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16 cheap and free things to do on an Alaska cruise to avoid spending hundreds on shore excursions

14 Aug 2023
Jenna DeLaurentis

Shore excursions on an Alaska cruise can quickly ruin any budget. For those cruising to the 49th state on a budget, it can be challenging to figure out what to do in port without breaking the bank.

Alaska activities for free

Activities like whale watching, helicopter rides, dog sledding, and scenic flightseeing excursions may be bucket-list activities to try on an Alaska cruise, but they certainly aren’t cheap. Fortunately, instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars on these tours, there are a plethora of low-cost—or even free—ways to spend your day in Alaska cruise ports.

The most commonly visited cruise ports in Alaska include Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, and Ketchikan, and each of these ports offers low-cost activities ranging from hiking trails to museums, aquariums, and even glacier visits.

If you’re hoping to keep costs down but still have a wonderful experience while visiting Alaska, it’s helpful to know what options are available in each port.

Here are 16 cheap and free things to do in Alaska’s four most popular cruise ports.

Cheap and free things to do in Skagway

Skagway is a small town located at the most northerly part of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Situated on mainland North America just fourteen miles from Canada, Skagway is stunning, with tall, snow capped peaks dominating the landscape.

Skagway is most known for its role in the Klondike Gold Rush, and many attractions in Skagway showcase the town’s gold rush history, including the famous White Pass & Yukon Route Railway and the Gold Rush Cemetery.

Plenty of activities in Skagway are free, and here are some of our favorite things to do in this charming small town.

Gold Rush Cemetery and Lower Reid Falls

Skagway is known for its Gold Rush history, and you can walk to the Gold Rush Cemetery for free. The cemetery is located a half hour walk from downtown Skagway, or you can take the Skagway SMART bus for $5 each way. Information on the bus—and a map of bus stops—can be found here.

The Gold Rush Cemetery has no entrance fee, and while at the cemetery you can read stories about those buried there. As a place with such a unique, “wild west” history, many of the stories are quite surprising, and they allow you to get a glimpse of what Skagway was like in the town’s early days.

Related: Top 10 things to do in Skagway, Alaska

Another free activity is the 5-minute walk to Lower Reid Falls—the trailhead begins at the Gold Rush cemetery. There is no cost to visit the waterfalls, and the walk is well suited for both novice and experienced hikers. Once there, you can marvel at the three tier, 40-foot high waterfall.

Browse exhibits at the Skagway Museum

Another free activity in Skagway is to visit the Skagway Museum, which aims to preserve the history of the Skagway and Taiya Valleys.

At the museum visitors can enjoy exhibits on the region’s history, including information and artifacts from the Gold Rush era. Located just a block off of Broadway, the main tourist street in Skagway, getting to the museum is convenient for all cruise passengers.

Although entrance to the museum is free, a small donation (a few dollars will do) is recommended.

Lower and Upper Dewey Lake

More experienced hikers may want to consider hiking to Lower and/or Upper Dewey Lake.

Lower Dewey Lake is the easier hike of the two, and the trailhead to both starts just a five minute walk from downtown. The hike to Lower Dewey Lake is three miles with 793 feet of elevation gain, and hikers are rewarded with serene, untouched nature in all directions.

Related: Alaska cruise packing list: What to pack for your sailing

Upper Dewey Lake continues onward from Lower Dewey Lake and is the most challenging day hike on this list. It is only recommended for experienced hikers. Although the hike isn’t overly technical, there is over 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Passengers should ensure they have enough time to complete the hike before their cruise ship departs, as it usually takes around 5-8 hours depending on your fitness level.

Walk to Yakutania Point

Another one of my favorite free things to do in Skagway is walk to Yakutania Point. If you’re not up for an intense day of hiking, the brief, relatively flat walk to Yakutania Point makes a nice option.

Yakutania Point sits on the tip of a peninsula at the end of the Lynn Canal, and it offers wonderful views of the cruise port, town, and nearby mountains. It’s arguably the best selfie spot in all of Skagway.

To access Yakutania Point, simply walk over the pedestrian bridge west of downtown (near the Skagway airport). From there, you can walk roughly ten minutes to reach the point. If you’d like to continue further along the trail, consider walking to Smuggler’s Cove for even more pristine views.

Cheap and free things to do in Juneau

Franklin Street

The capital of Alaska may only have a population of 32,000, but that doesn’t mean it's lacking in things to do.

Juneau is a popular port for expensive excursions like whale watching tours and helicopter rides to glaciers. However, there are still more than enough cheap or free ways to spend a day in the city, and here are five of our favorites.

Visiting Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier is the most popular place to visit on any cruise to Juneau—I'd argue it can't be missed. Just 13 miles from downtown, the glacier is easily accessible to cruise ship visitors without the need to rent a car or take an expensive helicopter ride.

The cost to visit Mendenhall Glacier is just $5, which includes access to the trails and visitor center. That being said, I have never encountered a place to pay the fee on my four previous visits to the glacier, although I never visited with a guided tour.

