Most cruises sail between either Seattle or Vancouver to Seward or Whittier on a north or south bound journey. And while a cruise is the least expensive way to see most ports in Southeast Alaska, and the only way to experience Glacier Bay National Park and Hubbard Glacier, this is just a small part of a large and fascinating state.
Skagway is the only port in Southeast Alaska that can be reached by road. All other ports, Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka can only be reached by ship or airplane.
My next trip to Alaska will be a seven- or 10-day land tour. Of course I could plan a completely independent trip with a rental car or RV, but a tour allows me to enjoy group price breaks on hotels and excursions, a knowledgeable tour guide, driver, and baggage handling. If you have only seen Alaska from a cruise ship, you might want to consider a longer land tour, as opposed to a four- or five-day cruise.
You arrive in Anchorage and transfer to your hotel after six-plus hours of actual flight time, not counting layover time in Seattle. The first day aboard an air conditioned, luxury motor coach takes you through Palmer and the Mat-Su Valley, known for huge vegetables grown in the nearly 24 hours of summer daylight. From the Tahneta Pass you have wonderful views of Matanuska and Worthington Glacier. You have a photo stop at Bridal Veil Falls before a two-night stay in Valdez, a commercial and sport fishing town called the “Switzerland of Alaska.”
The next morning you will cruise on Prince William Sound for an up-close look at the 3-mile long face of the Columbia Glacier. View marine wildlife like seals, sea otters, and whales from your excursion ship and see the southern terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline where crude oil from Prudhoe Bay is loaded on supertankers.
The following morning you will journey to Delta Junction, the northern terminus of the ALCAN Highway, built during World War II as a supply road for the interior Alaska military and airfields. You will see a historical homestead, museum, and original roadhouse before heading west on the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks.
You will spend two nights in Fairbanks, Alaska’s second largest city after Anchorage. You will visit the El Dorado Gold Mine and head down the mines permafrost tunnel via the narrow gauge railroad. You can try your luck panning for gold before boarding the sternwheeler Discovery for a trip on the Chena and Tanana Rivers. Stop at Chena Indian Village and learn about the native Athabascan culture. The day ends with a visit to an Iditarod sled dog camp to meet the mushers and their dogs, and learn about breeding and training for the race.
The next morning you board the Alaska Railroad for a scenic ride through the wilderness to Denali National Park. The afternoon is free to explore the park’s visitors center with its diorama and award-winning natural history film. You can visit the snack bar and bookstore or catch a free shuttle to see the park’s sled dogs, which are still used by rangers to patrol the park during the winter. That evening you will enjoy food, song and dance at the Denali Dinner Theater.
The following morning is free for an optional excursion, perhaps river rafting on the Nenana or flight seeing to Mt. McKinley. That afternoon you will enjoy a Natural History Tour into Denali National Park, keeping an eye out for moose, caribou, brown bears, ptarmigan, and Dall sheep. Fall comes early to Denali, and if your trip is scheduled for mid to late August, you will see the taiga and tundra landscape dressed in beautiful golds, reds and greens.
The following morning you ride along the park and stop at the Iditarod Headquarters, home of the famous sled dog race. You arrive in Anchorage in time for a city sightseeing tour before your hosted dinner. This is followed by a full day that features a beautiful drive along Turnagain Arm to Seward, and a cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park to view more wildlife and calving glaciers. You travel back to Anchorage for a second night before flying home.
This is a leisurely paced tour, with four two-night hotel stays in Valdez, Fairbanks, Denali and Anchorage. Daily breakfasts, two lunches, and four dinners are included in the tour. If you haven’t already cruised to Southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage, a seven-day cruise can be added. This land tour starts at $2,519 per person, with the optional seven-day cruise from $560 per person. Airfare is additional.
The shorter and less expensive (starting at $1,389 per person) seven-day tour substitutes a cruise to Portage Glacier for Kenai Fjords, and skips Valdez, the gold mine in Fairbanks and the dinner theater in Denali, but still includes an Alaska Railroad trip from Fairbanks to Denali. You have three, two-night stays in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Denali, and the option of adding a seven-day cruise at the end. Seven daily breakfasts, six lunches, and seven dinners are included. Airfare is additional.
If these tours are too long for your taste, shorter tours through our many independent suppliers can be arranged alone or in addition to a cruise. Cruise Port Travel is your certified Alaska Expert for land tours or cruises. Look for an Alaska theme article every third Wednesday of the month in The Rim Review.