America’s largest state (586,000 sq. miles or one-fifth the entire country) and her last frontier, Alaska comprises 19 national and 55 state parks, 3,000 rivers, 1,800 islands, and over 100,000 glaciers. Now, thanks to many new family adventure offerings from cruise and land tour operators, Alaska has become a more practical and affordable destination. With such an awesome variety of scenic wonders, wildlife, fascinating native cultures, and both “soft” and “hard” adventures, planning is key to a successful visit with children. Let’s review the state’s five distinct regions and what they have to offer.
“Research your trip extremely well, Alaska is expensive as travel goes. Trust local knowledge, plan well and carefully, and you will have a great trip no matter what area you choose.” – Clint Hlebechuk, Hallo Bay Bear Lodge
Orientation to Alaska’s Regions
Inside Passage: This waterway runs from Prince Rupert, B.C., along the Canadian coast past fantastic fjords and forested islands, to Haines or Skagway, Alaska. This is the best-known region and comprises Stewart, Ketchikan (a fishing mecca), Juneau (the capital), Haines, and Sitka, an old Russian town whose visitors appreciate its architecture and Tlingit Indian totem poles. Glacier Bay boasts 12 glaciers and sightings of orcas, seals, sea lions, humpback whales and other animals during the June to September high season.
South Central: The Prince William Sound (10,000 sq. miles of fjords and glaciers) area, is a sea kayaker’s heaven. Daytrips in the region leave from Whittier (ferry cruises) or Cordova (fishing and hiking), towns which also offer tourist services. The larger cities are Anchorage (for downhill skiing, Gold Rush tours, and museums) and Seward (cruises to the Kenai Peninsula for amazing fishing and moose-spotting). In winter, there’s cross country skiing and the Iditarod race.
Southwest: This area includes the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea, and Katmai National Park, famed for its wealth of wildlife, with the highest brown bear population in the state. Kodiak is a rich fishing area, where halibut, silver salmon and King salmon abound. The region’s volcanic terrain and dramatic mountain scenery are much less seen than other parts of the state.
The Interior: Fairbanks, Alaska’s second-largest city and site of the 1902 Gold Rush, has museums and historic sites of the state’s pioneer days. From mid-May through July you’ll really have trouble putting kids to sleep with 20 hours of daylight! The North Pole is due north, and Denali National Park — featuring Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America and a mecca for adventurers — is due south. Both areas offer prime hiking, rock- and ice-climbing, horseback riding, family educational activities, and dozens of wilderness and birding tours. The Midnight Sun Express train offers sightseeing journeys by rail; the Alaska Highway by car.
Far North: The Arctic Wilderness Wildlife Refuge is one of the most stunning, least visited areas. Barrow, 330 mi. north of the Arctic Circle and known as the “Top of the World,” delivers the midnight sun and freezing temperatures in summer, the Northern Lights in winter, and a small town of drying caribou skins, lazy huskies, and ethnic Inuit (Eskimo) families year-round.
Family Options: Escorted Alaska Sea & Land Tours
Families with time and an adventurous spirit will enjoy wandering around in an all-terrain vehicle and camping out, or taking public transportation between cities. Families with limited time and a fixed budget should consider all-inclusive cruises or a land tour by train or bus.
Cruises are set up for easy sightseeing with younger children, and provide companions for siblings of disparate ages and only children. Be sure you understand their childcare options on “shore excursion” days.
For less-expensive train or bus tours, ask if there will be enough free time for kids to roam and run on their own. Is the tour guide skilled at handling children? Will there be other kids on board? If you’re traveling with teens, consider the state’s many exciting eco-tours, but keep in mind that these tend to be the most expensive options because of their participatory nature and location — usually off the beaten path.
Organized, fully-guided tours with other families provide an exciting and educational experience. Discounted children’s rates are often available.
Backroads (800/GO-ACTIVE) Several departures between June and August take family adventurers ages 6+ on 6-day “Multisport” trips to bike, hike and kayak Denali National Park and the Kenai Peninsula.
GorpTravel.com GORP Travel offers links to many Alaska adventure trips, with dozens of departure dates. For example, their Alaska Explorer Safari trip (minimum age 12) through Alaska Wildland Adventures, combines multiple sports, lodging, and camping in a 9-day excursion.
Among the major cruise companies, these are luxury cruise operators offering group childcare (which means little ones may spend more time indoors, playing, than outdoors viewing wildlife), expert staff, varied nightlife, health spas, handicapped facilities, casinos, shops, swimming pools, other shipboard sports facilities, shore excursions in smaller vessels, and all-inclusive prices. Several other cruise companies also offer Alaska sailings, so contact a cruise-travel agent to explore itineraries and rates.
Carnival Cruise Line (888/CARNIVAL) features the Spirit where your kids (ages 2-17 in age-appropriate groups) can attend Camp Carnival, where activities include arts and crafts, games and sea animal exploration. Special features include playrooms with computers, a kid’s wading pool, and group babysitting in the evenings. The Spirit sails three distinct seven day cruises: Glacier Bay, Northbound and Southbound, each with its own unique itinerary.
Holland America Lines (877/932-4259 ) features the year-round Club HAL (ages 3-12, divided into two age groups) on all their luxury cruise ships, offering campers the opportunity to participate in special onshore adventures including hiking, a scavenger hunt, and a visit to a totem pole center. Teens, ages 13-17, have their own activities like karaoke, Alaska Trivia, video games and a polar bear swim. Also, if there are more than 100 children on board, a HAL Talent Show will be organized by the kid-friendly staff.
