poles. In fact, Saxman Totem park is one of the world’s largest collections of totem poles, and your guide will help explain the stories and symbolism behind many of the totems. The Lumberjack show is an entertaining look at the world of logging and the skills needed to survive in this dangerous industry. Lumberjacks compete in a dozen events including sawing, chopping, axe throwing, and log rolling.
Snorkeling? In Alaska? Yes! Just don a wetsuit and you can experience this area’s rich marine life. Enter the water and snorkel above shallow tide pools while your PADI-certified instructor describes the ecology and the various creatures you see. You’ll have a chance to observe and handle a variety of multi-colored sea starts, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and the giant sunflower star. Just be sure to take advantage of this unique opportunity here: as you sail further north to the ports of Juneau, Skagway, and Haines, snorkeling is simply not offered, due to the large amount of glacial silt clouding the water.
Listen up, anglers (or non-anglers): There are a lot of fish in Ketchikan, so your chances of catching one here are excellent. The best time to cast your line is when the pink salmon are running, in mid-to-late summer. In fact, they return to the streams around Ketchikan by the thousands. While many Alaskan “fish snobs” turn their nose up at pink salmon and prefer king or sockeye salmon, nothing beats the excitement of catching your first wild Alaskan salmon.
If your cruise itinerary includes Sitka, fish there in place of Ketchikan (or fish in both places). Sitka faces the open Pacific Ocean, so fishing in Sitka tends to offer a wider variety of species, including king salmon and halibut.
Most folks identify Alaska with dog sledding. But since dog sledding is a winter activity, cruise ship visitors in the early days never had a chance to experience it. That all changed when helicopters became readily available to travelers. On this wildly popular tour with TEMSCO Helicopters, you travel to the Juneau Ice Field by helicopter and get a chance to travel by dog sled on a stretch of gorgeous glacier. Sure, it’s expensive—it’s also unforgettable.
Explore a glacier on foot! On this tour, you’ll travel to the Juneau Icefield by helicopter, don your crampons, learn to use your ice axe, go for a walk in this beautiful, surreal environment. There are different activity levels depending on how active you want to be.
If you’re looking to go whitewater rafting in Southeast Alaska, the Mendenhall River rafting trip is your only option. So don’t miss out! You start with a float in Mendenhall Lake with a view of the blue-tinged Mendenhall Glacier. The current picks up, and soon you’re bouncing through some mild, Class III rapids with ice cold water splashing in your face. The river winds through the forest, and you end the trip floating through a Juneau neighborhood. Watch for real Alaskan wildlife, like a family barbecuing salmon in their backyard!
This long-running favorite tour combines a number of appealing activities into one trip: a scenic glacier flight with Wings Airways, a float plane landing, a visit to a remote lodge with a chance for a guided nature walk, and a barbecue of king salmon (the favorite of the five species of salmon for many Alaskans).
That remote lodge is the Taku Lodge, built in 1923 and located just across the river from the advancing Taku Glacier (that’s right… it’s one of the few glaciers in Alaska that’s actually advancing). Get out and enjoy the lodge and its wilderness ambience. Local guides offer a short nature walk on a wilderness trail, or you may choose to relax. Then enjoy a time-honored Alaskan tradition—the salmon bake. The succulent grilled salmon attracts bears, of course, and you may be lucky enough to spot one!
The combination of plentiful marine plankton and favorable currents makes the waters near Juneau a popular feeding area for humpback whales. And Juneau has a reliable number of humpback whales feeding in the nearby channels. The captain knows where to find them, and you’ll learn a lot about these gentle giants along the way. Bring your camera: you may even catch a whale “lunge feeding” or “breaching.” And while humpbacks are the highlight, you may also see orca whales, harbor seals, sea lions, and bald eagles. Learn more about the Whale Watching Adventure.
The White Pass and Yukon Route train is the most popular tour in Southeast Alaska, and rightfully so. It’s a comfortable, scenery-filled trip: you’ll pass glistening glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and crystal clear lakes surrounded by spruce trees. It’s also a chance to step back in time: This is the same route traversed in the winter of 1898 by thousand of gold-hungry stampeders. You can still see remains of the famous “Trail of ‘98” from the train.
Best of all, there are dozens of options to combine the train tour with another activity. History buffs can add a visit to Liarsville, a re-created gold rush camp complete with Vaudeville entertainment and a salmon bake.
