In May we were fortunate enough to get to go on an amazing 16-day trip to Alaska to celebrate a bunch of milestones. Our main reason for going was my dad’s 60th birthday. Alaska was on his bucket list so we spent several months planning a trip that would cover everything on his wish list. This post covers everything from how to choose an Alaska cruise and how to map out a road-trip itinerary. We saw tons of wildlife and beautiful scenery and have lots of recommendations for tours and places to stay. We hope your trip is just as memorable as ours!
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- 1 Planning a Trip: How to Choose the Right Alaska Cruise
- 2 Northbound to Alaska on the Norwegian Jewel Cruise Ship
- 2.1 Days 1-3: Vancouver, Canada
- 2.2 Day 4/ Cruise Day 2: Inside Passage, Alaska
- 2.3 Day 5/ Cruise Day 3: Ketchikan, Alaska
- 2.4 Day 6/ Cruise Day 4: Juneau, Alaska
- 2.5 Day 7/ Cruise Day 5: Haines, Alaska
- 2.6 Day 8/ Cruise Day 6: Glacier Bay National Park – Scenic Cruising
- 2.7 Day 9/ Cruise Day 7: Hubbard Glacier – Scenic Cruising
- 2.8 Day 10/ Cruise Day 8: Disembarkation in Seward, Alaska
- 3 Road Trip Itinerary
- 3.1 Days 10/ 11: Seward, Alaska
- 3.2 Day 11: Alyeska Resort
- 3.3 Day 12: Anchorage, Alaska
- 3.4 Days 12/ 13: Talkeetna, Alaska
- 3.5 Days 13-15: Denali National Park
- 3.6 Days 15/16: Fairbanks, Alaska
- 4 Calendar for Our Trip:
- 5 Packing for an Alaska Trip:
Planning a Trip: How to Choose the Right Alaska Cruise
Choosing an Alaska cruise can feel like an overwhelming task. I actually broke out the spreadsheets from the very beginning. We were traveling a long way and wanted to make sure that we saw everything that we could.
To get a grasp of the options, I think it is helpful to look at websites that aggregate a bunch of different cruise lines. I personally really like Costco Travel’s website. We do not actually have a Costco membership anymore, but their website makes it easy to see our options all in one place. Cheap Caribbean is another website, which aggregates cruises from many different cruise lines, and they cover Alaskan cruises.
The Alaska cruise season runs from early May to early September. We knew that we were looking to be gone over the Memorial Day holiday weekend (it gives us an extra day without taking personal leave at work, so duh!) so we focused our search for cruises that overlapped that weekend.
1. Alaska Cruise Lines
Based on what I found researching on the internet, there are at least 12 cruise lines that offer Alaska cruises (let me know in the comments if I missed one). I started by grouping the cruise lines into a few buckets based on pricing. Our budget did not allow us to go on a luxury cruise line or the Disney cruises so those were eliminated from our list for consideration immediately. If you can afford it, go for it, I’m sure they’re amazing!
- Budget-Friendly: Celebrity, Princess, Holland America, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival
- Mid-Tier: Disney
- Luxury: Cunard, Oceania, Azamara, Regent, and Viking
Once we narrowed our list of cruise lines to those that were within our budget, we started looking at the different port options.
2. Departure Ports for an Alaska Cruise
There are several departure port options if you are going on an Alaska Cruise. The most common are probably Seattle or Vancouver. There is also San Francisco if you have a couple of extra days. You can also depart from Seward or Whittier in Alaska and make your way southbound. Just remember that if you are a US citizen and you choose to cruise into or out of Vancouver, you need to bring a Passport, which could be an additional expense.
3. What’s the Best way to see Alaska by Cruise? Round-trip or One-Way?
Your next decision is if you want to go on a round-trip or a one-way trip. Round trips are obviously a great choice and they make booking your flights easy. One-way trips require a bit more logistics in terms of flights, but it lets you add an extra port to your list for sightseeing. We ultimately settled on a one-way northbound cruise from Vancouver because we knew we wanted to go on a land-tour deep into the heart of Alaska. If we would have taken a round trip out of Seattle or somewhere, we would have needed another flight to get up to Alaska. To book our flights, we booked multi-city flight combinations through Orbitz, so it was not a whole lot more than booking a round-trip.
4. Ports of Call/ Scenic Cruising Options for Alaska Cruises
There are two different sections of Alaska cruising. There is what is called “scenic cruising” where you spend the whole day on the boat as it floats through pretty places. And there are “ports” where the boat parks and you get off and walk around.
