Whether you are traveling with kids or not, Alaska is one of the best summer destinations in America. Period. As a nature enthusiast, I find it hard to describe even after being immersed in an eight-day vacation through this fascinating place. The truth is, you must visit it to truly understand the immeasurable beauty and nature of this northernmost American state.
Last month we traveled to Alaska with our extended family. Our three-generation group – including one teenager, two eleven-year-olds, and two septuagenarians – created profound memories while sailing from Vancouver to Seward on the Celebrity cruise. We traveled through the Inside Passage, visited the capital city of Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, and Seward. The Alaska Railroad, from Seward to Anchorage, wrapped up our journey. Whether we viewed the Hubbard Glacier, stood in front of endless mountains, spotted bears on the side of the road, or discovered the highest waterfalls, we saw nothing less than a wonderland. Alaska is beyond gorgeous!
In this post, I invite you to follow our family’s Alaska adventures. As a result, I hope this itinerary sample will be an inspiration for you to plan your own trip to the place where mother-nature is never shy. Ready? Our voyage starts here.
Note: Although we saw stunning views from the ship, the land excursions played an essential role on the trip. Through them, we had an expanded sense of the wild and Alaska’s beauty. At each port, we had a booked excursion waiting for us, as we heard that some tours get sold out. It is best to book excursions through the cruise line or reliable, independent companies. We used both, and Viator was our second option. Either way, we were picked up and dropped off at the cruise ship terminal by the service provider. Timing was precise. It is important to know that Alaska’s beauty is boundless and so are the numbers of activities and sights to explore.
Once known as the Salmon Capital of the World, Ketchikan is now the first stop for cruise ships traveling through the last frontier. Facing the southernmost entrance to Alaska’s Inside Passage, Ketchikan is recognized for its idyllic scenery and endless adventures for all ages. In fact, we had a fantastic day at this historic site.
Kayaking in Eagle Island
We arrived in Ketchikan on an exceptionally beautiful day. Picked up at the dock, we headed straight to Clover Pass in the Tongass National Forest for a kayak adventure. Far from the crowds of the cruise ship, the splendid scenery by the water promised a fabulous excursion. After the safety instructions, we promptly jumped into tandem kayaks, and under blue sky, we took off.
While the cool breeze blew on our faces, the gentle, indigo-blue currents flowing towards Eagle Island helped the amateurs and the more experienced among us to enjoy the easygoing voyage. As we paddled, small islands with dense vegetation revealed themselves at each turn. The scenery was enhanced when we spotted bald eagles flying overhead or resting in trees. Every now and then we spotted one of their massive nests.
Along the way, our guides took their time to tell us the characteristics of the landscape and cultural aspects of this protected region. When they managed to bring us closer to wildlife, we saw a family of seals sunbathing on top of rocks. With this opportunity, we learned how to differentiate sea lions from seals. Where sea lions have large flippers and visible ear flaps, seals have small flippers and no ear flaps at all. The kids loved it and so did we.
Eating at Fish House
Once in Alaska, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to dig into their local dishes. Back in Ketchikan, we stopped at the Fish House, and I can only say it was above our expectations. Most of us ordered the house-made smoked salmon chowder, and fish & chips served with fries and southwest coleslaw. The combination of locally harvested, fresh fish with spices and herbs delivered nothing less than superb flavors!
Exploring the surroundings
The narrow town, limited by the waterfront and forested hills in the back, was busy and lively. Creek Street, a boardwalk built on pilings, was Ketchikan’s infamous red-light district for half a century when fishermen came upstream not only for business but also for pleasure. Nowadays, the historic buildings hold cute shops which we enjoyed as we browsed. Dolly’s House, one of the most notorious buildings in the promenade, is a museum dedicated to the infamous era.
When walking away from the main drag of Tongass Ave., the place became quieter. Facing a network of boardwalks and stairways, we crossed a bridge over Ketchikan Creek and strolled on Married Man’s Trail. The stairs led us up on the hills. When we finally got to the top, there was a rewarding and breathtaking view of mountains, dense vegetation, and our ship below.
Icy Strait Point
Icy Strait Point is a private cruise port on Chichagof Island in the Inside Passage. Supervised by native residents of southeastern Alaska, the Tlingits, the place shows simplicity more than any other port at which we docked. Besides the high mountain peaks and thick pine forests, there was a restored salmon cannery which houses a museum, local arts and crafts shops, restaurants, and a mid-1930’s cannery line display.
Our agenda for the day divided into two parts. First, we traveled from Icy Strait Point into the wilds of Chichagof Island to spot bears and wildlife. The second half, we boarded a covered, whale-watching vessel and traveled through the waters of the Icy Strait to Point Adolphus.
Wildlife and bear watching
The day was long and unsuccessful. Nature is unpredictable, I know! In the morning, we hiked on gravel paths and boardwalks along Spasski River valley in search of local wildlife. The scenery was again spectacular! Mountain peaks rose along the riverbanks while the river meandered through the valley. While enjoying the beauty, our excitement was high as we softly walked, talked, stopped, waited, and hoped that bears or any other animal would come out. But, nothing!
