In This Issue
- Cruising Alaska’s Glaciers
- Hiking Mendenhall Glacier
- Alaska Itineraries
- Visiting Denali National Park
Cruising Alaska’s Glaciers
Cruising Alaska has been gaining in popularity for a number of years and it doesn’t seem like interest will taper off any time soon. All the major cruise lines offer itineraries as do a number of the smaller cruise lines.
If you’re looking for a cruise recommendation Alaska’s glaciers is high on most lists. Alaska has a lot to see and almost any cruise will be a memorable experience but there are differences to understand.
First, some information on the general environment. Coastal Alaska has a limited number of ports and locations so there is a lot of cruise similarities. The major cruise ports are Skagway, Juno, and Ketchikan and each has a lot to offer and all are very popular with passengers. There are also a couple of less visited stops with the most common being Hanes. Another common stop on Alaska itineraries is Icy Straight Point. Both of these are more opportunities to take tours than an actual destination port. There are also a couple of “cruise only” destinations. The first is the Misty Fiord which is usually a half day of cruising up thru the narrow fiords. The other is Hubbard Glacier where the ships cruise up near the face of the glacier. There is also the port of Seward and it is the farthest north of the itineraries with most one-way cruises going it up to Seward with it being a jumping off point for trips to Denali with it being a start of the Alaska Rail Tours.
Cruising Alaska has a lot to offer from coastal mountains, to whales and wildlife but the most spectacular sights are the glaciers and that should be a prime consideration when selecting a cruise line and its itinerary. Because the number of ships allowed to go up near to Hubbard Glacier are limited it’s recommend that your first priority is to select a cruise that includes either Hubbard or Dawes glaciers. Hubbard is a huge glacier that terminates into a bay and it is famous for “calving” huge chunks into the water constantly. In addition the bay is filled with icebergs and flowing chunks of ice with seals being a common sight.
Mendenhall Glacier is another popular destination and usually all you need is a bus ticket from Juneau. The glacier is a National Park with a good visitor center and great hiking trails and it really is only a half hour bus ride from town. Almost all Alaska cruise passengers have an opportunity to visit Juneau and this glacier.
A third glacier of particular note is Dawes Glacier located at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord. It also terminates into water with calving being a frequent event. Unfortunately it is not on many ship itineraries because there is also a limit on ships allowed all the way up this fjord. Tracy Arm Fjord is a branch off the Misty Fjord and while cruises often include Misty Fjord, few make it up to Dawes Glacier.
A fourth frequent glacier opportunity is a helicopter tour up on the Juneau Ice Field. These tours are available from Juneau as well as Skagway. One tip that can save you some money is to book the tour on your own rather than thru the ship. You can call using U.S. cell service at most points near the popular towns and often book at the last minute. The tours only take a couple of hours so it is easy to fit into a port day as well.
Again regardless of which cruise line you prefer you need to pay attention to the available itineraries and try to get a cruise that includes either Dawes or Hubbard. Most cruise offers will list Hubbard on the cruise itinerary but you will probably have to make some inquiries regarding if Dawes glacier is on an itinerary.
Helicopter tours up to a glacier in the Juneau ice field are usually available in Juneau or Skagway.
Hiking Mendenhall Glacier
A modest city bus trip out of Juneau, Alaska (12 miles) is the Mendenhall glacier with a Visitor Center. This is not technically a national park but part of the Tongass National Forest with the Visitor Center and trails operated by park rangers. The center has a number of informative exhibits and the rangers provide lectures and nature walks. There is a US$5 admission fee to the area.
There are a number of short trails near the Visitor Center with a short stroll to some great views. For panoramic views of the lake, glacier, peaks and shoreline take the Photo Point Trail (0.3 miles) and Nugget Falls Trail (0.7). The Moraine Ecology Trail (1.5 miles) starts at the north side of the second parking lot. This trail offers a nice walk over a glacial plain and into the areas youngest forest. The Trail of Time forms a short loop (0.5miles) from the Visitor Center with a small gain in elevation that crosses Steep Creek twice.
From the Visitors Center it is only a short walk on Nugget Falls Trail (0.7 miles) to the base of the falls but the trail continues on for a nice hike of 3.8 miles along the glaciers edge (round trip 7.5 miles).
Three additional hiking trails begin behind the Visitor Center and travel up hill into forest. You will notice, the farther away and higher in elevation you are from the glacier and lake, the more diversity of broadleaf plants and larger trees you will see.
