Southeast Alaska is set to a backdrop of stunning fjords and glaciers. This is the stage for some of the most gorgeous scenery on Earth. We recently took a 7-day small ship UnCruise adventure cruise to explore Alaska’s unspoiled wilderness firsthand. Southeast Alaska is a wonderland to explore by kayaking, hiking, bushwhacking and small ship skiff boat tours. Bell even took a polar plunge in freezing water, with South Sawyer Glacier in the background!
We took UnCruise’s 7-day Alaska fjords and glaciers cruise from Juneau to Ketchikan. If possible, plan to arrive in Juneau at least a day early to have some time to explore Alaska’s capital and the surrounding area. Juneau is strikingly beautiful and there’s a lot to explore in the area.
Mendenhall Glacier is just 12 miles (20km) outside Juneau. Another highlight of visiting the 13.6 mile long Mendenhall Glacier is Nugget Falls, and the two sites combine for wonderful photo opportunities. You may even spot a bear on the trail. While we did not see a bear on the day we visited, apparently we just missed a Black Bear hanging out in a tree.
Another highlight of visiting Juneau is the view of the area from the summit of Mount Roberts. You can take a cable car to the top of Mount Roberts for $35 per person. However, if you’re reasonably fit you can save that money by hiking up. If you buy lunch at the restaurant you get a free trip down! We saved $70 doing that and enjoyed delicious crab nachos that we had a healthy appetite for. Plan for the hike up to take around 2 hours, including a few stops to rest and take photos of beautiful Juneau below.
Where to Stay in Juneau, Alaska
Hotel Baranof Downtown
The Baranof Downtown is an excellent place to stay in downtown Juneau. Styled in art-deco decor, the hotel features an on-site restaurant and lounge. Baranof is located within 10 minutes’ walk of the waterfront, boutique shopping and other Juneau attractions.
We stayed at the Cassiar Queen Suite a short drive outside Juneau, in a lovely residential neighborhood close to Mendenhall Glacier. Sima and Keith are the best Airbnb hosts we’ve ever had, as they include airport and ferry transfers, along with some other rides around town for guests included in the stay! Sima dropped us off at Mendenhall Glacier and also took us to a couple popular tourist spots in Juneau. If you’ve never used Airbnb, sign up here for free and receive $40 credit off your first stay!
Alaska Fjords and Glaciers: Juneau to Ketchikan (or reverse)
We took the 7 day Alaska fjords and glaciers cruise aboard the 78 passenger Wilderness Explorer. The natural beauty we saw each day was incredible. Here is what you can expect to experience on this trip:
Sample Highlights Include:
- Dawes Glacier and ice-rich Endicott Arm
- Whale watching in Stephens Passage
- Adventure exploration in Misty Fjords National Monument
- Tlingit cultural presentation
- Kiksetti Totem Park and Chief Shakes Tribal House visit
- Tongass backcountry by kayak, paddle board, skiff, and hike
- Search for wildlife—bears, Sitka black-tailed deer, sea lions, eagles, mink, porpoises, and mountain goats
- Navigate winding Wrangell Narrows and Behm Canal
Before boarding the ship in Juneau, all passengers have their photos taken. The photos get put into “The Face Book” that is then placed in the lounge. The binder includes all the passengers and staff aboard the ship, so if you forget somebody’s name you can look in the book without having to ask them again. Imagine this on a giant cruise ship? The intimate nature of a small ship cruise makes it easy to make some new friends. We hung out with several people aboard the ship including crew who we hope to see again in the future!
South Sawyer Glacier and Tracey Arm Fjord
We visited South Sawyer Glacier on the first full day of the 7-day Alaska fjords and glaciers UnCruise adventure cruise. South Sawyer Glacier is located at the end of the Tracey Arm fjord. We disembarked the Wilderness Explorer onto small ship skiff boat tours to get a closer look at the glacier. The skiff boats can safely get as close to half a mile to 3/4 of a mile from the glacier (around 1km).
