Inhabited by indigenous people prior to the arrival of Europeans, Alaska continues to be a home to populations of native Tlingit, Haida and Yuit, among other ethnic groups. Its timeline for the U.S. starts in 1867 when the U.S. purchased Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million dollars. The gold rushes of the 1890’s through 1910 saw thousands of prospectors descend in the area and the capital was transferred from Sitka to the present day location of Juneau. During WWII the three outer Aleutian Islands became occupied by the Japanese. Following the war, U.S. statehood was achieved as our 49th state in 1959. Alaska’s oil boom began in 1968 along with the 1977 establishment of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. This industry had its disaster in Prince William Sound with the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 which had a devastating effect on the local wildlife and environment. Thankfully, several protocols have been enacted since then to prevent future environmental dangers and damage to Alaska’s majestic splendor. Alaska really is America’s last frontier.
This beautiful state is much different than the other 49 states. Its inhabitants engage in a range of activities which are unique including fishing, whale watching, camping under the Northern Lights, hiking, the Iditarod, and so many more adventurous outdoor recreational hobbies. And that means, for the Alaskan tourist, there is a wide variety of things to see and do.
The best way to visit Alaska is by cruise ship. A ship allows you to visit many interesting locations in a short amount of time. There are many different itineraries available with varying 7-night to 15-night cruise tours. Departures can be made from various US or Canadian ports. The best time to visit is the summer season, as it will give you the chance to experience the best of Alaska. I recommend planning a trip anytime in June or July. There about 16-18 hours of daylight during these months and it is your best chance for good weather – June and July are the driest and warmest months.
I prefer a 10-12 day cruise tour program. This usually includes a 7-day voyage visiting the glaciers and a visit to various ports, plus rail service to Denali National Park with overnights in the various lodges. In addition to the many activities available, including the Natural History Tour into the park, there is the trip by train onward to Fairbanks where you can pan for gold, take a river trip on a sternwheeler, hike with reindeer, and so much more. The most popular 7-day voyages usually begin either in Vancouver or Anchorage. When adding on the rail/land portion you start either from Anchorage or Fairbanks. The ports of call on most cruise itineraries include cruising the Inside Passage, Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and cruising inside a Fjord to see glaciers. Some itineraries may include Sitka and Victoria, B.C. With so much to see and do in the state, it’s nice to get a feel for the ports.
When taking a cruise/tour combination, I like starting by flying to FAIRBANKS. A couple of days there will allow for you to get used to the time change and enjoy many of the local attractions like a visit to Trail Breaker Kennel where the 4-time Iditarod champion, Susan Butcher, will demonstrate their sled dogs. You can also take a stern-wheeler river cruise on the Chena River and see the large fish wheel as well as a demonstration of float planes takeoffs & landings. You might also enjoy seeing the Alaska Pipeline and receiving an explanation of permafrost. From Fairbanks you can either take the train or motor coach to Denali or Talkeetna for your stay of at least two nights; and, then continue by train southbound to Anchorage and transfer to either Whittier or Seward for your ship and the inside passage cruise adventure.
The INSIDE PASSAGE provides you with a small glimpse into all that Alaska has to offer. While cruising you will see small lumber and mining towns along with wildlife in their natural habitat like eagles, moose and possibly a bear. The beautiful mountain ranges topped with snow are forever in view.
KETCHICAN is called the “Gateway to Southeast Alaska,” as it is the southernmost city on the Inside Passage. In 1900, Ketchikan was a fishing and logging community. Today, the 13,000 year-round residents live along a 10 mile stretch of waterfront along the Tongass Narrows. The main tourist attractions are fishing for salmon & halibut, hiking, kayaking, whale watching, learning about Native American culture, or visiting Misty Fjords National Monument. If you fish and wish to have your fish cleaned and shipped back home, there are facilities on the dock to do that for you. Some cruise lines will even allow you to bring your catch back on-board and the chef will prepare it for your dinner that evening! Very good restaurants and many shops are located within the downtown area. Visit historic Creek Street which until 1953 was lined with bordellos frequented by loggers and fisherman who worked in in the area. Today more than 30 wood-framed houses built on stilts along the creek are renovated restaurants, shops and art galleries. A quick note for coming back on-board: The tide changes hourly at the Ketchican dock. You may get off the ship on deck 4 but upon return and get back on 3-4 decks higher or lower.
