See rugged beauty, Klondike history and Indigenous cultures in the Alaska port cities of Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan
Alaska is nicknamed the Last Frontier State for a reason. It’s vast, rugged and beautiful, and one of the best ways to see Alaska is on a cruise.
Alaska cruises are always popular and convenient for Washington and Pacific Northwest residents (most of the ships depart from Seattle or Vancouver, B.C.). On an Alaskan cruise, you’ll see stunning scenery and, if you’re lucky, plenty of wildlife (whales, eagles, bears). But you’ll also get a chance to stretch your legs offshore in several Alaska port cities and historic towns and villages.
On most cruises you’ll stop for several hours or a day in the Alaska port cities of Skagway, Ketchikan and Alaska’s capital of Juneau, all of which are connected to the Klondike Gold Rush-era and are cradled by mountains and surrounded by wilderness.
There are many opportunities for a memorable stop in these Alaska port cities, so let’s take a tour of them with Michelle Glass, AAA Washington’s vice president of travel services, a former Last Frontier State resident who worked in the Alaska tourism industry for years.
Skagway is at the northernmost point of Alaska’s popular Inside Passage, a former gateway city to the Klondike gold fields. Its history can be glimpsed in the turn-of-the-century buildings and boardwalk downtown.
One great way to stretch your legs is to take a nature walk along the Dewey Lake Hiking Trail. The trail can be picked up close to port. The first leg involves a bit of climbing, but the path quickly levels out and leads to a peaceful loop around the lake.
“You’re going through a beautiful forest and you end up at the lake,” Glass said. “At that point you can turn around and go back down or you can walk the whole perimeter of the lake. But it’s really nice because it gets you out of the hustle and bustle and into the wilderness, and it’s free.”
The town is just a few square blocks and fills up quickly when a large tour ship docks. Six blocks of downtown Skagway are designated as a National Historic District, of which 20 buildings are managed by the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
During the summer, the National Park Service offers walking tours of the downtown’s historic district. If you have kids, stop by the Junior Ranger Activity Center housed in a historic saloon, where the kids can complete six activities and become junior rangers. Also, learn about the town’s history at the Skagway Museum, located in a former school built in 1899.
Another great way to see the historical side of Skagway is by taking the Skagway Street Car Tour, Glass said, a 90-minute tour in a replica 1927 sightseeing bus. You’ll explore the waterfront and the historic district, as well as make a stop in the Gold Rush Cemetery.
“They give you a colorful town tour, they take you to the Gold Rush Cemetery and then take you up to a scenic overlook where you get this beautiful view of the town and you can get a nice picture of you and your ship in port,” Glass said.
If you do visit the cemetery, you’ll want to join a guided tour to get a real sense of its history and significant landmarks.
“Without context, it’s just a bunch of old signs,” Glass said. “But if you can get historical tour of Skagway, the story is amazing.”
The cemetery’s first burial was in 1898 (and it’s the final resting place of Skagway’s most famous resident, the con man and outlaw, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, now also the subject of a Vaudeville music act in town called the “Days of ‘98”). You can walk among the trees on a well-kept trail and see the tiny wooden grave markers of the pioneers who were buried there.
Tour ideas around Skagway
Tip: Note that each cruise line typically offers a different set of offshore excursion options in Alaska port cities. Call a AAA Travel agent to book your cruise and ask what tours are available in these cities.
1. Float the Taiya River
A roughly 2 ½ hour raft trip on the Taiya River shows off the surrounding ice-capped peaks and glacial lakes. If you are lucky, you’ll spot a bald eagle or harbor seals in the Dyea Valley, and catch of glimpse of the Chilkoot Trail, where miners once headed out into the mountains in search of gold.
2. Take a helicopter tour
Helicopter tours are offered at all the major Alaska port cities. And while these tend to be a pricier option, they’re worth it for the breathtaking views of the ice fields and mountains from above. In Skagway, flightseeing tours will take you over rippling ice sheets, jagged peaks and glacial lakes. These tours often land on a glacier, giving you time to walk around and explore the ice sheet.
3. Ride the train to White Pass Summit
Another great way to spend a half day is by taking the train to White Pass Summit. This tour is often part train, part bus and takes you past some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, as well as several important points of interest, such as Pitchfork Falls and the Gold Rush Cemetery.
Ketchikan is nicknamed the state’s “first city” for its location on the southern tip of the Inside Passage. Located on the southwest corner of Revillagigedo Island and surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, Ketchikan started out as a cannery and logging town, and remains a worldwide destination fishing spot.
You’ll disembark from the ship near Old Town. You’ll want to take a stroll on Creek Street, a historic wooden walkway built on stilts that overlooks the water. There are shops, galleries and restaurants that cater to the cruise ships. From mid-May through June, you can spot the salmon run from the boardwalk.
Among the major cruise ports, Ketchikan stands out for its cultural connection with Indigenous peoples, which include the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures.
One option is to visit the Saxman Native Village, located about 3 miles south of downtown, where you’ll find a collection of totem poles outside in the park. More totem poles that tell the story of distinct families can be found inside a clan house. Tours usually include a stop in the clan house with native dancing. Sometimes you can find carvers working on new projects in a carving shed.