For scenic cruising, you have a few options. First, the inside passage is located on the southernmost part of Alaska. It’s a narrow channel of water where you can see land on both sides of the ship for most of the day. Most cruise lines go through the inside passage. Other options for scenic cruising can include a day at Hubbard Glacier, College Fjord, or Glacier Bay National Park.
- Hubbard Glacier is just one glacier, which you spend all morning getting to. What I thought was neat was that our cruise ship cut through the top thin layer or ice to get pretty close to it.
- Glacier Bay National Park is a huge national park that is home to many glaciers. Park Rangers actually board your ship and talk about the glaciers as your ship glides through the water. One interesting thing about Glacier Bay National Park is that it can only be seen by cruise ship or private boat; you cannot drive a car there. I thought it was stunning to see the blue water and the mountains around and it was a very relaxing day. We saw approximately four glaciers that day, two of them up close. We also saw a couple more sea lions and some mountain goats. I cannot say enough nice things about Glacier Bay National Park and would put it at the top of my priority list if I were you.
- I have not been to College Fjord, but would love to hear how it compares in the comments!
- Holland America has one day of cruising in the Gulf of Alaska. I just have a hard time not viewing that was a wasted day when there are so many pretty glaciers to see, but that’s just my opinion.
There are five ports in Alaska. They are Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point, Juneau, Skagway, and Haines. Most likely when you choose a cruise you will only get to visit 2-3 of them, so it’s important to figure out which ones are highest on your list. Juneau is famous for whale watching and seeing the orcas was the highlight of our cruise, so I highly recommend choosing that one. Skagway is famous for the Yukon Scenic Railway. Haines is a tiny little town and does not have any of the commercial cruise port stores, which is refreshing as well. I recommend choosing a cruise line and looking at their excursion options to help you decide which ports look the best (pick any cruise line; excursions are roughly the same across the different lines).
At the end of the cruise, there are essentially two ports: Seward and Whittier. Princess Cruise lines go to Whittier and all the rest go to Seward. I do not know much about Whittier, but I do know that Seward is home to the Kenai Fjords, which was another highlight of our trip. I would encourage you to make sure and include the Kenai Fjords on your trip!
I ended up making this chart comparing the itineraries across cruise lines. It was current as of May 2019.
We ultimately ended up choosing the Norwegian Jewel’s northbound cruise. The ship’s itinerary was to leave from Vancouver, cruising the Inside passages, and stop at Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway (which ultimately changed to Haines, more on this below). The trip then spent a day in Glacier Bay National Park, a day cruising to the Hubbard Glacier, and it ended in Seward. Our decision came down to a few things. (1) The cruise ended in Seward at the Kenai Fjords, which was on our wish list. (2) The cruise was a weeklong and left on a Monday, which worked better for our schedule than mid-week cruises. (3) The cruise went to both Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay, so we did not have to choose between the two.
We had never cruised with Norwegian before, but we always tend to pick our trips based on the destinations rather than the cruise line. Now that our trip is behind us, I can honestly say that we did not love Norwegian Cruise line as much as we like Carnival Cruise line. But we didn’t hate it either. If another trip came up and Norwegian had the best itinerary, we would use them again.
5. Make Reservations for Excursions and Meals Before You Cruise
Once you have your cruise booked, I highly recommend booking shore excursions as far out as possible. It would just be the biggest bummer to fly all that way and then find out your excursion was sold out. Also if you are cruising on Norwegian (and maybe some other lines?) it is a good idea to make restaurant reservations ahead of time. We found that we could book everything about four months before our cruise but you have to keep checking the website for excursions to be added.
Northbound to Alaska on the Norwegian Jewel Cruise Ship
Ok, if you are still with me past all of the planning, I’ll tell you all about our experience on the Norwegian Jewel cruise ship. I cannot say enough great things about Juneau and Glacier Bay National Park and truly hope that our experience inspires you to go to these places.
Days 1-3: Vancouver, Canada
I think the best word that I would use to describe Vancouver was that it was interesting…. I just was not prepared for the homeless population or the visible drug use. (We saw a person passed out in a Tim Hortons with a needle out on the table in front of him and we saw syringes on the street). We live in Washington, DC, none of this is something I have not seen before, but in Vancouver, it is just so visible that it is a bit unsettling. That being said, there are some very pretty sights in Vancouver and it is a very easy city to get around. The cruise port is also easy to get to and well laid out for taxi drop offs with a lot of luggage. We stayed at the Century Plaza Hotel which was centrally located to everything that we wanted to do.