East Glacier Loop (3.5 miles) follows the glacial trim line (an area carved out during the glaciers advance) with an elevation gain of about 400 feet. As the glacier receded 200 years ago forest along this trail ibegan to grow in and is now beginning to develop some “old growth” forest characteristics.
Nugget Creek Trail (3 miles + 3.5 mile access from East Glacier Looptrail) follows Nugget Creek above the falls with a 500 foot elevation gain. You may reach this trail from the east portion of East Glacier Loop along Nugget Creek.
As you hike the Mendenhall glacier’s trails you’ll get an opportunity to see regrowth patterns in the hardwood forest from the glacier receding over the past few hundred years as well as an appreciation of the incredible wildflowers, ferns and mosses taking advantage of the Alaska summer.
Warning: Many black bears are in the Mendenhall Visitor Center area feeding on the salmon in Steep Creek along with berries ripening in late summer and fall to get ready for winter hibernation. When hiking make noise to let the bears know you’re there, especially if by yourself or even in a small group. Carrying bear spray and insect repellent are recommended. Carrying a compact rain parka is also a good idea.
Alaska Cruise Itineraries
Because it is so vast, Alaska is a destination that is more easily seen by cruise ship. Cruising gives you an opportunity to view some of the towns, cities, glaciers and wildlife up close and personal. After a taste of Alaska on a first trip, you’ll be inspired perhaps to explore more by train, ferry, car or a combination. It is also easy to add a land portion before or after a cruise to places like Denali and Fairbanks.
Many ships begin their cruises in Seattle or Vancouver, two wonderful cities to spend a few extra days seeing either before or after a cruise. They are easily accessible and offer an abundance of hotels, restaurants and things to do in a wide range of prices. It is common for cruises are seven or ten nights to depart and return to one of these two ports.
A common itinerary for Alaska is up and back in the inside passage. Normal port stops are Skagway, Ketchikan, Juneau along with Icy Strait Point and cruising into the Misty Fjords as well as visits to Hubbard Glacier. Some cruises also call on Victoria, Canada on Vancouver Island.
A typical seven night cruise will include four or five of these stops with lots of opportunities for tours arranged through the cruise ship or even setting out on your own for independent exploration. If you spend a little time on the internet investigating your ports of call (See our links below), chances are you can locate an independent tour operator who will take you to a glacier, panning for gold, and more and at a significant savings over the cruise ship tour prices.
One sure highlight of an Alaska cruise is a visit to a glacier. There are three which are easily accessible and each has a different character:
Mendenhall Glacier is a National Park and the easiest to get reach since it is only a few minute bus ride out of Juneau. Ships offer a number of tours to Mendenhall but we would recommend the public bus service that departs from near the cruise ship docks with a round trip fare of $30 per person, especially if you have a National Park Pass.
Hubbard glacier is spectacular and is restricted to a limited number of ships each season. Hubbard ranks high on a list of itinerary stops when looking for an Alaska cruise. The ships maneuver up near the face of this massive glacier as it calves giant chunks into the sea. Calving makes for spectacular photo opportunities.
Dawes glacier is way up inside the Misty Fjords and also calves chunks of turquoise ice that float down the fjord. In booking, be warned that a visit to the Misty Fjord does not guarantee your cruise getting up to the Dawes glacier as it depends on conditions.
In addition to viewing from land or sea, there are also helicopter tours that can be booked that will take you up to glaciers on the Juneau ice field. These helicopter tours are usually booked in conjunction with stops in either Juneau or Skagway and are also easy to book on your own at a good saving.
Because Alaska is on most U.S. cell service plans you can consider booking one of the helicopter tours directly. Skagway is the better choice for a helicopter tour because of its proximity to the cruise piers.
A favorite town to visit is Skagway and while its’ primary purpose today is as a seasonal tourist destination it is still an interesting stop. The town features the railroad excursion train The Yukon and White Pass Route that climbs up to the pass that was a primary gateway into the Klondike during the gold rush days. The Yukon gold rush was the event that gave birth to this boomtown and was the entrance point to the Chilkoot Trail, often described as the “meanest 33 miles in history”. In 1897 the dreams of thousands were attached to the call “North to Alaska” and the promise of gold. Today
the main street of Skagway is lined with gift and jewelry stores along with art galleries and a few bars. Because the cruise ships represent the heart of the town’s economy, once the “season” is over the population of the town drops to only about five hundred intrepid souls.
