Alaska, Juneau: Mendenhall Glacier at Juneau. Fireweed flowers
Alaska, Juneau: Mendenhall Glacier at Juneau. Fireweed flowers

by Lee Foster

Glistening circular backs of humpback whales roll across the water. Stark white heads of bald eagles show readily in the green spruce trees. Calving glaciers send tons of ice crashing into the water, creating minor tsunamis. Gold mines testify to this northernmost allure of precious metal.

For such grand adventures and amazing sights, few cruise destinations approach the enormous scope and dazzle of Alaska.

With only a brief summer season available for exploration, cruise lines combine great comfort and ease of travel during the primary Alaska travel time, June-August, although there is also some cruising, usually at reduced rates, through the “shoulder seasons” of May and September.

Each year promises to be another banner year for Alaska cruising.

Most of the big cruise lines deploy ships here in summer. Some companies commit several ships. Holland America and Princess have been, traditionally, among the most energetic players. Both also own hotels in Alaska, offer popular land tours, and have deluxe rail cars for the ride out to Denali National Park.

Passengers may board a ship in Vancouver, Juneau, or Anchorage. Some sailings to Alaska start farther south, in San Francisco or Seattle.

Not all ships go to one of the prime experiences, Glacier Bay, because there simply are not enough slots to accommodate all ships that might want to sail there. A consumer can look over details of a possible Alaska venture and research out who offers that experience.


Every cruise company wants to be part of the Alaska cruise boom, which is running at near maximum capacity. Carnival , Celebrity, and Disney are here. Higher end participants, such as Silversea, are also active. Some small ships stay in Juneau and focus on Glacier Bay.

One popular cruise pattern for ships originates in Vancouver, then continues north to Juneau along a waterway called the Inside Passage. This watery trek snakes its way through a labyrinth of islands in Southeast Alaska, buffering ships from the rolling waves of the open sea, providing passengers a smooth ride. The cruise may include a visit to Glacier Bay National Park or an itinerary passing other glacial areas. There may be a pause at some interesting small Alaska towns of the southeast, such as Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka. Then the ship turns around and heads back to Vancouver, so you may fly in and out of Vancouver or Juneau.

Alternatively, some ships drop passengers at Skagway for an overland tour of the Yukon and inland Alaska.

Another pattern takes passengers from Vancouver to Juneau and then on to Seward or Whittier, towns connected by road or railroad to Anchorage. This itinerary sometimes celebrates the Gulf of Alaska, Prince William Sound, and the Kenai Peninsula. Passengers offload at Whittier and depart by air from Anchorage or participate in a land tour. Another cluster of passengers flies into Anchorage and sails the voyage in reverse, disembarking at Vancouver.

Travelers looking for a small-ship experience in the wilderness waterways may fly in and out of Juneau, departing on their voyage to Glacier Bay and other pristine places from this mid-way city.

Year-after-year, cruise passengers delight in seeing the glaciers and wildlife of Glacier Bay National Park, one of the most inspiring natural settings on the planet. Besides the wonders of nature, the interesting small towns to explore include Juneau, with its state-capital bustle; Skagway, where patient miners with visions of gold nuggets hiked across the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon gold fields; and Sitka, noted for its Russian heritage.

Let these introductory remarks orient you to your potential Alaska cruise pleasures. Where the ship goes will have a bearing on which ship and sailing you choose.

Glacier Bay

Bluish rivers of ice slowly push their way to the water’s edge. As you watch, amidst the silence, massive chunks of ice dislodge and crash into the bay with a sudden thundering sound.

For these special sights, Glacier Bay National Park is the single greatest attraction in Southeast Alaska. Glacier Bay is our one National Park seen primarily via cruise ship.

Within Glacier Bay National Park, located west of Juneau in Southeast Alaska, you are likely to see eagles and bears along the shore. Humpback whales, orcas or killer whales, minke whales, seals, and dolphins disport themselves in the chilly waters. Ocean wildlife flourishes here because the conditions are favorable for their food supplies. The extreme coldness of the water coming off the glaciers supports abundant dissolved oxygen. Long summer daylight hours encourage rapid growth of plankton, krill, and other small plants and animals at the base of the food chain.