Related: Top 10 things to do in Juneau, Alaska

Unfortunately, while accessing the glacier area comes at a low cost, getting to the glacier is another story. Most passengers not on an organized shore excursion opt for the glacier express bus, which has regularly scheduled shuttles between downtown Juneau and Mendenhall Glacier for $45 round trip.

Alternatively, you can rent a bicycle from Cycle Alaska—e-bikes are available—and ride the 13 miles to the glacier yourself, which is primarily on bike paths.

There is the option to take a public city bus to the glacier, but the ride takes around an hour as opposed to the usual thirty minutes. Additionally, the bus stop closest to the glacier, on Dredge Lake Road, is still a half hour walk away from the visitor's center. At only $2 per adult, however, it’s still an option for those on an extremely tight budget.

Stroll the Boardwalk and South Franklin Street

Downtown Juneau is scenic, with a picturesque waterfront and magnificent peaks surrounding the city. Right in front of where cruise ships dock downtown is a boardwalk perfect for taking a stroll and admiring the views.

If you don’t have anything planned for your day in Juneau, consider walking around downtown and relaxing on a bench or table on the boardwalk. One of my favorite things to do is grab a tasty treat—such as a block of fudge from the nearby Alaska Fudge Company—and enjoy dessert at one of the waterfront tables on the boardwalk.

Grab a drink at the Red Dog Saloon

While not entirely free, consider grabbing a drink from the Red Dog Saloon, a wild west-style saloon just a few minutes’ walk from the cruise terminal.

The Red Dog Saloon will immediately transport you to Juneau’s mining era, with western-style architecture, live entertainment, and eclectic decor, such as the framed gun from Wyatt Earp, known for his 1881 gunfight in the wild west of Arizona.

Related: Tips for taking an Alaska cruise on a budget

The signature drink to try at the Red Dog Saloon is the Duck Fart, a shot made with Kahlúa, Irish cream, and Crown Royal. At around $7.50 per shot, it’s well worth the cost to enjoy the ambiance and music at the Red Dog Saloon.

Juneau-Douglas City Museum

Visiting a museum is the perfect way to stay warm on a chilly, rainy day in Alaska. The Juneau-Douglas City Museum, located next to the Alaska State Capitol building, costs just $6 for adults and is free for kids 12 and younger.

At the museum guests can browse exhibits on Juneau’s history, Native Tlingit culture, Juneau’s geography, the state’s mining history, and more. Walking tours are also offered, although with the exception of the state capitol tour, they come with a cost of $31.50 per person.

Hike to Mount Roberts (or to the tramway station)

Outdoorsmen and women looking for a challenge should consider hiking to Mount Roberts, a 3,819 foot mountain towering over downtown Juneau. Not for the beginner hiker, the Mount Roberts trail has over 3,700 feet of elevation gain, but the views are definitely worth the climb.

The trailhead begins on the outskirts of downtown Juneau, a 25-minute walk from the cruise port area.

If you don’t want to climb all the way to the top of the mountain, you can instead climb to Gastineau Peak, where you’ll find activities and amenities like a Nature Center, restaurant, cultural theater, and additional hiking trails. This area is the top of the Mount Roberts tramway, which takes guests from downtown Juneau up the mountainside on a cable car.

If you’d like, you can choose to ride the tram back to downtown Juneau instead of hiking down the mountain.

Cheap and free things to do in Ketchikan

Ketchikan is known as Alaska’s “First City” as it is the first Alaskan city you’ll encounter while traveling north. Due to its southerly location, Ketchikan is usually the first or last port of call in Alaska on a cruise.

Although there are several excursions you could book in Ketchikan, such as a visit to the Misty Fjords National Monument, many of the town’s most popular activities are free of charge.

This makes Ketchikan an easy port to visit without spending much (if anything) extra on activities.

Creek Street and Married Man’s Trail

Almost every visitor to Ketchikan takes a walk along Creek Street, the former red-light district in the town’s gold rush era. Buildings on the street were constructed over the water along a wooden boardwalk, and signs next to the buildings provide insights into Ketchikan’s history.

Strolling Creek Street is completely free, although certain attractions along the street may charge an entrance fee. You might even spot wildlife in the creek as well, including salmon and sea otters.

Related: Top 10 things to do in Ketchikan, Alaska

As you near the end of Creek Street, the boardwalk continues upwards into the rainforest, which is known as the Married Man’s Trail. Once used by married men to conspicuously reach the red-light district, the path is now a free way to explore Ketchikan’s nature.

Whereas most of the views on the path are blocked by trees, it’s still a fun and quick activity to do on any visit to Ketchikan.

Tour Dolly’s House Museum

Another low-cost activity is found on Creek Street, and that is a tour of Dolly’s House Museum.

Dolly was one of the most famous madams working on Creek Street between 1919 and 1954. After prostitution was deemed illegal, she continued living in the house until moving to a nursing home. Her colorful, historic house has been maintained throughout the past few decades, transporting visitors to another era altogether.

Admission to tour Dolly’s House is just $10, making it an affordable way to spend an hour or so during your port day.

