Alaska continues to flourish as a destination of choice, and the mega cruise ships have taken notice: 10 new ships called on Alaska in 2019. There’s a lot to love about big cruise liners, like the plethora of onboard entertainment and dining options, but they’re not right for everyone.

Choosing alternatives to large cruise ships can help you explore Alaska in more adventurous ways © Patrick Civello / Shutterstock

Some may prefer alternative ways to explore Alaska that are more adventurous, intimate and accessible. If that’s you, read on to learn how to explore America’s last frontier by small ship, train and self-drive tour.

Cruise aboard a small ship

The small ship cruise market is booming, enabling passengers to see and do more than they can from a mega ship. For one, small ships can traverse narrow inlets and dock in less-traveled ports along Alaska’s Inside Passage, like Haines and Wrangell. Small ships also typically sail with no more than 100 guests, allowing for a more personal nautical exploration.

For those eager to soak it all in, including the history, culture, wildlife and even geology of the region, educational excursions on smalls ships are the norm. UnCruise Adventures, known for small ship sails with adventurous itineraries, added 'Alaska Insider' cruises last year that feature hands-on learning with onboard experts, like Ray Troll, an artist, musician and naturalist from Southeast Alaska.

A small cruise ship slips through fog on a trip off the coast of Alaska; alternative ways to explore Alaska
Smaller cruise ships can take routes that are too tight for the larger liners © chaolik / Getty Images

For families, UnCruise offers two seven-night sails on the 76-passenger Wilderness Discoverer with dedicated youth adventurist, Erin Kirkland, author of Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children. She serves as a guide to breathtaking glaciers and native wildlife and leads fun activities too, like kayaking relays, forest ecology activities and scavenger hunts.

Those eager for an early-season departure in March or April are in luck with small ships (on most mega ships, the first sail typically takes place in mid-May). Alaskan Dream Cruises offers a new 'Alaska’s Spring Wilderness & Wildlife Safari' cruise, which sails out of and into Sitka, a small fishing village with a rich Russian heritage.

You may also like: Why Alaska continues to be the Last Frontier

A sturdy navy and yellow train, standing on a platform. On the side of the front car, 'Alaska' is written in yellow letters
The Alaska Railroad lets passengers discover the state’s inland delights © Erin Gifford / Lonely Planet

Ride on the train

Relax and let the scenery roll by as you become entranced by the clackety-clack of the train wheels on the Alaska Railroad. The state-owned railway transports visitors all across the state – from Seward in the south to Fairbanks in the north. Your mind will drift as you wind through verdant green forests, around vast mountains and alongside sparkling clearwater streams.

The railroad makes it easy to reach Alaska’s inland gems, like Denali National Park and Chugach National Forest, neither of which can be reached by cruise ship. Anchorage makes an ideal home base for a scenic ride on four different trains, including the railroad’s flagship train, the Denali Star Train, which wows on a clear day with dramatic views of Mt Denali.

Chunks of ice floating in the ice-blue water beneath a calving glacier. Mist lingers  around the mountains above.
Traveling by train lets you get up close dozens of glaciers © Erin Gifford / Lonely Planet

Take the Glacier Discovery Train south if you’re eager to see, yes, glaciers. In Whittier, the train disembarks at the entry point for Phillips Cruises & Tours, which takes guests into Alaska’s Prince William Sound aboard the Klondike Express, a high-speed catamaran, for an up-close look at more than two dozen glaciers.

Upgrade to GoldStar service on the Denali Star Train or Coastal Classic Train for seats in a glass-dome car and inclusive full-service dining. For breakfast, you can’t go wrong with the stuffed sourdough French toast. It’s served with reindeer sausage and is considered by many to be the most delicious French toast in Anchorage. The Bloody Marys are exquisite, too.

A pick-up truck drives towards the camera on a coastal highway, with the water to the sea on one side and rugged mountains on the other.
The spectacular Seward Highway hugs the shoreline from Anchorage to Seward © Erin Gifford / Lonely Planet

Self-drive in a rental car

Renting a car provides curious travelers the opportunity to drive the Seward Highway, one of the most beautiful stretches of roadway in the United States. This scenic highway extends 125 miles south from Anchorage to Seward, hugging dramatic shorelines, cutting through spruce forests and skirting colorful swaths of wildflowers.

There are plenty of stops to make along the Seward Highway, like Turnagain Arm and Kenai Mountains. The Kenai Peninsula, in particular, is well-known for outdoor activities, like salmon fishing, wildlife cruises and flightseeing tours over glaciers, fjords and wide-open valleys.

A car rental also rewards travelers with the flexibility to go where you want, when you want, and to stay as long as you want. A car makes it easy to explore small towns, like Talkeetna, a small village that serves as a base for Denali climbing expeditions, and Wasilla, home to peony farms that supply colorful blooms to businesses in the lower 48 in summer months.

Like this? Try this: Adventures in Anchorage: exploring Alaska’s city in the wilderness

An earthen track leads away from the camera, through an expanse of grassy hills; there are snow-dusted mountains in the distance.
Chugach State Park, south of Anchorage, Alaska, is home to the Flattop Peak Trail © Parker Everett / Shutterstock

South of Anchorage, hikers can explore Chugach State Park, home to Flattop Mountain. The Flattop Peak Trail takes hikers to the summit for 360-degree views. Pose with the U.S. flag that’s planted at the top, a reward for a successful climb. The park’s moderate Blueberry Loop Trail affords equally spectacular views, only minus the elevation.

From the state park, it’s a short drive to Alyeska Resort, a ski resort in nearby Girdwood. The aerial tram takes travelers up the mountain for awe-inspiring views of Alaska from the summit of Mt Alyeska. Keep your eyes peeled: it’s not unusual to spot bear and moose from the tram. Enjoy lunch from the observation deck, then revel in a short hike before descending the mountain.

Whether you choose one of these alternative ways to explore the state, by small ship, train or car, or go by big cruise ship, take time to savor the magnificent scenery and wildlife. Home to some of the most beautiful views and spectacular adventures, it’s not hard to be wowed by Alaska.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletterMake sure you’re ready for anything with travel insurance from our trusted partners.

Explore related stories

Lonely Planet Magazine, Issue 118, October 2018, Jordan, Middle East
People explore the ancient ruins of Petra.


How to hike the Jordan Trail, a cross-country trek in the Middle East

Jun 11, 2024 • 5 min read