One of the things we loved the most about our July 2017 trip to Kenai Fjords National Park was the two boat tours we took around the park. Although it is one of only three national parks in Alaska accessible by road, Kenai Fjords is still dominated by water and glaciers. The best of the park can only be seen via boat tour, one of the most popular activities in the park. Today we’re posting everything you need to know about booking Kenai Fjords boat tours. We hope the info (and some of the wildlife photos we took on our trip) inspire you to consider Alaska and Kenai for an upcoming #parkchasing adventure.
Basic Info About Kenai Fjords National Park
Before we launch into the Kenai Fjords boat tour info, we thought it’d be helpful to cover some basic facts about the park.
- Kenai Fjords is located about 2.5 hours drive south of Anchorage, in the coastal fishing town of Seward, Alaska.
- Established on December 1, 1978, the park protects 669,984 acres (2,711.33 km2). More than half of the park is covered by glaciers and ice.
- The park’s name comes from the many glacial fjords that dot the coastline of the park.
- The Harding Icefield, one of the largest ice fields in the United States covers over half of the park. More than 38 glaciers flow from the ice field.
- Boat tours and hiking the Exit Glacier trail are two of the most popular activities in the park.
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What to Know Before You Go
1. Reservations are a must.
Like most of our national park vacations, we always recommend that you make reservations in advance. Especially in Alaska when the tourist season is short and very busy, you’ll want to make sure you book your boat tour as soon as you can.
The National Park Service website and the Seward Chamber of Commerce have links to the current concessionaires providing sightseeing tours of the park. Major Marine Tours and Kenai Fjords Tours are the two largest boat operators in the park. We used both providers during our stay and found them to be clean and very dependable. They are also comparable in price but offer tours at different times to help you plan whatever fits in your itinerary.
There are other smaller vendors though that offer more personalized and intimate tours if you have an idea about what you’d like to see in the park.
We recommend making reservations as soon as you know the dates of your trip. In some cases bookings can be made up to a year in advance and can be fully-refunded up to 72 hours before your tour.
2. Research all the boat tour options.
Each of the Kenai Fjords boat tours is slightly different. We recommend you spend an hour or so researching all the boat tour options to find what works best for your family. The tours range in length from half-day to full-day. They depart at different times of the day including morning, afternoon, and evening. Tour boats also travel to different areas of the park, some focusing on wildlife, others on the glaciers and history of the park.
We see the question “What’s the best Kenai Fjords Boat Tour?” posted a lot on social media and travel forums. To be honest, we don’t think there’s a good answer for that. What works for a family with kids ages 5 and 3 might be completely different than a single person traveling solo, or a retired couple with mobility concerns. The best way to research the boat tours is to determine the length of time you have available (full day, half-day, 2 hours, etc.) and then read the descriptions on the tour operators website.
Worried about the reputability of the tour boat operator? The thing to note about Alaskan travel is that because the tourist season is so short, and because the conditions to operate are so difficult if a company has been around for a while, you can be confident they’re reputable. Companies that don’t provide outstanding service or reliable tours can’t survive in Alaska.
3. Opt for a ranger-led boat tour.
The National Park Service provides ranger-led boat cruises on some of Major Marine boats. They also offer ranger programs at the Fox Island Lodge available via the Kenai Tours boat company.
If you have the opportunity to take a ranger-led cruise, we HIGHLY recommend it. The ranger provides the narration and is available to answer any questions you have about the park. They’re also trained wildlife spotters, helping to identify the birds, whales, and other mammals you’ll see along the way. We loved that with a ranger on board, it also meant the tour boat operator complies with all park regulations about approaching glaciers and wildlife.
Finally, if you have children aboard a ranger-led boat tour, they can also opt to complete the Junior Ranger program while taking the boat cruise and be sworn in by a park ranger as part of the trip.
What to Know On the Day of Your Boat Tour
4. Arrive at the dock early.
For each of the Kenai Fjords boat tours, you’ll find a printed departure time on your ticket. The operator will also inform you of an estimated arrival time for when you should be at the dock to board the boat. We recommend adding 15-20 minutes on to that time and arriving at the dock extra early.
Parking can be a hassle in Seward, especially in the busy travel months of June, July and August. There are frequently special events and road closures in the area which can also delay your arrival. Getting to the boat early also allows you enough time to watch for the sea otters that like to catch extra bait and cleanings from the boats.
