Alaska is America's last great frontier, a majestic wilderness of living blue ice, snow covered mountain peaks, dense green forests, and quaint, waterfront towns. For many, an Alaska cruise is a once in a lifetime, dream vacation. As a travel agent, one concern I hear from clients over and over again is the high cost of shore excursions associated with an Alaska cruise. Dog sledding, floatplanes, helicopter tours, salmon fishing and glacier trekking are expensive! What I usually suggest to my clients is to pick one amazing “must do” adventure and then scale back on the other ports. There are many wonderful activities to enjoy in every Alaska port of call that allow you to immerse yourself in the beauty and culture that is uniquely Alaska. And best of all….many are free!
Mendenhall Glacier: The Mendenhall Glacier is one of Southeast Alaska’s most popular attractions. The USDA Forest Service Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center ($3 pp) is located in the Mendenhall Valley, 12 miles from downtown Juneau. Visitors may reach the visitor center by city bus, taxi, or rental car. The city bus drops visitors a mile and a half from the visitor center. Hiking trails around the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center range from a short, 0.3-mile walk to a 6.8-mile hike with a 1,300-foot elevation gain. These trails will give great views of Mendenhall Glacier, but will not take you onto the ice. Walking on Mendenhall Glacier is dangerous, and should only be done if you have proper training.
Downtown Juneau Historical Walking Tour: Within easy walking distance of the cruise ship docks are many of Juneau’s main attractions, The lively downtown is compact, and easy to navigate on foot. Pick up a walking tour map from any visitors center and follow the path, which takes you by all the major locations that played a part in the history of Juneau, including the state capitol building, Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, several museums and historic South Franklin Street, where turn-of-the-century buildings today are gift shops, restaurants and pubs.
Salmon Spawning Streams: Between July and September, many of the natural salmon spawning streams in the Juneau area are filled with salmon completing their natural life cycle, and it is certainly a spectacle to behold. While some fish these streams, most people just go to watch this amazing annual event.
Walking tour of the Historic District with the National Park Service Ranger: Visit the Klondike Gold National Historical Park Visitor Center at 2nd Avenue and Broadway. Rangers answer questions, give talks, show films, and, five times a day, lead an excellent free guided walking tour. A seven-block corridor along Broadway Street features 15 restored buildings, false fronts and wooden sidewalks from Skagway, Alaska's golden era as a boomtown.
Walk out to the Gold Rush Cemetery and Reid Falls: The Gold Camp Cemetery is in easy walking distance of downtown (about 2 miles) and boasts the “Largest Nugget in the World”. The headstones and markers are not maintained, giving the cemetery an appropriately creepy, historic atmosphere. The monument to Frank Reid, who killed the villainous Soapy Smith reads, ""He died for the honor of Skagway."" Continue through the cemetery for 1/4 of a mile you can also see Reid Falls. The trail up to the falls starts out flat and slightly inclined, but became rougher and steeper closer to the falls. The falls are quite magnificent and there is a bench where you can rest and admire them.
Hike to Lower Dewey Lake: (0.9 mile to lake; 3.6 miles around lake) Go east on 2nd Ave. past the railroad depot. Where the railroad tracks cross the road turn left and follow the tracks 120 meters north to the trailhead. Plan on taking an hour round-trip for the easy but steep hike to Lower Dewey Lake, where there are picnic tables, and a trail circling the lake.
Totem Heritage Center ($5 pp): View the largest collection of unrestored 19th century totem poles, but that's just the beginning of what it has to offer. Also displayed are baskets, masks, regalia, carvings, and my personal favorite, the incredible photographs of the old villages where the poles were retrieved. Not to mention the many carvings and totem poles outside the building.
Self-Guided Walking Tour: Pick up the official Ketchikan Walking Tour map at the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau’s visitor information center. Starting from downtown follow the numbered signs posted along two routes offered to learn about the history and culture of this quaint town. Routes can be walked in as little as 60 minutes, but plan extra time to appreciate the sights and for entering attractions or shops along the way. Be sure to stroll along Creek Street. Visited by thousands of visitors every year, historic Creek Street is one of the most popular things to do in Ketchikan. The antique boardwalk on wooden pilings over Ketchikan Creek is home to restaurants, unique curio shops, the Dolly’s House Museum’ & private dwellings, as well as some of the best salmon viewing areas in Ketchikan.
Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center ($12 pp): This nonprofit center combines one of Alaska's best hatchery tours and a place to see a bald eagle close up. The wooden buildings stand over Ketchikan Creek. You can see fish climbing against the current up into pools where they are sorted before being cut open to complete their biological purpose (salmon die when they spawn anyway). The hatchery tours let you get so close, right in the action, where you can feed the growing salmon fry yourself. The hatchery produces king and silver salmon and steelhead trout. Visitors can also walk right through the eagle enclosure. The eagles hunt salmon swimming naturally through their enclosure. No glass stands between you and this activity, only a few feet away."