This is the tour to take if you want to combine a train trip with some action. Ride this historic train up the White Pass summit. Then, when you reach the top, get outside and ride a mountain bike back down. The road drops about 3,000 feet in 10 miles—it’s an exhilarating ride.
Most folks identify Alaska with dog sledding. But since dog sledding is a winter activity, cruise ship visitors in the early days never had a chance to experience it. That all changed when helicopters became readily available to travelers. On this wildly popular tour with TEMSCO Helicopters, you'll fly over the Denver Glacier by helicopter, then land there to visit a dog camp. You can take a ride on the sled and even learn the basics so that you can take the reins yourself. Definitely an unforgettable experience!
Several factors make Skagway an ideal port for flightseeing. One of course is the spectacular view of Glacier Bay from the air: the combination of massive glaciers, iceberg-filled inlets, and jagged mountain peaks make this a flight to remember. Also good to know, though, is that Skagway is the port in Southeast Alaska with the least amount of rainfall, so your flight is less likely to be cancelled!
Note: Skagway is great for history and adventure. But if it’s wildlife you’re after—or if you want to get away from ports smothered by thousands of cruise ship passengers—consider Haines. It’s just 15 miles from Skagway, but since there’s no direct road connection (you’d have to drive 360 miles one way!), you’ll take a 45-minute high-speed catamaran.
Your cruise ship will offer tours that are hassle-free and can be purchased on board. But if you’d like to travel in smaller groups and support independent operators directly, we suggest tourhaines.com, shoreexcursionsgroup.com, and shoretrips.com.
There are really only two choices for river float trips in Southeast Alaska: the Mendenhall River in Juneau or the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve float trip in Haines. The Mendenhall is a fun whitewater trip that starts with a spectacular view of the Mendenhall Glacier. However, if you’re looking for a wilderness or wildlife trip, choose the Chilkat float. This trip begins with a scenic, 25-mile drive into the heart of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, an extremely rich wildlife area. You’ll board rafts and float on the swift current (no whitewater) of the shallow, glaciated Chilkat River through the Eagle Council Grounds, which are crisscrossed with tracks of bear, moose, wolves, otter, and other wildlife. Keep an eye out for these creatures, but you’re more likely to spot eagles (in fact, every trip has eagle sightings). When the sockeye salmon are running in July, you may spot 100 bald eagles or more. And that’s not even peak season. To see thousands of eagles at once, you’ll have to come back in November.
Another way to see the Preserve is by jetboat tour, which goes up the Chilkat River into a wetland environment that’s an excellent place to see moose and bald eagles.
The nature tour in Haines—a driving tour with plenty of stops—takes you to one of the most wildlife-rich areas in Southeast Alaska: Chilkoot Lake State Park. Expert naturalists accompany you along the way, taking time to set up spotting scopes and bring the wildlife in close. Look for harbor seals, bald eagles, and mergansers (a fish-eating duck). Later in the summer, spawning salmon and brown bears add to the mix. The guides follow ethical wildlife-viewing protocols to keep people and bears safe.
Another way to experience the Chilkoot surroundings is by kayak. The area’s lake is generally protected from wind and currents, so this trip is suitable for beginners. The views are spectacular, with giant peaks surrounding the lake, and waterfalls flowing down from the mountains. Beginning in mid-July, you can often see sockeye salmon spawning in a shallow tributary stream. In August and September you have a good chance of seeing brown bear walking along the river and along the lake’s shore.
Two other popular tours to Haines from Skagway include the Takshanuk Mountain Trail 4x4 Adventure and Steve Kroschel’s Wildlife Center.
Note: Some ships that dock in Haines offer tours to Skagway. Unless you’re a serious history buff, we don’t recommend it. You’ll likely find four or five big ships docked in a town one-third the size of Haines. Instead, take advantage of having the town of Haines to yourself. It’s your chance to experience a real Alaskan town largely unaffected by large-scale tourism. You can enjoy any of the four tours mentioned above: rafting, jetboat, kayaking, and nature tours are also offered from Skagway. Or try one of our recommended tours below.
Travelers to Alaska often wonder what it’s like to live in a small Alaskan town year-round. This tour is designed to show you. Your fun and informative local guide will take you to out-of-the-way places, like Svenson’s Extreme Dreams Art Studio. You’ll also visit the Hammer Museum—the world’s only museum dedicated to man’s first tool.
