Alaska Itinerary: 10 Days on Land and Sea
There’s no one right way to visit Alaska, especially considering the vastness of the Last Frontier and how many incredible parks and mountains and glaciers call the state home. Some parts are so remote they can only be reached by small plane or boat. Others welcome thousands of cruise ship passengers each day. So, when it comes to picking an Alaska itinerary for 10 days, you should first consider whether you want to visit by land, sea or both.
Alaskan cruises are a convenient and popular option that offer an easy way to visit coastal sites inaccessible by highway, like the capital city of Juneau and Glacier Bay National Park. Overland routes, on the other hand, can incorporate time in Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, and a visit to the highest mountain in North America, Denali.
Combining the two is an ideal way to experience the state for the first time. Not to mention, having the cruise portion of your vacation plotted out already saves a lot of time and hassle over planning 10 days in Alaska. While many Alaska cruisers opt for the ease of sailing round trip from Seattle, choosing an itinerary that either starts or ends in Anchorage lets you see more of the state.
Several cruise companies sell land add-ons to their packages, but it’s pretty simple and generally much cheaper to arrange a handful of pre- or post-cruise days yourself. The itinerary below offers two options — three days around Anchorage and nearby parks followed by seven days on an Alaskan cruise OR three days exploring things to do Denali National Park plus a weeklong cruise.
Alaska Trip Itinerary
Days 1-3 in Anchorage area OR
Days 1-3 at Denali National Park
Days 4-10 Cruising from Anchorage
Keep reading for things to do on the mainland, which cruise ports you shouldn’t miss, what to expect on your Alaska cruise, and tips for your trip at the end (including one item you must remember to bring).
Alaska Itinerary for 10 Days
Day 1-3 — Anchorage Itinerary and Attractions
Spending a few days based in Alaska’s largest city is a simple and convenient way to use your time on land. There’s plenty to do here in the way of museums and cultural attractions, but you’ll want to carve out some time for the mountains, glaciers and parks that lie on the fringes, too. Renting a car makes it easier to head to the outskirts if you’re staying downtown, but you can also book bus tours for much of the sightseeing.
Day trip from Anchorage
A full second day in Anchorage is the perfect opportunity to spend some time outdoors at one of the surrounding green spaces. Waterfront Kincaid Park near the airport encompasses more than 1,500 acres with hiking and biking paths that turn into cross-country ski trails come winter. On a clear day, you can sometimes even spot Denali from here. If you want to explore a little further, consider a day trip to Chugach State Park, a haven of glaciers, lakes and mountains on the coast. It’s one of the largest state parks in the nation, at nearly 500,000 acres, so you’ll find plenty of hiking trails, wildlife viewing and photo ops. The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is close by, too, and home to injured and orphaned native species cared for in natural and spacious settings.
Seward or Whittier
If your cruise departs in the late afternoon or evening, a final day in Anchorage is the perfect time for sightseeing near the coastal town where your boat docks, either Seward or Whittier. Cruisers typically opt to book transit to the port, since a one-way car rental can be pricey. Many bus services offer options ranging from a direct transfer to an all-day tour. The route traces dramatic coastal scenery along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, before striking off towards one of the two towns.
Kenai Fjords National Park surrounds Seward, with lots of opportunities for wildlife watching and scenic pull offs along the way. Day trips will likely include a stop at the active Exit Glacier, where trails lead to up-close views of the ice. A walkable downtown district in Seward fronts the boat harbor and cruise terminal.
The tiny port town of Whittier serves as a launch for boat tours of the Prince William Sound, in case you want to arrive early for a jump start on those coastal and glacier views. Water sports activities like jet skiing and kayaking are also offered here. The ride to Whittier involves a trip through the longest shared train and vehicle tunnel in the U.S., which runs on a precise schedule for one-way traffic.
Where to stay
Day 1-3 — Denali National Park Itinerary and Attractions
To add a little adventure to the land part of an Alaska vacation, consider renting a car from Anchorage and heading up to Denali. Keep in mind that the national park is a half-day drive from Anchorage, so you’ll need at least two full days on land for this option.
Alaska road trip to Denali
Day one for this itinerary will be spent traveling from Anchorage to Denali, accomplished via bus, train or rental car. Bus trips take about six hours, trains around eight, and cars five or more, depending on how frequently you stop.
The perks of choosing a bus or train include being able to sit back and enjoy the scenery along the way and potential cost savings if you’re traveling solo or staying near Denali for longer than a few days. Getting to and around the national park using shuttles is easy as long as you base yourself in McKinley Park, the town that sits on the outskirts. Self-driving, on the other hand, means not being at the mercy of a transit schedule, stopping as often as you wish along the way, and having more options when it comes to lodging, since you can pick a base further away from the park. It’s also typically more economical to rent a car for a short visit if you’re traveling as a small group or family.
The trip up on the Parks Highway from Anchorage to Denali has lots of places to halt for scenic vistas, photos and hikes. If you aren’t in a rush, consider pulling off the road nearly 100 miles past Anchorage to visit the old gold-mining town of Talkeetna. Further up the highway in Denali State Park, the famous mountain is visible on a clear day from the Denali Viewpoint South and North pullouts. At a few points, the peak will be right in front of you as you drive. The state park, about two-and-a-half hours outside Anchorage, packs in plenty of wilderness treks and wildlife sightings, but you might have to skip it if you’re short on time.
