9 Essential Things to Know Before Visiting Alaska

If you’re planning on visiting Alaska, then you’re going to need to pre-arm yourself with some essential knowledge before you go.

Alaska is an incredible destination that’s world-renowned for its blend of natural beauty, outdoor adventure, and cultural diversity. From its towering mountains and jaw-dropping glaciers to its diverse wildlife, Alaska has something to offer every type of traveler.

snow capped mountains beside a lake

However, one of the main draws of Alaska is to experience its vast wilderness. Many people don’t realize that Alaska is quite difficult to travel to by land, which is why we’ve prepared this guide on the things to know before visiting Alaska, so you can travel to this majestic land without a hitch.

So when you’re ready to explore icy fjords, dense forests, and unpack your binoculars to look out for grizzly bears, bald eagles, and humpback whales, keep reading to uncover the most essential tips for a trip to Alaska.

Tips for Visiting Alaska

From awe-inspiring glaciers to vibrant native cultures, these essential tips will help you prepare for an unforgettable vacation to Alaska.

1. Understand The Vast Size and Wilderness Of Alaska

cruise ship looking at mountains on alaskan river

Did you know that Alaska is the largest state in the United States?

It spans around 663,000 square miles (1.7 million square kilometers) and includes a vast untamed wilderness of rugged mountains, glaciers, and vast stretches of uninhabited land.

Alaska is just so remote, and while it offers a diverse range of natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural experiences, many of its towns and natural wonders are only accessible by boat or float plane.

This makes planning a trip to Alaska quite a challenge, as transport to some places are not easy to come by, or just difficult to access.

swimming pool on cruise ship

Choosing a cruise to visit Alaska is a fantastic idea as it allows you the chance to visit some remote and historic places quickly without the hassle.

There’s a huge amount to see, so do your research before you book anything in a hurry, and decide which places are top of your Alaska bucket list – you can’t see it all!

If you do decide to do the cruise option, note that various cruise ship operators sail in Alaska, and most will have different routes and stop-off ports.

Plan upfront where you want to go, and which are the most important places you want to see, and then map out your itinerary from there.

2. Know The Best Time to Visit Alaska

The best months to visit Alaska largely depend on the specific experiences you’re looking for and the regions you want to explore.

The peak tourist season spans from May to September when the weather is relatively mild and activities are in full swing.

However, there are distinct advantages for visiting during different months.

Climate and Seasonal Considerations

person beside welcome to alaska sign

For those planning to visit by cruise, the prime months are typically June, July, and August. 

During this period, the cruise routes are fully operational, offering a wide range of itineraries and shore excursions.

You’re likely to see awe-inspiring natural wonders such as towering glaciers, calving icebergs, and breaching humpback whales.

The lush landscapes come alive with blooming wildflowers, and wildlife sightings can include bears, eagles, and seals.

Moreover, the longer daylight hours allow for more exploration time.

It’s worth noting that popular ports of call like Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway can get crowded during these peak months, so I’d suggest booking shore excursions in advance.

Visiting in May or September, known as the shoulder season, offers a different perspective. While the weather may be slightly cooler and rainfall more frequent, there’ll be fewer crowds and possibly significant cost savings.

Alaska experiences extreme weather conditions. Winters are cold and snowy, while summers can be mild and pleasant so it’s crucial to pack appropriate clothing, and be prepared for unpredictable weather changes.

I traveled in May, and packed lots of layers: Thermal base layers, Long sleeve T shirts, fleece jumpers and heavy-duty windcheater/rain jacket.

Surprisingly, for most of my time in Alaska in May, the weather was quite mild and sunny.

So I only needed my rain jacket and other warm clothes layered underneath when I was up early strolling on deck, or during days when we were close to glaciers.

So decide whether you want to see snowy scenery, or if you’d rather experience the vibrant colors of summer.

Basically, I’d say it’s best to visit in spring or winter for more snowy scenes, and summer for wild flowers and warmer weather.

You can read more about what to pack in this guide on what to wear for an Alaska cruise.

3. Think About Wildlife Encounters and Outdoor Activities You Want To Do

whales jumping out of water near a boat in alaska

From glaciers to grizzlies! Exploring Alaska will include at least some wildlife encounters because Alaska is home to diverse wildlife, including bears, moose, caribou, and bald eagles.

I was fortunate to see whales, bald eagles and sea lions during my trip.

Alaska offers loads of outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, kayaking, wildlife viewing and mushing.