We flew into Vancouver on a Saturday arriving about mid-day. Since we had a one-year old and were not sure how he would do with jet lag, we did not plan anything for Saturday. We spent all day Sunday doing some sight-seeing and then boarded the ship on Monday.
Book a hotel in Vancouver by following this link:
Things to Do in Vancouver:
- Hop-on/Hop-off Bus in Vancouver – The hop-on/hop-off bus is a great way to get around Vancouver. We used it to get an overview of the city and to get to the couple of sights that we wanted to see. Book this exact tour by clicking the Viator icon:
- Stanley Park – While riding the hop-on/hop-off bus, we got off to take some pictures at the Totem Poles in Stanley Park.
- Gastown Steam Clock – We just happened to eat lunch in the Gastown neighborhood and passed this clock on our way.
- Capilano Suspension Bridge – After eating lunch in Gastown, we walked to Canada Place and caught the free shuttle across the water to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. We spent a couple of hours in the afternoon at the bridge. We crossed the main bridge, checked out the exhibits on the other side which were pretty educational, and then did the cliff walk. The tickets are a bit expensive but it’s a pretty view and a nice way to get an introduction to the Pacific Northwest with towering evergreen trees. Book this exact tour by clicking the Viator icon:
Day 4/ Cruise Day 2: Inside Passage, Alaska
The second day of our cruise was a relaxing sea day as our boat traveled the inside passage. For almost the entire morning, you can see land from both sides of the ship as we made our way through the narrow water channel north.
Day 5/ Cruise Day 3: Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan calls itself the “Salmon Capital of the World”. And it’s true, you definitely have the opportunity to enjoy salmon while you are visiting Alaska. Ketchikan also has a famous Great Alaskan Lumberjack show (think burly men in buffalo plaid), which is popular with cruisers. Ketchikan is also close to Misty Fjords and there are several shore excursion options to visit.
Eagles, Totems, and Lighthouse Excursion
We wanted to see wildlife so we booked a shore excursion called the “Eagles, Totems, and Lighthouse Excursion” through our cruise line. The tour was awesome. We rode a short bus ride to the harbor and boarded a small boat. Within a few minutes, we spotted our first eagle. Overall, we probably saw 10 different eagles, but most amazing, when we got close to the Lighthouse we saw three humpback whales! I didn’t even expect to see whales in Ketchikan! It was incredible, seeing whales was the top thing on my Alaska wish list and we were lucky enough to see them on our very first tour! The tour provided snacks of hot chocolate, fruit, cheese and crackers, and salmon spread.
After our tour, we wandered around the town of Ketchikan a bit and took some pictures. As of May 2019, the downtown area is under significant road construction, which made it a bit tricky to get around and even harder to take good photos. Overall, our day in Ketchikan was great!
Day 6/ Cruise Day 4: Juneau, Alaska
Whale Watching and the Mendenhall Glacier Shore Excursion
Juneau is known for whale watching. So if seeing whales is on your wish list for Alaska, then in Juneau you’re going to want to book a shore excursion to see the whales. We booked our tour outside the cruise ship (it was cheaper). Our tour took us to see the Mendenhall Glacier first and then whale watching. The Mendenhall Glacier happened to be the first glacier that we saw on our trip and it was impressive. Brian also managed to do a quick hike to Nugget Falls and take some pictures.
After the Mendenhall Glacier we rode our bus a short distance to the marina. Within a few minutes of leaving the dock, we already saw a sea lion. Then humpback whales seemed to be everywhere. All of a sudden, the captain came over the intercom and said she was going to take us to a new area because she heard from other boats that Orcas had been spotted in the area! We were so lucky! I had read before our trip that you only have about a 20% chance of seeing killer whales. We ended up seeing a few of them pop up and down for about 15 minutes all around our boat. It was amazing!
Dinner at Tracy’s Crab Shack
After our tour, we had time to eat a quick dinner of King Crab Legs at Tracy’s Crab Shack. We had never seen crab legs that were so huge! They were delicious! Juneau was by far my favorite port in Alaska.