The major geological phenomenon of interest here is the rapid retreat of glaciers. Currently, these glaciers are making the fastest glacial retreat in recorded history. Park Service maps date the advance or retreat of specific glaciers. Two hundred years ago the entire region was covered with glaciers. When Captain George Vancouver explored the region in 1794, his logbook recorded that an impenetrable mass of ice impeded his progress at Glacier Bay. He measured the ice mass at 4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide, and 100 miles long. By 1879, observer John Muir found that the ice had retreated 48 miles up the bay. The known forward face of the John Hopkins Glacier in 1907 was more than 15 miles farther into the sea than its present position.

Glacier Bay is also a premier example of specialized forms of glaciers, including hanging glaciers and tidewater glaciers (glaciers that slide to the water’s edge). The area is a perfect laboratory for the study of how plants successively colonize land newly opened up by retreating glaciers. Bartlett Cove at the entrance to Glacier Bay, for example, was solid glaciers 200 years ago, but is now a maturing spruce forest.

A relevant question to ask your potential cruise company would be, “How good is your naturalist program?” The more interpretive information you receive on an Alaska cruise, the more satisfying will be your experience. Certain primal moments, such as following a humpback whale meandering around Glacier Bay, can live in your memory forever.

Joe Juneau’s Gold

Juneau began when Joe Juneau and his partner Dick Harris discovered gold there. It is said that Joe Juneau wept because he believed he had made more money than he could ever spend in a lifetime. However, Juneau actually succeeded in overspending. He died impoverished in the Yukon. Friends took up a collection to ship his body back to Juneau for burial.

In Juneau there were several major mines and a stamp mill. The AJ Mine was at one time one of the world’s largest producers of low-grade ore.

Juneau was selected as the state capital, historically, even though Anchorage overshadows it as a developed area and a population base. There are about 300,000 Alaskans in metro Anchorage city and only about a tenth as many in Juneau, out of a total population of about 731,000 in the state. Almost all of the people in Juneau work for the state or federal government.

It would be hazardous to argue that in the lower 48 states there is a state capital more attractive than Juneau. Where else is there a combination of visual pleasures that encompasses the sea, mountains, glaciers, wildlife, and salmon spawning, all close to the city’s edge?

In Juneau, take a city tour to orient yourself to the area. The tour will transport you outside of town to the Mendenhall Glacier. Mendenhall is one of 16 glaciers in the 1,000 square miles of ice fields around Juneau. The reddish fireweed wildflowers flourishing in front of the white Mendenhall glacier, with the green of the forests as a natural frame, is one of the most lovely images in all of Alaska.

Alaska, Juneau: Mendenhall Glacier at Juneau. Fireweed flowers
Alaska, Juneau: Mendenhall Glacier at Juneau. Fireweed flowers

In Juneau, see the Alaska State Museum, with its elaborate collection of kayaks.

Stop for a drink at the lively Red Dog Saloon, a honky tonk with player-piano music and stuffed animals on the wall. The beverage of choice here is locally-brewed Alaska beer, a hearty drink. Try the award-winning Alaska Amber.

Take the comfortable tram ride up the mountain to get an eagle’s view of the surroundings.

Skagway’s Chilkoot Pass

Skagway boomed when miners seeking passage to the Klondike Gold Rush needed a staging area. Looking at the map, it was determined that traversing the Chilkoot Pass and then taking rivers downstream was the surest route to riches. Canadian authorities allowed only miners with a year’s supply of provisions to proceed. Skagway booms again today, but it is cruise ship passengers rather than precious ore generating the wealth. The community of less than a thousand people swells with about 300,000 summer visitors a year.

Explore Skagway by strolling through the historic area. Stop at the park service headquarters for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. There you’ll see photos and displays of this major historic event. Photos, for example, show how miners used fold-up canvas boats on the Yukon River to get their supplies down river. Most of the boats were abandoned when they proved to be too flimsy. The walls of the Park Service headquarters are covered with quotes from Robert Service’s poetry, echoing a constant theme: human perseverance in the face of crushing adversity.

