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Awesome Things to Do on an Alaskan Cruise

It’s been over a month since we returned from our Alaskan cruise. It truly is a once~in~a~lifetime trip. I’m ready to share awesome things to do on an Alaskan cruise.

The 49th state is unlike any other state (just like Hawaii). The sheer beauty is breath~taking. Add the culture of the indigenous people and the setting of the last frontier. You will find so many things to do on an Alaskan cruise.

Why do I say cruise? Because an Alaskan cruise is by far the best and most affordable way to see Alaska.

So let me take you with me on a look back on our amazing trip to Alaska and the things to do and see.

Alaskan Cruise: Things to Do and See

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Alaska, the last frontier, is not connected to the lower 48 (a phrase we never use, but we heard it a lot in Alaska). There is no way to get to it except through Canada. Or take a boat from Russia. Or a ferry boat. There is no road from Seattle to Anchorage.

That’s why a cruise is the best way to get to Alaska and see the amazing sights and geography. Cruises take you to places you never knew existed or would be difficult to get to ~ all while being taken care of on board.

What to Do Before Your Alaskan Cruise

If you do your research before you leave on a cruise, you will have a successful cruise vacation.

Most cruises to Alaska depart from either Vancouver, B.C., or Seattle, giving you a day or two to get accustomed to shipboard life before you enter the protected waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage and your first land destination.

There are many cruise lines that offer cruises to Alaska. Do your homework months ahead of time to determine which cruise lines fit your preferred travel dates, budget, itinerary, and size of the ship.

We knew that we wanted to travel on Princess (It’s one of our favorite cruise lines.). Since we had never been to Vancouver and wanted to go, that was another consideration.

BIG TIP: We HIGHLY recommend arriving at your embarkation city at least one day ahead. You never know about flight delays. The cruise ships will not wait for you if you are not on board at sailing time.

NOTE: You can also arrange through the cruise for transportation to the ship. They will pick up your luggage and have it waiting in your stateroom. It’s well worth the cost.

Arriving early also allows you to acclimate to a new time zone. Even better, you have time to explore a new city.

Read all about what to do and see in Vancouver.

NOTE: If you are leaving from Vancouver, you will need a passport and follow Canadian Covid guidelines. Princess provided all the tools and guidance we needed for compliance months ahead of time. Fortunately, by the time of our sailing in late May, the mask requirements had been lifted.

NOTE: Cruises to Alaska go north from Vancouver/Seattle or south from Whittier/Seward. They basically go back and forth. Which way you choose is personal preference or the dates you need.

The main stops are usually Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway.

NOTE: Traveling to Alaska is limited from late April to mid~September. From September to April, there is no travel and no tourists. Just snow, ice, and bitter cold.

North to Alaska

Every cruise line has its own itinerary. I’m pretty sure most stop and the same three towns as you travel up the Inside Passage along the southeast coast of Alaska. This was the part of Alaska that was first settled by people from “the lower 48” before there was a 48.

Let’s do a day~by~day of our cruise. You can see the things to do on an Alaska cruise.

NOTE: I’ve mixed in pictures that our family took with screenshots when I needed them. Screenshots are designated by a “*”.

Day 1 ~ Sailing the Inside Passage

Our first day on the cruise was “at sea”. We actually love these days. On the first day at sea, you can explore the ship, relax, and enjoy the shipboard activities. (BINGO, Yoga, Zumba, Trvial Pursuit).

The main attraction is the beautiful scenery of the southeast coast of Alaska.

You are sailing up from Vancouver or Seattle in the Inside Passage, a network of waterways that snake through some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful wilderness in the world.

It stretches 500 miles along the Pacific Ocean (Canada is to the east) and boasts wildlife~filled fjords, tidewater glaciers, and lush island scenery.

The Tongass National Forest ~ the largest national forest in the United States and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world ~ covers the vast majority of the Inside Passage.

The history of the Alaska Native peoples is reflected in towering totem poles. Their vibrant culture can be seen today through art, song, and dance. We saw much of this history when we went to the Capilano Forest north of Vancouver.

Find a deck chair on one of the upper decks or your balcony and enjoy the scenery that you won’t see anywhere else in the world.*

NOTE: Cruise ships can travel very fast or very slowly in order to reach their destinations on time.

