5 Best Cruise Destinations In Southeast Alaska (My Ranking)

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If you’re considering taking a cruise to Southeast Alaska, it’s important to know which ports are the best.

The very concept of “the best” is subjective, of course, which I freely admit. However, I’ve lived in Southeast Alaska for my entire life.

I have been to every port that will appear on this list and only the places I have been to will be on this list.

The ones I haven’t visited are pretty small, like Kake. I’ve never been there, although my friend who sat by me in math class in 6th grade lives there with her husband and their children now.

I know that she enjoys living there and that it’s a pretty small town. Those are the only things I know about Kake. So it won’t be on the list. Luckily, I’ve been to every place where a cruise ship is likely to stop.

At the port in Skagway

Here are the top cruise ship ports in Southeast Alaska, as ranked by me. If you asked 21 people from here to rank the ports, you’d probably get 21 different answers. However, this is the ranking I like the best (because it is my ranking).

These are in descending order, starting with number one and going on down. I don’t believe in countdown lists that make you scroll all the way down to the bottom just to find out what number one is.

The 5 Best Cruise Ports In Southeast Alaska (My Opinion)

1. Juneau

Okay, this seems a bit biased since I’ve lived in Juneau my entire life, but in my defense, we are the state capital and largest city in Southeast Alaska.

Hiking to Mendenhall Glacier (Sít) near Juneau, Tongass National Forest

For most cruisers, Juneau is considered the best cruise destination in Southeast Alaska due to its unique blend of natural beauty, rich history, and diverse cultural experiences. Few places offer the same breadth of attractions and activities that can cater to such a wide array of interests.

A major highlight of Juneau is its striking natural attractions, such as the Mendenhall Glacier and the Tracy Arm Fjord. The city also provides a wealth of wildlife viewing opportunities, with a high probability of spotting whales, bears, seals, and eagles. For history and culture enthusiasts, Juneau offers rich experiences like the Alaska State Museum and the vibrant downtown area with unique shops featuring native Alaskan art.

Outdoor activities in Juneau range from adventurous to leisurely, including hiking, fishing, dog sledding, and sea kayaking, as well as scenic tramway rides. The city’s focus on education and conservation can be seen in attractions like the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and guided wildlife viewing tours.

Juneau Highlights

  • Mendenhall Glacier: A stunning 13.6-mile-long glacier with walking and hiking trails.
  • Tracy Arm Fjord: A scenic fjord with waterfalls, wildlife, and icebergs.
  • Alaska State Museum: Showcases Alaskan Native cultures, natural history, and art.
  • Mount Roberts Tramway: Provides stunning views of the city and surrounding mountains.
  • Whale Watching: Offers a high probability of spotting humpback whales during summer.
  • Alaskan Brewing Company: Crafts award-winning beers using local ingredients.
  • Gold Rush History: Explore Juneau’s rich history at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum and the AJ Mine/Gastineau Mill.
  • Shopping and Dining: Experience native Alaskan art, jewelry, and a range of dining options.
  • Outdoor Activities: Engage in hiking, fishing, dog sledding, and sea kayaking.

In short, Juneau’s appeal lies in its well-developed infrastructure for tourism, including shuttle services and guided tours, making it an easy city to explore. Its unique experiences like walking on a glacier, watching a whale breach, or sipping a beer brewed with glacial water truly set it apart as a standout cruise destination.

Explore: If Juneau is on your itinerary, check out the perfect 1 day itinerary so you don’t miss anything!

2. Skagway

Port of Call at Skagway, Alaska (Inside Passage Cruise)

Skagway is absolutely one of my favorite towns in Southeast Alaska to visit. Back before the Alaska Marine Highway reduced its hours, I used to take day trips up there all the time.

For me, Skagway gets the number two spot because the downtown area is so compact, even more than Juneau’s.

Everything is so close together, you can visit every place you’d like to see within about a four-block radius, plus the shops that you hadn’t researched but catch your eye as you travel the boardwalk.

Known as the “Gateway to the Klondike,” Skagway served as the main stepping-off point for the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s. Today, it captivates visitors with its well-preserved gold-rush-era buildings, fascinating history, and the stunning natural beauty of its surrounding landscapes.

Skagway’s rich history comes alive in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, where you can learn about the gold rush era through preserved historic buildings and informative exhibits. You can further explore this period of history by walking along the town’s wooden boardwalks, visiting old saloons, or taking a tour of the Red Onion Brothel Museum.

The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad is one of Skagway’s top attractions. This scenic railway trip takes you on a breathtaking journey up steep grades, past gushing waterfalls and towering mountains, following the trail the gold miners took over a century ago.

Nature lovers will appreciate the hiking trails around Skagway, especially the famous Chilkoot Trail, once used by gold rush prospectors. The trail offers a challenging multi-day hike, but shorter walks are also possible for a taste of Alaska’s pristine wilderness.

