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Icy Strait Point Vs. Skagway: Comparing Two Popular Alaska Ports

When planning an Alaskan cruise, choosing which ports of call to visit can be a daunting task. Two popular destinations are Icy Strait Point and Skagway.

Both offer unique experiences for travelers, but which one is right for you? We have visited both ports multiple times, and while a few ships visit both, most only include one on their itinerary. So, we have done the research and are here to help pick a port.

Icy Strait Point orca and Skagway train

Icy Strait Point is a privately owned destination created specifically for cruise ships. It is located near Hoonah, the largest Tlingit village in Alaska. The port offers various activities, including whale watching, zip-lining, and cultural tours.

One of the advantages of visiting Icy Strait Point is that all the activities are within walking distance of the port.

This makes it easy to explore the area without worrying about transportation. However, we found the docking area not particularly wheelchair friendly.

Skagway, however, is a historic town that played a major role in the Klondike Gold Rush. It is a national park with various historical sites and museums to explore. In addition, there are many outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, and kayaking.

Riding an electric bike in Skagway
Riding an electric bike in Skagway

One of the highlights of Skagway is the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. It takes cruise passengers on a scenic ride through the mountains.

Having made this journey, we recommend it to those who love train rides or want to relive nostalgia by riding in vintage carriages.

Skagway is better for those seeking a more authentic Alaskan experience.

Comparing Destinations: Icy Strait Point Vs Skagway

Both destinations offer unique experiences and attractions. However, only Skagway is attached to the mainland. This section compares the two destinations regarding culture, history, activities, and wildlife spotting.

Geographical Overview

Icy Strait Point is located on Chichagof Island, just outside the town of Hoonah. The area is known for its rugged coastline, dense forests, and abundant wildlife. Access is by boat or plane.

Visitors can take a scenic hike through the forest, whale watch, or explore the local fishing village. Since there’s no real town at the port, this stop is best suited to individuals who love the outdoors.

Cannery dock, pier, and building in Icy Strait Point
Cannery dock, pier, and building in Icy Strait Point

Icy Strait Point cruise port can accommodate two vessels simultaneously, and we liked that the area wasn’t overcrowded on our port day. However, as the port gains in popularity, it may see up to four ships, requiring some vessels to tender.

Skagway, on the other hand, is situated in a narrow valley between the Coast Mountains and the Taiya Inlet. It can be accessed by boat, plane, or the Klondike Highway. The town is steeped in gold rush history and is a popular stop for cruise ships.

The cruise port can accommodate four ships, so expect crowds in and around town. Visitors can take a historic train ride, explore the local museums, or hike in the nearby mountains.

Alternatively, renting a car in Skagway and driving to the Yukon in Canada is becoming increasingly popular. This road trip is fun for families who prefer a DIY activity.

For an inexpensive activity, we enjoyed renting electric bikes, which cover more ground than walking.

Cultural And Historical Significance

Both places have plenty to offer for those who want to learn about the local culture and history. On Chichagof Island, visit the Huna Totem Heritage Center to learn about the Tlingit people who have lived there for thousands of years.

For a free activity in Icy Strait Point, browse the Cannery Museum in the big red building. Along with a selection of shops, it documents the history of the salmon industry in the area.

Icy Strait Point map

Visitors can learn about the Tlingit culture and see traditional totem poles. Hoonah, the nearby town, is also home to the largest Tlingit community in Alaska.

Skagway, however, played a significant role in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Visitors can relive the event by taking a historic train once used by gold rush prospectors. Additionally, gold panning allows guests to keep what they find.

The town also has several museums and historic sites that showcase its gold rush history. Skagway is perfect for history buffs and those interested in its yesteryears.

Ultimately, the choice between the two destinations comes down to personal preference and interests.

Travel And Transportation

Accessing by Cruise Lines

When it comes to accessing Skagway and Icy Strait Point, most major cruise lines include these ports of call in their itineraries. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) offers trips to both ports.

Since Norwegian built Icy Strait Point in conjunction with the Huna Corporation, it’s not surprising it offers four ships that go there.

The Norwegian Bliss, Spirit, Sun, and Jewel dock in ISP for the 2024 season. The port will see the Norwegian Bliss, Jade, and Joy the following year.

While many other major cruise lines go to ISP, any more than two will require ships to tender.

One of Skagway’s docks suffered a landslide in 2022, which affected some cruise itineraries. Until a new dock is built, some ships will tender or reroute to other ports, such as Haines.

Local Transportation Options

Once you arrive at either cruise port, several local transportation options are available to guests. In Skagway, visitors can take a shuttle bus or the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railway to explore the town and nearby attractions.

Traveling over a wooden trestle by train
Traveling over a wooden trestle on the White Pass train

The train ride is especially popular, offering stunning views of the mountain peaks, valleys, and glaciers.

