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Alaska Travel: Avoiding the Big Cruises & Finding New Adventures

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Think Alaska is only accessible from a large cruise ship? Guess again. We sent contributor Lilit Marcus to Southeast Alaska to see if she can recreate the standard shore excursion with a series of day trips and small-ship adventures.

The 49th state can be a difficult one to love. The climate is constantly changing and often unforgiving. Several of the cutest forms of wildlife could potentially kill you. But there’s something sturdy underneath the glaciers here.  Alaskan schoolchildren learn how to sail, ski, and survive in the wilderness as well as how to read, write, and count. Alaskan people regularly deal with harsh natural conditions and have built lives of quiet but stern dignity.

Though getting around in Alaska seems daunting, there are several ways to make it easier. Many people elect to take cruises, which are a great way to see the environment but are often huge and overwhelming – if you want to see remote nature spots, why do it from a floating city? Opting for a smaller ship and/or a land stay with sea daytrips will give you a more local-friendly view of America’s biggest state. It’ll also end up saving you money, since smaller ships build in the price of day trips and excursions instead of making you pay extra fees. You also get to build closer bonds with the crew members and other passengers.

Considering how massive the state is, your best bet is to focus on a single region and dive in deep. Here’s our guide to Southeast Alaska, which includes the state’s capital.

If You Want to See Nature

There is no shortage of beautiful country in Alaska. If anything, your problem might be narrowing down the list of different kinds of nature you want to see. For relatively untouched and unspoiled scenery, the Native-owned Hobart Bay offers everything from marshes and bogs to rivers and waterfalls, with the occasional moose, badger, or black bear sighting to liven it up. The only company with access to Hobart is Alaskan Dream Cruises (part of the large and well-known local Allen Marine company). Their smaller and more intimate ships hold a maximum of 66 guests, so no Lido Deck in sight. You won’t get lost in the shuffle there, as there are always enough spots on daytrips like the one to Hobart. Even better: you can zip along through the woods on an ATV.

If You Want to See Wildlife

Whale watches are one of the most popular attractions in Alaska, and the coastline around Juneau almost always guarantees a whale sighting or five. Depending on your interest, you can take a day trip from Juneau or from your cruise ship. There are plenty of vendors to choose from, but when possible try to take a smaller catamaran (“cat” in local parlance) with windows all the way around the entire boat. That way, you’ll still have a great angle even if you’re too cold to go out on the deck. And whales aren’t the only attraction here: your guides should be able to point out other less gigantic animals like sea otters and bald eagles.

If You Really, Really Want to See Wildlife

It’s definitely cooler to see a bear in its natural habitat than to see one rooting around through your trash. The beautiful Pack Creek Zoological Area on Admiralty Island off of Juneau is a joint project between the Alaskan Fish and Wildlife Board and the U.S. Forest Service. The brown bears who live here are “habituated,” which means that they are used to humans being around but not interacting with them or feeding them.

The rules at Pack Creek are quite strict: you can’t carry food or anything with a scent (that means you have to leave the perfume at home), and you’ll have to take a short class about safety and bear behavior. But it’s truly a can’t-miss experience: you will walk through and get up close to brown bears in their natural habitat. After a short hike out to a vantage point, you will be able to watch bears as they fish, hunt, play, fight, and sleep.

Because of the unique conditions at Pack Creek, you will need to plan for this part of your trip well in advance. Individual tourists cannot get permits to visit during non-hibernation season and will need to work with an established organization. You also can’t get here by land, so you’ll need to charter a heliplane (which is really pricey) or stay at a hotel or resort that has its own boat. Windham Bay Lodge has permits and boats already in place, and they don’t charge additional fees to take a daytrip to Pack Creek, so they’re one of the best values.

A tip: the months of July and August have the tightest restrictions about the number of visitors permitted per day, so you will have a much easier time getting a spot in April, May, June, and September.