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Explore Alaska without the pricey excursions

Posted: June 12, 2013 - 11:19am  |  Updated: June 13, 2013 - 12:24am
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This undated photo shows a marmot peaking out from behind the tundra along the Mount Roberts trail in Juneau, Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)  Becky Bohrer
Becky Bohrer
This undated photo shows a marmot peaking out from behind the tundra along the Mount Roberts trail in Juneau, Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

It’s cruise season in Alaska, with more than 1 million cruise passengers expected between April and September in port towns from Ketchikan to Seward.

Cruise passengers who sign up for shore excursions can spend hundreds of dollars, if not more in the case of families, in each port they visit. Taking a helicopter to see Juneau-area ice fields can easily run $1,000 for a family of four for a one-hour trip. A nature tour near the tiny town of Ketchikan can run $89 for adults and $50 for kids.

But there are many low-cost and even free things to do in Alaska port towns, from hiking to exploring glaciers to learning about Alaska and Native culture. Here are some ideas from some of Alaska’s most visited ports.

Just remember: Your ship won’t wait for you if you run late from an outing you’ve organized on your own, so allow plenty of time to get back to port for your ship departure.

KETCHIKAN

This southeast Alaska town is now known more for tourism than for its once-thriving timber industry. But timber workers’ skills can still be admired at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, $35 (kids 3-12, $17.50) plus tax. Historic Creek Street, once a red-light district, now houses shops, galleries, restaurants and Dolly’s House Museum, former home of madam Dolly Arthur, where visitors can learn about Ketchikan’s bawdy past for a $5 admission. Off Creek Street along Married Man’s Trail, you can catch the salmon running in the creek from mid-July into September.

Free downtown shuttle buses stop near the docks.

SITKA

A must-see in this stunning town is the Sitka National Historical Park. A national monument, it commemorates the 1804 Battle of Sitka between the Tlingit Indians and Russians. Totems — many of them replicas — are scattered along the park’s two-mile (3.2-kilometer) wooded trail. There’s also a visitor center, where you can see Native artists working, and the Russian Bishop’s House, which the park service says is one of the last surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America. The house tour is $4 (free for kids under 16).

JUNEAU

Alaska’s capital has a walkable downtown with museums, shops, easy access to trails and the state Capitol, which offers free tours. The popular three-mile (4.8-kilometer) Perseverance Trail is within walking distance from the port, though it requires a jaunt up steep streets. The trail, which forms a spine for a network of trails, features scattered exhibits on the region’s mining history, along with stunning views of rushing water, waterfalls and mountains. You’ll likely see birds — possibly a bald eagle — and maybe even a mountain goat, black bear or porcupine. The trail is steep and narrow in sections and can be hot in the sun, so bring water.

Hikers also can try the Mount Roberts Trail, though it’s an uphill trudge, muddy and mucky in spots. You can take the Mount Roberts Tram down for $10, or $31 round-trip (kids 6-12, $15.50).

Another popular destination is Mendenhall Glacier, reachable by bus. The $16 round-trip rides, offered by MGT Blue Glacier Express, run every half-hour, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. most days during the summer season. Hikes near the glacier include an easy stroll to Nugget Falls.

SEWARD

Seward is a final stop for some Alaska cruises, and many disembarking passengers head straight to Anchorage, 110 miles (177 kilometers) away, by bus or train. But there are plenty of reasons to spend a day or more here.

A free shuttle runs every day in summer, taking people along a circuit from the cruise ship terminal to the chamber of commerce office to downtown. If you have time, rent a car or hire a taxi to take you a few miles (kilometers) outside town to Exit Glacier, located within Kenai Fjords National Park, for spectacular up-close views of the glacier.

The downtown historic area offers shops, cafes, the Seward Community Library and Museum in a new building, and the Alaska SeaLife Center, which is Alaska’s only aquarium ($20; $15 for ages 12-17, $15; $10 for 4-11).

Chamber officials don’t recommend hiking the city’s famed Mount Marathon, site of an annual July 4 mad scramble up and down the 3,022-foot mountain. A runner disappeared during last year’s race and several were injured. Instead, if you want to hike, try Jeep Trail. Locals say it’s not too strenuous, and offers a view of the Anchorage Bowl.

WHITTIER

Chances are you won’t spend much time in Whittier. Chamber officials say 90 percent of cruise passengers leaving their ships immediately head to Anchorage, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north.

But passengers beginning their Alaska cruises here arrive about 1 p.m. and have a few hours to spend in town before departure. Also this year, one company is making a port call here every other Monday, giving passengers a chance to look around town.

It’s probably unlike any other they’ve seen. Whittier is the gateway to the fjords of Prince William Sound, but the U.S. Army saw another purpose. The Army saw Whittier’s almost constant cloud cover as a perfect way to hide an almost ice-free port. The Army left in 1960, and most of the town’s 180 year-round residents live in one of two former garrisons converted to condos.

There are a couple of souvenir shops, a few restaurants and cafes, a hot dog stand when lots of people are in town and a museum. Several fantastic hikes can be done in two or three hours. The Horsetail Falls hike doesn’t disappoint, and offers views of waterfalls above the tree line. The Portage Pass hike affords views of Portage Glacier.

ANCHORAGE

No cruise ships are scheduled to sail to Anchorage this year, but many passengers wind up here by bus or train, if for nothing else to fly home.

With nearly 300,000 residents, Anchorage offers attractions found in many big cities, as well as some that aren’t. Think wildlife. Moose and bear coexist throughout the municipality, and moose are a common sight around town.

Downtown, you can rent bikes and enjoy a leisurely spin on the city’s 135-mile (217-kilometer) plus trail system. That includes the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, good for a bike ride, hike or run. It’s accessible from many points downtown, but parts will be closed for renovation this summer. If that sounds like too much work, you can rent a Segway.

And if you prefer to see wildlife in a more secured setting, a free shuttle at Fourth and E streets downtown goes to the Alaska Zoo ($12; $6 for kids 3-17). The shuttle will also stops at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, a cultural center and museum ($25; $17 for kids 7-16).

The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center downtown features art, history and science ($15; $7 for kids 3-12). A timeline exhibit of Alaska history includes a cross-section of the trans-Alaska pipeline and a twisted beam from the 1964 earthquake. The magnitude-9.2 quake was the biggest ever recorded in North America.

If you want to go fishing, there’s no need for a charter. Heck, you don’t even have to leave town. A downtown bait shop at Ship Creek will rent you all the equipment you need to land a fish.

There are also plenty of restaurants, cafes, coffee shops. And here’s your chance to eat Rudolph: Several vendors offer reindeer dogs.

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