Alaska Cruises: The Westcoast Ocean Route To The Yukon

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Alaska Cruise Ship
Cruise ship from a distance, Juneau, Alaska
Photo: Alaska Travel Industry Association
By: Travel Alaska  Edited By: Bob Kenyon

Beginning in June of each year, many of the famous Alaska cruise lines depart from Vancouver, BC. These cruises offer spectacular scenery, glaciers and possible opportunities for whale watching.

The cruises themselves are either one week or two weeks, and there are two destinations: the Inside Passage and the Gulf of Alaska, but they both take a similar route for most of the trip—travelling along the easterly coast of a long string of islands up the BC coast, on the Inside Passage.

The islands help protect the waterway from Pacific storms and rough water, thus making for a much more sedate passage (these ships are huge, though.) The Inside Passage has been the traditional way to cruise Alaska—the ship does a round-trip voyage from Vancouver through glacier country as far north, in Alaska, as Skagway or Juneau. Gulf of Alaska cruises cover more territory as they travel from Vancouver through the Inside Passage and up to Anchorage (or the reverse.)

Depending on the cruise, going north the destinations featured are Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Glacier Bay National Park, Gustavus, Sitka, Haines, and Skagway. The time allotted at each destination will vary with each cruise. So plan your trip carefully. Here is a sample itinerary.

As most of the cruises, that depart from Vancouver, do so in the late afternoon and June, July and August have fairly long evenings you’ll get to see much of the famous Sunshine Coast from the ship. Then overnight on-board and arrive at your first post of call in the morning.

Ketchican Dock

Cruise ship docked in the Ketchikan harbor
Photo Alaska Travel Industry Association

Ketchikan is Alaska’s first port of call. Pick up a walking tour map and explore downtown attractions including historic Creek Street, Tongass Historical Museum, Southeast Alaska Discovery Center and unique local art galleries and shops.

Learn about Ketchikan’s historic lumberjack history at the fun Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show or spend the afternoon on a kayak trip, amphibious Duck Tour. If time allows, take an excursion boat or plane to the 2.3 million acre Misty Fjords National Monument with its majestic fjords or choose a half-day guided sport fishing trip.

At Wrangell, you can:

  • Take the Alaska Marine Highway
  • Take an exhilarating run up the Stikine River by jet boat
  • Visit Petroglyph Beach to view prehistoric rock carvings
  • Take a guided bear viewing trip.
  • Or stay on the ferry and continue on to the community of Petersburg also known as “Little Norway.” Enjoy the hospitality of this community and see traditional Norwegian painted buildings, take an excursion to LeConte Glacier or enjoy an afternoon of kayaking or fishing.

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska
Photo: Alaska Travel Industry Association

Juneau is Alaska’s modern day capital city. Explore the city and its colorful waterfront. Take the tram to the top of Mt. Roberts for an eagle’s eye view of the surrounding area. A visit to the Alaska State Museum, the City Museum, McCauley Salmon Hatchery, a tour of the historic AJ/Gastineau Mill and Gold Mine, one of the several whale watching tours and visits to many of the galleries in the city are some of the activities to enjoy on your first day in Juneau. The spectacular Mendenhall Glacier is located just 12 miles from downtown Juneau. Take a helicopter flightseeing tour to the Juneau Ice field, go glacier trekking, have a flightseeing tour with a glacier landing or take a dog sled ride on the ice field. In the evening have a relaxing dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in the city, or enjoy an outdoor Salmon Bake.

At Gustavus you can take the Auk Nu ferry or air taxi to Glacier Bay National Park. You may also have the option of taking the whale watching tour to Pt. Adolfus or disembark early in Bartlett Cove. Explore the area via mountain bike or on a guided hiking tour or enjoy some sea kayaking in the surrounding waters. Gustavus also offers excellent opportunities for fishing or wildlife viewing.

Prince William Sound

People on a day cruise in Prince William Sound
Photo: Alaska Travel Industry Association

Be sure to book a cruise that offers full day cruise, on a smaller ship, up Glacier Bay, where you visit the many glaciers and watch for the different species of wildlife along the way. You should look for whales, seals, seal lions, and sea otters in the Bay. On land look for mountain goats, black bear, brown bear, moose and abundant bird life. On the water, you just might find a puffin! If you’re very lucky you may get to see a large chunk of one of the glaciers “calf” or break-off into the sea. The sound can be deafening!

Another “must do” stopover is Sitka, the historic seaside capital of Russian America, founded in 1804. Spend the day sightseeing in once the largest city on the entire west coast. Sitka today remains a center of Russian culture. Visit St. Michaels Cathedral, the Russian cemetery, blockhouse and the Russian Bishops house. The Sheldon Jackson Museum has one of the world’s finest collections of Eskimo, Aleut and Indian artifacts. Visit the Alaskan Raptor Center and learn all about the stately American Bald Eagle. You will also find a dramatic display of totem poles in the Sitka National Historical Park within easy access.

If you travel northbound on the Lynn Canal to the beautiful fishing port of Haines, at the head of the Dalton Trail you can take a float trip or a jet boat through the Bald Eagle Preserve or rent a bicycle or kayak. There’s also the walking tour of Fort William H. Seward, now a thriving native arts center and see a thrilling performance of the Chilkat Indian Dancers. For the quirkie, there’s the Hammer Museum, a museum highlighting all the varieties of hammers!

At Skagway its historic wooden storefronts are perfectly preserved in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, testimony to the 20,000 gold-seekers who braved the Chilkoot and White Pass trails in 1898. A visit to Skagway is not complete with out taking the tour on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, re-live the adventure of ascending the pass on a narrow gauge railroad, and view the pass as the gold seekers did from the comfort of your seat on the train.

From Skagway travelers have the option of continuing into the interior of Alaska, or leaving the United States and returning Canada in the Yukon Territory, where you can visit famous Dawson City the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush.

If you enjoyed this Ya’Gotta article about Alaska Cruises, you may also like to view more norther Canada tourism destinations:

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