JUNEAU is the state capital and can only be reached by ship or air, otherwise it is landlocked and not accessible by road. The main attractions in Juneau are Mendenhall Glacier which unfortunately has been receding at an alarming rate. Also, you can take the Mount Roberts Tramway for a scenic overview of the town, a boat visit to nearby Tracy Arms, visit the Tongass National Forest, or tour a historic gold mine. The town is easy to navigate and there are many shops on the main street. Don’t miss a visit to the Red Dog Saloon, with a sawdust floor and lively entertainment.
SKAGWAY is a historic city on the Alaska Panhandle. Home to only about 1,000 permanent residents, it sees nearly 1 million visitors each year. It is the gateway for breathtaking train rides, beautiful scenery and lots of Klondike Gold Rush history. My favorite excursion is a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. Boarding right next to your ship, you ascend to the 2,865-foot elevation Summit of the White Pass. Watch for Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point, Dead Horse Gulch and the original Klondike Trail of 1898 along the way. In addition, you can enjoy a walking tour of Skagway where you will stroll back to 1898 in the National Historic District. The facades of the buildings and wooden sidewalks will make you feel you have taken a trip back in time. Many shops and restaurants are located on this street. Also, old vintage cars can take you on a tour of the town. Outside of town, you might want to take a float tour along the Talya River, watch the salmon run at Pullen Creek Stream Walk, search and spot wildlife on Chilkoot Lake, golf at Valley of the Eagles Course and/or visit the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park Visitor Center.
GLACIEL FJORDS are a must-do and luckily, most cruise itineraries include a cruise into a fjord to experience a glacier. Glacier Bay National Park is named as one of the 7 Cruise Wonders of the World. Other glaciers include the 16 glaciers in College Fjord or Hubbard Glacier which is the longest tidewater glacier in Alaska. Be sure to head up to the top deck and give a listen to a US park ranger as they describe what you are seeing. Keep an eye out for wildlife both on the land and in the water, and have your cameras ready when a massive chunk of ice calves off with an echoing roar of white thunder as it crashes into the sea – definitely some of nature’s greatest spectacles!
The ALASKA RAILROAD was built in the early 1900’s starting from Anchorage and connecting to the main cruise port in Whittier and north to Talkeetna, Denali National Park and Fairbanks. Most cruise lines use the “Wilderness Express,” by having private cars attached at the end of the train for cruise passengers traveling either north or southbound from Anchorage or Fairbanks to visit the wildly beautiful Denali National Park area. You sit in glass domed railcars, enjoying the scenery and have the opportunity to be served a delicious meal in the dining car or drinks served at your seat tables.
DENALI NATIONAL PARK & PRESERVE centered on Denali, the highest mountain in North America, was established in 1917 and comprises an area of over 4.7 million acres. The park receives an average of a half a million visitors a year. The highlight is the full-day nature tour. You enter via a school bus and travel on unpaved roads into the park. The driver assists in pointing out wildlife along the route. Often Grizzly bears are spotted along the road. The highlight is the sighting of Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) at over 20,000 feet at its peak. Often in the clouds, the peak sometime becomes visible – I have been fortunate to see this this glorious sight twice. There are shorter tours also available. The cruise lines have built beautiful lodges outside the park with spectacular views, luxury accommodations, delicious cuisine and many activities for all to enjoy.
The final destination is the beautiful city of VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada. Your journey can end here or you can add a couple of days in this city. This cosmopolitan city offers so much to see and do with its beautiful waterfront, Gas Town, harbor cruises, city tours, China Town, restaurants, shopping, a ferry to nearby Victoria (the capital of British Columbia), or a visit to nearby Whistler via train or car. Vancouver is also the gateway to the magnificent Canadian Rockies National Parks.
There are so many other options when visiting Alaska depending on what you might be looking for, including the Kenai Peninsula or Copper River outside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. I recommend the assistance of a travel professional to help you choose the cruise line and itinerary best suited for your available time, interest and budget. Like the old gold prospectors would say…“On to Alaska.”
If you have any travel questions for Herb Reisenfeld, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 513-708-7327.