Norwegian Cruise Line (866/234-7350 ) presents “Freestyle Cruising” with flexible dining options and several kids menus. The Kid’s Crew (for 3 to 17-year-olds, divided into four age groups) is available on itineraries from Vancouver through the Inside Passage, and from Seattle to Glacier Bay. Group babysitting is available every evening and on port days.
Princess Cruises (800/PRINCESS) offers Princess Fun Zone (ages 3-17, divided into 3 groups) a dedicated children’s center, as well as a Teen Center, staffed by coordinators during the busy summer season. Note that infants under 6 months are not allowed, nor is private babysitting an option, however, there is evening group babysitting. The Alaska Junior Ranger Program (ages 6-12) and the Teen Explorer Program offers special age-appropriate activities.
Royal Caribbean International (866/562-7625 ) has a class-act reputation with discerning travelers and won first-place in a poll of family travelers for its wonderful Adventure Ocean (ages 3-17) kids’ camp program and facilities. Special features include a teen center (open until 2am), a well-equipped arcade, “playgroups” for 6-36 month olds, and evening group babysitting (fee based).
Alaskan Eco-Adventure Tour Operators & Family Offerings
Eco-adventure Tours are anther popular option, especially for families with older children. In a region where nature and wildlife rule, some of the best travels come from experiencing an area naturally, thus putting man’s creature comforts in second place. Those seeking smaller adventures and vessels to provide access to secluded fjords, bays, rivers, and villages beyond the reach of the mega-ships can choose from the following:
American Safari Cruises (888/862-8881 ) has five yachts that carry between 6 and 39 passengers on 7, 8 or 14/N trips between Juneau and Sitka, Prince Rupert or Seattle.
Alaska Adventure Cruises (206/310-2309 ) offers small-scale, scenic trips aboard the vessels of the Alaska Charter Yachts cooperative, for those who like to support local business when they travel. Each company has its own set of itineraries–expect plenty of local lore, up-close-and-personal wildlife viewing, and sea kayaking opportunities.
Cruise West (888/851-8133) gives passengers the opportunity to sail through narrow passageways to remote villages, in the Inside Passage, Glacier Bay, and more. On ships with a capacity of under 138 guests, passengers are brought as close as possible to glaciers and wildlife.
Hallo Bay Bear Camp in Kodiak (907/235-2237 , 888/535-2237) is an award-winning, eco-wilderness operation (actually self-catered cabins with a maximum of 6 guests) on the Pacific coast of Katmai, in an area dense with brown bears, great ocean fishing, and marine life. Children are welcome, but must be under parental supervision at all times.
Lindblad Expeditions (800/EXPEDITION, 212/765-7740 ) offers educational outdoors-oriented cruises that stick to wilderness areas and tiny port towns. Off-vessel excursions are by motorized launch and on foot. Expedition staff are whale experts, and research scientists often come along.
Alaska’s Budget Tours & DIY Lodging Resources
Your family can create a wonderful diverse itinerary if everyone’s willing to rough it a little, do lots of research, and make hotel reservations in advance. Note that ferries spend only 1-2 hours in each port, so overnight sightseeing stops will be necessary. There are some good choices among the state’s public transportation.
By Ferry: Alaska Marine Highway (800/642-0066 , 907/465-3941 ) A budget alternative to the mega-cruise ships and eco-friendlier expedition vessels mentioned above, the Alaska State Ferry is “transportation” rather than “cruising.”
There are four separate ferry routes:
- The Inside Passage Route from Canada to Alaska
- The Southcentral Route across Prince William Sound to Whittier and Valdez, or from Kenai Peninsula to Kodiak
- The Southwest route (seasonal service only) to the Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula
- The Cross Gulf Route from Juneau, Prince Rupert, and Ketchikan to Whittier
Passengers can board at Bellingham, Washington (near Seattle), Prince Rupert, B.C. and several ports in Alaska. Ferry rates vary according to season, distance, and passenger ages; cars and food extra. Some vessels have reading rooms, play areas, and on-board Forest Service experts to give lectures.
By Train: The Alaska Railroad (800/544-0552 , 907/265-2494 ) runs 470 miles within this scenic state, from Seward in the south to Fairbanks in the north. Connecting service to Anchorage runs by Denali State Park and Mt. McKinley. Summer or winter season passes and organized tours are available; call 800/248-7598 or visit www.alaskapass.com for more info.
By RV: Great Alaskan Holidays (888/225-2752) lets you travel across the state at your own pace in a modern Winnebago. A variety of floorplans are available including queen beds, dining area, TV and kitchen. The company will also match prices on any motorhome rental with their Best Rates Available offer.
Bed & Breakfasts: B & B rooms run $55-$110/double depending on season. You can search an online database through Alaska B & B Reservations (907/235-2148 ; fax 907/235-3773) or visit the Alaska Travel Industry Association’s website.
Camping: Call Alaska State Parks (907/269-8400 in Anchorage, 907/451-2705 or 907/451-2705 in Fairbanks); or Alaska Public Lands (907/271-2737, or 907/271-2737 in Anchorage, 907/456-0527 or 907/456-0527 in Fairbanks, or 866/869-6887 toll-free) for campground information.
Hotels and Lodges: There are several hotel chains in every price range in the major cities. The charming and picturesque lodges in the park areas tend to be expensive and cater to tours. Ask your travel agent for help in booking rooms, especially during the peak summer months.
For More Information
Contact the Alaska Travel Industry Association (800/478-1255 ). Here are some excellent guidebooks to help you plan your adventure:
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.