Day 2 ~ What to do in Ketchikan

Our first stop was Ketchikan, the beginning of the “last frontier”. It sits at the southernmost entrance to Alaska’s famed Inside Passage.

Ketchikan is best known for three things: feisty salmon, idyllic scenery, and an incredibly rich Alaska Native culture.

It was the only day on the trip that was a little cloudy.

Although there are plenty of things to do in Ketchikan, this was the only stop on our cruise that no one in our family scheduled an excursion.

As soon as you leave the ship, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. The air feels different; it’s cool and fresh. Oh, and there are mountains and wood~clad buildings that look like you are on a movie set.

Ketchikan does have great shopping in its downtown area. Like all small towns, it is very walkable. We spent a few hours walking, just enjoying the atmosphere and scenery.

Ketchikan sign

Our older daughter and SIL took the little girls to see the Lumberjack Show. Remember that logging was one of the first and most prolific industries in Alaska. Men came from all over the United States and Europe to make their fortunes in Alaska.

Here is the log rolling demonstation.

The kids said it was great entertainment and the little girls loved it. Lilah got to hold a chair that the lumberjacks made.

As Sweet Shark and I were walking around, we could hear the roars, clapping, and laughter of the audience inside.

The rest of us discovered the shops and historical buildings on Creek Street. This pedestrian boardwalk is built on wooden pilings above Ketchikan Creek. Shops, restaurants, and museums are nestled between Ketchikan’s rocky hillsides and the creek that gave the city its name. *

You can take a self~guided tour of this former red~light district, “where bootleggers made midnight deliveries through hidden trap doors connecting the creek to the bawdy houses.”

We took a tour of Dolly’s House, the only “den of iniquity” that still stands today. Located at Number 24 Creek Street, you’ll notice its green dollhouse appearance.

We were told it looks much like it did during its heyday. Inside you’ll find photos of Dolly adorning the walls, the cabbage rose wallpaper she favored, and you might even spot the “secret closet” in Dolly’s bedroom, where she stashed contraband liquor during the Prohibition years.

After a late lunch of delicious salmon chowder and fish tacos, we headed back to the ship for a nap. That night the entire family (minus the two little girls) had dinner at the Steakhouse Grill.

Day 2 ~ What to do in Juneau

Juneau is the capital of Alaska so it’s a city, not a little town. And there is awesome scenery to see.

INTERESTING FACT: With a total area of 3,255 square miles, Juneau is one of the largest municipalities in the United States and the largest capital in the US by area. It’s larger than Rhode Island and encompasses part of a glacier field.

Four of the kids and our grandson went on a kayaking excursion between the mainland and Douglas Island. Isn’t that a beautiful scene with the sno~capped mountains in the distance? That’s our older son and younger daughter.

kayaking in Alaska

Our older daughter, SIL, and grandgirls took a helicopter ride up to Mendenhall Glacier.

Licking glacier ice seemed to be a popular thing to do.

One of the most beautiful and accessible glaciers in North America, Mendenhall Glacier is a half~mile wide with ice up to 1,800 feet deep. It’s no surprise that Mendenhall is the most~visited glacier in Alaska.

Not being quite that adventurous (We did do a helicopter ride over an extinct volcano in Hawaii a few years ago.), we knew the one excursion we had to do was to see Mendenhall Glacier. It’s just 12 miles from downtown Juneau but feels like a million miles away.

We were picked up at the ship for our shuttle bus ride to the glacier. The ride was beautiful and our bus driver/guide pointed out the wildlife, including bald eagle nests, along the way. He also told us about the native Alaskans, how the area was settled, and the geography of the area.

Once we arrived at the Visitor Center, we watched a brief film about how the Mendenhall is part of the 1,500~square~mile Juneau Icefield. The Tongass National Forest surrounds you.

The views from the Visitor Center of the glacier are jaw~dropping. If you’ve never seen a glacier before (and most of us haven’t), you are in for a treat.

Next, we walked to the scenic Photo Point Trail, which winds along Mendenhall Lake for an unobstructed view of the glacier’s face. It’s a bit up and down, but an easy 25~minute walk down to the lake and the base of the glacier.