The magnificent sheet of ice appears blue due to the way sunlight reflects off the face after chunks of ice break off – glacial calving. We witnessed massive chunks of ice as high as 20 stories collapse into the sea before our eyes. This was one of several eye-popping highlights of the cruise.
Exploring a glacier up close is like entering another world. The skiff boat navigates around bergy bits (small icebergs) so everyone gets excellent up-close views of the glacier. Harbor seals lounge on many of the bergy bits and being curious animals, they often gaze back at visitors, possibly wondering what we were doing on their turf!
The Tracey Arm fjord is also dramatically beautiful. From the ship, we watched mountain goats precariously climb steep terrains that keep them safe from predators like bears. There are binoculars all over the ship that you can pick up to have a better look at the wildlife!
At the glacier, guests were given the option of doing the polar plunge. About a third of the passengers aboard braved the elements to dive into the frigid waters, including Bell. I happily stayed aboard the ship enjoying coffee and freshly baked cookies, while taking some photos and video of everyone leaping off the skiff boats!
Tongass National Forest
The Tongass National Forest is the world’s biggest temperate rainforest. It’s also the largest national forest in the USA, at 16.7 million acres, covering most of southeast Alaska. This area of protected wilderness is an unspoiled playground to explore wildlife during an Alaska cruise.
We loved exploring the Tongass National Forest on guided hiking and kayaking excursions. The staff of UnCruise are extremely knowledgable about the area and passionate about their jobs and the environment around them. Watching their eyes light up onshore walks, like a kid in a candy store, while explaining aquatic life like sea urchins is both enjoyable and contagious.
Misty Fjords National Monument
22 miles east of Ketchikan, Misty Fjords National Monument is spectacular. Steep fjords and cliffs jut upwards of 3000 ft straight out of the ocean. There is almost constant precipitation in the area and the monument is covered with thick rainforests that grow on nearly vertical slopes from sea level to mountaintops. It Stretches 2.3 million acres across Tongass National Forest.
Sailing through Misty Fjords National Monument aboard UnCruise is a stunning site. All the rooms aboard the Wilderness Explorer have sea views, and we spent part of the time just enjoying the spectacular site from the privacy of our room. Of course, it’s also great to view from the bow or stern of the ship so you can enjoy the perspective of both sides.
It was magnificent to see humpback whales during the cruise. And anytime there were whales, it was announced so everyone could quickly dart outside for a better look. One evening we saw humpback whales during our UnCruise, and it’s also common to see Orcas and other whales.
If you’re lucky, you may see humpback whales engage in bubble feeding. This happens when a group of humpback whales circles and captures a school of smaller fish like salmon, krill or herring through a team effort. They create a net of bubbles through their blow horns which allows several whales to feed off many fish at once. While we did not witness bubble feeding ourselves, some fellow passengers who were on another UnCruise the previous week from Sitka to Juneau told us they saw it. And it’s not an uncommon occurrence to see this in southeast Alaska!
One of the many highlights of our UnCruise was witnessing the Northern Lights on two of the seven nights of the cruise. The Northern Lights occur when gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere collide with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that collide.
We witnessed primarily light green and also pink streaks dance in the night sky from the bow of the ship, over nice cocktails. The bartender, Brad, told us that seeing the Northern Lights never gets old because nature’s performance is never the same. We had actually not seen them before, so it was an absolute thrill for us. While you’re not guaranteed to see them, if the night sky is clear, you have a good chance.
Photo Tip: To capture the northern lights you will need a tripod and a lens with an f-stop of around 2.8. The difficulty in capturing them in focus is that both the northern lights and the boat are moving. To overcome this, on the manual setting of your camera, lower the f-stop as far as you can, the longest exposure you can use is 1.5 seconds because of the movement and so finally you will need to set your ISO to the maximum available to you. You might be able to get a photo on your phone as a memory if that is all you have, if you have an iPhone though you will need to download a manual photo app prior to your UnCruise! so that you can increase the ISO and adjust the exposure time.
