Seattle to Alaska Cruise

COVID ALERT!  Itineraries and Sailings have changed.  Consult the cruise line or your travel agent for availability.  

I’ve watched Alaska cruise ship sail out of Seattle all summer and finally got organized to take the trip myself. What a spectacular experience!

Seven of the major cruise companies depart from Seattle. Norwegian Lines, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Oceania, Princess and Celebrity Cruises sail from here, as well as Holland American Line which is based in our city.

Sailings vary in length, and there are a variety of land and sea excursions available, including trips to Denali National Park.

Ships sail from docks along the Seattle waterfront. Once you board your cruise ship and get settled in the cabin, go topside to see the Seattle departure. 

On a clear day the Cascade Mountain range provide a background for The Space Needle and downtown skyline as you sail out of Elliott Bay.

You’re in Puget Sound and it will take the ship several hours to sail by Edmonds, Everett, along Whidbey Island, through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and out to the Pacific Ocean.

The big land mass to the right of the ship (starboard) is Vancouver Island. Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Canada, is on the southern end of the island. You’ll probably see the lights of the city as your ship heads north to the region known as the Inside Passage.

Alaskan waters are filled with wildlife. Most cruise ships have an on-board naturalist to help you spot ocean going Humpback and Orca whales, playful dolphins, plus seals and sea lions along the shore as you sail north.

Salmon, by the thousands, are seen at river mouths as they swim upstream to spawn. You may even see a brown bear catching his salmon dinner.

For many cruises Ketchikan is the first port of call. The ships docks right in town so it’s a short walk to town’s shops and attractions. Salmon fishing and totem poles are highlight here. A free shuttle bus will take you to the Totem Heritage Center and Deer Mountain Hatchery to see examples of both.

The friendly folks at the Ketchikan Visitor Information Center will supply you with a map for a walking tour of the town.

 Easy to follow the numbered signs posted along the route shows the way to sights like the Creek Street, the historic ‘red light district’ boardwalk leftover from the Gold Rush. I was very pleased to have toured the new Southeast Alaska Discovery Center. This gives you a good introduction to the land, culture and people of the area.

While in port you may want to consider going after some of the salmon on a fishing charter, kayak or boating the waters of Tongass Narrows or hitting the trail for a mountain hiking adventure.

But, don’t miss the boat!!

Sailing north along the coast the historic Russian town of Sitka on Baranof Island is another fascinating cruise stop.

The village of Sitka is just right for a walking tour of the shops, galleries and cultural center. Visit the Old Russian Orthodox Church to hear the story of island settlers.

One of my favorite walks is through the Tongass National Forest on the edge of town. You’ll see examples of Tlingit Totem Poles with signs giving you an explanation the characters that makeup the totems. Watch for bald eagles nesting in the forest and diving into the nearby river to get their fill of later summer salmon.

Skagway is best known as the “Gateway to the Klondike”. This town invites you to step back to the 1896 discovery of gold. The Klondike Gold Rush National Historic District is a six-block area of restored gold rush building now favorite shops for 21st century visitors.

The story is told that in 1898 thousands of men sailed from Seattle in search of their fortune in the gold fields of the Yukon. You can retrace the route of the Klondike Gold Rush miners on the White Pass & Yukon Railway. The train ride climbs nearly 3000 feet in 20 miles of steep grades to give you breathtaking views of waterfalls, cliff-hanging turns, trestles and the valley below.

Outdoor enthusiasts will find hiking and mountain biking trails to explore but for a new adventure look for a sled dog trip through the back country. As you walk around Skagway in August and September, watch for mountain creeks and streams jumping with salmon.

The capital of Alaska is Juneau. 

Ships cruise into Gastineau Channel and dock along Franklin Street. Expect rain! Juneau is famous for it’s downpours that last for hours. Go ashore with a parka or umbrella to enjoy this port.

The first stop on the walk into town is the Mt. Roberts Tramway, a 1,800 foot gondola ride up the mountain. On top, take hiking trails for panoramic view of the surround forests, fjords, mountain peaks and Juneau below. Bring your camera to capture shots of mountain wildlife like eagles, Mt. goats and black trailed deer.

The Mendenhall Glacier and Juneau Icefields in Tongass National Forest can be viewed a short 14 miles from the city center. A tour takes you to the Visitor’s Center Observatory to see the glacier. Trails lead around the lake shore and out to the snowfields. Be sure to see the center’s great exhibits revealing the life span of the Icefields. You’ll have a better appreciation for the Alaskan glaciers.

Many Juneau shops, galleries and government buildings feature example of native Alaskan arts and crafts representing the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. The outstanding Alaska State Museum traces the culture of the native people and the early settlers of the state. A Museum exhibit takes you to the top of a giant evergreen tree to see an eagles nest at eye level.

This city has outdoor adventures for all levels of skills. Book whale watching trips in search of Humpbacks and Orcas. Or maybe you want to try river rafting, glacier hiking or zip lining. So much to do, so little time!

To me the highlight of the seven day Alaska cruise was the hours we were in Glacier Bay National Park. The sun was bright and the Mt. peaks were clear as our ship arrived at Margerie Glacier. The ship was quiet as passengers in parka and gloves came out on deck to see this amazing marine wilderness!

From the 15th deck we could see Mt. Fairweather surrounded by Salisbury and Quincy Adams all over 12,000 ft. with snow fields spilling down to form the glacier that fall into the bay. Our huge cruise ship seemed diminished in the face of the huge ice walls as they calved into the green tidal water of Glacier Bay. This amazing National Park spans 3.3 million acres of inlets, mountain peaks and giant glaciers. National Park Service rangers were on board the ship to answer questions during our four hour tour.

Your cruise itinerary may list Anchorage as the next stop. Surprise - your ship will dock in the tiny town of Whittier surrounded by snowcapped peaks or in Seward at the head of Resurrection Bay. If you disembark the ship in Whittier buses or trains will take you through the longest highway tunnel in North America and into the city of Anchorage. From Seward, the Alaska Railroad or the Seward Highway offer a picturesque trip through mountain valleys into Anchorage.

Now that you’re back on land, get ready to explore Anchorage, a city that covers almost 2,000 square miles, roughly the size of Delaware. You’ll want to allow time to see this area before flying back to the ‘lower 48’.

Photo: Ken Graham

Anchorage has a good selection of hotels concentrated near the airport or in the downtown area. Restaurants serve a full menu of tasty food including everything from a miner’s breakfast to Reindeer burgers! Take your pick!

To get a better understanding of history and culture of this part of the state I recommend visiting the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

The Anchorage Museum offers life-size dioramas showing traditional village dwellings of Alaska Natives; homes of early Russian settlers and Gold Rush-era pioneers and Alaskan homes and work environments from the 1920s. Many Anchorage shops and galleries feature Alaska Native art and crafts with a silver hand label denoting an authentic work.

If time permits, stop at the Alaska Native Heritage Center to experience programs of music, dances, stories and games drawn from the diverse cultures of the 11 indigenous groups that live in modern day Alaska.

Save at least two days of your Anchorage visit to see Denali National Park. I’d suggest you book a night in one of the Park Lodges, take a train or bus to the wilderness of Denali and give yourself time to explore the park for views of wildlife like moose, bear,caribou and Dall sheep. Photo: Roy Neese

If the weather is clear enough consider a sightseeing flight around North America's highest mountain, Mt. McKinley.

When you return to town you may feel that some of the wildlife has followed you back. Anchorage is probably the only city in the United States that has a major moose population, as there are 1,500 living and grazing within the city limits!

Remember!  Alaska cruises are very popular and you'll want to book your spectacular vacation early.