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10 Inexpensive Things to Do in Alaskan Ports

Reprinted from my guest post on Travels with Diane

If you’re cruising to Alaska, you may want to take some fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime shore excursions, either organized through the ship or through independent companies. However, if you want to save money for your next cruise, consider doing your own thing in a some of the ports. Here are 10 inexpensive yet fun things to do while in port on your Alaskan cruise.

1) Upper or Lower Dewey Lake Hike in Skagway

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Upper Dewey Lake.  All pictures by Melinda Brasher

If you’re up for a serious hike, and especially if it’s a sunny day, you will not regret the steep and stunning trek to Upper Dewey Lake. I’ve done a lot of hiking, but I’ve rarely seen anything more beautiful. If you don’t have time (or leg muscles) for the 3000-foot climb, Lower Dewey Lake is also a very pretty destination.

2) Beach-Combing and Wildlife-Watching in Icy Strait Point

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The mostly rocky beaches are fun to stroll along, looking for sea life, artistically stacking rocks, and scanning the waters for seals, dolphins, and other animals. Icy Strait Point is also prime whale-watching territory. The day we were there, I was lucky enough to see a whale lunge-feeding a stone’s throw from shore.

3) Totem Bight Park in Ketchikan

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For the price of a bus ride ($2 roundtrip), plus an optional small donation, you can visit Totem Bight Park, a beautiful and peaceful place right along the water, showcasing native totem poles and a replica of a Tlingit longhouse. Be sure to read the fascinating information on the meanings and stories associated with the totems.

4) St. Nicolas Russian Orthodox Church in Juneau

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This is a modest building, one of the oldest of its kind in Alaska. If there’s a volunteer inside to talk to, ask questions and you’ll certainly learn something interesting. This is also a good stop on the way to various hikes and walks, like the easy Flume Trail, the rigorous Mt Roberts Trail, or the beautiful Perseverance Trail.

5) Touch tank in Kodiak

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Not a lot of cruise ships go to Kodiak, but if you do, consider the Fisheries Research Center Aquarium and Touch Tank. It’s small, but the creatures are beautiful, and touching the alien-looking crabs and sucking anemones gives you a greater connection to them. Plus, the walk is very pretty, with great views from the top of the bridge.

6) Watching Salmon in Creek Street, Ketchikan

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If you go during the biggest salmon runs, especially late July to August, Creek Street is great place to watch the fish struggling to make their trip upstream to spawn. They have to fight not only against the flow of the water but against each other—and the occasional hungry seal. Be sure to follow Married Man’s Trail to the fish ladder and spend some time watching them jump up the rocky cascades.

7) Walking Tour in Skagway

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Even if you’re not a huge history buff, you’ll like the walking tour of Skagway, where you hear about the gold rush’s winners, losers, and clever shysters like Jeff “Soapy” Smith, whose parlor is pictured here. The tour is free, led by the Klondike Gold Rush National Park rangers. Just sign up beforehand, since tickets go fast.

8) Fort Seward in Haines

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This fort is a small military outpost, never much used for actual conflict, but the interpretive signs and the uniform nature of the place make it interesting to wander around for a few minutes. It’s also home to the Alaskan Indian Arts Center, a small collection of native art. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to watch a carver working on a totem pole and talk to them about the process, all while the smell of cedar fills the air.

9) The Russian Cemetery in Sitka

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Though some might consider it morbid to visit cemeteries, if the beauty and sense of history attract you, this is one you shouldn’t miss. Tilted and overgrown headstones, some with traditional Eastern Orthodox crosses, mark the passage of many of Sitka’s past inhabitants. It can be a peaceful place, lush and green, with big leaves and bits of moss so thick and springy that you don’t feel like you’re walking on solid ground.

10) Exit Glacier in Seward

Exit Glacier and Harding Ice Field

Here you can take a short and easy hike nearly to the toe of the glacier, close enough you can feel the cold air coming off of it while you stand in the moonscape created by its recent retreat. If you have time and energy, try the Harding Ice Field Trail. It’s a steep one, but the views down onto the glacier and across to massive Harding Ice Field are spectacular. You can take a shuttle from downtown, round trip, for only $10. The park is free.

Whatever you choose to do in Alaska, you’ll enjoy it. Just remember that you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars in every port to have a great Alaskan adventure.

Alaska Cruising on a budget MarchIf you want more details on these and other free and inexpensive things to do in Alaskan ports, check out Cruising Alaska on a Budget; A Cruise and Port Guide 

 

Highlights of an Alaska Cruise

Reprinted from my guest post at The Page Turner:

I have been lucky enough to take several cruises to Alaska, and I hope to take more.  It’s a fantastic place to visit, especially by water, and especially if you love nature.  Though I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything, here are some of the highlights of my experiences.