Wrangell and Tlingit Cultural Experience
The stop in Wrangell offers an opportunity to do some shopping and experience a little of small-town Alaskan life. Highlights of Wrangell include Chief Shakes Tribal House, Tlingit totem polls, Wrangell Museum and petroglyph rock carvings on the beach.
Our UnCruise included a Tlingit cultural presentation in Wrangell. Chief Shakes Tribal House is an impressive example of traditional Tlingit woodcarvings. Arthur and Sue currently run the house and they regaled everyone with stories of their ancestors, Tlingit traditions and life in Alaska.
Wrangell Museum is packed with local artifacts and information on the history of the town and region. The petroglyph rock carvings on the beach are also worth visiting, especially since the view of the Alaskan mountains from the beach is stunning. We had just enough time in Wrangell to do all three of these things, and admission fees are included in the UnCruise package.
Ketchikan is a popular cruise ship stop near Misty Fjords, and it’s where our UnCruise concluded. Ketchikan is known as the “salmon capital of the world.” And we’ve never seen as many salmon as we did in Ketchikan’s waterways. Ketchikan is also a great destination for Native American and gold rush history. Totem polls in the area add to the stunning scenery of the inner passage Alaskan town. There’s a Totem Heritage Center right in Ketchikan and multiple totem parks just outside town, including Saxman Native Village a couple miles south and the Totem Bight Historical Park just north.
You can also watch harbor seals feeding off salmon in the harbor along Creek Street, the former Red Light District dotted with timber houses. You may even see whales in the harbor. Other wildlife in the area includes black bears, wolves and bald eagles.
Plan to spend an extra day in Ketchikan before or after your cruise. We stayed at the Inn at Creek Street, located in the center of Ketchikan. Many of the rooms have scenic views of the harbor. Rooms are comfortable, with plush beds, large flat screen TV’s and coffee makers. Their on-site New York Cafe serves gourmet coffees and craft beers that pair well with breakfast or another meal.
What to Expect from a Small Ship UnCruise Adventure Cruise?
Small ship cruises offer an intimate experience with the Alaska landscape and a highly knowledgable and enthusiastic staff. An easy dock system means kayaks are dispatched straight from the stern of the ship. Small ship skiff boats are also loaded right from the ship, for those that don’t want to paddle.
A typical day on an UnCruise Ship consists of multiple two-hour excursions. One excursion in the morning and another in the afternoon, with lunch aboard the ship in between. Typically guests choose between kayaking, skiff boat tours, hiking and bushwhacking. There were a few all-day excursions offered, and for those that choose that, boxed lunched are provided. Bell did the all-day hike, which is intended to be a challenging hike intended for those looking for that experience.
While these are not big ship cruises packed with water slides, go-karts or mini-golf, there is a hot tub on the bow of the ship. The hot tub is a wonderful place to relax after an action packed day outdoors. Grab a drink from the lounge and enjoy the beautiful Alaskan scenery from the hot tub.
The food aboard the Wilderness Explorer is fantastic. Meals are sometimes themed and there’s always alternatives for common dietary restrictions like gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian. Some of the highlights included Dungeness crab legs, duck gumbo, filet steaks and so much more. They also offer excellent wines and craft beers to pair with the delicious food.
Does UnCruise cater to food allergies?
Yes, and they cater to food allergies amazingly well. Bell has a gluten allergy and I have a dairy allergy and they made sure we never felt left out. If pancakes or waffles were being served for breakfast, they had gluten and dairy-free pancakes and waffles for us. There was always gluten and dairy-free cookies and desserts available as well. And when dining is buffet style, all food is marked whether it’s suitable for gluten-free, dairy-free or vegetarian diets.
The staff aboard UnCruise are passionate about what they do and provide an exceptional customer service experience.
Who is an Alaska UnCruise Adventure Cruise For?