The photographic image of long lines of men, chained together for safety, hiking in the middle of winter up the 45-degree grade of the Chilkoot Pass, is one of the most moving images of the Klondike rush. The weather here can be severe. In fact, Skagway is derived from the Tlingit Indian word, skagua, that means “home of the north wind.”

Be sure to see the Skagway presentation, each afternoon and evening, of the Days of 98 Show with Soapy Smith. In the revue you get a sense of the Gold Rush of 1898 and the consummate con man, Soapy Smith, who knew a thousand ways to separate a sourdough from his gold nuggets. The Red Onion saloon is a favorite bar, often featuring impromptu jam sessions led by musicians from the cruise ships. The town is compact and pleasant to walk around. Explore the shops, such as Tresham Gregg’s gallery of his Tlingit Indian art creations. Gradually, many of the buildings are being restored to their 1898 appearance as the National Park applies its influence and funds. The photo shop Dedman’s, for example, was one of the original photo studios and still has glass plates from the gold rush era.

Sitka’s Russians

Sitka was populated by Tlingit Indians for thousands of years. Russia watched the area with interest after Vitus Bering sighted the Alaskan coast in 1741. In 1799 Russian Alexander Baranov began building fortifications at Sitka. Baranov intended to colonize Alaska for Russia and develop the fur trade. The Tlingit resented Russian infringement, burned the fort, and killed most of the settlers in 1802.  Baranov returned in 1804 with the warship Neva and 1,000 men. He fought a decisive battle against 700 armed Tlingit. The Tlingit retreated and the Russians formally established their colony of New Archangel. Be sure to see St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox cathedral and its historic icons, some from the 14th century. The cathedral was built 1844-1848, burned in 1966, then was rebuilt as an exact replica.

Today no white Russians live in the Sitka area, though some Tlingit Indians with Russian names and Russian blood reside here. Renewed interest in Russian heritage inspired the New Archangel Russian Dancers, a group of women who entertain visitors with a repertoire of Russian folk dances. Be sure to catch their daily performance in the Centennial Building, which also houses a small Sitka City Museum. Because of the declining fur supply, the Crimean War, and Russia’s inability to defend Alaska, Russia eventually decided to sell Sitka and all of Alaska to the U.S. in 1867 for $7.2 million, or about 2 cents per acre.

Sitka is an isolated town surrounded by islands and backed by Mt. Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano. At the Sitka National Historical Park you can see Tlingit Indians engaged in carving, weaving, and jewelry-making. Walk the oceanside path to see Tlingit and Haida totem poles. Today about a third of Sitka’s 8,881 residents are Tlingit. Interpretive displays at the park headquarters describe how the Indians and Russians co-existed.

The Sheldon Jackson Museum showcases missionary Jackson’s collection of artifacts gathered from various native groups in Alaska. There you’ll see salmon-skin garments, masks, and many day-to-day artifacts of the Indian material culture, including the ceremonial eating bowls of the Tlingit.

Stop in at the Russian Bishop’s House, which the Park Service has restored. The Russians briefly made Sitka the “Paris of the Pacific.” Ships from 13 nations weighed anchors here. Trade goods ranged from Virginia tobacco to Flemish linens. The settlement included schools, a flour mill, tannery, and a foundry that cast the bells for some of California’s Spanish missions.

An Alaskan cruise is a memorable vacation because of its two major pleasures–glacial wildernesses with spectacular natural beauty and historic port towns once alive with gold fever and Russian intrigue.


Alaska Cruise: If You Go

One of the best informed sites about Alaska cruising is run by veteran travel journalist, Mike Miller, who lives in Juneau and served in the Alaska legislature. See Mike’s in-depth reports at

The official State of Alaska tourism site is at

A cruise industry information site is run by the Cruise Lines International Association at



  1. Alaska is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. Europe has its incredible history, but Alaska presents some of the most impressive vistas nature has to provide. Someday I want to go during the winter to see the northern lights; but I am highly intolerant of the cold. I am studying to be a marine biologist and I hope my work will give me the opportunity to see more of the Alaskan waters.
    Helene | Island Air Service


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