Day 7/ Cruise Day 5: Haines, Alaska
Originally our ship was scheduled to stop in Skagway where we had booked a shore excursion to ride the White Pass Scenic Railway up into Yukon Territory. Sadly, that morning, the Captain came over the intercom and announced that there was an oil spill in Skagway and that we would be docking in Haines instead. A little bit later in the morning, they announced that most of the shore excursions including ours was cancelled. So we hustled to the shore excursion desk and booked the only thing that was available (and that an infant could participate in) which was a trip to the Kroeschel Films Wildlife Sanctuary.
Kroeschel Films Wildlife Sanctuary
We had about 5 minutes to get our stuff together and get off the boat in Haines to catch our tour. The tour started with about an hour-long bus ride out to Mosquito Lake. We were dropped off on the side of the road near a gate and greeted by two eccentric people who run the wildlife refuge. At the refuge, we saw a wolf, bear, muskrat, lynx, reindeer, moose, a wolverine on a leash, and some baby pine martins. The animals were very interesting, as were the people. Mr. Kroeschel had a history of working with the film industry providing animals for motion pictures. His stories were very interesting and his helper also provided a ton of facts about the animals that were very educational. After a couple of hours learning about the animals, we were given a couple of snacks and rode the bus back to Haines. I could not help feeling that this excursion was wildly overpriced. After we complained, Norwegian did give us $40 back to make up for the fact that we didn’t get to ride the ferry from Skagway, but that still wasn’t enough to keep me from feeling like it was overpriced. The train tour that we had originally booked was essentially the same price and was supposed to include a whole days’ worth of activities.
Walking Around the City of Haines, AK
The city of Haines is a lovely little town. The buildings are all white due to the presence of a military base. In addition, there aren’t any of the typical cruise port shops like Diamonds International. We ate lunch at a restaurant in town, went to the local brewery to try some Spruce Tip beer, and even walked through the Hammer Museum, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a museum full of hammers, the only one in North America.
Now, I do not have any complaints about the city of Haines at all, but I do have some concerns about Norwegian Cruise Line. (1.) We heard from several other passengers who made it to Skagway on the ferry that there was not an oil spill. In fact, we did some investigating online and found this interesting podcast from the local NPR radio station saying that there was not any oil spill and that Norwegian was just being difficult. Interesting! We did not manage to get any comment out of Norwegian about the discrepancy! Now I don’t hate Norwegian at all, but this does come across as a bit shady to lie to your customers.. (2.) We strongly disagree with how Norwegian handled rebooking the excursions when the original excursions were cancelled. Some of the White Pass Railway excursions were not cancelled and we believe the people whose were cancelled should have been offered the extra seats on those trains first. Instead, everyone who had a cancelled tour rushed to the shore excursion desk and so we got beat to those seats. This was disappointing since the Yukon Scenic Railway was high on our wish list.
Day 8/ Cruise Day 6: Glacier Bay National Park – Scenic Cruising
Glacier Bay National Park was my favorite of the scenic cruising days. With the blue-green water and the mountains on both sides, it is just stunning. We set up camp in the Spinnaker Lounge on our ship (inside area with windows). I spread a blanket out on the floor for the baby to play with toys and nap on and we sat in chairs around him. It was cold outside on deck but inside we were perfect. The national park rangers boarded the ship mid-morning and there were times for us to see two of the glaciers in the park. The park rangers gave some very interesting information about the retreating of the glaciers over time. It is unreal to think that 100 years ago the bay did not even exist because the glaciers reached all the way to the ocean. In addition to the educational talk, we also saw some mountain goats on the hillsides and sea lions playing on some of the floating pieces of ice. It was a nice relaxing day surrounded with some beautiful scenery.
In the evening, the Norwegian Jewel had a show called the Cirque Bijou. This was a entertaining show which was a lot like the Cirque de Soleil shows in Las Vegas. It was unlike any shows that I had seen on a cruise ship and even more impressive because the performers were on a rocking cruise ship! This entertainment is one of the things that I believe Norwegian does better than some other cruise lines.
Day 9/ Cruise Day 7: Hubbard Glacier – Scenic Cruising
Hubbard Glacier was another relaxing day of scenic cruising. Similar to Glacier Bay National Park, we begin by traveling down a narrow body of water with snowy mountains on each side. Eventually the Hubbard Glacier comes into view off the front of the cruise ship. Amazingly, our ship just kept right on going through the thin top layer of ice and ended up pretty close to the blue glacier.
