Alaska is one of the world’s most majestic destinations in North America. A nature-lover’s paradise, Alaska is known for its snow-sprinkled mountains, lush green forests, an abundance of wildlife and enchanting glaciers.
Exploring Alaska on a cruise offers a spellbinding experience for even the most seasoned cruiser, and Alaska’s Inside Passage is no exception. This glorious ‘marine highway’ is made up of various passages between the islands on the Pacific North West coast of North America, with each port offering something truly unique and unforgettable.
We asked Editor Kerry Spencer from Cruise Critic why the passage is so unique compared to other cruise routes around the world.
“This network is one of the few routes in the world where large cruise ships requiring relatively deep water can safely sail next to steep mountainsides. Because of this, when cruising the Inside Passage, you're likely to see some towering mountains, massive glaciers, tranquil waterways, countless acres of rainforest, Arctic tundra and fantastic wildlife. Whales, eagles, bears, moose, seals and seabirds might all be seen from your ship, in port or on a shore excursion.”
Executive Director Elizabeth Arnett from the Southeast Alaska Tourism Council told us why the Inside Passage offers an incredible cruise adventure.
“Travelling through Alaska's Inside Passage is a most extraordinary experience. Simply breathing in the fresh, clean air of a 17-million-acre rainforest provides clarity for appreciating the sheltered waterways that encompass the region.
“Dotted with spruce-covered islands and snow-capped mountains, the Inside Passage is home to all the excellent Alaska adventures visitors expect - brown and black bear viewing, orca and humpback whale-watching, glacier flight-seeing and walkabouts, wilderness hiking trails, and all the heart-pounding experiences one trip can handle.
“The charming coastal communities in the region welcome visitors with open arms. But be warned: Alaska's Inside Passage grabs your heart and touches your soul, and it just won't let go. So don't be surprised if you are compelled to return for more.”
Alaska’s Inside Passage Map
There are a variety of different regions within Alaska’ Inside Passage, each one as different as the last. From Hubbard Glacier to Haines, there is so much to see and do, and a cruise is the perfect way to experience these diverse destinations on just one trip.
“Carved out by glaciers during the last ice age, the passage is characterised by more than 1,000 islands and islets, coves, fjords and coastal towns - each with its own character,” says Kerry. “Inside Passage cruises usually stop at three or four ports, and each of the towns or cities you get the chance to explore tend to offer something a little different.”
The best stops along Alaska’s Inside Passage
Although there are a variety of locations along the passage, four of the most common cruising towns and cities include Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka and Skagway.
Check out the below 2019 Alaska cruises that travel to the regions covered in this article.
Read on to find out more about these culturally-rich destinations and their stunning natural wildlife.
Juneau is the capital city of Alaska, known for its rugged mountain region and the waters of Gastineau Channel which encircle the city, cutting it off from the rest of Alaska and North America. This unusual city is often referred to as an ‘island city’, as it is only accessible by sea or air even though it is on the Alaskan mainland.
This isolation means there’s plenty to see and do in Juneau’s great outdoors, says Kerry. “The city is surrounded by nature and offers a wide range of shoreside activities, from whale-watching and zip-lining to touring the Capitol building or the Alaskan Brewing Co. There is also the state's most accessible glacier to experience - Mendenhall - an immense, 12-mile-long river of ice.
“In town, the Mount Roberts Tramway takes riders 1,800 feet up for gorgeous views and hiking trails. Along with glacier-viewing, you also get a very good chance of seeing a bear or two up close. Downtown, honky-tonk music and wholesome grub are well worth checking out at the raucous Red Dog Saloon. The local culinary scene recently boomed, and there are some solid breweries on hand, too.”
Melody Pittman from Wherever I May Roam told us why everyone should go on a shore excursion in Juneau.
“Juneau was my favourite port along Alaska’s Inside Passage. My daughter and I went on a photography safari cruise excursion. We were treated to amazing scenery, wildlife, and photo opportunities, along with learning several photography tricks and camera basics. We saw dozens of whales and even came face to face with a black bear. It was amazing!”
Editor and founder of We Are Travel Girls, Becky, also recommends heading out on an excursion, whether that’s by sea or air.
“Juneau is the gateway to an array of activities in Alaska. From taking a helicopter over Mendenhall Glacier, husky sledging, to whale watching – there is something to suit every traveller. I personally recommend the helicopter over the mountains and onto the glacier where you can walk on the ice and learn all about this magnificent natural wonder!”