Skagway Highlights

  • Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park: Learn about the gold rush era through historic buildings and exhibits.
  • White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad: A scenic railway trip that offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
  • Red Onion Brothel Museum: A former brothel that offers tours providing insights into Skagway’s past.
  • Chilkoot Trail: A historic trail that offers a challenging multi-day hike through Alaska’s wilderness.
  • Historic Downtown: Explore wooden boardwalks, old saloons, and charming local shops.
  • Skagway Museum and Archives: Houses a collection of gold rush artifacts and native Tlingit items.
  • Outdoor Adventures: Engage in hiking, biking, dog sledding, and wildlife spotting.
  • Jewell Gardens & Glassblowing Demo: Visit a show garden with a model train and enjoy glassblowing demonstrations.

Related: Check out our Sitka vs. Skagway Comparison if you can’t decide!

Skagway provides an engaging mix of history, culture, and natural beauty. The charm of this gold-rush town, combined with the breathtaking landscapes that surround it, creates a unique Alaskan experience that captivates all who visit. Its well-preserved historical sites, coupled with opportunities for outdoor adventures, make it a standout cruise destination.

3. Ketchikan

Ketchikan is a beautiful town situated on Revillagigedo Island and one that I’ve personally visited many times.

Not only does my college roommate live there, but there are many smaller towns whose only access is by a float plane that leaves from Ketchikan Seaplane Base.

Ketchikan is known as Alaska’s “First City” due to its location at the southern tip of the Inside Passage and is often a favorite for people who want to experience the culture of the PNW. This vibrant town offers a blend of native culture, scenic beauty, and outdoor adventures that make it a memorable port of call for any Alaskan cruise.

Ketchikan is renowned for its rich native heritage, which can be seen in its impressive totem poles scattered around the town. Totem Bight State Historical Park and Saxman Native Village provide glimpses into the Tlingit and Haida cultures, showcasing intricate carvings and traditional dances.

The city’s waterfront promenade, Creek Street, is a historic boardwalk perched on pilings along the banks of Ketchikan Creek. Once notorious as the town’s red-light district, it’s now a charming area with quaint shops, galleries, and restaurants. This area also offers a window into Ketchikan’s past as a salmon-canning capital at the nearby Dolly’s House Museum and Tongass Historical Museum.

Outdoor enthusiasts can explore Misty Fjords National Monument, a wilderness area of soaring cliffs, waterfalls, and serene lakes. Wildlife spotting, fishing, and ziplining are other popular activities in Ketchikan.

Ketchikan Highlights

  • Totem Bight State Historical Park: An open-air park showcasing 15 totem poles and a traditional clan house.
  • Saxman Native Village: Offers cultural tours featuring totem poles, native arts and crafts, and Tlingit dances.
  • Creek Street: A historic boardwalk with unique shops, galleries, and restaurants.
  • Dolly’s House Museum: Gives insights into the town’s past during the gold rush era.
  • Tongass Historical Museum: Details the history of Ketchikan and Southeast Alaska.
  • Misty Fjords National Monument: A stunning wilderness area that can be explored by boat or floatplane.
  • Wildlife Viewing: Opportunities to see bald eagles, black bears, and seals in their natural habitats.
  • Fishing: Known as the “Salmon Capital of the World,” Ketchikan offers excellent opportunities for fishing.
  • Outdoor Adventures: Engage in hiking, ziplining, and kayaking.

In Ketchikan, you can enjoy the charm of a historic Alaskan town, rich cultural experiences, and an array of outdoor adventures, making it an exciting cruise port for visitors of all interests. Its blend of history, culture, and wilderness creates a unique Alaskan experience that is hard to match.

4. Sitka

Sitka is another great town in Southeast Alaska and quite honestly could be higher on this list. Please don’t be fooled into thinking it’s bad just because I have it fourth out of five on this list.

The only reason it’s this low is that the main cruise ship dock is a few miles north of the city center and passengers have to take a shuttle into town.

Sitka has some of the best fishing charters in the state, including the previously mentioned halibut that I love so much.

Sitka, located on Baranof Island, is an Alaskan cruise destination that uniquely combines natural beauty, rich history, and vibrant culture. This picturesque town, once the capital of Russian America, offers an intriguing blend of Tlingit, Russian, and American influences, making it quite distinct from other Alaskan ports.

Historical highlights include the Sitka National Historical Park, where you can learn about the Tlingit people and the Battle of Sitka. The park features a beautiful coastal trail lined with totem poles. The Russian Bishop’s House and St. Michael’s Cathedral also offer glimpses into Sitka’s Russian past.

For wildlife enthusiasts, the Alaska Raptor Center rehabilitates injured birds of prey and offers up-close encounters. The Fortress of the Bear allows visitors to observe rescued brown bears in a large naturalized environment. Sea tours and kayaking trips can provide opportunities to see marine wildlife, including otters, whales, and seals.