The flowers along the trail are all native.

There is a rocky beach you can walk on to get a closer look at the glacier. You can see firsthand how the glacier has carved out the local landscape from the many self~guided trails. We just stood and stared at this natural wonder.

Imagine that the green slopes were once under ice.

Then we took another trail and walked out to the base of the extraordinary Nugget Creek Falls, which drops 377 feet. The trail is an easy walk of about 1 1/2 miles. We got so close we could feel the spray of the water as it hit rocks at the bottom of the sandbar, which connects to Mendenhall Glacier.

Here is a up~close picture.

waterfall in Alaska

Walking back on the trail to the Visitor Center, I noticed a very large rock with a brass plaque on it. I knew immediately what it was. I’ll tell you the story a little later.

We spend about 3 1/2 hours on this excursion and it was worth every minute. You can definitely get in a lot of steps!

Arriving back in Juneau, we all met at the Red Dog Saloon, a world~famous stop in Juneau. The Red Dog Saloon is recognized by the Alaska Legislature for its longevity as the oldest man~made tourist attraction in Juneau.

It originated during the heyday of Juneau’s glorious mining era. You can sit at the bar or a table and sing along to the rag~time piano player while enjoying the famous “Duck Fart” a layered shot of Kahlua, Bailey’s Irish Cream and whiskey. Bottoms Up!*

There is a gift shop where Sweet Shark and I bought a Christmas ornament.

Most of us met up for lunch overlooking the waterway between the mainland and Douglas Island.

On returning to the ship, I got in line with the grandgirls to see and play with the Alaskan puppies that were brought on board. If you have kids with you or even if you don’t, this is a super popular thing to do on an Alaskan cruise. Most of the people in line were grown~ups!

girl holding Alaskan Husky Alaskan Cruise

Day 4 ~ What to Do in Skagway

Skagway is the northernmost point in Alaska’s Inside Passage, at the far end of Lynn Canal.
In its heyday, Skagway was the boomtown gateway to the Trail of 1898 and the Klondike gold fields.

On June 28, 1900 Skagway became the first incorporated city in Alaska. During the gold rush, the population was 20,000 feverish gold seekers. Now there are about 1000 year~round citizens.

Skagway is home to the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, the “Scenic Railway of the World.” It is one of Alaska’s most popular visitor attractions.

About a month before our cruise, a friend at church heard about our Alaskan trip. He told us that if we did nothing else, we had to take the Yukon train from Skagway. We signed up immediately, told the rest of the family about it and all 11 of us signed up for the train.

We all walked into Skagway in the morning to explore. Skagway is very small, but had some nice little shops. After spending the morning in town, we headed back to the ship for lunch.*

things to do on an Alaskan cruise Skagway

Then we walked to the railway and boarded the train.

Our train conductor told us all about the history of the gold rush. Prospectors arrived on steamships and prepared for their overland journey north into the Yukon. Most were totally unprepared for the experience.

Each person was required to carry a ton of supplies up the steep Chilkoot Trail to the summit of the Chilkoot Pass. Others chose the longer, less steep White Pass Trail, believing that pack animals could be used and would be easier.

Both trails led to the interior lake country where stampeders could begin a 550~mile journey through the lake systems to the Yukon River and the gold fields.

Both the Chilkoot Trail and the White Pass Trail were filled with hazards and harrowing experiences. Three thousand horses died on the White Pass Trail due to the tortures of the trail and the inexperience of the stampeders. Men died of starvation, freezing, and falling.

The idea of a railroad seemed like the best way to shorten the trip and make it safer.

White Pass & Yukon Railroad Company began construction on the narrow gauge railroad on May 28, 1898. The importance of the railroad up to the Yukon is so important in the history of Alaska. It allowed for the full~out discovery of gold and the expansion of settlers into Alaska.

We learned how the railroad was constructed (in the summer over 1000 men worked round the clock).

As modern travelers on the WP&YR railroad, we are not interested in gold, but the treasure of the spectacular views. There are sky~high mountains and deep valleys. When the train takes a curve, you can see where you have come from.

Yukon train in Alaska

You go over deep ravines and through two dark tunnels. You can see the tree~covered mountains with snow at their tops.

