If your Alaska cruise includes a day at the small town of Skagway, Alaska, you’ll find some of the most spectacular scenery and amazing variety of shore excursions.
From a breathtaking ride on the narrow gauge White Pass & Yukon Railroad to the top of White Pass Summit to dog sledding with Alaskan huskies or a scenic helicopter ride and panning for gold, there are plenty of shore excursions to choose.
A non-strenuous, relaxing raft tour floating along the Chilkat River in search of bald eagles and other wildlife sounded good to us.
Skagway Shore Excursion to Bald Eagle Preserve and Raft Tour
If the more adventurous options sound exhausting or you’re looking for something relaxing but not boring, the Skagway Bald Eagle Reserve and Rafting tour is perfect. Sign up in advance through the cruise line and you’ll be all set for a memorable day spent outside in the wilds of Alaska.
For our stop in Skagway aboard Princess Cruises’ Majestic Princess, we reserved this shore excursion for several reasons; a full day spent outdoors, a soft adventure and a chance to view wildlife.
A highlight of any trip to Alaska is wildlife viewing so the Bald Eagle Preserve Rafting Quest sounded ideal. There was also the chance to spot brown bears or moose along the river’s edge and for sure, bald eagles.
Our Skagway Shore Excursion Begins
From the cruise ship docks, it’s a short walk to the high-speed catamaran for the scenic ride to Haines, Alaska. As the fast ferry makes its way to Haines, a naturalist guide narrates about the geology and history of southeast Alaska.
Passengers are welcome to hang out on the outside deck and watch for marine life. You might spot gigantic humpback whales or seals. However, we chose to sit inside as our day began with lots of clouds and a temperature in the low 60s.
The fast ferry takes about 45 to 50 minutes to zoom between Skagway and Haines. Upon landing in Haines, we met up with our tour guide, Bracken. As with all Princess shore excursions this tour is operated by an independent, local company. While not a private tour, this was definitely a small group.
When Bracken rounded up all 12 of us in our group, it was time to board our bus transport. And when I say bus, I’m talking about an old beat-up school bus-style vehicle, probably circa the 1990s.
It’s not exactly comfortable, but it’s certainly a unique experience. Plus, it has the frontier Alaska feel to it that feels right. Very similar to the tour buses that go into Denali National Park.
Bus Ride From Haines to Rafting on the Chilkat River
The bus trip took about another 30 or so minutes, with most of the ride traveling along the Haines Highway. En route, Bracken skillfully pointed to interesting sites along the Chilkat River and talked about local life, particularly for the river guides.
For instance, Bracken and most of his fellow guides live in converted buses, from which they’d ripped out seats to make room for a mattress or two. They have no running water. They cook on campfire stoves.
And, they’d recently begun sharing the site with an Alaskan brown bear who’d already ripped the door off of one of the buses … thankfully, when no one was home.
Rafting on the Chilkat River – Relaxed and Easy
Once we arrived at our point of entry into the Chilkat River, it was time to don our rafting gear. This included rubber boots, a rain poncho, and life jacket. (Oh, the fashion!)
With 12 people in our group, we evenly split into two rafts of six. We all gathered to listen to a quick tutorial about river and raft safety. Included in the briefing was this gem: “If you fall out and can feel the ground, stand up.”
We ended up in Bracken’s raft, which meant more stories about local life for the guides, along with lots of information about the Chilkat River and bald eagles.
The guides do all the rowing. All we had to do was sit back, relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery. It was also up to us to help with wildlife spotting so Bracken could concentrate on navigating the river.
The Chilkat River is a shallow waterway that flows from Chilkat Glacier in Alaska, down through British Columbia and back into Alaska. A large section of the river is located inside the famous Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, a state park established in 1982 that covers some 49,320 acres.
This preserve is home to the world’s largest concentration of bald eagles, with sightings during a raft tour on the river practically guaranteed.
Because the Chilkat River is fed by the melting glacier and rainwater, its water level and path can change on a daily basis. What was passable the day before, isn’t always possible the next day. And, in fact, Bracken did have to get out once to drag the raft when we hit a spot that was too shallow to float through.
