A mama grizzly bear and her two cubs meandered along the shoreline, the cubs playing a bit of hiding and seek (and tumble) as they retreated into the tall grass. Half a dozen mountain goats perched precariously on the cliffs that lined the rocky coastline. Humpback whales, orcas, sea otters and puffins, both horned and tufted. I saw them all sailing through Glacier Bay on a cruise aboard Alaska Dream Cruises’ 76-passenger Chichagof Dream. It was one of many spectacular days in Alaska.
If Alaska is on your travel bucket list, as it was mine, you’re not alone: It’s a hot destination. In 2017's tourism season, which runs May to September, more than 1.9 million people traveled to the state by air, cruise ship, or highway and ferry, up from 1.8 million the year before.
But planning a trip to Alaska can be a bit daunting. More than 586,000 square miles, the state is one-fifth the size of the entire lower 48 states — two and a half times larger than Texas. Don’t let its magnitude intimidate you, however. There are a variety of ways to experience Alaska, and once you decide which one suits you and your travel style best, you can better focus your planning. Here are four of them.
More than 1 million of the state’s 1.9 million visitors in 2017 traveled there on cruise ships, and even more ships are sailing Alaskan waters. In 2019, three cruise lines will enter the Alaska market: Azamara Club Cruises, Viking Cruises and Cunard Line.
There are different kinds of cruises, of course, from megaships such as Norwegian Cruise Line’s 4,000-passenger Norwegian Bliss that debuted this year to the intimate 10-passenger Misty Fjord, part of the Alaska Dream Cruises fleet.
Keep in mind that larger ships are not able to travel into the little bays and coves or stop in at some less-visited communities that the smaller boats can access. For example, the Chichagof Dream docks in Kake, a community of just 500 residents. But the smaller boats may be more prone to rough waters — something to consider if you’re susceptible to motion sickness.
If the cruise decision-making becomes too complicated, consider working with a travel agent. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) offers a Cruise Agent Finder tool to help with the selection process.
Several cruise lines complement their sailings with land tours, many of which include rail travel. Just this summer, Carnival Corp. invested in the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, the “Scenic Railway of the World” that travels from Skagway to Fraser, British Columbia.
But you don’t need to board a cruise ship to ride the rails: The Alaska Railroad runs 470 miles, from Fairbanks southward to Seward, with plenty of stops along the way to stretch your legs or even spend a day or two exploring the various towns. To help make travel planning easier, the railroad offers summer and winter round-trip packages from Anchorage that range from two to 10 days. Or if you’re a DIY traveler, map your own route and book your tickets, embarking and disembarking as you choose (reliant on the train schedules, of course).
If you’re short on time, day trips from Anchorage are available in the summertime. Board the train in the morning and travel south to Seward, where you can cruise Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park, go dog-sledding or hike on glaciers. You’ll return to Anchorage later that same night. And consider that the train is one of the most popular and easiest ways to travel to Denali National Park, about a seven-hour trip from Anchorage.
The Alaska Railroad also offers one of the last whistle-stop services in all of North America, which means more adventurous passengers can disembark for activities such as river rafting, hiking or fishing anywhere along the way. When they’re ready to return, they simply wave down the train from the side of the tracks. The Spencer Whistle Stop en route to Seward is a terrific place to adventure in the wilderness and is accessible only by train.
Another option for traveling around Alaska is to join an organized tour, in which all details are taken care of, from transportation and accommodations to excursions and even meals in some cases.
Regardless of the type of tour you’re looking for, the family-owned John Hall’s Alaska likely has one that checks the boxes. Though many of their trips combine land tours with a cruise, any of their offerings can be made land-only, ranging from two to 16 days. Salmon Berry Travel & Tours is another organized tour option. The Alaska-owned and operated company offers day trips as well as curated tours in the summer and winter, ranging from two to more than 10 days.
If you’d rather explore the Last Frontier on your own, get behind the wheel of your rental car or RV and hit the road. One route to consider is the 127-mile Seward Highway, designated an All-American Road, that travels from Anchorage south to Seward, along the Turnagain Arm. When driving this route, be sure to keep an eye out for Dall sheep, moose, bald eagles and even beluga whales. There are plenty of pull-outs to stop and enjoy the views so the driver can take in the scenery, too.
The second of Alaska’s All-American Roads is the entirety of the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), the state’s ferry system. Travel the AMHS — which can accommodate cars, RVs, motorcycles, bikes and walk-on travelers — and reach 25 ports of call in coastal communities, many of which are only accessible by water. Traveling the AMHS can take a lot planning and attention to detail, but it’s worth it.
Three of Alaska’s major highways — the Glenn Highway, Parks Highway and Denali Highway — meet in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Its central location between Anchorage and Denali National Park and Preserve makes the Mat-Su Valley a terrific place to make your “home base” as you explore the area. Within the Mat-Su Valley, travel back in time and see prehistoric arctic musk ox. Ride an ATV across rivers to a glacier. Spend an afternoon in Talkeetna, the charming town that was an inspiration for the TV show Northern Exposure. Travel up to Hatcher Pass for astonishing views.
When you travel on your own, it’s up to you to find your own accommodations. Fortunately, Alaska has plenty of options throughout the state — often extremely affordable — from bed and breakfasts such as the Alaska Garden Gate B&B and Cottage to lodges such as the Knik River Lodge at the base of a glacier (both north of Anchorage) and the Denali Backcountry Lodge, as well as hotels and resorts such as the year-round Alyeska Resort, which is popular with skiers.
These are all very different ways to experience Alaska. But whichever you choose, you're unlikely to be disappointed.
Susan B. Barnes is a travel writer based in Tampa, Fla.