6 national parks you can reach by cruise ship
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Editor’s note: Most cruise lines halted cruises to destinations in the U.S. in early 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Only a handful of small-vessel sailings on the Mississippi River and on intracoastal waterways currently are taking place. But you can still plan ahead for when cruises to U.S. destinations become more widely available later in 2021.
Many people think of America’s national parks as places to go on an epic road trip. But there are other ways to get to some of these temples to outdoor beauty than by car. For instance, there are parks you can visit by rail or by bus, and even — yes — a few you can reach by cruise ship.
Alaska and Hawaii are two big cruise destinations where national parks play an outsized role in the typical cruise itinerary. National parks in Maine and the U.S. Virgin Islands also make the excursion checklists for many a cruiser.
Of course, you won’t get a lot of time in a national park if you visit it as part of a cruise. Often, a cruise ship stopping in a destination that’s home to a national park will only will stay for eight hours or so (although, occasionally, ships will stay in the vicinity of a park for longer).
But even if your stay is short, you can at least get a taste of a national park when arriving on a cruise ship. After all, you always can come back.
Here, the six U.S. national parks that are unmissable cruise ship destinations.
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Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska
Of all the national parks in North America, this is the one most associated with cruise ships — and for good reason. It isn’t easy getting to Glacier Bay National Park any other way. The park has no roads and only is reachable by small plane, boat or ship. As a result, the vast majority of its 700,000 annual visitors arrive on a cruise vessel.
As the name suggests, this park is all about glaciers. Covering more than 5,200 square miles of mountainous wilderness, Glacier Bay is home to more than 1,000 glaciers. Of those, nine are tidewater glaciers that stretch down into the giant namesake bay. The typical cruise ship visit lasts the better part of a day and includes a trip up the fjord-like waterway to one of these glaciers to watch giant chunks of ice crash down from its face — a magnificent show.
You’ll probably be doing your glacier viewing from the deck of your ship. Most cruise vessels in Glacier Bay never dock, and nobody gets off. Still, you’ll get the full National Park Service experience. Park rangers will board the vessel for the day to offer shipwide commentary over loudspeakers and presentations, lead kiddie activities and answer questions.
Norwegian Cruise Line, Seabourn, Cunard Line, Crystal Cruises and Viking also offer trips into the park, as do small-ship operators UnCruise Adventures, American Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions and Alaskan Dream Cruises.
Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska
Despite being more than 200 miles away from the nearest port, Denali National Park is almost as big a cruise ship destination as Glacier Bay. That’s because it’s the must-see Alaska attraction that’s built into just about every land-and-sea “cruise tour” of the state that’s offered by such lines as Holland America and Princess.
The typical Alaska cruise tour combines a week of cruising along Alaska’s famed Inside Passage with anywhere from one to three nights at Denali. Some then add overnight stays in such popular Alaska destinations as Anchorage and Fairbanks. The cruise lines handle all the logistics of getting you to and from the park, either by motorcoach or train, and arrange accommodations. Both Holland America and Princess own their own lodges at Denali.
Denali is a massive park — at 9,446 square miles, it’s bigger than the state of New Hampshire. But most visitors coming from cruise ships only see a small part of it. The highlight of a visit is a view of 20,320-foot-tall Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. Meaning “High One” in the Athabascan language, it’s truly a stunning sight — that is, when it’s not clouded over, something that happens often.
Visitors to Denali also have the chance to see Alaska’s Big Five animals: grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, moose and wolves. Make sure your stay is long enough to take the all-day Tundra Wilderness Tour – the signature way to get deep into the park’s mostly roadless environment.
Who goes there: Holland America and Princess are the biggies here, too, with the most extensive cruise tour itineraries. Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian also offer cruise-and-land tours that include a Denali stay.
Acadia National Park in Maine
It’s a long drive from almost anywhere to reach Acadia National Park, which is way up the coast of Maine. But a cruise ship can get you almost to its front door. Vessels traveling along the Maine coast on “New England and Canada” voyages routinely stop at Bar Harbor, the gateway to Acadia. The park pretty much envelopes the town.
Cruise vessels typically sell a 2.25-hour bus tour of the park for around $100 (on Norwegian sailings, it costs $99). The tours will take you on a drive along the 27-mile Park Loop Road for coastal, mountain and forest views. They include travel along the ocean’s edge, passing Sand Beach, Schooner Head Overlook and the grand High Seas Estate. Weather and traffic permitting, there’s also a photo stop atop 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain. Longer tours might pair this all with a lobster bake.
That said, if it was us, we’d just strike out into the park on our own, time permitting, for a hike along one of the coastal trails such as the Great Head Trail or the Gorham Mountain Loop.
