What Should You Do In Alaska? Here Are the Best (and Most Unforgettable) Alaska Shore Excursions

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INSIDER SECRET: In order to see the salmon spawn (one of the most popular excursions in Alaska) you need to visit sometime in the last week of July through the middle of August, so plan accordingly.

Alaska is an incredible cruise destination because it offers something for everyone. From beautiful and relaxing scenic cruising to adrenaline-packed adventures and historic cultural experiences, Alaska has it all.

Alaskan cruises stop off at many different small Alaskan towns that all have a unique variety of activities. To help you choose, I’ve put together a list of the best Alaskan cruise shore excursions.

Mendenhall Glacier is one of the top Alaska Cruise Shore Excursions
Mendenhall Glacier is a popular tourist destination for Alaska tourists. You can even take a helicopter out and walk on the glacier. (Photo courtesy of Maridav/Shutterstock.com)

All of these activities are currently offered through all the major cruise companies. You can also find independent excursion providers through sites like viator.com and individual provider websites through simple Google searches.

Adventure Excursions

The state of Alaska used to run an advertising campaign titled “Adventure is Calling.” It’s a tagline that Alaska easily lives up to. Here are some available activities:

Dog Sledding (Juneau, Skagway):  Possibly the most quintessential image of Alaska is the sport of dog sledding. Alaska is home to the Iditarod competition, the world’s premier dog sledding championship. On dog sledding excursions you can visit a musher’s camp where the dogs live and train, play with the dogs, see how they train — and even ride a dog sled yourself. If you visit in the early season, you might even have a chance to socialize the new puppies.

This is one of the most popular excursions in Alaska and spots usually fill up quickly. If you are interested in this particular activity, be sure to book early. Most of these trips tend to be in Skagway and Juneau.

Dog Sledding is one of the most popular excursions in Alaska. (Photo courtesy of gillma/Shutterstock)

When we went with my grandparents to Alaska, this was by far their favorite experience. Even 10 years later, it is still the part of the trip they continue to rave about.

Sea Kayaking (Sitka, Ketchikan, Juneau): I am an avid kayaker, and kayaking is one of my favorite ways to experience the ocean. Kayaks allow you to really immerse yourself in the Alaskan environment. They are also a good workout and let you really breathe in the fresh, salty air. Alaska has a lot of marine life which frequently visits your boat.

Kayaking excursions are available in most of the major ports of call, but what you see in each port will be significantly different. In Juneau, you can kayak out towards the Mendenhall Glacier, in Ketchikan you usually paddle out to Eagle Island, and Sitka paddles are around the volcanically-formed shoreline of the bay.

Expect to see sea lions, seals, whales, eagles, birds,= and more while paddling. These excursions do require a fair amount of physical activity, so be prepared for that, and also wear warm clothes.

Dry Suit Snorkeling (Ketchikan):  You might be thinking that snorkeling is for the Caribbean, not for Alaska. But Alaska has surprisingly clear waters for the Pacific Northwest and its own variety of unique sea life.

A dry suit is similar to a wetsuit except it is made of a rubbery material that allows it to be worn over other clothes. This keeps you dry and is ideal for cold water environments. Most people are shocked at how warm they can stay in the dry suit and how much they enjoy the unique experience of snorkeling in Alaskan waters.

Expect to swim through kelp forests and see rockfish, sea urchins, sea stars, crabs and other Pacific sea life. If you enjoy snorkeling in warm water destinations, this is surely something different — not to mention an awesome Instagram opportunity.

Fishing Excursions

Alaska is home to some of the best fishing on the planet. Fishing is the second-largest industry behind government work in Alaska. Anglers out there will not want to turn down this opportunity. Here’s what you can catch:

Salmon (Sitka, Homer, Skagway, Ketchikan, Juneau): When you think of Alaskan fish you think of Alaskan salmon. Salmon can be caught nearly all season long, but the type of salmon you fish for will vary by the time of year. So if you have a specific type of salmon in mind, be sure to plan accordingly.

Most anglers want to catch the infamous king salmon (also called chinook salmon), which average between 30-50 pounds. The ideal time for king salmon is in June and July. Keep in mind that additional permit stamps are required for king salmon, which will raise the cost of your excursion but is probably worth it for a true bucket-list fish for any serious angler.