Serious photographers are often frustrated when they find a nice spot, set up for a shot, and the guide yells, "Time to get back on the bus!" This tour is for photographers, so there's ample time to get your shots just right. Better still, your professional photographer guide has the flexibility to take you where the "action" is, whether it's a field of wildflowers by the Chilkat River, brown bears feeding on salmon near Chilkoot Lake, or a juvenile bald eagle exercising its wings for its first flight. (Note: Juneau also has a photo tour that is very popular. The Juneau tour uses a boat while the Haines tour is by van.)
Much of Alaska touring revolves around stunning visual sights. But this tour gives you a chance to experience Alaska with the sense of taste of smell. You’ll visit the smallest commercial brewery in North America (set in Dalton City, the former movie set for Walt Disney’s movie “White Fang”) and meet the brewmeister, Paul Wheeler. How small is this brewery? They can only accommodate 10 guests at a time, and Paul likes to quip that Anheuser Busch spills more beer in a day than Haines Brewing Company brews in a year! You’ll learn about the challenges of brewing in a small Alaskan town, and sample some of the state’s finest brews. Then continue to Dejon Delights to see (and smell!) how the experts smoke salmon and halibut. You’ll learn the whole process—from fresh caught fish to vacuum-packed smoked fillet. There are bountiful samples and you may be tempted to ship home a fillet or two!
Unlike other kayaking tours, where you begin your kayaking excursion in town or alongside a road, this tour starts with a boat ride to a remote “floating camp” for some sea kayaking. It’s safe and easy to learn: Your guide will teach you the basics of paddling, then set off on a 90-minute excursion where you’ll explore the protected bays and inlets as your guide helps interpret the ecology of this gorgeous area.
Since Sitka faces the open Pacific Ocean, a visit just isn’t complete without a boat ride—especially one where you’ll look for whales, seals, sea lions, bears, black-tailed deer, and the area’s most unique creature: the sea otter. In fact, the cuddly sea otter is a huge part of the history of Southeast Alaska and Sitka in particular. Its fur was the first important commodity exported from Alaska, before gold or oil. This gentle creature was nearly wiped out during the sea otter trade, and even today they’re rare. But on this tour you’ll have a good chance of seeing a sea otter, as well as those other creatures, as you travel in a comfortable boat with a knowledgeable naturalist.
No doubt about it—Sitka is a world-class fishing destination. It boasts the shortest rod-hour to catch ratio for King salmon in the entire state of Alaska. So, if you dream of catching an Alaska salmon, this is a great place. (Your tour operator will process, freeze, and ship the fish back home for you.) Sitka sits directly on the open ocean, so you can go after all five species of Pacific salmon in an easy outing from Sitka. Sitka’s also a great place to fish for Halibut. The halibut fishing grounds are farther from shore, requiring a longer tour. All these species, plus lingcod, rockfish, and others feed heavily in Sitka Sound throughout the summer.
As the former capital of Russian America, Sitka has been a bridge between cultures and offers a fascinating glimpse into a rich historic past. This tour covers all the historical highlights and visits the Raptor Center, where injured bald eagles and other birds are rehabilitated for eventual release into the wild.
Alaska Shore Excursions By Activity
- Lighthouse Totem & Eagles Excursion - Ketchikan
- Chilkat River Adventures - Haines
- Whale Watching - Juneau
- Alaska Raptor Center - Sitka
- Sea Kayaking - Sitka
- Snorkeling - Ketchikan
- Dog Sledding - Juneau
- Dog Sledding - Skagway
- Glacier Trek - Juneau
- Whitewater Rafting - Juneau
- Bald Eagle Preserve Float Trip - Skagway and Haines
- White Pass train with Bike Ride -Skagway
- Fishing - Ketchikan / Sitka
- Misty Fjord Float Plane Excursion - Ketchikan
- Glacier Bay Flightseeing - Skagway
- Helicopter Flightseeing, Trekking or Dogsled Tours - Juneau
- Helicopter Flightseeing or Dogsled Tours - Skagway
- Saxman Village and Lumberjack Tour - Ketchikan Train with Liarsville - Skagway
- Offbeat Haines
- Taste of Haines
- Raptor Center- Sitka
- Taku Lodge Flightseeing and Salmon Bake- Juneau
- Guide’s Choice Photo Discovery Tour - Haines