Who goes there: Among lines operating bigger ships, Holland America is the biggest player in the market for cruises to Bar Harbor, followed by Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
Bar Harbor also is a core destination for small-ship operator American Cruise Lines. Other lines that send ships to Bar Harbor occasionally include Princess, Crystal, Seabourn, Silversea and Regent.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii
Some sort of excursion to this steaming home of two active volcanoes is the big allure of a cruise call at Hilo on the island of Hawaii, commonly called the Big Island. Located just 29 miles from where ships arrive in Hilo, the park encompasses 505 square miles of vents, fissures, craters and (at times) lava flows that can be reached by tour bus, rental car or — for a hefty price — sightseeing helicopter.
Often costing around $500 per person, the 45-minute helicopter tour of the park sold through cruise lines is the once-in-a-lifetime way to experience it. It’ll take you over the most recent eruption sites of Kilauea where, during active periods, you might see streams of hot lava glowing red against an otherwise blackened landscape. You’ll also fly over the devastated village of Kalapana and the nearby black sand beaches formed as lava crashed into the sea. Kilauea is the more active of the two volcanoes at the park, the other being Mauna Loa.
Other park-touring options for cruisers during Hilo calls include a minicoach excursion that brings visitors to see the steam vents around Kilauea’s caldera and to view it from the Kilauea Iki Overlook. Mauna Loa sometimes is visible off in the distance. Cruisers also can sign up for a hiking tour into the Kilauea Iki crater.
Who goes there: Norwegian is the dominant player here, with weekly Hawaii voyages out of Honolulu that include a day stop at Hilo. The trips take place on the U.S.-flagged, 2,186-passenger Pride of America.
Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line, Celebrity, Regent and Oceania also offer Hawaii cruises with Hilo stops, although far less frequently and only on longer itineraries out of such West Coast ports as Los Angeles and Seattle.
Haleakala National Park in Hawaii
This 52-square-mile national park on the Hawaiian island of Maui encompasses the island’s soaring Haleakala volcano and is one of the top attractions for cruisers arriving at the island. For around $130 to $160 per adult, cruisers can sign up for a 4- to 6-hour tour to its 10,023-foot summit to see the lunar-like landscape. Unlike the volcanoes at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Haleakala isn’t active. But it’s still a stunning sight.
The typical tour for cruisers to Haleakala takes place midday, but some lines offer early and late outings timed to get you there for sunrise or sunset. Other tours take you up the volcano road for a ride down on a bike. Just be prepared for a bit of a drive to get to the summit of the volcano. It can be a 2-hour trip from sea level. And bring a jacket. It can be 30 degrees cooler at the top.
The summit of the volcano offers panoramic views to other Hawaiian islands, a visitors center with exhibits about the native flora and fauna, an easy walk to an overlook and hiking trails that will let you crunch your way across the cinder desert landscape.
Who goes there: Norwegian is the dominant player for cruises to Maui, too. Its weekly Hawaii voyages out of Honolulu include two full days at the Maui port of Kahului.
Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Celebrity, Regent and Oceania also offer Hawaii cruises with stops either at Kahului or Lahaina, but far less frequently than Norwegian.
Virgin Islands National Park in the U.S. Virgin Islands
Covering two-thirds of the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Virgin Islands National Park isn’t a huge destination for cruisers. Most cruise ships that visit the U.S. Virgin Islands head to nearby St. Thomas and never make a stop at St. John. But there are a handful of mostly small vessels that regularly buck the trend and make St. John their focus.
For passengers on such ships, which typically anchor off of St. John’s Cruz Bay, Virgin Islands National Park is the prime attraction. The park is home to many of St. John’s most spectacular beaches (think: powdery white sand, coconut trees and crystal-clear waters) as well as hiking trails and historic ruins. Swimming, sunning, snorkeling and scuba diving are the big allures in and around the park, along with sailing, kayaking and windsurfing.
Even for cruisers arriving at St. Thomas for the day instead of St. John, it’s not impossible to make St. John and its park the focus. Cruise ships docking in St. Thomas often offer a St. John beach excursion that involves traveling to the island on a small boat for a few hours. Typically, the tours take cruisers to Trunk Bay, which is within Virgin Islands National Park. It’s also possible to ride a ferry to St. John from St. Thomas. Just be mindful of the time you need to be back.
Who goes there: Small-ship operators Seabourn and SeaDream include St. John on itineraries fairly regularly. Start-up line Ritz Carlton Yacht Collection also has plans for St. John visits.
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Featured image by Michael Melford/Getty Images
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