Seeing National Park Highlights on a Cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage

“Look there, in the top of that tree,” our raft guide whispered, pointing to a massive cottonwood tree near the river’s edge.

cruising alaska, alaska's inside passage

Bald eagle sightings are common in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, Alaska. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Eight bodies in the raft with me turned and squinted, followed almost immediately by emitting a series of ooohs and aaaahs. The target of our vision quest was just a jumble of sticks and mud, but inside was a national treasure. There, nearly 90 feet high in the top of the cottonwood tree was an eagle’s nest and yes, a little fuzzy head was bopping just above the nest’s edge.

We were in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, nearly 48,000 acres where the habitat of the American eagle is protected so they may thrive and flourish. The nest we were looking at was one of about 100 in the preserve where about 400 eagles live year round. Another 3,000 house guests show up for a little salmon fishing each fall.

Few sites on this planet are as majestic as an American Bald Eagle soaring overhead, but when you place the eagle and its babies before the backdrop of the Alaskan wilderness, humankind must simply bow with reverence.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Author Patricia Schultz says it’s one of the “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”
  • Few other places offer the unparalleled wildlife and natural beauty of southeast Alaska.
  • You can’t get enough of the gifts from Mother Nature.

What Is The Inside Passage

The Inside Passage is basically 500 miles between Ketchikan on the southern end and the state capital of Juneau on the northern end. Of course, most cruises begin in Vancouver, British Columbia and end in Seward, just south of Anchorage, on the Gulf of Alaska. And savvy cruisers know to book an extra week of the land package that most cruise lines offer.

Alaska, cruising the inside passage

Watching the scenery of Glacier Bay National Park is a full day, quiet activity while cruising the Inside Passage. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Doing so will allow you to check three of America’s magnificent national parks off of your bucket list: Glacier Bay, Kenai Fjords, and Denali.

Glacier Bay National Park

A full day of your cruise will be devoted Glacier Bay National Park. The park service mandates a speed limit of 30 knots per hour or about 35 mph through the park. And this is perfect for sitting on deck or in the Crow’s Nest lounge of your cruise ship and absorbing what  former park superintendent Harry Karstens called the language of “the great silent places.”

It is in this silence you best hear what the Tlingit natives called “white thunder” – that massive rolling thunder-like sound followed by a rifle shot-like crack that signals a glacier is calving. It’s a sound you won’t soon forget.

We wanted to get up close and personal with those glaciers, so when in Juneau, we signed up for the Mendenhall Glacier helicopter ride. We chose one with TEMSCO tours that allowed us about 30 minutes in the air above the glacier and then about 30-minutes walking on the glacier surface.

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While climbing around on Mendenhall Glacier, we learned what causes the beautiful shades of blue in the centuries old ice. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

When our helicopter landed, the wind was blowing a cold drizzling rain in our faces and the temperature was about 40 degrees. We talked with other cruise passengers who did the afternoon dog sledding tour on the glacier later in the day and they said it was so hot that the dogs were given a cool-down break to roll on the ice. There you go – the weather changes quickly in these parts.

Kenai Fjords National Park

When we arrived in Seward, we signed up for a shore excursion to Kenai Fjords National Park. As we left the harbor at Seward, a cluster of sea otters floating on their backs posed for our cameras and stellar sea lions clinging to nearby rocks barked at us.

kenai fjords national park, cruising Alaska's Inside Passage

Sea lions poke their nose above water near our boat to see what the noise is all about. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

As we passed Cheval Island, a mother mountain goat and her springtime baby were climbing just a few steep yards from the waters’ edge. If your goal is to see more land-dwelling wildlife, plan a cruise early in the summer before animals and their offspring move to higher, grassier areas.

But we wanted to see whales and within a few more miles, numerous spouts in the water signaled a pod of Orcas in the vicinity. As much as we wanted to see a massive breach, where the whale leaps his entire body from the water, we learned that an early summer tour is not the best time for such gymnastics. This is when hungry whales are intent upon eating and will surface briefly every six or seven minutes, just long enough to fill their lungs, before heading back down, often flapping their massive tail or “fluke” as they go.

As the majority humans ogled from the starboard side of the boat, a massive humpback whale slid up to the port side where my husband and I stood, and swam along on the surface beside us, not more than five yards away, for nearly 10 minutes.

Denali National Park

Of course, no one can say they’ve experienced Alaska without visiting Denali National Park. In the native Athabascan tongue, Denali means “the great one” or “tall one” and here the sparkling images of Mother Nature are crowned by the tallest peak in North America. Some call it Mt. McKinley, but locally the mountain is called Denali.

More than a half million visitors a year come to this, the most prominent of Alaska’s national parks, to see wildlife that his more wild here than any place in North America. Wildlife and natural history tours via park bus travel along the back roads of the park providing some amazing encounters with animals.

denali national park, cruising the inside passage

Grizzly bears frolic in the Alaskan wilderness. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Those tours are sometime so jam-packed that it’s hard to appreciate your surroundings.  Therefore, consider taking the green park bus to any of the dozens trail heads. Here you may walk in relative solitude and enjoy more than 600 species of flowering plants and the caribou, moose, bear and wolves in their natural state.

It will be a highlight among many highlights of your Alaskan cruise.

 Practicalities

  • Back lots of warm clothes, no matter what time of year you cruise.
  • Bring binoculars.
  • August is the best month to see wales breach.
  • August/September is when more eagles are present at the Chilkat Nature Preserve.
  • Respect wildlife and nature. Be silent in its presence.

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