There are plenty of opportunities to get out into nature in Alaska. Some adventures might include zip lining, kayaking, whale watching, or dog-mushing in the snowy mountains.

whale tail out of water

If you fancy feeling like a millionaire for a few hours, I can recommend whale watching as a cruise excursion out of Juneau (it was so beautiful).

8 of us set out on a luxury yacht, complete with champagne and canapes, for a few memorable hours spotting whales in glorious sunny weather.

Then, from Skagway, we experienced dog-mushing in a forested area. Another excursion offered dog-mushing in the snow, which I think would be really awesome.

Alaska is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. You can experience exciting adventures like fishing for salmon, zip lining over lush canopies, or taking a thrilling dog sled ride.

Alaska’s official state sport is dog mushing, reflecting the significance of dog sleds in the state’s history and culture.

4. Learn About Native Alaskan Culture

toten poll alaska

Alaska is rich in Native Alaskan cultures, with diverse indigenous communities including the Inuit, Yupik, Tlingit, Haida, and Aleut.

You might like to explore their traditions, art, and history by visiting cultural centers or participating in cultural events, which provide insights into Alaska’s indigenous heritage.

We visited Ketchikan, an indigineous community in Alaska, where we explored the significance of impressive totem poles which are carved by indigenous peoples to depict stories, legends and ancestral lineage.

Fun Fact: Ketchikan boasts the largest collection of Native American totem poles in the world.

lumberjack chopping wood alaska

Alaska is also rich in Native American heritage and vibrant local communities.

When docking at port towns like Juneau, Ketchikan, or Skagway, you can explore indigenous art, visit historical sites, and interact with locals who share their traditions and stories.

You can quickly immerse yourself in the region’s cultural tapestry through engaging activities and performances, and gain a deeper understanding of Alaska’s history and heritage.

We enjoyed a thoroughly entertaining and educating shore excursion to The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show in Ketchikan, which delved into Alaska’s rich logging history.

The show was full of rowdy laughs, and colorful information, not to mention the crazy antics of the skilled, toned and honed lumberjack athletes!

5. Think About The Best Way to Visit Alaska

boat cruising near glacier

You might have dreams of visiting Alaska by land, but realistically, you’re going to find it challenging getting to some places.

Many of Alaska’s towns and cities are only accessible by water or sea plane, so when it comes to planning a way to get around, you’re going to need to factor in time and cost.

Cruises are great, especially if you only have a short amount of time to vacation, as they allow you to get to the main sites with ease.

6. Pack A Wide-Angle Lens to Capture Mind-Blowing Scenery

iceberg in water

Alaska boasts some of the most breathtaking landscapes on Earth, offering countless photo opportunities.

Cruising along the Inside Passage for example, allows you to witness some of the most iconic scenes in Alaska such as vast glaciers, icebergs, ancient forests and craggy mountain peaks.

If you’re looking to get amazing photos of towering glaciers, majestic fjords, snow-capped mountains, cascading waterfalls, and more, pack a wide angle lens so you can take it all in.

Alaska is also home to a vast number of icebergs.

You may be lucky to witness the thunderous calving of massive ice chunks, and you will be amazed by the vivid blue hues of the glaciers such as Dawes Glacier, Hubbard Glacier, or the iconic Glacier Bay.

These also provide photographs with some incredible scenes and backdrops for photos.

7. Be Environmentally Conscious When Visiting Alaska

A trip to Alaska is really an educational journey in itself.

Expert naturalists and guides often accompany cruises, providing insightful commentary and organizing informative lectures on the environment and conservation.

Even if you don’t visit by cruise, be sure to get a lesson in sustainability practices so you can admire the nature without damaging it.

Learn about glaciology, marine biology, and the unique ecosystems that thrive in this pristine environment.

You’ll certainly gain a deeper appreciation for the delicate balance of nature and the importance of conservation efforts if you do.

8. Don’t Miss The Unforgettable Sunsets and Northern Lights

cruise boat with orange susnet on water

Alaska’s high latitude makes it an ideal destination for witnessing awe-inspiring sunsets and the Northern Lights.

On clear nights, you may, if you’re lucky, have the opportunity to gaze upon the dancing colors of the Aurora Borealis.

9. Don’t Miss Alaska’s Natural Wonders

According to Alaska Daily News, Alaska is home to around 100,000 glaciers, including the impressive Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay which cruise ships routinely visit.

Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay are two remarkable natural wonders that attract tourists from around the world to Alaska.