The UnCruise experience is perfect for those that don’t want to be aboard a cruise ship with thousands of people. If you want the showcase of your trip to be the beautiful Alaskan scenery, instead of an onboard shopping mall, this experience is right up your alley. There are no interior cabins on the Wilderness Explorer ship, meaning that all guests can see the dramatic Alaskan landscape right from their rooms. UnCruise offers a more intimate experience with the Alaskan wilderness compared to big ship cruises.
Who is Alaska UnCruise Probably Not For?
If you’re looking to gamble on the cruise ship or party in nightclubs, UnCruise is probably not for you. Gaming tables and clubs are not options on small cruise ships. There is a lounge aboard the Wilderness Explorer and alcoholic drinks are inclusive of the price. Every evening our bartender Brad featured a specialty cocktail that we were always curious to try. There are excellent drink choices on the ship ranging from craft beer, artisan wine and a great liquor selection including excellent single malt scotch like McCallan’s 12 year old. But the lounge closes at 11 pm as breakfast is around 7:30 am every day, so guests can make the most of outdoor excursions. You can still have a great time on an UnCruise but the party ends around 11 pm.
How Much Does a 7 Day Alaska Fjords and Glaciers UnCruise adventure cruise cost and what is included?
The price starts at $3,195 per person. That includes all food and drinks (including all alcohol) aboard the ship. It also includes all excursions like kayaking, guided hikes, bushwhacking and skiff tours. There was only one tour not included – the Anan Creek Bear Observatory, run by a separate company. That was an optional tour we didn’t take as we chose to spend that time exploring the town of Wrangell. There are binoculars all over the ship, included in the cabins, to use during the cruise. During the cruise the staff takes photos, and after the cruise ends you receive a link to access all the photos for free.
Optional gratuities are excluded and UnCruise recommends paying gratuities of $25-$35 per person, per day.
Is there Wifi Aboard UnCruise?
Wifi is not included on UnCruise ships. It’s part of the companies ethos about disconnecting from technology and living the moment in your surroundings, including the people around you. We personally found the break from the internet very refreshing. There are some areas where the ship picks up a cell signal, including the stop in the town of Wrangell. So while there is no WiFi, you should have some opportunities to access the internet during the 7-day cruise.
What Should You Pack for an Alaska Cruise?
While Alaskan summers are mild and temperatures can be quite warm, the weather can be cold and rainy. That means waterproof jackets, pants and rubber boots are a must. If you forget rubber boots, UnCruise has rubber boots on board, but they can’t guarantee enough of all sizes, so if you have a pair bring them along.
Clothing, Layering & Fabrics
The style on board UnCruise is casual so t-shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, jeans, khakis and even shorts are acceptable. For outdoor activities, pack clothes that layer: convertible hiking pants, moisture-wicking base layers, and thermal underwear (top to bottom). Multiple thin layers are better than one or two thick ones.
You are going to get wet! Pack a heavy-duty, waterproof rain jacket and pair of rain pants. Fleece jackets/pullovers and zip-up vests are good for layering and warmth. Bring a scarf, gloves, and warm, water-resistant hat that covers your ears. If you’re traveling with kids, bring an extra pair of gloves as they get wet.
A pair of calf-high rubber boots, Wellingtons, or gummies is a must.
Check out the full UnCruise packing list for Alaska.
Alaska Early Bird Savings for 2020 cruises on UnCruise
Save $1,200 per couple ($600/person) aboard the S.S. Legacy — Commander cabins and above. Promo code: EARLYBIRD20.
Save $1,000 per couple ($500/person) per week aboard the Wilderness Discoverer or Wilderness Explorer — Trailblazer cabins and above. Savings double on 14-night cruises. Promo code: EARLYBIRD10.
Offer valid on NEW 2020 Alaska reservations booked May 24–December 13, 2019
Checkout all of the UnCruise Alaska cruise options. Their cruises range in length from 7 – 14 days. To read about the Columbia and Snake Rivers UnCruise check out this post from Brianna at the Casual Travelist!
Writing by Alex Kallimanis
Photography by Bell Kallimanis