Alaska, Denali National Park Denali National Park iStock / lz77

7 Things You Need to Know About Alaska Cruise Tours

by Dana McMahan | December 06, 2016

Alaska cruises are great ways to see the state's natural beauty, gliding past towering glaciers and seeing orcas breaching in the most dramatic fashion. But there's a lot more to Alaska than just the waterways. To experience Alaska's vast wilderness, you'll need to head inland.

Several lines, including Princess CruisesHolland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, and Royal Caribbean, offer packages called cruise tours that add land extensions to either the beginning or end of your cruise. The trips include overnights at lodges, typically also operated by the cruise line, and you can take a variety of excursions to view wildlife and natural wonders. If you want to explore by both land and sea, here are seven things you should know about Alaska cruise tours.

1. Denali is the main draw.
Denali National Park is spread over six million acres, where you'll find everything from alpine-filled forests to towering Denali which is, at 20,310 feet, the tallest mountain in North America. Every cruise tour includes at least one day in Denali, with multiple options for excursions including wildlife tours, whitewater rafting trips in Nenana River Gorge, and visits to the sled dog sanctuary. Our suggestion: Choose a trip with even more time in the park if you really want to see what the vast wilderness holds.

Tip: Denali's peak is often shrouded in clouds, but if you are there on a clear day, book a flightseeing trip to Denali's summit, where the views of the unspoiled surroundings are mind-boggling.

2. Time your trip right and you can see the aurora.
Though cruising later in the season might mean cooler temps, September is your best chance to catch the aurora borealis, also knows as the Northern Lights. Check the aurora forecast (yes, this exists) and start looking a couple of hours after sunset for the swirling, otherworldly light show that takes over the starry night.

Tip: Some lodges offer a Northern Lights wake-up call to alert you when to go outside and take in one of nature's most truly spellbinding displays.

3. Glacier trips are offered here, too.
Walking out on a glacier is a thrilling highlight of any Alaska trip. From the lodges you can book helicopter or small plane trips to one of the many glaciers to the north. Denali National Park also has a million acres of glaciers, the largest of which were formed by snow and ice from the mountain.

Tip: The light bouncing off the glacier can be intense, so sunglasses are a must on these excursions. In addition, you'll also want to bring a paper cup for scooping water right out of a glacial pool.

4. You'll get some of the best views while you're still in transit.
From the ship, you'll hop on a train to take a scenic journey to the land around Denali National Park. The dome-topped train winds through the wilderness, passing scenic landmarks with charming names like Hurricane Gulch and Turnagain Arm. There will also be views of Denali's impressive peak.

Tip: Princess Cruises and Holland America Line operate their own train, while lines such as Norwegian Cruise Line use the Alaska Railroad for the 500-mile ride from Anchorage to Denali.

Dana McMahan

Dana McMahan is a Detroit-based contributor to ShermansCruise who also writes for the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post.

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