Alaska is a fascinating place to cruise, packed with towering mountains, vast wilderness areas and unparalleled wildlife encounters. There are numerous icy fjords and lush forests to cruise, plus bright blue glaciers and an abundance of marine life passing you by. With thousands of islands, bustling cities and a rich history to boot, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
Whilst many people cruise Alaska in summer, the best time really depends on where you want to go and what you want to see. Alaska’s diverse cruise destinations have seasonal highlights for different cruising interests throughout the year. Read on to find out more.
When is the Best Time to Cruise Alaska?
Alaska’s cruise season generally runs from April to September, providing a chance to see the best of Alaska during spring and summer. Whilst cruising Alaska in any month will be fantastic, there are some general timing advantages to consider:
- May and September are great months for finding better cruise and airfare deals, plus cheaper shore excursions.
- A visit in Spring will enthrall you with snow-capped mountain vistas and fresh tree foliage.
- Cruise in September and you’ll have great photographic opportunities thanks to the vivid colors of Fall.
- Both May and September are ideal for avoiding Alaska’s mosquitos – which can be a problem in high summer if you forget your insect repellent.
- If warmth is a priority, mid-June to mid-August are the best months.
If seeing wildlife ashore is a priority, late May and early June are for you. Mothers and their young are more active in these months, though if you want to go bear-watching, visit during late June or early July onwards (depending on the cruise location).
The very start of spring is also a great time to view wildlife because the trees are not yet in full bloom, giving you the chance to search between the branches.
Alaskan fishing is possible any month of the cruise season, thanks to Alaska’s abundance of salmon. You’ll find different salmon species peak as the weeks go by, meaning you can try your hand at fishing whichever month you cruise.
Midnight Sun & Northern Lights
The midnight sun peaks during the 3 weeks before and after the summer solstice on 21 June, meaning long days with no darkness. There is a small chance you can see the Northern Lights during an Alaska cruise if you visit in late September when the nights are darker.
When to Cruise the Inside Passage
Stretching from Puget Sound in Washington into the Gulf of Alaska, the Inside Passage offers over 500 miles of jaw-dropping scenery teeming with wildlife. Shaped by huge glaciers, this passage is over 100 miles wide in parts, encompassing more than 1000 islands.
Cruise there and you can enjoy everything from towering mountains to deep fjords, remote island visits and, of course, glaciers. This haven for wildlife is a must-do for fans of wildlife spotting and bird watching, plus active cruisers who want to try a variety of outdoors pursuits.
You can spot migrating animals and enjoy blooming wildflowers in the forests during spring. Summer is the main mating season, when you can spot seals lazing on the ice and watch young birds learning to fly. You’ll also have the best chance of seeing whales during summer. If you want to go hiking, visit from mid-summer onwards once the terrain has thawed.
Bear in mind the Inside Passage is known for its high rainfall all year and pack accordingly.
When to Cruise the Glacier Bay National Park
The Glacier Bay National Park is within the Inside Passage and some cruises spend their itinerary focussed on this unique area. The scenery is staggering, as you would expect for the largest UNESCO protected biosphere in the world.
Glacier Bay National Park cruises combine wildlife watching with dramatic landscapes, adventurous activities such as paddling a skiff or kayaking, and visiting remote villages. It goes without saying you’ll be surrounded by glaciers in this national park, with the chance to see huge blocks of ice calving away.
As with the rest of the Inside Passage, there is plenty of wildlife to see and summer is the best season to visit for warmer temperatures. April to June are usually the driest months, with Glacier Bay experiencing the most rainfall during September and October.
If you have the chance to visit in winter, there is still plenty to enjoy amidst the cold and foggy landscapes.
When to Cruise Tracy Arm
Another popular cruising destination in the Inside Passage, Tracy Arm is a narrow fjord over 30 miles long. This particularly icy fjord is home to some of Alaska’s largest glaciers and offers sheer rock walls with tumbling waterfalls, plus hundreds of harbor seals, eagles, and whales.
You can go hiking and kayaking in Tracy Arm or let everyday life drift away as you watch the spectacular scenery pass by.
May to August offers the driest conditions in Tracy Arm, with the wettest months being September and October. The area just north of Tracy Arm is a prime spot for seeing humpback whales and orcas during the summer months. You can spot seal pups during June and admire large icebergs at the start of summer. The middle of summer onwards offers the best hiking conditions.
When to Cruise the Alaska Islands
Alaska’s long and winding coastline has over 2,600 named islands with diverse landscapes and attractions for a variety of interests. An Alaska Islands cruise will take you to explore a number of these islands, where you can immerse in wildlife spotting, photography, shore excursions and more.
Chicagof Island is a nature lover’s paradise. With its plunging fjords, porpoises, whales and the largest population of bears per square meter in the world, it’s ideal for nature photography.
The Brothers Islands also offer some of the best Alaska Islands wildlife spotting, with more whales, porpoises, sea lions and numerous birds. Be sure to also visit Baranof Island to experience remote communities, hiking and bathing in blissful hot springs.
April and May are the best months for seeing grey whales, whilst June to September is the best time for minke whale spotting. Admiralty Island is a great place for bear-spotting during July and August, and the Prince of Wales Island offer sport salmon fishing during summer. Spring is all about the return of migrating birds to the Alaska Islands.
When to Cruise Ketchikan
The salmon capital of the world, Ketchikan is not to be missed for the chance to take a fishing adventure cruise, dine on fresh fish, and learn more about the local people of this unique area.
With a fishing history dating back to the 1880s, this history-rich city is a fascinating destination for culture fans. Ketchikan has the largest collection of standing totem poles in the world and an abundance of salmon species for you to try.
There is of course plenty of Alaskan wildlife, plus outdoor pursuits on glacial and forest terrain – perfect for working up a good appetite for dinner.
June to August is the best time to visit Ketchikan, offering warmer sun-filled days than other months. Summer also gives you the chance to spot humpback whales.
Cruise Ketchikan in April and you can delight in seeing hummingbirds return after their winter away. Whichever month you choose, bear in mind it’s the fourth wettest place in the world and pack accordingly.
When to Cruise Sitka
Also rich in history, Sitka is on the southern part of Baranof Island and is known for its role in the US purchase of Alaska. Once inhabited by the Tlingit people, Sitka became a Russian settlement and was then sold to the USA in the 1860s. Transfer celebrations took place there on 18th November; creating what is now known as Alaska Day.
Sitka is a popular start and end point for cruises to the Northern Passages but there is plenty to enjoy at Sitka itself. The Alaska Raptor Center is a highlight for bird fans, whilst history lovers will no doubt enjoy the Sitka National Historical Park. Cruises from Sitka also offer a variety of wildlife spotting and sightseeing opportunities, shore excursions and relaxation time.
Both spring and summer are great times to visit Sitka. For something different, consider visiting in November for Sitka’s WhaleFest. This annual unique event celebrates the wonders of the northern ocean with a science symposium, art, wildlife cruises and more.
When to Cruise Juneau
Last but not least, don’t miss Juneau – the capital of Alaska. Surrounded by mountains and lush green landscapes, Juneau has plenty to keep you entertained. You can explore the town, shopping and eating to your heart’s content, or learn more about Juneau at the state capital building.
The Alaska State Museum is perfect for history buffs. Active travelers can hike up Mount Roberts, or you can take a tram ride to the top of the mountain. Either way, you’ll enjoy jaw-dropping panoramic views across the city.
The summer months are best for wildlife spotting at Juneau, with whale migrations underway. August and September are good months to spot bears whilst they fish for salmon in the waters.