King Salmon is a bucket-list fish to catch for many anglers. (Photo courtesy of Edie Ann/Shutterstock.com)

Salmon fishing is available in most ports, but Sitka and Homer tend to be the two hotbeds for fishing activity.

Halibut (Sitka, Ketchikan, Homer): Halibut are a deep-water fish, so an excursion to catch monster Alaskan halibut can be a great change from salmon fishing. Halibut are a big sportfish, and the Pacific halibut found in Alaska are the largest flatfish in the world. Most halibut caught here will be 60-120 pounds, but halibut as large as 500 pounds have been caught in Alaskan waters.

Historical / Cultural Excursions

Alaska is rich with history and culture. It has a strong Native American history that goes back nearly 15,000 years. The Russians operated Alaska for several hundred years before selling Alaska to the Americans, at which time the Gold Rush ensued. There are remnants of all these events for you to experience during your trip.

Gold Panning or Mine Tour (Skagway, Juneau): The gold rush is the basis of much of the history of many Alaskan towns including Juneau and Skagway. While gold is no longer mined in these towns, the history lives on.

In Juneau, you can experience an authentic gold mine and see how gold was mined from caves just feet away from the ocean. At their peak, Juneau’s three main mines were the largest gold mines in the world. In Skagway, most gold was panned from the river, another iconic Alaskan activity. You can still pan for flecks of gold yourself here, which can be a lot of fun for young kids.

The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show (Ketchikan): The other major industry that shaped Alaska was the export of lumber. Lumber mills used to compete against each other in sports related to timber harvesting.

Today you can in Ketchikan you can watch lumberjacks compete in different events like axe throwing, overpowered chainsaw cutting, tree climbing, log rolling and more. The 90-100 minute show is fun for the whole family and thrilling to watch.

Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show log rolling
The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show demonstrates several live timber sports events like log rolling that are all exciting to watch. (Photo courtesy of Jim Lambert/Shutterstock.com)

I have actually seen the show several times with different athletes each time and I am always amazed at what they can do. This is a must-see show in Ketchikan and is extremely affordable (~$40) and easy to access from the cruise pier.

The Russian Bishop’s House & St. Michael’s Cathedral (Sitka): Sitka was originally operated as the capital of Alaska by the Russians, so there is a lot of Russian history here, including a famous Russian Orthodox Cathedral called St. Michael’s Cathedral. This cathedral has an onion-shaped spire reminiscent of cathedrals in Russia and stands out in the now-American town.

The Russian Bishop’s house is also something I found surprisingly interesting. It is operated as part of the US National Park’s service and is a museum to the history of Alaska.

You can visit the Russian Bishop’s House for free, but there is a nominal fee ($5) to see the inside of the cathedral. Both are within walking distance of downtown, so there is no need for a special tour.

Wildlife Excursions

Alaska has rich wildlife, all happily living in its natural environment. Many excursions are available to experience wildlife up close and personal.

Whale Watching (Juneau):  Whales are plentiful in Alaska since they swim up to Alaskan waters in the summer to feed and get fat before swimming back down to Hawaii and Mexico for the winter to breed and brood their young.
People on Whale Watching Trip in Alaska
Humpback whales are so common in Juneau that many excursion providers actually guarantee a whale sighting. (Photo courtesy of Sam Chadwick/Shutterstock)

You will find whale watching at most ports of call, but Juneau is easily one of the best places to take this excursion because whales are so plentiful there. (In fact, they are so common that most whale-watching companies actually offer a money-back guarantee that you will see whales.)

While you will most likely spot humpback whales in Juneau, there are opportunities to also see orcas (“killer whales”), gray whales, and minke whales. The boats are big and comfortable and they even offer handicap accessible boats, so there is an opportunity for everyone to experience these magnificent giants.

Bear (Ketchikan): Alaska has no shortage of coastal brown and black bears. You might see the occasional bear from your cruise ship, but the best way to experience bears is in Neet’s Bay near Ketchikan.

To reach Neet’s Bay you need to take a floatplane from Ketchikan and land in the bay. From there, a short hike with a guide will take you right to the river’s edge where you will see many bears feasting on salmon heading upriver to spawn.

We were able to get extremely close (but still within the legal safe distance) to these beautiful creatures when I did this excursion last August. During an hour at the river, we saw nearly a dozen different bears come down and fish for salmon. It was my favorite excursion in Alaska.

