Ketchikan. We found ourselves in Ketchikan on day 5 with nothing planned. So we just decided to see what there was to see.
Tongass National Forest Visitor Center and City Park
Our first stop was the Tongass National Forest Visitor Center where we learned a bit more about the history of the area (mining, logging, fishing), the native peoples, and the forest itself—the Tongass is a temperate rainforest (I didn’t even know there was such a thing). And the kids were able to earn more Junior Ranger badges.
From there, we decided to take a walk in the rain. Doesn’t sound too exciting, but just experiencing the fresh air and the smell of this little town in the rain was very refreshing. And my children loved seeing slugs all over the sidewalks instead of worms like we have here in Chicagoland.
Our destination was a fish hatchery, but unfortunately it was closed for remodeling. We did happen upon beautiful City Park, though, with ponds dating back to the 1900s when they were used as fish ponds for the hatchery.
Since Ketchikan was our final stop in Alaska, we took the opportunity to visit a few of the tourist shops to purchase T-shirts, an Alaskan fidget spinner (which is no different than a lower 48 fidget spinner), and a pair of earrings (and my husband just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy some Alaskan canned salmon) before returning to the boat.
To be continued…here. Follow our Alaskan adventure from the beginning here.
Sitka, Alaska. We pulled into port at about 7:00 am and readied ourselves for a whirlwind tour of Sitka.
The thing about cruising is that you really don’t have that much control over your time when in port. You have to make sure you’re back for ‘all aboard.’ If not, you will be left behind. Our style of travel (explore where the wind blows you) doesn’t fit well with this schedule, but we took the experience for what it was worth and booked an excursion that introduced us to the Alaska Raptor Center, Sitka National Historical Park (part of the National Park Service), and a cultural presentation by the native Tlingit people at the Naa Kahídi Community House.
Alaska Raptor Center
Our first stop was the Alaska Raptor Center, where they care for injured bald eagles, owls, and other raptors. We saw up-close some of these beautiful birds and met some of the people who care for them.
We saw a presentation that introduced us to Spirit, a young bald eagle. She won’t get the recognizable white head and tail until she is five years old.
We also explored the outdoor areas and spied some more beautiful raptors.
Unfortunately, we did not have long to explore, before being ushered on to our next sight of interest.
Sitka National Historical Park
Our family loves the National Park Service and could have spent all day exploring Sitka National Historical Park. Once again, that would have to be saved for our next trip to Alaska.
Sitka NHP was a beautiful sight, featuring walking trails, wildlife, and amazing totem poles. We took a short nature walk, encountered a couple of totems, and earned our Junior Ranger badges.
Naa Kahídi Community House
Next, we saw a cultural presentation by representatives of the native Tlingit tribe. These fine people introduced us to the symbolism of their culture, taught us a few Tlingit words, and performed several dances and songs. It was truly enjoyable and educational.
Yes, we did all of that before lunch. Needless to say we were hungry and exhausted, but we had a few hours until we had to be back on the ship. So we intentionally missed the bus back to the boat in favor of exploring Sitka for a while. (This bothered my son to no end. He was so worried that we missed the bus and couldn’t figure out why we would intentionally do so!)
Anyway, we explored the town, the local bookstore, the local Ben Franklin, and found a little cafe in town. We had some vegetarian raviolini soup, bagels, and soft pretzels. And topped it off with some frozen yogurt.
After exploring a bit more, we took the free shuttle back to the boat and continued our cruising experience.
Check out Part 5 here. Follow our adventures from the beginning here.
Cruising through Glacier Bay National Park. I have to start this post by stating unequivocally that this day was filled with unparalleled natural beauty, the likes of which I have never before experienced in my life.
Additionally, what made this day truly spectacular was that my husband and I were able to observe the quiet, serene beauty surrounding us at our leisure while the children hung out in the boat’s kids’ club with a National Park ranger and a representative of the native culture. The kids learned about the park and were read a story about the Tlingit culture. They even took the kids outside to do their own glacier viewing. And after all that, they earned Junior Ranger badges! We love the Junior Ranger program offered by the National Park Service.
Quiet reflection gave us the following moments:
We ate lunch with a glacier right outside our window. After lunch, the kids were much more chill.
Check out part 4 here. Follow our adventures from Day 1 here.
Juneau, Alaska. In Juneau, we decided to book an excursion on a small boat that traveled up the Tracy Arm Fjord to get up-close and personal with some glaciers, icebergs, and wildlife. Binoculars and maps were provided, and passengers are able to move from the warm interior cabin, with free hot chocolate, tea, and coffee, to the top of the boat which is open to both the elements and the spectacular views.
This 7-hour boat ride may not be ideal for all young children. Our young ones survived the boring parts because we were able to buy snacks and a couple of brand new stuffed animals (a grey wolf and a sea otter, in keeping with the Alaska theme) onboard. And mom survived because she got to sip her very own Glacierita—seriously, a margarita made with a chunk of glacier ice.
…to be continued here. Follow our adventures from Day 1 here.
Let me first start by saying, if you want a life-changing family Alaskan adventure experience, a cruise is not the way to go.
We had never been on a cruise before, so it was a valuable learning experience. But I did start to feel like one of the people on board the Axiom (the ship that was cruising people around in space after the Earth was left pretty much lifeless in the movie Wall-E).
All snark aside, we did have a great time. And cruising with kids is a good way to go if you are new to travel and are trying to slowly step outside your comfort zone with your family. We chose a seven-day, round-trip Inner Passage Alaskan Cruise from Seattle with Holland America.
I’m just going to give you the run-down and tell you everything we did day by day so you can make an informed decision when choosing your own Alaskan family adventure.