Although we didn’t visit either of these, we were lucky to witness the dramatic calving of a glacier as it shed a massive chunk of ice into the sea at Dawes Glacier – truly amazing.

The Hubbard Glacier

glacier beside water

Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in North America, located in Disenchantment Bay, off the coast of Yakutat in southeastern Alaska.

It stretches for about 76 miles (122 kilometers) and is about 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) wide at its face.

Hubbard Glacier is known for its dramatic calving, where massive chunks of ice break off and crash into the sea, creating big waves – a breathtaking spectacle.

The glacier’s face can reach heights of up to around 350 feet (107 meters) above the water, with the majority of its mass still hidden beneath the surface.

Glacier Bay

glaciers in glacier  bay

According to the National Park Service, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, is home to over 1,000 glaciers, making it a breathtaking wonderland of ice. “Most are high in the mountains, but a few notable glaciers extend all the way to the sea.”

The park covers an area of approximately 3.3 million acres, encompassing a diverse range of landscapes, including fjords, mountains, forests, and coastlines.

The glaciers within Glacier Bay National Park are apparently constantly changing and evolving. Some glaciers have experienced significant retreat, while others continue to advance, creating a dynamic and ever-changing landscape.

Endicott Arm

glacier heading inot river endicott arm alaska

Endicott Arm, located in southeastern Alaska, is a fjord renowned for its remote beauty and remarkable glaciers. 

As a branch of the greater Tracy Arm Fjord, Endicott Arm enchanted us with its towering cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and vibrant blue icebergs.

If you can, book an excursion that takes you off the cruise ship and onto a smaller boat, and you will be dodging icebergs in the Endicott Arm, as well as getting close to huge waterfalls.

The highlight of this awe-inspiring landscape is the Dawes Glacier, a massive tidewater glacier that descends into the fjord.

Dawes Glacier

Dawes Glacier running into river

Dawes Glacier, located in southeastern Alaska, is a magnificent natural wonder nestled within the Tracy Arm Fjord.

This glacier showcases towering ice cliffs, vivid blue hues, and cascading waterfalls. 

I loved the full day excursion which took us on an all-day trip from the Discovery Princess on a smaller vessel that could travel along the Endicott Arm, and get up close to Dawes Glacier, where we witnessed a huge tower of ice break free from the ice face.

How to Choose the Right Alaska Cruise

If you do decide to visit Alaska on an Alaskan cruise, then below are some further tips to think about in order to choose the cruise that’s right for you.

  • Consider your preferred destinations and the specific ports of call you would like to visit.
  • Research different cruise itineraries to find one that aligns with your interests and the destinations you most want to visit.
  • Research different cruise lines and their ships to find the one that best matches your onboard preferences.
  • Consider factors such as onboard amenities, dining options, entertainment, cabin types, and overall atmosphere. Do you want a child friendly ship with lots of kids activities, or would you prefer an expedition ship geared towards an adult audience?
  • Set a budget for your cruise and consider the overall cost, including the base fare, additional fees, gratuities, onboard expenses, and any extra activities or excursions you plan to participate in.
  • Compare prices and offerings from different cruise lines to find the best value for your money.
  • Think about your preferred travel dates and how much time you can allocate to your cruise. Consider factors such as the weather and peak seasons. Make an informed decision.
  • Read reviews and ask for recommendations from experienced cruisers or social media groups to get insights into the quality of service and the overall onboard experience. There will be a different level of customer satisfaction between different cruise lines and ships.
  • Most Alaskan cruises traverse the Inside Passage, which is a breathtaking coastal route famous for its scenic beauty and wildlife.
  • Popular Alaskan ports of call include Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Sitka.
  • Plan shore excursions to explore each destination’s unique attractions, such as the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau or the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway in Skagway.

Before You Go

Alaska really is a land of extraordinary beauty and diverse experiences. Whether you’re drawn to its magnificent glaciers, abundant wildlife, native cultures, or scenic wonders, a cruise to Alaska promises adventure and pinch-me moments. 

Just go, and immerse yourself in the untouched wilderness, and let the magic of Alaska leave an indelible mark on your soul. It will absolutely stay in my mind’s eye forever!

Jo Castro was hosted as a guest on the Discovery Princess on a 7 night return cruise from Seattle to Skagway along the Inside Passage in southeast Alaska. Read more about Jo’s travels on her blog Lifestyle Fifty and Lifestyle Fifty on Instagram and Facebook.

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