Salmon Spawning: I have talked to many people who visited Alaska just to see the salmon spawn. I also have had the pleasure of seeing this up close and it is astonishing: salmon swimming nearly fin-to-fin in an endless sea of silver scales.

But be forewarned, in order to see the salmon spawn you need to visit Alaska somewhere between the last week of July and the middle of August.

Salmon Spawning in Alaskan River
When the salmon are spawning you can just see sheets of salmon in the rivers. (Photo courtesy of Alex Curtis)

While you can see spawning salmon nearly anywhere you go at that time,I have had the best luck while hiking Totem Park in Sitka, Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau and Creek Street in Ketchikan.

(This is the best time to spot bears, too, because if the salmon are there, the bears aren’t far behind.)

Sightseeing Excursions

Sometimes you just want to take in the scenery and beauty that Alaska has to offer. Here are some places to do that:

White Pass Scenic Railway (Skagway): An iconic Alaskan adventure is traveling on the White Pass Scenic Railway, which gold miners used to travel up a steep Alaskan mountain. This vintage railway travels up a steep mountain pass rising nearly 3,000 feet in elevation in 20 miles. You will pass beautiful glaciers, gorges, mountains and waterfalls while passing through tunnels and over trestles.

The scenery is jaw dropping and astonishing. When you finally get to the top you will realize you haven’t said a word to your travel companions for an hour because everyone was so mesmerized by the scenery.

White Pass Scenic Railway
Enjoy a memorable trip on the iconic White Pass Scenic Railway. (Photo courtesy of Rocky Grimes/Shutterstock)
Sitka National Historical Park/ Totem Park (Sitka): This free US National Historic Park is within walking distance of downtown Sitka and has one of the largest collections of totem poles from around the world. Some of these totems are restored in a museum environment in several exhibits, while other are on display on a small one-mile trail loop hike. There is a free audio tour available during the hike which can be accessed by calling a US telephone number on your cell phone. It explains more about each totem.

At the end of this hike, there is a river and a bridge where you can see salmon spawning if you are traveling here in season.

Mendenhall Glacier (Juneau): This glacier is another destination operated by the US National Park Service, and allows you to experience the main glacier that feeds Juneau’s bay. The Mendenhall Glacier is 12 miles wide at its peak. It is viewable from a visitor center which also includes some exhibits about the glacier.

If you have more time, there are several small hiking trails in the area. One crosses a river (where we have seen bear and salmon) and another one-mile trail goes out to a waterfall called Nugget Falls.

This is one of the most popular Juneau destinations for good reason, and a time-limited one to boot. This glacier is retreating and officials project it will no longer be visible from the visitor center within 20 years. See this while you still can.

Misty Fjords Flightseeing (Ketchikan): The Misty Fjords are Alaska’s beauty at its finest. Imagine 10,000-foot tall mountains that plummet straight down into the sea, filled with color and wildlife — it’s one of the most scenic areas on earth.
Seaplane landed at Misty Fjords National Monument
The best way to experience Misty Fjords is by floatplane. Land on the water and experience the remote beauty of this National Monument. (Photo courtesy of Dkojich/Shutterstock.com)

This is a remote area that is most easily accessed by floatplane. You will take off in Ketchikan and head over to the Misty Fjords area. There you will fly above the mountain tops, circle around to weave through the narrow passageways between peaks and finally land in the water and see these views looking up.

There is usually a boat version of this tour as well — but flying in between the mountains is an experience that I will never forget.

Bottom Line

There is so much to do in Alaska that you will find yourself wanting to come back again and again. Regardless of what kind of experience you are looking for, there is something you are sure to love.

The best Alaskan Cruise shore excursions in my opinion are:

  • Adventure Excursions: Dog sledding, sea kayaking, dry suit snorkeling
  • Fishing Excursions: Salmon, halibut
  • Historical/ Cultural Excursions: Gold panning or mine tour, The Russian Bishop’s House & St. Michael’s Cathedral, The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
  • Wildlife Excursions: Whale watching, bear watching, and salmon spawning
  • Sightseeing Excursions: White Pass Scenic Railway, Sitka Historical Park/Totem Park, Mendenhall Glacier, Misty Fjords “flight-seeing”

There is even more to see and do but — having done most of the excursions offered in Alaska — these are some of the best, and a great place to start for first-time Alaska visitors.

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