Day 10/ Cruise Day 8: Disembarkation in Seward, Alaska
On the last day we docked at Seward. We ate breakfast at 6am and walked off the boat at 7am. We grabbed our bags from the luggage area and headed over to the Kenai Fjords tour desk in the terminal. It could not have been easier.
Once we were off the boat we took a Kenai Fjords tour that I cannot recommend more. The company stored our luggage for us for the day. Then at the end of the day, most of our party picked up our rental car from Hertz. However, two of our group were flying back home and they just walked next door to the tour office and caught the Park Connection bus to Anchorage at 6:30pm. Many cruise ship riders take the evening train to Anchorage from Seward. It’s supposed to be really scenic, just takes about twice as long as the bus. The bottom line is that Seward is a town that is completely geared around tourists and they make it really easy to see the place, deal with luggage, and get on to your next stop. Definitely take advantage and go ahead and see the Kenai Fjords when you are in Seward. It was one of the biggest highlights of our trip.
Kenai Fjords Tour
We booked the 6-hour cruise at 8am. Getting off the ship at 7am gave us plenty of time to grab our luggage, meet our tour operations, ride the quick shuttle to the main building, and board our ship in the marina. Promptly at 8am, our ship for the day, the Orca Voyager left the marina and headed out into Resurrection Bay. Within a few minutes we saw our first wildlife and spotted tiny sea otters floating in the bay. Then a few minutes later we saw more humpback whales. As the ship cruised around we saw mountain goats, stellar sea lions, puffins, and more orcas. It was amazing to get to see animals that I had only seen in zoos out in nature.
One of the biggest highlights was stopping at the Aialik glacier. The Aialik Glacier can only be seen by boat and it’s the bluest glacier that we saw on our trip. Our ship cruised right up near the bottom of the glacier and there were sea lions lounging on the ice everywhere. They even turned off the engine of the ship so that people could go outside on the deck and listen to the ice crack and calve. It was a really neat experience that everyone should do.
The seas did get a bit rough on our tour, particularly as we crossed from one side of the bay to the other. If you are prone to motion sickness, just bring some medicine and you’ll be fine. It’s worth it, I promise. For lunch they provided a chicken wrap sandwich, chips, and a granola bar and they passed out some delicious chocolate chip cookies on the ride back. Chicken nuggets were provided for kids. Overall it was a very acceptable meal and snack for a day of sightseeing although they also had snacks and beverages available for purchase if people needed more.
Road Trip Itinerary
It’s hard to believe but when we got off the cruise ship, our Alaska adventure was only half over. We had another week to spent making our way up to Denali and ultimately to Fairbanks. Below is our itinerary and the memorable stops we made along the way.
Map of Our Journey:
Days 10/ 11: Seward, Alaska
After our Kenai Fjords tour, we rode the shuttle bus over to pick up our rental car from Hertz. Hertz is the only rental car agency in Seward, so if you’re planning to rent a car, make sure you book it early to get the best rate. After picking up our car, we loaded up our luggage that was being stored and started our road-trip adventure.
On Monday night, we stayed in an excellent little hotel called the Seward Windsong Lodge. The hotel is a massive campus of log cabins. We stayed in a double-bed suite, which worked perfect for us. We also had a delicious breakfast and lunch at the Resurrection Roadhouse which is onsite.
Things to do in Seward:
- While in Seward, we drove down to see the Exit Glacier. The Exit Glacier is an area where you can do some hiking, but we had a 1-year old, so we just photographed the glacier from the road.
- We also spent a couple of hours at the Alaska Sea Life Center where we got to see puffins up close and a sea lion. The Alaska Sea Life Center charges admission, but they use the funds for marine research and wildlife rescue efforts both of which are great causes. You can might be able to save a bit on admission by purchasing the Alaska TourSaver coupon book. In 2019 the coupon book had buy one, get one free admission.
Day 11: Alyeska Resort
After eating a quick lunch in Seward, we loaded up our car and set off for the Alyeska Resort. It is about a 2-hour drive from Seward and Alyeska without much in between. If you need to stop at a grocery store, get gasoline, or eat something, we highly recommend doing that before you leave Seward.