Chicago to Seattle. We flew to Seattle a day early because I was nervous that, if our flight was delayed, we would literally miss the boat. We made it there on time and in one piece (even with my daughter flying the plane!).
We stayed at the MarQueen hotel, a beautifully restored old building, in the Queen Anne neighborhood. Everyone was very nice and the accommodations were quaint and classic at the same time. (You may want to explore breakfast at a different location, however, because they only serve a true continental breakfast.)
We also explored the Queen Anne neighborhood for excellent views of the Space Needle, beautiful homes, and a park with the best slide ever.
At sea. One word of advice. If a friend, who is an experienced cruiser, recommends that you take some sea-sickness pills like Bonine, also known by the generic name meclizine (which doesn’t make you as drowsy as classic Dramamine), take her advice. Trust me. My daughter and I spent the first day in a puking competition. Luckily, the score didn’t get that high—-she won two-to-one.
And in case you wanted to try one of those acupressure bracelets, I’d like to refer you to this scientific study that shows they’re a waste of money (just read the ‘Discussion’ section).
After taking our motion-sickness medications, and a morning of making my husband and son fetch us food and other comforts, we were able to enjoy the Crow’s Nest of the ship for beautiful views of the water.
We spent our first day exploring the visitor’s center at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, where we learned about the 300,000 pioneers and settlers who traveled through this part of the country in the 1800s. We also learned that, although there was no battle fought here, Civil War soldiers used the Cumberland Gap as a strategic point.
After checking out the museum and the informational movies at the visitor’s center, the kids were all set to fill out their Junior Ranger activity books and earn their badges from this ranger with the coolest beard ever.
After the kids became official Junior Rangers, we embarked on a hike down Object Lesson Road and up Tri-State peak. The latter half of this hike was way more challenging than we had anticipated, but it was worth it.
At the top of Tri-State Peak we got to sign the registry (like REAL hikers) and had views of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.
After that exhausting hike, we drove up to Pinnacle Overlook (also at Cumberland Gap) for an overview of where we were.
Day 2 – Gatlinburg, TN
The next day, we took a 2.5-hour drive to Gatlinburg, TN. We didn’t realize how touristy this place was — very.
I like to do things in locations that you can’t do anywhere else, so I didn’t want to visit the aquarium or any of the other touristy things around. So we decided to take the Ober tram up the mountain for lunch.
After lunch, we rode a ski lift up Mt. Harrison for a beautiful view of the Smoky Mountains. And we rode a mountain coaster down the side of another mountain. The kids loved it.
Day 3 – Cumberland Falls
On day 3, we took an hour and 15 minute drive to Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Corbin, KY, to check out the “Niagara of the South.” Well, I can easily say that this was one of the best hikes we’ve ever been on. And the waterfalls (especially the one you reach via Eagle Falls trail) were very impressive. I recommend a walking stick, a snack, and plenty of water for this hike.
Day 4 – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We were totally exhausted from our amazing hike the day before, so we decided to take another car trip to check out the visitor’s center at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This visitor’s center was totally crowded and the informational movie wasn’t working. And the kids had little motivation to pursue getting a Junior Ranger badge here (they were exhausted from the previous day’s hike as well). FYI: you have to purchase a Junior Ranger workbook at this location.
After checking out the museum at the visitor’s center, we decided to take a drive down the main road through the park to take in the sights without getting our sore legs out of the car.
We stopped for a quick pit-stop along the way and just happened upon a trailhead to the Appalachian Trail. None of us could pass up the opportunity to hike the Appalachian Trail (even just a tiny bit of it). So, with our daughter in the lead, we embarked on the trail.
We weren’t prepared for a long hike and the hour was getting late, so we convinced our 7-year-old that we needed to turn around and head back to the car. She was reluctant to stop because, as she said, even though her brain said to stop “my legs just want to keep going.”
Maybe someday we’ll hike all 2,175 miles of it.
Day 5 – Big South Fork National Park
On our last day, we took a day trip to Big South Fork National Park in Tennessee. We went out there to see the Twin Arches, two grand sandstone arches formed by thousands of years of erosion. It was a truly awesome sight to see.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is part of the National Park System. Being from the Chicago area, I’ve been visiting the Indiana Dunes since I was a kid. This year, we took the kids to Chellburg Farm (part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore) for Maple Sugar Time, where we learned first-hand how maple sap is harvested and turned into maple syrup.
We started with a ranger-led hike down a trail from the visitor’s center. The ranger made sure we all understood how trees got their nourishment. Early spring is maple sugar time because the trees have sucked all the nourishment from the ground and haven’t used it yet to make leaves or start growing in the new season.
Continuing on the trail, we saw a demonstration of how Native Americans made maple sugar from the sap of the maple tree. They would tap the tree with a wooden spigot and collect the sap in a bark basket. The sap would be transferred to a rock with a bowl-shape, into which a fiery rock would be submerged to boil off the water, leaving the syrupy sap behind. This was further processed into dry sugar for easy transport.
Further down the trail we saw how early settlers boiled the sap down to syrup in a succession of hanging cauldrons.
We were then given an opportunity to “tap” a tree just to see if we could do it.
We then visited the boilery that the Chellburgs used to process the sap into maple syrup. They used a succession of metal pans.
In the Chellburg farmhouse, we were given a taste test to see if we could tell the difference between real maple syrup and the fake stuff from the grocery store. We could definitely taste the difference!
After learning all about the process of making maple syrup, the children earned their Junior Ranger badges.
And the family took a hike to enjoy the natural beauty and history of the Indiana Dunes.