“Ketchikan has a really great cultural aspect to it,” Glass said. “With over 80 totem poles in the area, it’s the best place in my opinion where you can see the three cultures coming together — Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian. Those three were not found as far north as Skagway and while you can get a glimpse of it in Juneau at the Sealaska Heritage Institute, to my mind, out of these three Alaska port cities, the highlight for culture is in Ketchikan.”
Near downtown, check out the Totem Heritage Center, which is about a 10-minute walk from the cruise ship docks. It contains a collection of 33 19th century totem poles (of which 16 are on permanent display) that came from the Tlingit villages on Tongass Island and the Haida village of Old Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island. You will also find baskets, masks and other artifacts from the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples.
Also don’t miss the collection of photographs and artifacts in Tongass Historical Museum downtown (you can see both museums for the price of one admission ticket.)
Tour ideas around Ketchikan
1. Take a Totem Pole Walk
A good way to stretch your legs and see local culture is to do a free totem pole walking tour as outlined by Ketchikan’s Visitors Bureau (Experience Ketchikan) or you can join one of many small-group tours available that are suitable for people of all ages and abilities. This is great way to experience Native American totem poles as only Ketchikan can provide.
2. Zipline over a rainforest
The mountains around Ketchikan are covered in a rainforest canopy, and it is a blast to zipline over the tops of these trees. Spend a few hours in bliss zooming through the treetops and walking over high suspension bridges with stunning views of the bay.
3. Go fishing
A stopover in Ketchikan is an opportunity of a lifetime for anglers, as this is one of the best places in the world to catch salmon on a line (as well as one of the best places to find fresh seafood in a restaurant). Other species abound, like rock cod, halibut and red snapper.
Juneau is unique among U.S. state capitals on the mainland in that it can only be reached by plane or by boat. The city is surrounded by forested mountains that make highway access impossible, but the rugged terrain makes a visit here all the more dramatic. It’s the second largest city by area in the U.S. (only beaten for the No. 1 spot by Sitka, Alaska). Yet just 30,000 people live within its 2,700 square miles.
Glass said it is worth splurging on a flightseeing tour to see Juneau’s surrounding landscape from above. One option is to take a seaplane to Taku Lodge, built in 1923 across from the Hole-in-the-Wall glacier.
“One of the things that’s unique to southeast Alaska is that there are almost no roads,” Glass said. “Because you’re not going to drive anywhere, you really need to fly somewhere. I would invest either in a helicopter flight over the ice fields or to Taku Lodge, which is one of my favorite places. You do glacier flightseeing in a float plane and then you land and can have this great lunch at a remote location — it’s a very iconic Alaskan experience.”
While in Juneau, you’ll want to spend some time exploring the downtown area, which has several museums, galleries, shops and good restaurants. Among the port cities, Juneau is notable for its foodie scene and has craft breweries and a gin-and-whiskey distillery. (Doing a brewery and distillery tour is one fun option while in town.)
Also don’t miss the Alaska State Museum’s impressive collection that includes a large number Indigenous artifacts, like wooden masks and ceremonial dress. Another popular thing to do in Juneau is to take a gondola ride up to Mount Roberts, where you can look down on the Gastineau Channel where you’ll see your cruise ship and the rugged mountainous countryside that surrounds Juneau.
Tour ideas around Juneau
1. Exploring Mendenhall Glacier
Exploring the Mendenhall Glacier is popular with tourists; it’s located about a dozen miles from the city and is one of the most accessible glaciers in the U.S. The city bus is a good, low-cost way to get to the glacier. Tour shuttles also leave for the glacier on the half hour. Flightseeing and small boat tours are also options to see the ice sheet from unique angles.
2. Go on a garden tour
If you are a fan of gardening, a visit to the Glacier Gardens is a must-do in Juneau. The botanical gardens are located about 7 miles from the cruise ships. Open from May to October, tours are available on the hour.
3. Take a foodie tour
Book a private walking food tour or join a small-group tour that explores Juneau’s vibrant foodie scene. This is a great way to experience authentic Alaskan cuisine. (It is also really yummy!)
More Alaska port cities to put on your bucket list
While Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau are the primary Alaska port cities, cruise ships sometimes stop at alternative locations.
Some other places that you may visit on your Alaska cruise include:
- Sitka, south of Juneau on the west side of Baranof Island, has a unique Russian-American culture and the historic 1948 St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Cathedral.
- Haines, between Juneau and Skagway, has a cool arts scene, and is a great place to take a rafting trip or go eagle watching.
- Petersburg, between Juneau and Ketchikan, has a lively Norwegian and commercial fishing culture, and several trails to go walking in nature.
Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to take a cruise on a large cruise ship to experience these particular Alaska port cities. There are a range of options to sail on smaller ships that spend more time onshore and take longer excursions within Alaska’s interior.
So, before you book your trip to the Last Frontier State, don’t forget to call a AAA travel agent. AAA can help you find the perfect cruise itinerary, ship and excursions in these beautiful Alaska port cities.
—Written by AAA Washington staff
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