Glaciers

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Marjerie Glacier, Glacier Bay. Photo by Melinda Brasher

The first time I heard the “white thunder” of a glacier calving, the first time a seal looked up at me from an iceberg, the first time our ship broke the ice in front of us to get closer to the glacier–all those moments were magical, but so was the fifth time I sailed into Glacier Bay and so will be the next time. The magic never dies. Be sure to bundle up and spend plenty of time on the outer decks enjoying the magnificence of nature.

Skagway

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Tall facades on Skagway buildings.  Photo by Melinda Brasher

I grew up in a mining town, so when my first Alaskan cruise didn’t go to Skagway, I was like, “Oh well. Mining…yawn.” Not yawn. My second (and all subsequent) cruises have stopped in Skagway, and it’s probably my favorite of all the common ports. Buildings: cute. History: fascinating. Free walking tours from the Park Service: awesome. Hiking: spectacular. Surrounding mountains: massive. The cruise in through Lynn Canal’s blue-green water: gorgeous. Then there’s White Pass and the famous railroad. The whole place is magical. Just be prepared for literally thousands of other tourists and you’ll love it.

Marine Mammals

BOOK SEAL photo by Melinda Brasher
Seal on an iceberg.  Photo by Melinda Brasher

I love the humpback whales spouting in the distance, surfacing gently every once in a while near the ship, showing their unique tails as they dive.  Perhaps my favorites are the sea otters floating on their backs and rough-housing with each other.  I get a thrill watching seals, sea lions, porpoises, and orcas. And I’ll never forget the time, late at night, that dolphins played in the dark alongside our ship, jumping in the wake and racing us. No one else was around. Just me and the dolphins.  I felt indescribably blessed.

Salmon

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Sockeye Salmon at Steep Creek, Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau.  Photo by Melinda Brasher

I’m not talking about eating salmon—though most cruise lines will give you at least one chance to indulge in the delicious Alaskan specialty. I’m talking about the actual fish. Their life cycle is awe-inspiring. Born in fresh water, sometimes far inland, they move out to sea to spend most of their lives until instinct drives them back to the place of their birth to spawn and die. The journey home can be a long and rigorous one, swimming against rapids, jumping up cascades. Some species have been found 200 miles upstream in the Yukon. And after this epic journey, they die, sacrificing their lives for the next generation. It’s tragic and beautiful at the same time, and you can see some of it first hand on an Alaskan cruise, especially if you go late in July or August.

Creek Street in Ketchikan during the height of a salmon run is like a freeway at rush hour, and watching them struggle to the top of the little falls always humbles me. I’ve seen the water froth with tiny shark-like fins outside a hatchery in Sitka.  At Mendenhall Glacier, we watched a beautiful red and green female sockeye scooping out a nice egg-laying spot while a male defended her from his competition.  In Anchorage you can watch people “combat fishing” for them.  It’s a huge part of not just the nature of Alaska, but the culture.

Hiking

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Upper Dewey Lake, Skagway.  Photo by Melinda Brasher

I love hiking, and by “hiking” I mean getting out in nature and walking, be it short and easy or long and steep. Alaska’s a great place to do it, even if you’re only in port for a few hours. Here are some of my favorites. The often-wet and mysterious Deer Mountain Trail in Ketchikan takes you to some nice views of the islands in the strait. You can play in and around the blue-green waters of Lynn Canal on the easy stroll to Yakutania Point in Skagway. Portage Glacier Pass Trail in Whitter takes 45 minutes to get from the ship to the tree line on a trail that may still have patches of snow in late summer.  At the top, miniature alpine plants, dwarf trees, and tiny pools of clear water compete in glory only with stark-white Portage Glacier in the distance. The hike above Exit Glacier to sprawling Harding Icefield in Seward is nothing short of spectacular. Plan enough time to do it justice.

Perhaps my favorite is the steep and rigorous climb to Upper Dewey Lake from Skagway. The lake is serene, the views breathtaking, and part of the trail follows a waterfall-like section of stream. I went on a sunny day, and I really don’t know if anything could be more beautiful.

Your Highlights

If you’ve been on an Alaska cruise, share your highlights below.  If you haven’t, I encourage you to go and see some of this beautiful land for yourself.  Only then will you know what your highlights will be.

Alaska Cruising on a budget MarchFor more details on affordable things to see and do in Alaska, read my book, “Cruising Alaska on a Budget; A Cruise and Port Guide.” Available at a budget price on Amazon, or free to download with Amazon Prime.

For more pictures, check my website.

Happy Cruising!