The local arts scene is also vibrant, with galleries showcasing native art, and events like the annual Sitka Summer Music Festival highlighting the town’s cultural charm.

Sitka Highlights

  • Sitka National Historical Park: Learn about the Tlingit people and see totem poles along a beautiful coastal trail.
  • Russian Bishop’s House: Explore this well-preserved example of Russian colonial architecture.
  • St. Michael’s Cathedral: An iconic symbol of Sitka’s Russian heritage.
  • Alaska Raptor Center: Rehabilitates injured birds of prey and offers educational programs.
  • Fortress of the Bear: Observe rescued brown bears in a naturalized environment.
  • Sea Tours and Kayaking: Opportunities to spot marine wildlife like otters, whales, and seals.
  • Local Arts Scene: Visit galleries showcasing native art and enjoy cultural events.
  • Sheldon Jackson Museum: Houses a unique collection of Native Alaskan artifacts.

Sitka’s blend of cultures, set against a backdrop of towering mountains and the sparkling Pacific Ocean, make it a uniquely charming Alaskan cruise destination. Whether you’re interested in history, wildlife, culture, or the sheer beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, Sitka offers a captivating and memorable experience for every visitor.

Also, don’t sleep on the restaurant inside the airport. My friends took me there last time I was in town and I can’t recommend it enough.

Related: Check out our Sitka vs. Ketchikan Comparison if you can’t decide!

5. Haines

Haines is on the bottom of this list and it’s nothing personal against the city. I don’t mean it as a sign of disrespect, I just haven’t been there in a few years and, the last time I went, there was only one ATM in town – which was out of order.

Ignoring that small grudge I hold, Haines is a beautiful place. During cruise ship season, you’ll probably see a few bald eagles.

However, no matter what time you’re there, Haines’ hidden gem is the American Bald Eagle Foundation, which I first visited in elementary school when my third-grade class took a day trip to Haines to go see bald eagles.

If you came in November, you’d see a lot more. Roughly 3,000 or so bald eagles show up near the town as it’s convenient for them to catch the salmon that are on their last spawning run.

If you’re in for a different kind of festival, Southeast Alaska Beerfest takes place at the end of May every year at the Haines Fairgrounds.

I’ve never gone, but I have friends who love it so much they go there every year, including a couple who live in Seattle who fly up to Juneau and then take the ferry.

Haines is nestled along the northern part of Alaska’s Inside Passage, and is known as the “Adventure Capital of Alaska,” because it’s commonly used as a hub for mountain climbers, hikers, kayakers, and just about any other outdoor activity Alaska has to offer.

Fort William H. Seward seen from Chilkoot Inlet

History buffs will appreciate Fort William H. Seward, a National Historic Landmark that is the first permanently established army post in Alaska. The Hammer Museum, with its unique and quirky collection of hammers, and the Sheldon Museum & Cultural Center, focusing on Tlingit culture and regional history, offer fascinating insights into the town’s past and culture.

Haines Highlights

  • Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve: Spot the world’s largest gathering of bald eagles.
  • Fort William H. Seward: Explore Alaska’s first permanently established army post.
  • Hammer Museum: Home to a unique and extensive collection of hammers.
  • Sheldon Museum & Cultural Center: Learn about Tlingit culture and regional history.
  • Chilkoot River: A prime spot for viewing bears, especially during the salmon run.
  • Outdoor Adventures: Hiking, rafting, fishing, and wildlife spotting opportunities abound.
  • Port Chilkoot Distillery: Sample handcrafted spirits in a former army bakery.
  • Art and Craft Galleries: Discover local talent in Haines’ thriving art scene.

Haines offers the charm of a small Alaskan town with its unique museums, historic landmarks, and exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities. Its vibrant community, serene landscapes, and varied outdoor activities make it a unique and rewarding cruise destination.

Arranging The Perfect S.E. Alaska Cruise

Okay, here’s the truth of the matter. If you’re visiting Alaska for the first time, you probably don’t need to be very picky about which places you’re going to stop. Pretty much every cruise ship stops at Ketchikan and Juneau and then adds in either Sitka or Skagway (typically Skagway).

Either way, you’ll have a blast.

Most people want to experience the culture of Alaska, see a bunch of scenery and amazing wildlife, and maybe touch a glacier. You can do that just about anywhere.

So just book a cruise (any cruise) and leave the nitpicky town vs. town debate for a later trip!

Conclusion – Sorry, Petersburg!

This is just a list of the five best cruise ship ports in Southeast Alaska, in one man’s opinion.

I did not list Petersburg because I honestly don’t remember anything about it, other than going there once when I was nine and getting awful pizza at a place that no longer exists.

I did not list Wrangell because they get like three or four total cruise ships a month and there isn’t a lot to do there anyway (Sorry, guys).

I hope you’ve enjoyed this list, I hope it helps you plan your next cruise to Alaska, and once again, I am sorry to the people of Haines and every other city I snubbed.