Later, in the far distance, we had a glimpse of two bears and a cub that emerged from the swamps. Neither binoculars nor our cameras’ zoom helped very much. Yet, the continuous camera clicks broke the silence.
Disappointed with our morning tour, we put all our hopes on the whale watching excursion. Back on the dock, we boarded a covered vessel with indoor seating to Point Adolphus. Besides the gloomy day, towering coastal mountains rose in the background behind the deep water, confirming that Alaska is imposing, independent of the weather conditions.
In Point Adolphus, supposedly home to Alaska’s summer population of humpback whales, we had yet another letdown. In spite of glances at whales at a far distance, none of them really breached. They would barely resurface and then return below. Again, we waited and hoped, but the scene didn’t change much. However, the weather did. As the sky turned from gray to drizzling, the wind blew harder. All passengers found shelter inside. Occasionally, a whale would emerge far from the boat, only noticeable by its spout (exhaling).
Have I previously said the nature is unpredictable? Yes, no whales ever leaped out of the water as we expected. Instead, pods of dolphins surfed along the boat as it cut through the water on our way back to the dock. These playful, intelligent animals were the highlight of our day.
Juneau is appointed as the most beautiful city in the state and perhaps one of the nation’s most scenic capitals. Squeezed between Mount Juneau and Gastineau Channel, the city center is a maze of narrow streets, old storefronts, and slanted buildings. It is indeed a fascinating place.
Mount Roberts Tramway
Although Mount Roberts Tramway seemed to be a tourist trap, the panoramic views from the top of Mount Roberts were worthwhile. A six-minute gondola ride transported us from near the cruise ship docks to a height of about 1,800 feet. From the top, the extensive view of downtown, Douglas Island, Gastineau Channel, and our “tiny” ship made long lines worth the wait for catching the tram, both going up and coming down.
Adjacent to the upper gondola terminal, we found a restaurant, gift shop, and the small Chilkat Theater. As time was tight, we only admired an up-close view of a rescued bald eagle and watched a short movie about the Tlingit culture, which added more meaning to our tour. There were several easy, family-friendly trails around the top. We wished we had the time to explore them.
Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip
Floating across Mendenhall Lake, we didn’t get close to the glacier, but the vision of Mendenhall Glacier and snow-capped mountains in the background was majestic. Despite seeing just a tip of the massive river of ice that extends about 13 miles, it was an awe-inspiring moment for all of us. Sadly, we learned that Mendenhall Glacier, like most glaciers and ice sheets worldwide, is melting faster than it grows due to climate change. In a few years, Mendenhall Glacier will no longer be visible from the lake.
Drifting from the lake, the six-mile ride down the Mendenhall River was pure pleasure. As we started gliding smoothly over the water, we enjoyed the dense vegetation hugging the waterway, and the mountains appearing near and far. Along the stream, the view of bald eagles resting on a nearby dead trunk or on top of trees added more astonishment to our journey. Occasionally, the rapids became thrilling, but not alarming. Whenever it happened, serenity gave way to excitement, and our guide had the opportunity to show all his skills when he efficiently navigated around rocks, and if stuck, confidently released the raft.
Skagway, one of the starting points of the Gold Rush, had an estimated population of 10,000 people in 1897. Sitting in a narrow valley at the north end of the Lynn Canal, the deepest and longest fjord in North America, the city now has approximately 1,000 inhabitants. Curiously, in the summer this number doubles in order to help nearly 1 million visitors. Still reflecting the gold rush era through the wooden boardwalks and restored buildings in the historic district, this quaint town seems to look exactly as it did over 100 years ago.
Sled dog adventure
In White Pass we would experience the most anticipated activity of the kids, the sled dog ride. Along the way, the gorgeous panorama of mountains, lakes, valleys, glaciers, waterfalls, and tunnels took our breath away. When crossing the border between Alaska and Yukon – a Canadian territory (NOTE: you need a passport to cross the border) – we turned speechless as we looked up at the rugged mountains and high plateaus. Words can’t do it justice.
What else? BEARS! Yes, bears were hanging out by the road. From the bus, they looked like they were searching for food, whether grass, roots, or berries. The driver stopped the bus each time we saw them, two on our way up, and two on our way down. We were beyond mesmerized. Once again, nature surprised us, but this time in our favor.
At the sled dog site, our encounter divided into three parts. Starting with the introduction to the puppies, we hung out with the cutest things I have ever seen. Kids’ hearts melted, and so did ours. A lecture by a real Iditarod competitor, taught us about the mushers and how they survive the severe winter conditions during dog sled races that range from 100 to 1,000 miles long. The husky guide also talked about the Alaskan Huskies and their strength, energy, and passion for pulling and running.
Next, came the dog sled. Well, it wasn’t really a sled; rather, it was an ATV hooked to a team of huskies. At the end of a short ride on a muddy loop track, the disappointment on our faces was clear. It wasn’t what we expected.
Pan for gold
The third activity consisted only of panning two ounces of prepared dirt in a trench of water for five minutes. We were able to recover a couple of grains of gold. Nevertheless, let me share a bit of the history of the Gold Rush era, which was a crazed period of history.