The drive to Alyeska is very scenic. There are mountains and waterways on each side. You might also catch a glimpse of the Alaskan Railroad, which closely follows the highway. On our drive we saw an eagles nest. We also briefly stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, which had a small herd of bison (buffalo?) along the road. Another interesting but sad thing that we say on our drive was a dead whale carcass. It was huge and the smell was tremendous. After reading a bit online we found out that the whale had gotten confused by the bore tide and stranded itself. It had even been rescued once before, but sadly the second time didn’t make it. We also learned that there recently has been a growing number of whales that are being found onshore in the Pacific Northwest. This is incredibly sad and I’m hopeful that scientific research can figure out the issue and what can be done to help these amazing creatures.
Things to do in Alyeska:
- Alyeska Resort. This is a luxury hotel with a complete spa.
- Since we stayed in the Alyeska Resort, we got free passes to ride the Mt. Alyeska Tram. We rode the tram all the way to the top of the mountain and looked around. Then on the ride down, we got lucky and saw our first black bear and a baby bear!
At the base of Mt. Alyeska is a small town called Girdwood. We found Girdwood to be a great place to do a load of laundry mid-way through our trip. We planned this laundry stop to significantly cut-down on the amount of luggage that we had to bring.
Things to do in Girdwood:
- Drive down to Beluga Point to see the bore tide and hopefully the whales. We drove down to the point, but weren’t able to see the whales. One of the issues is that the bore tide is closely tied with the moon schedule. So we didn’t happen to be there at the right time. It was still a scenic drive, although it was really cold and windy at the point!
- We ate dinner at Coast Pizza. It was pretty good.
- For breakfast, we followed a local’s suggestion and went to the Girdwood Picnic Club. The building is a little shabby, but breakfast was just fine!
- Look for Moose! Apparently, there are moose that are frequently found in the big open field below the Alyeska resort. My mother swears she saw one, but it quickly disappeared into the trees, so……
Day 12: Anchorage, Alaska
The next morning we got up, ate breakfast at the Girdwood Picnic Club and then we drove to Anchorage. We saw our first moose driving into Anchorage, right by one of the highway exit ramps! We did not get any pictures of him because he caught us by surprise! Our first stop was at the Super Walmart to restock our supply of diapers and baby wipes. After that we went to Earthquake Park after driving past the airport to see the float planes.
Things to do in Anchorage:
- Earthquake Park – Earthquake Park is a wooded park area with trails. It used to be a neighborhood until a huge earthquake in 1964 caused a landslide, which destroyed the neighborhood. Instead of rebuilding, the area was turned into a memorial. On a clear day, you are supposed to be able to see Denali from Earthquake Park, however, we do not know where. The woods are so overgrown; you definitely cannot see it from the path. In addition, the mosquitos at Earthquake Park are horrible, so come prepared. Our visit ended up being pretty short.
- JC Penney Parking Garage – I also read online that you are supposed to be able to see Denali from the top JC Penney Parking Garage. We did not stop, but it’s an idea if you really want to see Denali!
- There is a zoo and the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. We didn’t stop, but I’d love to hear in the Comments about them!
Days 12/ 13: Talkeetna, Alaska
We only spent a couple of hours in Anchorage because we had hotel reservations in Talkeetna for the night. The drive from Anchorage to Talkeetna is about 2 hours since Talkeetna is quite a ways off the main highway. Along the way we even saw a moose along the highway. The Susitna River Lodge was a great hotel choice. We stayed in one of the four rooms in the lodge. Our room had a queen size bed on the main level and a loft with twin beds. It worked perfect for us. The Lodge is about a 15-minute walk to the town of Talkeetna. If the weather is nice, I recommend the walk.
Things to do in Talkeetna:
- Walk Around the Town – The town of Talkeetna is rustic and cute. We really enjoyed wandering through the shops and eating ice cream at Shirley’s Homemade Ice Cream Shop. If it is a clear day, you can get a view of Denali at Talkeetna’s Riverfront Park.
- Denali Flightseeing Tour – The Denali Flightseeing Tour was another one of the top highlights of our trip. We booked a glacier landing tour through K2 Aviation for first thing in the morning. Our tour was amazing. The mountains seemed so close, it felt like we could reach out of the plane’s window and touch them. We flew over the Denali base camp and could see where climbers were working their way up the mountain. We landed on the Ruth Glacier and were able to spend about 30 minutes walking around taking pictures. It was a really cool tour, one I highly recommend! (Note: if you buy the Alaska TourSaver coupon book, it probably has a coupon that may save you significant money on this tour. The 2019 coupon book had a buy 3 get 1 free deal that was perfect for us since we had 4 adults.)
