The first time we visited Alaska we flew into Anchorage and planned out a self drive itinerary by land. The thinking was that this would allow us to see and do more.
And while we had an incredible time, camping in the rugged interior of Denali, and encountering bears along some of the States most scenic drives, we actually missed out on the big show.
Because cruising actually allows you to experience more of Alaska than a land based DIY tour; while cruising offers the best of both worlds, and allows for land based excursions, driving means you completely miss out on sailing on the icy seas.
Cruising in Alaska means whale watching at 6am as soon as you fall out of bed. It means the opportunity to visit islands and towns not accessible by road. It means dining on fresh salmon as you float past massive blue glaciers, and snow-capped mountains shrouded in mist.
If you’re thinking of cruising Alaska, the word epic barely does the experience justice. Here are 7 things you can expect to see.
7 Things You’ll See on an Alaskan Cruise
30 Ton Whales
Alaska offers some of the best whale watching in the world, and while land based travelers opt for day trips, cruising means you’re on a whale watching journey every day.
Humpack whales and orcas are most commonly sighted throughout the Inside Passage, and can be seen throughout most of the year. Though you’ll have the chance to spot eight different species of whale here, including the Minke, Beluga, Grey, Bowhead, Blue, and Right whale.
If you’ve ever seen a 30 ton whale breach, you’re in for a treat. And, being that you’re spending most of your time on the water, the opportunities for whale watching are endless; you may very well spot an orca while you’re on the treadmill!
Pro tip: splurge on a baloncy room. Yes, you’ll be able to whale watch from the main decks, but having your own balcony with a private view to the ocean is well worth the extra cost.
Alaska is all about the scenery, and while wildlife sightings are likely, wild terrain is guaranteed.
While cruising through destinations like the Inside Passage, you’ll experience raw nature like you’ve never seen it before. You’ll have to pinch yourself as you try to wrap your head around the humongous scale of Alaska’s fjords.
It’s as though you’ve stepped into a BBC Earth documentary; and sailing allows you to reach pristine parts of the state that haven’t seen human habitation; think vast, untouched wilderness like you’ve never seen it before; the chance to scale an unclimbed mountain, or step foot where no human foot has trodden before.
You’ll discover lush forests, cascading waterfalls, snowcapped mountains, and some of the largest glaciers in Alaska. Which leads us to our next point …
Snow-Capped Lands and Glaciers
Offering a similar experience to cruising Antarctica, but on a much more accessible scale, cruising Alaska means you’ll have the unique opportunity to see some of the largest glaciers in the United States.
Most cruises highlights include Glacier Bay National Park, where you’ll spend hours transfixed by the real-life screen saver outside. Your cruise ship will be dwarfed by the enormous size of Alaska’s groaning glaciers, and you may even see colossal chunks of ice calve off from the side.
Destinations you’ll want included on your cruise include Mendenhall Glacier, the Inside Passage (some cruises only pass through here at night, so make sure you get one that passes through here by day), and Glacier Bay.
Hubbart Glacier is also a highlight; ‘dramatically massive at about 7-miles wide, 76-miles long and as tall as a 30-story building above the waterline, it’s the largest river of ice in North America’.
Free Spirited Towns
Most cruises include a couple of ports of call, allowing you to take in many of Alaskas charming and free spirited towns. This is a great opportunity for day excursions, but it’s often just as interesting to simply spend the afternoon in town.
Common stops include Skagway, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Juneau, which, (fun fact!), is the only U.S. state capital that can’t be reached by road. You’ll find 19th century architecture and stunning views from the top of Mt. Roberts.
Skagway used to be the center of Alaska’s Gold Rush, and gives off a very Wild West feel. Ketchikan is charming fishing village that is known as the salmon capitol of the world, and has a strong Native Alaskan culture, with the world’s largest collection of totem poles.
Sitka on the other hand allows you to experience a little bit of 1800’s Russia. This was the capital of Russian America until 1867 when America bought Alaska. And you’ll still find Russian influence like onion-domed cathedrals and other Soviet architecture to this day.
Image: USFS Jeffrey Wickett for Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Bald Eagles get their own special category, as while we’ve just covered birds, Alaska is home to 70,000 bald eagles alone.
Bald eagles to Alaska are what pigeons are to any European capital; you’ll see them in mass almost where-ever you go. While they often fly quite close, if you’re half way through your cruise and you haven’t yet spotted any, look up at the spruce trees that blanket the hills.
If you’re not a bird watcher now, you will be after having taken a cruise to Alaska. This is one of the best destinations for birding in the world.
Be sure to pack your binoculars, because you’re likely to see a wide range of bird species including ‘masses of migrant shorebirds, nesting grounds of waterfowl and shorebirds, seabirds such as shearwaters, guillemots, and puffins—and more.’
Most cruise companies may give you a birding checklist to track the birds you see while sailing, but there’s definitely no harm in preparing one at home for yourself.
Turn it into a competition and see how many species you can see!
The Alaskan Big 5
While tempting to have lumped ‘wildlife’ into one category of it’s own, Alaska has far too much wildlife to warrant a quick passing mention. On top of the whale watching and birdlife, you’ll also have the chance to spot the Alaskan big 5.
Unlike in Africa, where the ‘Big 5’ has been coined as a hunting term to describe the the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot, the Alaskan big 5 is a sightseeing prize (the only shooting we condone is photography). These animals include moose, bears, Dall sheep, caribou, and wolves.
You’ll have more opportunity to spot these animals in the summer, but they can definitely be found beyond September too. While whales can be spotted swimming directly alongside your ship, you’ll have to train your eye further out to spot the big 5.
Your best chance will often be on land based excursions (ie you can book a tour through grizzly bear country if you stop off at Ketchikan), but definitely keep an eye on the coastline as you sail past remote and isolated fjords.
OUR FAVORITE USA TRAVEL GUIDES: CLICK PHOTO TO LOOK INSIDE ↓
Whale watching and seeing the big 5 are huge on my list Meg! How exciting. Seeing a 30 ton whale breach is one of my dreams, up there with seeing Orca. Brilliant.
I hope you have the chance to experience it too Ryan, definitely the wildlife sightings were a highlight for us :) … I’ll never get bored of watching a breaching whale!!!
Alaska is a really great city. Must surely visit anyone. Thanks.
Totally agree, glad you enjoyed the post :)