The largest cruise city and the state capital is Juneau and while the waterfront is dominated by jewelry stores and gift shops, tourism is not its’ principal business. Fishing boats come and go from its’ docks and it is home to a university and, of course, the Alaska government. The famous Red Dog Saloon, founded during Juneau’s mining era, has been in operation for decades and still serves visitors and locals alike. For a time, “Ragtime Hattie” played the piano in white gloves and a silver dollar halter top. Later, in territorial days, the owners would often meet the tour boats at the docks with a mule that wore a sign saying, “follow my ass to the Red Dog Saloon.” One local legend has Wyatt Earp loosing his pistol in a poker game there. The saloon also hosted an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show just after Alaska became a state.
Near the cruise docks there is a cable car up to a mountaintop that offers a panoramic view of the area. Juneau is also home to the Mendenhaul glacier and the local fish hatchery. The hatchery is a remarkable operation that scoops up and processes tons of fresh “wild” salmon and is a good alternative to the controversial salmon farming.
Ketchikan is a port where you can, depending on the season, book a fishing trip to bring back your own salmon or, if really lucky, a haddock. There are local operations where your charter captain can have your catch smoked or flash frozen and express shipped home (expensive but worth the bragging rights). Again there are jewelry stores and gift shops everywhere and also one of the better opportunities to buy canned or smoked salmon to take home to family and friends. The price of salmon fluctuates in price, probably driven by of the growing popularity of Alaska cruising, so shop carefully.
Icy Straight Point is another popular stop with the big draw being whale watching tours. There are also some nice Alaska rain forest hiking trails and a new zipline.
Victoria, Canada on Vancouver Island is a frequent port of call especially for cruises ending in Vancouver. It’s a beautiful port city with a number of attractions, including the Royal BC Museum, the impressive Butchart Gardens, Fairmont Empress Hotel, built in 1908 for the Canadian Pacific RR, Chinatown and some really good pubs and restaurants.
For longer cruise itineraries and specifically for one-way cruises the most popular port of call is Seward. It is a major railhead for the Alaska Railway and is famous as a departure point for those observation car train trips across Alaska to Denali National Park. That combination is the most popular cruise/land package in Alaska. Seward also is home to Resurrection Bay and some of the most incredible wildlife viewing opportunities to be found anywhere.
Denali – America’s Largest National Park
Most visitors come to Denali on a bus or cruise/land tour and unless you are planning an extended Alaska driving vacation those are probably your best options. First, Denali is not your typical National Park. Access for the general public is mostly restricted to taking the parks bus excursions. While these are really good tours the problem is you need to make reservations way in advance – weeks or even months before. If going on a bus or cruise/land tour all your park access is arranged by the tour companies.
Denali is not like any other National Park. First it is the most remote park in the country and it is massive in size and most of the park has no roads or even hiking trails. There are no campgrounds or hotels inside the park and no scenic roads open for people to drive. The scenery is inspiring but so is the very desolate and wild character of Denali. Many of the mountain tops are above the tree line exposing huge expanses of meadows. The major focus of all the tours is the wildlife but that also needs some explaining. Area wise, Denali is our largest national park. It encompasses about 9,492 square miles and is larger than the state of New Hampshire. The animal populations are also much smaller than most people would expect.
There are only 70 grizzly bears per 1,000 square miles in Denali. Other census numbers per 1,000 square miles show 131 Black bears, for wolves less than 8, and the estimate for the total Denali Caribou Herd was about 2,230 animals. Dall Sheep totals for the park are less than 1,900. Based on these numbers it’s easy to understand that looking for wildlife is the major focus of tours. You’ll be lucky to see grizzly bears or moose, while small herds of Caribou and Dall sheep are not uncommon, wolves are rarely seen at all.
The rugged landscapes includes North America’s tallest mountain, Denali (previously Mt. McKinley but recently changed back to Mt. Denali again) towering above everything. The only problem is that it is shrouded in clouds most of the year, but, even if you miss the “Great One,” the surrounding Alaska Range is an awesome sight.
While the land tour is the best option, if you are planning on going to Denali on your own it is important to understand three things. First, the park is vast and has very little in the way of rest areas or visitor centers. Second, the park generally does not allow private cars much beyond the entrance and visitor’s center. Lastly, and most important, you need reservations to take the park operated bus tour and they book up weeks, maybe months in advance. Visiting Denali is not a casual process and considering the vast distances crossed in Alaska, you need to begin to make your arrangements way in advance.