Tongass Historical Museum & Totem Heritage Center

Two museums in Ketchikan, the Tongass Historical Museum and Totem Heritage Center, should definitely be on your to-do list. For only $9 per person, you can purchase a pass to visit both museums.

The Tongass Historical Museum, located in the center of downtown, tells the story of Ketchikan’s history and culture and includes a collection of old photographs and artifacts.

The Totem Heritage Center focuses on the history and artistic traditions of the native Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. The museum showcases a collection of totem poles, art pieces, and photography collections.

A free shuttle bus is operated between the two museums (along with other attractions). To find the bus, look for a bus that says "Downtown Shuttle" or ask a staff member at the museum.

Cheap and free things to do in Sitka

Sitka is the only Alaska cruise port facing the open ocean instead of the Inside Passage, and its location on the remote Baranof Island has influenced its history for over 10,000 years.

Sitka offers a quintessential Alaska experience, as the town allows visitors to easily explore nature, spot wildlife, and stroll through the charming downtown area.

Because most tourist attractions are located within close proximity to each other, it’s easy to explore Sitka without an organized tour. Not only that, but many of these attractions come with a low cost, meaning you can enjoy your day without ruining your budget.

Sitka National Historic Park

Starting in downtown, you can walk to the entrance of the Sitka National Historic Park in just fifteen minutes. This 113-acre park preserves the site of a battle between the Native Tlingit people and Russian traders, and includes several miles of easy, flat walking trails in the lush green rainforest.

A must-visit trail is the Totem Trail, a mile-long path with 18 Tlingit and Haida totem poles.

Of course, like any hiking trail in Alaska, visitors should be cognizant of any wildlife in the area and take precautions when walking through the forest.

Related: Top 10 things to do in Sitka, Alaska

Sitka Sound Science Center

A great activity for a chilly weather day in Sitka is to visit the Sitka Sound Science Center. The science center is just ten minutes from downtown by foot and has an admission cost of $12 for adults and $10 per child.

At the science center you can get up close to aquatic creatures in the center’s aquarium—which include touch tanks—and take a tour of the facility, which teaches visitors the role of salmon and aquaculture in Southeast Alaska.

The Sitka Sound Science Center is one of the best kid-friendly activities in Sitka, and you can purchase admission online ahead of time or once you arrive.

Visit Fortress of the Bear and the Alaska Raptor Center on your own

Two wildlife attractions are extremely popular in Sitka: Fortress of the Bear and the Alaska Raptor Center.

Fortress of the Bear is a bear sanctuary that rescues and cares for orphaned bears. While there, visitors can observe the bears’ behavior and view them in a safe environment, unlike in the wild!

The Alaska Raptor Center, on the other hand, is a bird rehabilitation facility that rescues and rehabilitates injured birds of prey, including bald eagles, snowy owls, and red-tailed hawks.

Related: What is the best time of year to see wildlife in Alaska?

Visiting both sites is common on many shore excursions in Sitka, but these often come with a steep price tag of $70-100. Instead, opt for a ticket on a shuttle bus, which leave regularly from the Sitka Visitor Center, conveniently located right where shuttles from the cruise port drop passengers off downtown.

For $20, you can ride to both sites on the shuttle bus, although the admission fee of each center is not included. Fortress of the Bear charges $15 per adult, $5 for youth aged 8-15, and children 7 and under are free. The Alaska Raptor Center charges $15 per adult, $6 for youth aged 6-12, and children 5 and under are free.

If you visit both sites with the shuttle bus, the cost is $50 per adult, which is cheaper than any shore excursion offered.

Explore Russian influence in downtown Sitka

There are three free attractions in downtown Sitka that provide insights into the city’s Russian influence. As the former capital of Russian Alaska, Sitka once had around 700 Russians living in the town before Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867.

The first free attraction to visit is the Russian Bishop’s House, a National Park Service building that was once the center of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska. The Russian Bishop’s House is one of the last surviving buildings with Russian colonial architecture in the United States.

You should allocate around an hour to visit the building, as it features museum exhibits and offers a guided tour. We recommend visiting in the early morning to sign up for a time slot, as there’s no guarantee a walk-in will be accepted.

Another free attraction downtown is the Baranof Castle State Historic Site, which was the location where Alaska was formally handed off to the United States. Atop this small hill are informational boards on Sitka’s history along with some of the best views you’ll see in all of the region.

Lastly, visiting St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral is another way to learn more about Sitka’s history, as visitors can browse the cathedral’s unique architecture and artwork. The church was originally built in the 1840s but was rebuilt in 1976 following a fire, and it’s one of the best representations of Russia’s cultural influence in Alaska in the 19th century.

Note: St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral requests a $5 donation per visitor.

Looking for more inspiration on what to do in Alaska's cruise ports? Check out these articles:

Jenna DeLaurentis enjoys exploring new ports of call around the world on a cruise ship, learning about new cultures, discovering beautiful landscapes, and trying diverse cuisine. She loves to get active while at port, whether cycling through mountains in the Caribbean or scuba diving under the sea.

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