Days 13-15: Denali National Park
After our flightseeing tour, we ate a quick lunch in Talkeetna and started the 2.5 hour drive to Denali. We stopped at the McKinley Princess Lodge on the south edge of the park along the way to use the restroom. There is a nice view of Denali from the lodge so it’s a good place to stop. After the McKinley Princess Lodge there isn’t anywhere to stop until you get to the Denali Visitor Center, which is still an hour and a half way.
On the way, we stopped at the Denali Bus Depot, and picked up tickets for our bus tours. We had purposefully allowed 2 full days in Denali because the weather is unpredictable. Since we had a one-year old who was not a big fan of car travel, we decided to divide and conquer. The plan was for my parents to do the tour one day and for Brian and I to do the tour the second day. We both opted for the Shuttle bus tour (instead of the guided tour) due to the significant cost savings. My parents got the 1st timeslot available on Friday which was 7am. Our tour was scheduled for Saturday and the 1st timeslot was sold out, so we had a 7:30am tour. Definitely book these tours as early as you can because timeslots will sell out.
In Denali, we stayed at the Denali Bluffs Hotel. We would have liked to stay at one of the big lodges like the Princess Wilderness Lodge or the McKinley Chalet, but we had read online that your reservation could get bumped if the lodge is overbooked. With a one-year old, we did not want to risk getting bumped, so we just booked the Denali Bluffs and it was really nice. The hotel is located right on the southern edge of the town area, closest to the park. My only complaint about the Denali Bluffs is that they had an early checkout time (10am) which was a bit inconvenient with a sick baby who could have used a longer nap.
Things to do in Denali:
- Denali Bus Tour – You absolutely have to plan time to do a Denali Bus Tour. It’s your best opportunity to see wildlife. My parents had a great time on their tour. They bought a box lunch at our hotel the morning of the tour. On their tour, which they rode to Toklat River, they saw five bears, several moose, mountain sheep, and caribou. We had a sick baby, so we didn’t end up using our tour tickets for Saturday.
- Savage River – We did however manage to do the self-driving part of Denali with a trip to Savage River. We saw a mama and baby moose! That little guy was just the cutest!
- Walk Around the Town – The entire town area outside of Denali is about half a mile long. We rode our hotel’s shuttle to the far end and walked our way back, wandering in some shops along the way. We had dinner at Denali Dogs, a hot-dog and hamburger restaurant with some interesting Alaskan animals on the menu.
Days 15/16: Fairbanks, Alaska
Since we opted not to do our Denali bus tour, we got a jump-start on our two-hour drive to Fairbanks. Since we still had a sick baby, we had a relaxing afternoon at our hotel, the Wedgewood Resort. We only ventured out to see the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline and grab some dinner at the Cookie Jar Restaurant. The next morning we did one last tour on the Riverboat Discovery and then we headed to the airport!
Things to do in Fairbanks:
- Riverboat Discovery – On our last morning in Alaska, we booked a tour on the Riverboat Discovery. This 3-hour boat ride took us to the Chena Indian Village. We also saw a float plane demonstration and Iditarod sled dogs.
- Gold Dredge 8 – We didn’t end up going to the Gold Dredge, but it’s located right next to the Alaskan Pipeline.
- Trans-Alaskan Pipeline – It’s literally a giant pipe…. But still kind of cool, I thought?
- Chena Hot Springs – We had a one-year old, and limited time. But given more time, Brian and I both agree we would have taken a day trip out to the Chena Hot Springs!
- Arctic Circle – You can also take a tour up to the Arctic Circle from Fairbanks. If we’d have had another day and weren’t toting a 1-year old, this would have been on my list!
After our riverboat tour, we turned our rental car in at the airport and got ready for our flights home. We had a wonderful two weeks in Alaska and crossed many things off our wish list!
Calendar for Our Trip:
Here’s the calendar from our trip in case you wanted to see it printed out:
Packing for an Alaska Trip:
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering what to pack for a trip to Alaska? Well, I would say that you should pack layers. I was fine with a light winter coat for my outer layer. I also wore a lot of long sleeve shirts and frequently double layers, particularly on the days when I knew we would be out on a windy boat. Glacier Bay National Park and Hubbard Glacier are really chilly, so definitely pack gloves and ear covers because you’ll get the best pictures out on the deck of the boat. Surprisingly, we never used our umbrella or our ponchos. It did rain a couple of times but never enough to be a big issue.
Hope you have a wonderful trip!
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