In 1896, gold was found in the Canadian Yukon Territory. After the news left the creek’s banks in 1897, over 100,000 Americans and Canadians departed from their hometowns and rushed to Yukon and Alaska, bringing with them a “get rich quick” attitude. It was the Gold Rush. Nevertheless, the majority of them were unprepared for the long, life-threatening journey to the north. Encountering icy valleys and dangerous rocky ground, less than half of those who started the expedition arrived. Among those who reached the destination safely, only a small number had a chance of finding gold.
Cruising Hubbard Glacier
On the last day of our cruise, we entered the waters at the foot of Hubbard Glacier. The night before, the captain announced what time we would be arriving. It was absolutely worth waking up at 6:30 am. “We are here!” Those were my own words when I first set eyes on the massive block of ice in front of me. Definitely, an awe-inspiring experience!
According to the captain, there were over 350 feet of ice below the surface. Nearby, smaller chunks of ice (aka icebergs) and currents flowed between the face of the glacier and the ship. In the distance, a couple of times we saw the Hubbard Glacier calving, which means the fascinating moment chunks of ice break off glaciers and crash into the water. While staring and feeling the cold air touching my face, my emotions switched from excitement to a state of peacefulness, then wonderment. It was absolutely stunning, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
We arrived in Seward in the early morning. As our ride on the Alaska Railroad to Anchorage wouldn’t leave until 6:00 pm, our initial plan was to explore the city on our own, eat local food, and go for short hikes. Since we faced the coldest and wettest day during the whole trip, we needed a backup plan.
Seward City Tours, conveniently located in the cruise ship terminal, saved our day thanks to their exceptional service. That service began with luggage storage and transfers, followed by an informative 45-minute city tour through downtown and adjacent areas.
Situated at the head of Resurrection Bay, Seward first impressed us with its out-of-this-world views of the water and mammoth mountains rising majestically from a glacier-carved fjord. Then, the history: Seward arose when the first settlers arrived to build the Alaska Railroad and grew as it became the most critical shipping terminal in the area. Nowadays, an array of shops and restaurants lines the picturesque, old-time-looking, downtown area.
Later, our guide took us to visit Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park and the Sealife Aquarium.
A visit to Sealife Aquarium didn’t disappoint. Serving as both a research and educational center on the study of marine species and their ecosystems, this place is more than an ordinary tourist attraction in Seward. The impressive exhibits, including the Alaska Pacific Salmon Circle of Life, were a fascinating learning experience for all of us. Moreover, we saw marine life amazingly up close. Through viewing windows, we witnessed sea lions and seals sliding underwater in massive tanks, puffins diving in the open bird aviary, and an immense octopus attached to his tank wall. Equally thrilling was the program to rescue and rehabilitate injured animals.
In another section, displays showed how the glaciers formed and how fast they have been retreating in the past decades. A sequence of photos taken over the years shows the alarming changes. More shocking, we learned that within ten years, the Arctic may be completely ice-free during the summers.
Located in Kenai Fjords National Park, Exit Glacier lies just north of Seward downtown. After a brief visit to the Nature Center for additional information, we located the beginning of the trail near the parking lot. Following this one-mile loop through the cottonwood forest, we discovered a network of short pathways leading to different views of Exit Glacier. We chose the Glacier View route. After a 0.5-mile hike, we faced the panoramic view of Exit Glacier spilling down the mountain. Gorgeous!
Alaska Railroad trip from Seward to Anchorage
Late in the afternoon, our driver dropped us off at the train station with plenty of time before the train left. Because of the freezing rain, most of the passengers, including us, looked for protection inside the waiting room. Seward City Tours, once again, simplified our stay when they checked in our bags prior to our arrival at the station. Tickets in hands, we waited to board.
As the Alaska Railroad between Seward and Anchorage is assured to be the most scenic section in Alaska, we made that a must-do on our final itinerary. After pulling out of the Seward train station, I can’t guarantee what we saw was the most incredible views of Alaska. It is, after all, America’s largest state, and we saw only a small percentage of it; but I can certainly tell you that it was magnificent. At every curve, there was one surprise after another: lakes, mountains, waterfalls, gorges, glaciers. You name it; Alaska presented it.
Once settled, the onboard service asked us if we would like to dine, and they offered us the chance to select our dining time. We walked to the restaurant car and watched Alaska’s dramatic scenery unfold while we enjoyed a meal. In other areas, the upper-level seats, with large windows and the partially-glassed roof, gave us an unobstructed view of Alaska’s scenery. Periodically, a crew member announced, on the loudspeaker, the important sites coming up, so we wouldn’t miss anything. As an example, they pointed out Trail Glacier, Turnagain Arm, and Chugach National Forest, just to name a few.
This trip to Alaska was a dream come true. After seeing so much, I yearned to stay a little bit longer. If you’re wondering why, the answer is as simple as the fact that the natural beauty exceeded my expectations, the wildlife fascinated me, and the slow pace unwound my nonstop urban lifestyle.
Have you been to Alaska? What is your fondest memory?