For those who love the outdoors, there is truly no place like the Great Land. Really. In the United States, more than half of all the land protected by the National Wilderness Preservation — 57 million acres — is in Alaska alone. The sheer scale holds an aura of magic and intrigue unparalleled by anywhere else in the country. At any moment, it’s as if the silence could be broken by the thunderous crack of a calving glacier. The calm water breached by a massive surfacing whale. The dense coastal fog, engulfing all but the very tips of towering Sitka spruce trees, pierced by a majestic soaring eagle.
In Alaska, the air is heavy with a sense of mystery, but your vacation plans don’t have to be. Whether you’re traveling with young children, adventure-hungry teens, older family members or any combination of the above, we’ve scoured these diverse landscapes — from grand snowcapped mountain ranges to cinematic fjords and ice-blue glacial bays — to bring you some of the best shore excursions for any group.
Best for Kids: DOG SLEDDING IN JUNEAU
A helicopter tour, glacier landing and dogsled ride all in one, it’s no exaggeration to call this a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You’ll begin with a flightseeing journey over the otherworldly Juneau Icefield, encompassing 1,500 miles of compacted snow and nearly 40 massive glaciers. Often compared to the landscape of the moon, this monochromatic sea of whites and greys is a stark contrast to the lush sea-level rainforest surrounding Juneau. From the air, witness the advancing Taku Glacier, the largest in the Juneau Icefield, before landing on Norris Glacier, home to a remote mushing camp for a team of Iditarod and Yukon Quest racing dogs. Meet the professional musher and their team of friendly Alaskan Huskies and learn some commands before setting out for a ride over the snowcapped glacier surface.
Best for Teens: RAFTING THE MENDENHALL RIVER
Mendenhall Glacier is one of Alaska’s most famous, extending over 13 miles from the Juneau Icefield. Although there are many ways to experience this iconic remnant of the last ice age – such as a flightseeing or hiking excursion – the best views are from the water. Enter your raft at Mendenhall Lake, alongside its floating icebergs and bobbing beavers, for an up-close view of the piercing blue glacier face on your way to the river’s mouth.
For five miles, you’ll wind through the picturesque scenery of the Mendenhall River. Keep an eye on the riverbanks; this is native habitat for many species of wildlife, including eagles, mountain goats and bears. As the current picks up, you’ll soon be bouncing through Southeast Alaska’s only whitewater rapids. Extending for just one mile, these Class III rapids provide just enough thrill o satisfy your teens but not enough to put them in any danger.
Most Accessible: THE WHITE PASS & YUKON ROUTE RAILWAY
Arguably Skagway’s most famous shore excursion, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway is an accessible tour that doesn’t compromise on quality. Traveling in the comfort of vintage rail cars, the “Scenic Railway of the World” ascends the stunning 2,865-foot summit of the White Pass through a breathtaking panorama of mountain gorges, glaciers and waterfalls.
Built some 120 years ago during the Klondike Gold Rush, this International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark passes through winding tunnels and sky-high trestles, tracing the same remote route braved by a steady stream of daring 19th-century prospectors in search of Yukon gold. The 40-mile roundtrip journey isn’t just a fascinating history lesson, it also offers a stunning payoff of quintessential Alaskan scenery without any strenuous activity. Offering lift-equipped train cars and ample comfortable seating, the tour is perfect for older family members or anyone with limited mobility.
Best for a Mixed Group: WHALE WATCHING IN RESURRECTION BAY
Together with Kenai Fjords National Park, Resurrection Bay near Seward is the ideal place to witness Alaska’s iconic ocean giants. With its deep fjords, surrounding mountain peaks, shallow coves and many beaches and estuaries, this rich marine ecosystem is a photographer’s paradise – even before the arrival of several different whale species, including orca, minke, fin, gray and the famous humpback whale. May through September is the best time to visit to see humpback whales returning from their winter calving bays to feed in Alaska’s nutrient-rich waters.
Your best bet for seeing the whales out in the wild is with a small group tour or charter. These captains have such experience in safely tracking and approaching the whales that they can often guarantee a sighting. You’ll also likely spot harbor seals, puffins and sea otters. As an added bonus, many tours include glacier visits and lunch. Some tours even provide an opportunity to get off the boat and into a kayak to paddle around the icebergs up close. This option is fantastic for a mixed group because it appeals to those with diverse interests, from serious birders and wildlife photographers to adventure seekers and those who simply enjoy a scenic boat ride.