In this picture, you can see the old, original wood bridge, now falling down, and wonder how it was built over a deep ravine.*

You can see how deep the snow still is along the train route.

Alaska train and snow

At lower elevations, crystal~clear rivers paralleled the train tracks.

Alaska river

On the return trip (the train makes a loop), you get a different perspective of the mountains and rivers, some still frozen, hundreds of feet below. Fortunately, we again had a crystal clear day to see all the natural wonders. Several times we stepped outside and stood between the cars to get an unobstructed view of the scenery.

There was still a lot of snow on the mountains and beside the train tracks.

The train trip is about 40 miles round trip and lasts 3 hours.

Our guide (over a loudspeaker) described the terrain and the geological history of the surrounding scenery. He also explained how the area was explored and settled. How these men traveled thousands of miles under treacherous conditions is amazing.

This is the perfect excursion for all ages. The kids were in awe of the surroundings as much as the grown~ups.

Returning to the ship, we relaxed before getting ready for dinner.

Day 5 ~ What to See in Glacier Bay National Park

As wonderful as the first days on our cruise were, our second day at sea sailing through Glacier National Park was surreal. Our cruise ship sails very slowly through the water so that you have all day to enjoy the scenery.

Alaska’s glaciers have shaped the surrounding landscapes for millions of years. Mountains, valleys and fjords all come from the slow march these frozen rivers make every day. 

Known as Alaska’s crown jewel, Glacier Bay National Park is otherworldly in its beauty and breadth. This UNESCO World Heritage Site covers millions of acres and contains seven tidewater glaciers as well as mountains and deep fjords. Its waters are even home to whales, seals and otters. (We saw seals and otters, but no whales.)

When you wake in the morning, the ship is already slowly moving through the waters of Glacier Bay. On all sides, you see mountains covered in some degree of snow. You feel like you are on another planet.

After a quick breakfast, we joined most of the other passengers on deck to enjoy the views. It was actually chilly on deck. We wore jackets, and I bought a pretty white knitted cap as my ears were cold.

We found a great spot on the bow of the ship, just staring at our surroundings, taking pictures and looking for any sea life.

We are headed to Hubbard Glacier, Alaska’s largest tidewater glacier. It rises hundreds of feet from the ocean floor and towers above the waves, radiating a brilliant blue in the daylight.

Hubbard Glacier is an unforgettable sight. Glaciers are rivers of ice that are constantly moving down to the water. When large pieces of the glacier break off into the water, that is calving.

Thanks to its exceptional movement speed ~ for a massive river of ice ~ the face of this Alaska glacier calves at an incredible rate, providing a breathtaking show for the lucky onlookers.

Unfortunately for us, in the hour that we navigated close to the glacier, it didn’t calf. That didn’t take away one iota of enjoyment.

After a couple of hours of viewing the Hubbard Glacier, our ship, which had been making a very slow turnaround, headed back down the inlet from where we had come. We passed other smaller glaciers as well as more icebergs and otter sightings.

We spent the rest of the day on the pool deck relaxing as we watched the scenery. Many people (including most of our kids) were in the pool or hot tub. With the clear blue skies, it was now warm. You could actually get a little sunburn. I read my book and dozed off a time or two.

That night we all (even the little girls) gathered for dinner at the Italian specialty restaurant. Then off to bed. It had been a long, but glorious day.

P.S. If you are not on a cruise, you can hike through the 734 miles of trails in the national park or take a scenic bus tour.

Day 6 ~ Sailing through College Fjord

We awoke to another glorious day sailing through pristine waters and views of College Fjord.

College Fjord in Prince William Sound is the meeting place where many of Alaska’s glaciers congregate and flow to the ocean. At the water’s edge are massive valley glaciers and dozens of smaller monuments that dot the mountainous region.

Many professors first settled here in 1899, so many of these glaciers are named after the country’s best institutions of higher learning, such as Harvard Glacier which is the second~largest glacier in Alaska.

This 20~mile~long fjord and surrounding snow~capped mountains just dwarf the size of our cruise ship. The Alaskan scenery here is magically overwhelming. Cruising at a leisurely pace we were able to take in all that lay before us. The ship did a 360~degree spin, giving all sides of the ship a chance to take in the sights.

