Reindeer dog vendors are set up in downtown Anchorage, a city that offers plenty of cultural, historical, and fun activities for cruise ship passengers who don't want to pay for expensive excursions.
MARK THIESSEN Enlarge
JUNEAU — It’s cruise season in Alaska, with more than 1 million cruise passengers expected between April and September in port towns from Ketchikan to Seward.
Cruise passengers who sign up for shore excursions can spend hundreds of dollars, if not more in the case of families, in each port they visit. But there are many low-cost and even free things to do in Alaska port towns, from hiking to exploring glaciers to learning about Alaska and Native culture. Here are some ideas from some of Alaska’s most visited ports. Remember to allow plenty of time to get back to port for your ship departure.
This southeast Alaska town is now known more for tourism than for its once-thriving timber industry. But timber workers’ skills can still be admired at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, $35 (kids 3-12, $17.50) plus tax. Historic Creek Street, once a red-light district, now houses shops, galleries, restaurants, and Dolly’s House Museum, former home of madam Dolly Arthur, where visitors can learn about Ketchikan’s bawdy past for a $5 admission. Off Creek Street along Married Man’s Trail, you can catch the salmon running in the creek from mid-July into September.
Free downtown shuttle buses stop near the docks.
A must-see in this stunning town is the Sitka National Historical Park. A national monument, it commemorates the 1804 Battle of Sitka between the Tlingit Indians and Russians. Totems are scattered along the park’s two-mile wooded trail. There’s also a visitor center where you can see Native artists working, and the Russian Bishop’s House, which the park service says is one of the last surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America. The house tour is $4 (free for kids under 16).
Alaska’s capital has a walkable downtown with museums, shops, easy access to trails, and the state Capitol, which offers free tours. The popular three-mile Perseverance Trail is within walking distance from the port, though it requires a jaunt up steep streets. The trail, which forms a spine for a network of trails, features scattered exhibits on the region’s mining history along with stunning views of rushing water, waterfalls, and mountains.
Hikers also can try the Mount Roberts Trail, though it’s an uphill trudge, muddy and mucky in spots. You can take the Mount Roberts Tram down for $10, or $31 round-trip (kids 6-12, $15.50).
Another popular destination is Mendenhall Glacier, reachable by bus. Hikes near the glacier include an easy stroll to Nugget Falls.
Seward is a final stop for some Alaska cruises, and many disembarking passengers head straight to Anchorage, 110 miles away, by bus or train. But there are plenty of reasons to spend a day or more here.
A free shuttle runs every day in summer, taking people along a circuit from the cruise ship terminal to the chamber of commerce office to downtown. If you have time, rent a car or hire a taxi to take you a few miles outside town to Exit Glacier, in Kenai Fjords National Park, for spectacular up-close views of the glacier.
The downtown historic area offers shops, cafes, the Seward Community Library and Museum, and the Alaska SeaLife Center, which is Alaska’s only aquarium ($20; $15 for ages 12-17, $15; $10 for 4-11).
If you want to hike, try Jeep Trail. Locals say it’s not too strenuous, and offers a view of the Anchorage Bowl.
Chamber officials say 90 percent of cruise passengers leaving their ships immediately head to Anchorage. But passengers beginning their Alaska cruises here arrive about 1 p.m. and have a few hours before departure to spend in town.
Whittier is the gateway to the fjords of Prince William Sound, but the Army saw another purpose: Whittier’s nearly constant cloud cover is a perfect way to hide an almost ice-free port. The Army left in 1960, and most of the town’s 180 residents live in former garrisons converted to condos.
There are a couple of souvenir shops, a few restaurants and cafes, and a museum. Several fantastic hikes can be done in two or three hours. The Horsetail Falls hike offers views of waterfalls above the tree line. The Portage Pass hike affords views of Portage Glacier.
No cruise ships are scheduled to sail to Anchorage this year, but many passengers wind up here, if for nothing else to fly home.
With nearly 300,000 residents, Anchorage offers attractions found in many big cities, as well as some that aren’t: Moose are a common sight around town.
Downtown, you can rent bikes and enjoy a leisurely spin on the city’s 135-mile plus trail system. That includes the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, good for a bike ride, hike, or run. It’s accessible from many points downtown, but parts will be closed for renovation this summer.
Iif you prefer to see wildlife in a more secured setting, a free shuttle at Fourth and E streets downtown goes to the Alaska Zoo ($12; $6 for kids 3-17). The shuttle will also stops at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, a cultural center and museum ($25; $17 for kids 7-16).
The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center downtown features art, history, and science ($15; $7 for kids 3-12). A timeline exhibit of Alaska history includes a cross-section of the trans-Alaska pipeline and a twisted beam from the 1964 earthquake. The magnitude-9.2 quake was the biggest ever recorded in North America.
And here’s your chance to eat Rudolph: Several vendors offer reindeer dogs.