Jane from Blog The Globe also recommends visiting the Mendenhall Glacier, as well as keeping an eye out for any wildlife nearby.
“Leaving the glacier, I had a close-up encounter with a bear and her cub foraging for tree roots. Cubs are born while their mothers are still hibernating, feeding from her for three months before she wakes up!”
The heart of Russian influence in Alaska, Sitka has a culturally-rich history you’ll struggle to beat across the state. With remnants of its age-old Russian heritage at every turn, exploring the city’s architectural treasures are sure to delight.
“This most exotic town offers a unique cultural melting pot for both Alaska Native and Russian-descent populations, and these influences are very noticeable,” says Kerry. “It's been home to the Tlingit Native Americans and is still a centre for commercial fishing.”
“Sitka is located on the west side of Baranof Island - a 100-mile-long island in the state's panhandle. Like Juneau, Sitka is only accessible by air and sea. The vast Tongass National Forest covers the area outside of town, which only has a roadway along the Pacific coast about seven miles in either direction. Watching over Sitka, you’ll be able to see Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano and Mount Fuji lookalike.
“Sitka's historic attractions are located within walking distance of downtown. These include: the lookout at Castle Hill; the Sitka National Historical Park visitor centre; the historic onion-shaped domed architecture of St. Michael's Cathedral and the Russian Bishop's House as it follows the Sitka Sound waterfront and Crescent Harbour. If you’re looking for wildlife attractions, you can also visit the Fortress of the Bear and the Sitka Raptor Centre.”
If you’re a lover of fishing, Ketchikan is an angler’s haven and is known as the salmon capital of the world due to its abundance of lakes, rivers and streams. Downtown, you will be delighted by the brightly-coloured buildings that line the riverbanks, the quaint shops, bars and restaurants and the works of art in the city’s numerous galleries.
Becky told us why Ketchikan is worth visiting. “Ketchikan sits at the southernmost point into the Inside Passage and is best known for its salmon. Visitors here can go in search of totem poles, watch a lumberjack show and my favourite - idly stroll down the boardwalk of historic Creek Street which lies beside the creek banks.”
Lovers of the outdoors rejoice, as Ketchikan has plenty of marine wildlife to see as well as the opportunity to go ziplining between forests, kayaking in the Misty Fjords and hiking along Married Man’s Trail.
Rhonda from Travel, Yes Please! told us why she loved her visit to Ketchikan, in particular, learning about its history and exploring its natural beauty.
“My favourite location along the Inside Passage is Ketchikan because of the unique combination of history, wildlife, and beautiful landscapes. In town, specifically on Creek Street, you can learn about the prohibition era and some of the creative tactics smugglers used to bring alcohol in from Canada.
“The surrounding area is great for viewing wildlife, especially bears, and a scenic flight over Misty Fjords National Monument is an unforgettable way to witness Alaska’s untouched wilderness.”
If you’re a lover of shellfish and crab in particular, Ketchikan is well-known for its Dungeness crab, says Jane.“I went on a wilderness exploration and crab feast. We pulled Dungeness crabs from their pots and feasted on Alaskan Crab until I could eat no more.”
Skagway’s history is like something out of an old western movie, albeit in a cooler climate. “This town came into being in the last part of the 19th century as the nearest port of entry for stampeders making their way into the Klondike in search of gold,” says Kerry. At one time, Skagway was a lively town with saloons, gambling and brothels, but today, the remnants of the town’s tumultuous past are only visible in the form of saloon-style shop frontiers and wooden sidewalks.
“The immensely walkable and historic downtown has largely been restored to its roots. It's a charming place – and well worth taking the town’s History Tour if you can.”
If you’re looking to step back in time while enjoying the incredible scenery on offer, Kerry says “a train ride along the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad is a must for cruise passengers. The tracks follow the staggeringly photogenic route that the gold-seekers took (on foot!) over the pass to the Canadian border.”
As one lasting takeaway, Jane says to embrace all that these majestic towns and cities have to offer.
“The wilderness of Alaska must be seen close up, so get off the cruise ship every day and explore the ocean, mountains, rivers and wildlife in a kayak or zodiac wherever possible. Embrace each town for its uniqueness and choose an activity that will make you remember the place forever.”
Want to find out more about our cruises? Browse our cruise deals or speak to a member of the Azamara team today.
Image credit: Cruise Critic