A half-day at Denali National Park affords plenty of time to check out the facilities and hiking paths near the entry. Pop by the Denali Visitor Center for a short film, nature exhibits and trail maps before heading over to the Sled Dog Kennels to meet the park’s canines and catch them in one of the mushing demos offered a few times daily. With plenty of daylight in summer, you might be inclined to stretch your legs on an afternoon hike along Horseshoe Lake, Rock Creek, Savage River, or one of the other trails in this guide and map.
Bus tour in Denali National Park
A full day two at Denali allots time to head deeper into the park on an excursion bus. Only the first 15 miles of the main Park Road allows private vehicles, so booking a bus is essential for sightseeing.
Two types are available — narrated tour buses, where you stick with a group for the day, and transit buses, which allow you to hop off where you want and ride back with a different crew as space allows. Bus ticket prices depend on how far into the park you want to go, with the farthest point of Kantishna 92 miles down the road.
Consider reserving an early morning time slot if you plan to do much hiking, as the ride alone takes several hours, depending on how far you’re going (about 7 to 12 hours round trip to the various turn-around points). Along the way, buses make rest stops and pauses for wildlife ogling whenever someone spots a moose, bear, caribou or the like.
Denali and road trip to Seward/Whittier
But, if this is the day your cruise is departing, you won’t want to linger too long and risk being late to the port, so stick to shorter activities like souvenir shopping in McKinley Park or a nature walk near the park entrance.
Another option is to leave for Anchorage early in the morning and spend some time checking out the sights along the route to your cruise port in Seward or Whittier, like Chugach State Park and Kenai Fjords National Park. More info on getting to these coastal cities is available in the previous itinerary option above.
Where to stay
Day 4-10 Alaska Cruise Stops and Attractions
Most weeklong Alaska cruises to or from Anchorage follow a similar path, docking or sailing by many of the sights we’ll detail below. If you’ve got your heart set on any of them, check the itinerary closely before you book a cruise, since some skip things like Glacier Bay or Icy Strait Point. This break down goes day by day for a typical seven-night cruise, but yours may vary a bit (or flip-flop if you’re sailing Vancouver to Anchorage). We sailed on the Coral Princess with Princess Cruises, one of the few that get to go into Glacier Bay.
Working down from Anchorage, Hubbard Glacier is one of the first sights on many cruise dockets. This is just a sail by, though some ships park with a view for a while for photo ops. The massive chunk of ice is the continent’s biggest calving glacier, so you’ll want to spend some time on deck when you get close to see if you can catch it breaking and crashing into the water.
Glacier Bay National Park or Icy Strait Point
Glacier Bay National Park is, arguably, the most scenic part of an Alaskan cruise. Multiple glaciers stretch down to the sea, and the inlets you wander are so narrow at times that you can spot wildlife on the surrounding mountains. But, not every ship will pass through this way. The remote park actually limits daily traffic to just a couple of cruises and only a handful of big-ship operators are authorized to access the route. National park rangers hop on board the cruises here to narrate the scenery, answer questions and share info about the area’s history and geology.
Icy Strait Point tends to be an alternative to Glacier Bay for itineraries that don’t go into the national park. It’s a small-town port, with a converted fish cannery dockside and excursions like wildlife watching, water sports, and land adventure tours (think ATVs and helicopters).
Skagway or Haines
Instead of Skagway, some boats stop in nearby Haines, where scenery ranges from a dramatic, deep fjord to soaring mountains to lush forests. Touristing here might involve visiting the town’s museums and fort, or taking off on rafting and fishing trips.
Ketchikan has a bit of a rustic fishing village turned touristy port vibe, notable for its cultural museums and abundance of totem poles. Look for them in places like the Totem Heritage Center near downtown and Totem Bight State Historical Park a short drive away. Salmon fishing charters and boat tours are also big here.
Inside Passage Cruising
The Inside Passage route is a final hoorah of coastal sightseeing along the islands of southern Alaska stretching down to the Pacific Northwest of the lower 48. It’s a cruising destination, not a stop, but you’ll want to spend some time on deck looking out for sea lions, whales and the like.
Where to stay
Tips for Alaska Trips
1. Verify your cruise port. Ships don’t depart from or arrive into downtown Anchorage. They dock in either Whittier or Seward, each a two- to three-hour drive from the city. You can rent a car one way, but bus transfers are typically more economical and convenient.
2. Book your own excursions. Cruise lines sell everything from transit to/from ports to shore excursions to land-tour add-ons at the start and end of your sailing. There are typically much more economical options for each of these if you book them yourself through third parties, like GetYourGuide for example.
3. Reserve Denali bus tours online. If you’re visiting Denali, you’ll want to take a sightseeing bus into the park, since only the first 15 miles of main road is open to private vehicles. If you’re visiting in the middle of summer, the best time slots may fill up before you arrive, so you’ll want to secure your ride beforehand. You can make a reservation here.
4. Stay away from the animals. Seeing grizzlies, caribou and moose roaming in their natural habitat is part of the fun of an Alaska trip, but remember this isn’t a zoo and wildlife need to stay wild. That means you always need to keep a safe and respectful distance to let them do their thing — stay about 300 yards away from bears and 25 yards from other animals, especially moose!