On our last day sailing on board the ship, we did play Bingo, I had a facial, and the kids played in the hot~tub.

The last night of the cruise is a special event in the dining rooms. The traditional parade of the Baked Alaskans with sparklers and singing is always a treat.

Don’t miss watching the sunset on a cruise.

sunset on cruise

We sailed from College Fjord and out into open water on our way to Whittier, the city where the cruise ships dock. When we woke the next morning, we would be docked and our cruise ended.

The next morning, Sweet Shark and I had a very early disembarkation for our train ride to Anchorage and Denali so we said our goodbyes that night.

The kids were going their separate ways the next day: two flying back home, four staying an extra night in Anchorage, and our older son and younger daughter and grandson would be driving up to Denali and camping for three days.

Recap the Awesome Things to Do on an Alaskan Cruise

  • take advantage of the activities on board the ship; there is something for everyone.
  • enjoy the excellent food in the dining rooms and specialty restaurants. The outdoor grill on the pool deck is a great place for lunch.
  • take lots of pictures of the scenery on the Inside Passage, Glacier Bay, and College Fjord
  • walk Creek Street in Ketchikan or take an excursion
  • see the Lumberjack show in Ketchikan
  • play with Alaskan Huskies
  • visit Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls in Juneau
  • have a Duck Fart at the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau
  • ride the White Pass & Yukon Railroad in Skagway

The Story of Romeo

Remember the picture of the plaque on the rock on the trail to Mendenhall? It’s a memorial to Romeo, a wild black wolf that found a home near Mendenhall Lake and became a fixture in the Juneau area for six years. He played with area dogs and let the humans come close. He even learned to play fetch and let his picture be taken.

Romeo became part of the Juneau community over six years. Unfortunately, he was killed by two hunters. (Yes, they were caught, but only received a fine.) The city was devastated by the loss of this beloved black wolf who become their friend. They had the plaque made and placed near where Romeo lived.

In 2014, author and photographer Nick Jans, who lived on Mendenhall Lake and knew Romeo first hand (his wife is the one who named Romeo) wrote the book, A Wolf Named Romeo to tell the story of his friend, an extraordinary wild animal who became part of the family of humans and dogs.

Our older daughter had found the book and was reading it on the cruise. I couldn’t believe when I saw the plaque on our trail walk at Mendenhall. Then on the last day of our cruise, Nick Jans gave a talk and video presentation about Romeo. (I think he boarded at Skagway.)

If you are an animal lover, you will love the story of Romeo. I cried at the end of Nick’s talk, for Romeo and the city of Juneau.

It’s a beautiful, but sad story. I can’t wait to get the book from Jenn when I go to Atlanta in a few weeks.

If you want to see many of the sights we did, then watch this Princess Cruise video. It’s really breathtaking.

I hope that if you have the chance to go on an Alaskan cruise, you will do all these wonderful things. It’s the adventure of a lifetime. PIN this travel itinerary so you have it handy.

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Awesome Things to Do on an Alaskan Cruise.
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  1. Carol, We went on an Alaskan cruise 11 years ago. We’ve traveled with Princess a number of times, but back in 2011 we were Disney Vacation Club members and we paid about $200 for our one week cruise for both of us. I ended up writing about it and showed awesome photos on my blog, but it was primarily in June and July of 2012 when I shared our adventure. We also spent a couple days in Vancouver at a great B&B downtown and we could walk everywhere. We even walked to Gastown and saw the old steam clock. If you search my blog for June and July 2012 you’ll see some of the photos I took. It was a fantastic trip. Our last big cruise was a few years ago on Princess to Hawaii. There too, we flew to San Francisco and spent a few days in the city. We love cruising!

  2. Wow, what a great post! Taking an Alaskan cruise is the only cruise I’d like to take, and now I want to go even more.

    1. You definitely should take a cruise to Alaska. It was amazing. We’ve been on two Mediterranean cruises, one from Amsterdam to Rome, a Caribbean cruise, and one from New York to Montreal. All were fantastic. We did one river cruise from Budapest to Prague and that was fabulous, too, which was one of our favorites. The world is so big and beautiful. There’s so much to see and I’d love to see it all.