In Icy Strait Point, a shuttle bus takes visitors from the port to the nearby town of Hoonah. This shuttle costs USD 5 and runs every 30 minutes, making exploring the town and its attractions easy.

Additionally, several tour operators offer excursions to nearby wilderness areas, such as the Tongass National Forest.

Overall, both ports offer convenient access for cruise passengers, with a variety of transportation options available to explore the local area.

Although, Skagway is the only port that offers convenient car rentals for those wanting to drive to Emerald Lake. It’s also the place that can be reached on a road trip via the Klondike Hwy.

Activities And Excursions

Both destinations offer a variety of activities and excursions that cater to different interests and age groups.

Shops in Skagway
Shops in Skagway

Skagway has more shopping options for Alaska souvenirs than Icy Strait Point. The latter has an old cannery building with quaint shops, but we found the goods quite expensive.

Alternatively, Skagway has a lot more shopping spread across several blocks. We found the traditional gift shops, but there are also rock, quilt, and art boutiques.

Here are some of the best things to do in each port:

Adventure And Wildlife

Those seeking an adrenaline rush have many exciting adventure options. Guests can zip line through the forest canopy or go whale watching in Icy Strait Point.

Without a tour, guests sometimes get lucky and see whales near the beach. We were those lucky guests one time, and watched a breaching whales close to the boardwalk on the waterfront.

Whale breaching in Icy Strait Point
The breaching whale we spotted near the beach

Skagway also has a zip line tour and a popular dog mushing excursion that uses a Unimog vehicle to get guests up the mountain. For those without a budget, TEMSCO takes guests on a dog sledding excursion on Denver Glacier, near Skagway.

Additionally, both ports offer a chance to see bears. In Skagway, black bears are often spotted on the Klondike Hwy to the Yukon. In Icy Strait Point, cruise guests will need a bear-watching shore excursion.

Since the bears outnumber the Hoonah locals, there’s a good chance to see the giants. Here, Coastal Brown Bears are spotted and are much larger than the small black species.

Cultural Experiences

Both places have plenty to offer for those who want to learn about the local culture and history. On Chichagof Island, visit the Huna Totem Heritage Center to learn about the Tlingit people who have lived there for thousands of years.

Skagway has several historic buildings and museums that showcase the town’s gold rush history, including the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Its Gold Rush Cemetery is an excellent extension of the town’s historic past.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park visitor center
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park visitor center

Nature And Scenery

Alaskan cities and towns are surrounded by stunning natural scenery. At Icy Strait Point, nature trails along the waterfront and through the forest can result in local wildlife spotting, such as bald eagles and humpback whales.

Skagway has several hiking trails offering breathtaking views of the mountains and glaciers. The trail to Smuggler’s Cove may provide whale and sea lion sightings.

Additionally, both ports offer kayaking excursions to get up close and personal with the local flora and fauna.

Overall, there are plenty of activities and excursions to suit all interests, whether adventure, culture, or natural beauty.

Planning Your Alaska Trip

When planning a trip to Alaska, choosing the right cruise and deciding what to include in the itinerary is important. Here are some tips to help plan a trip to Icy Strait Point and Skagway.

Choosing The Right Cruise

When selecting a cruise to Alaska, consider the itinerary and the ports of call. Some cruises may only visit a few ports, while others may stop at several. Compare the port times, too. I prefer to dock for ten to twelve hours than spend five to six hours in port.

It is also essential to consider the cost of the cruise and any additional expenses, such as shore excursions. Depending on the tour choice, Icy Strait Point excursions are generally pricier than those in Skagway.

Viking Orion in Icy Strait Point
Viking Orion in Icy Strait Point

Cruise guests have a love-hate relationship with Icy Strait Point. Some love the fact that there’s no real town; it’s just pure wilderness. Others find there’s not enough to do without spending hundreds of dollars on expensive tours.

On the other hand, everyone loves Skagway for its Wild West persona. It’s a destination with options: take a tour or explore by yourself.

What To Include In An Itinerary

When planning an itinerary to either destination, consider the available shore excursions. Icy Strait Point offers some of the best whale watching in the region. It also has the fastest and longest zip line, and guests can visit a traditional Tlingit village.

Further north, visitors can ride a historic railroad, dog sled on dirt or a glacier, or visit the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Here is a quick reference chart.

Historic trainSkagway
Whale watchingIcy Strait Point
Dog sledding or mushingSkagway
Zip liningBoth
Gold panningSkagway

It is also essential to factor in the time ships spend in each port. Some shore excursions may take several hours, while others may only take an hour or two. Leave enough time to explore the port and do some shopping or dining.

Overall, planning a trip to either can be a rewarding experience. By choosing the right port and planning the itinerary carefully, you can immerse yourself in Alaskan culture and historic events or enjoy pristine landscapes not found anywhere else.

Orca statue in Icy Strait Point and the White Pass train in Skagway, Alaska