Raft Tour in the Bald Eagle Preserve
We were in the raft for about an hour and 30 minutes or so. During that time, we saw some 20 bald eagles, including a mix of adult and juvenile birds.
Afraid it was going to rain, I didn’t bring my good camera and had to content myself with photos taken with my phone. At least we could slow down for a few photo stops.
We never did see any other animals. Though the description of the excursion promises “the chance” to spot other wildlife, like bears, moose and even wolves, the chances are low. That’s why all Alaska wildlife shore excursions use the word, “chance” when describing a wildlife tour.
Bracken told us they rarely see any during these rafting trips because these animals tend to come out early in the morning (we got into our rafts around 10 a.m.) or closer to evening.
Once the raft trip ended, it was time for a small riverside lunch. Bagged lunches (two choices of sandwiches), a delicious homemade cookie and an apple were offered. There was also hot chocolate and coffee.
We had about 10 minutes to eat and then it was back on the bus with Bracken to get to Haines in time to catch the fast ferry back to Skagway.
Parting Thoughts – Haines Eagle Preserve Rafting & Wildlife Quest Shore Excursion
If you’re looking for guaranteed bald eagle sightings in a natural setting, this tour is the way to go. We saw nearly 20 bald eagles. I’m sure there were more we didn’t spot. It was, by far, the best bald eagle viewing we had during our entire cruise.
We were a bit disappointed that we didn’t see any other wildlife. We were hoping for a moose sighting, but other than a few other bird species, it really was the bald eagle show.
With that said, the tour is a nice, relaxing way to take in Alaska’s beauty that’s more “real” than a panoramic stop on a bus tour. You’re definitely out in nature but in the easiest way possible. After all, the excursion is not at all active. If you’re hoping to get in a little upper body workout, you won’t. The rafting guides do all the paddling. All you have to do is keep your eyes open for wildlife.
Additionally, the river is quiet and peaceful. There are no rapids unless the water level is high. Even then, the white water barely qualifies as rapids. If you’re after adrenaline, you won’t find it here. It’s not a white-knuckled experience but nevertheless, it was an exciting raft trip on its own merit.
What to Know Before You Go
Definitely bring a good camera, and know how to use it! The rafts can only get so close to where the birds are sitting (or flying), so a zoom lens is definitely advisable. Also, pack a few ziplock bags to stow and protect your camera and accessories.
I was worried it would rain so left my camera on the ship. As it turned out, we could leave anything we didn’t need on the bus. I could have brought my camera and determined at the last minute whether I wanted to bring it on the raft with me.
Remember, Skagway, Haines and Southeast Alaska are part of the Tongass National Forest, the largest rain forest in North America. There’s a good chance that you’ll encounter some rainy or simply drizzly days. Be prepared and bring a waterproof jacket with a hood, a folding umbrella and a pair of sturdy waterproof or water-resistant shoes.
Who Would Most Enjoy This Shore Tour
The Skagway Bald Eagle Preserve and Rafting is pretty much appropriate for all ages. You do need to be able to get on the bus and walk the 10 feet or so from the bus to the rafts.
There’s no steep incline into or out of the water, but it can be a bit slippery depending on how wet it is. Once you’re in the rafts, you simply need to be able to sit for an hour and a half.
Keep in mind: you will be spending almost two hours getting back and forth between Skagway and Haines. Depending on how long your ship is docked in Skagway, those two hours could significantly cut into any time you might have left for a walking tour through downtown along the main street.
If seeing Skagway, including iconic sites like the Red Onion Saloon and the Gold Rush Cemetery, is a top priority for you, taking the time to get to and from Haines might be too much of an inconvenience. However, the chance to go rafting on the remote Chilkat River will definitely be one of those special Alaska moments you’ll always remember.
Dori Saltzman is a content and copy writer who previously spent 15 years covering the travel and cruise industries at several travel trade publications and at CruiseCritic.com. You can find out more about her at dorisaltzman.com