5. Dress for Unpredictable Weather.
If there’s one thing we can guarantee about Alaska, it’s the unpredictability of the weather. The waters of Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Mountains both impact Seward’s climate. Even on the brightest sunny days, you may encounter a sudden change in temperatures, fog, or wind. It’s best to prepare for anything.
We recommend that you pack sunscreen and a hat for warm temperatures, as well as pack a rain jacket and an extra warm layer. Windproof and waterproof are your best options. If you have space, pack a hat and gloves as well.
While there are places to get out of the windy and wet conditions on the boat, but it may mean you’re not able to see as much wildlife or scenery from inside. You came all the way to Alaska to see the park, don’t miss it because you didn’t pack the right gear.
6. Pack binoculars and your best camera equipment.
The Kenai Fjords boat tours we took were one of the places we were most happy to have packed binoculars and high-quality camera equipment. While the tour boat operators do their best to get close to wildlife and calving glaciers, there are regulations in place for your safety and to protect the animals in the park. If you want to get a good view of the animals, you should pack a decent set of binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens.
We saw so many people grumbling as they tried to take photos of whales and sea birds with a cell phone camera. C’mon people. That’s not the tour operator’s fault. It’s a cell phone, not a magic wand. You’re also apt to drop it over the side of the boat.
On our trip to Kenai Fjords National Park, we rented camera gear from Lensrentals.com. This easy and affordable service allowed us to take all the photos you see here, without having to purchase thousands of dollars of high-end camera equipment. You can rent the same gear (and get a $25 discount on your first rental through our affiliate partnership with Lensrentals.com): Check out Lensrentals.com here!
7. Take motion sickness medication before you get on the boat.
Neither of us has ever struggled with motion sickness before our trip to Alaska. However, the conditions on Resurrection Bay just outside of Kenai Fjords National Park can be brutal. The tour boat operators and the National Park Service recommend that you take motion sickness medication on boat tours, even if you don’t usually need it. We both took motion sickness medication on our full-day
Talk to your doctor before you leave home for the best choice. Or look for non-drowsy over-the-counter motion sickness medication. (You don’t want to miss out!) If you forget it in your suitcase on the day of the boat cruise, many of the tours will have it for sale on the boat, so don’t hesitate to ask a staff person.
Whatever you do, be sure to take it BEFORE you start to feel sick. Once you’re feeling queasy, it’s too late!
Other Things to Know About Kenai Fjords Boat Tours
8. Move around the boat.
Some of the boat cruises will assign seating on the boat to more easily load and unload passengers. That does not mean that you necessarily need to stay in your assigned seat during the cruise. Get up and move around the boat. The park and scenery look different from water level or from the higher decks of the tour boat. Test out the front of the boat and the back of the boat during your tour as well. We found that moving around (and the fresh air) also helped with some of the queasiness we had.
As you begin the wildlife viewing portions of your cruise, don’t worry about running over to the opposite side of the boat to spot the whale or sea lion. The boat operators know that not everyone can see and they will turn the boat! If you spot an animal, try to alert the people around you so they can pass it along to the other passengers as well.
9. Try a cruise to Fox Island.
During our stay in Kenai Fjords, we enjoyed both a full-day wildlife viewing cruise and a trip to Fox Island. Located across Resurrection Bay from Seward, the island received its name from the fox farming that happened here in the 1900s. Farmers fed the fox fish and marine animals for food and raised the animals for furs which were shipped back to other parts of the United States.
In the early 1900s, Fox Island was also home to Rockwell Kent, the area’s most famous artist. Kent sketched and painted scenes from around what is now Kenai Fjords National Park. He kept a diary of his time on Fox Island which forms a large part of the National Park Service’s current ranger program.
Fox Island tours are available from a few different boat tour operators. There’s also an option to sea kayak the area around the island and stay overnight at the famous Fox Island Day Lodge.
10. Take more than one boat cruise.
Our final tip about Kenai Fjords boat tours is not to limit yourself to just one trip on the water. If you’ve got enough time during your stay in Seward, book a few different tour experiences. The weather, the wildlife, and the conditions on the water will most likely be different. Your tour guide will have different stories to tell about the national park. And if one tour ends up being a wash-out, you’ll still have reservations pre-booked for second chance to see the park!
Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. By purchasing items through these links, you support our website and support more #parkchasing trips. However we were not compensated by any of the tour operators listed in this post, and only recommend them from our personal experience in Kenai Fjords National Park.