Small group wildlife tours in Alaska

Alaskan rain will certainly improve your speed at putting up a tent...
– Terry Banham
With small group wildlife tours in the Alaskan wilderness, there is usually some element of pitching in, especially when you’re overlanding. Some operators will arrange it so that almost everything is done for you, but others invite you to get involved throughout, from helping with meal preparations to erecting tents. But if you don’t feel like peeling potatoes after a long hike, you won’t have to. “We aim for a happy medium,” says Dave Patrick who, with his wife Natalie, runs our specialist Alaska operator Infinite Adventures. “In the afternoons some people might be setting up kitchen, some might be sweeping up the bus, but it’s never strictly enforced. It’s all part of the group interaction.”
And that, right there folks, is the key to Alaska small group tours – it’s all about the interaction, fostering a happy group dynamic. Luckily, that’s something that, in Dave and Natalie’s experience anyway, always comes naturally. After all, everyone is there for the same reason: the wildlife. Some to get a rush from seeing it, some to get a rush from helping you find it. “I still get a huge thrill every time I see a bear,” says Dave, “and it’s even more of a buzz when I can show someone else their first too. We’re sharing our lives with our travellers and we take great pride in it. That sense of camaraderie, I think, is just one of the benefits of a small group tour.”

A small group tour doesn’t only benefit the traveller, either. It can reach areas and communities that larger parties cannot, luckily since they might be overwhelmed by big coach groups or mega cruises. Being able to bring tourism income to locally owned accommodations, restaurants and other small businesses can have a major positive impact on employment in out-of-the-way communities.

Why book an Alaska small group wildlife tour?

“Alaska has a small tourism window, May to September, and it can get very expensive because of that,” advises Dave Patrick. “So a small group trip, where you’re pooling food and transport, can make a lot of sense.” Actually, you might go into a small group tour thinking that cost-savings are the big advantage, but it’s likely you’ll go home afterwards remembering the social side of it most fondly.

When you’re travelling, often long distances, together in the same vehicle and sharing the same incredible experiences – from seeing the Northern Lights rippling luminously above Alaskan glaciers or watching a mama bear with her cubs – and enduring the same trials, such as going days without a shower, you’re going to bond with the rest of your group very quickly. On a trip like this, backgrounds will vary widely. An adventurous family with teens might be sharing a bus with a honeymooning couple, a passionate wildlife photographer, and a retired stockbroker ticking places off their bucket list. A feeling of all being in it together develops quickly as you mingle, so that you’re not just learning about American or Alaskan culture, but cultures from all over the world.
They know of little independent restaurants along your route, where to find the best reindeer sausage in Juneau, when the optimum time of year is to find the wildlife you want to see and, above all, how to ensure that your impact on these fragile, precious environments is kept to an absolute minimum. Dave and Natalie for example, with their Infinite Adventures tours, bring all waste out of the parks with them due to the lack of recycling facilities, and try to shop locally whenever possible to reduce packaging.
Small group tours are led by expert guides, sometimes locals; people who can give you a deep insight not only into Alaska’s wildlife and their behaviours, but the state’s history, culture and geology. A good guide book can convey that information too, but it can’t also drive your bus, or point out a bear off in the distance that everyone has missed, or teach you how to make the perfect smores around the campfire. Julian McLean travelled to Denali National Park as part of a small group trip: “Natalie and Aaron were great guides and could answer almost all the questions I posed. The trip itself was a perfect mix of travel and adventure. It never felt like hard work and was always just outside my comfort zone (which is where I like to be). Alaska is amazing and this tour was a superb introduction to it. PS: Excellent blanket. Highly questionable play list... brace for Dirty Dancing.”
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Alaska wildlife or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
Alaska tours generally involve moving regularly from place to place – it’s America’s largest state and you can see plenty of it in 10-14 days or more. There’s no such thing as a typical small group tour though. You could be sailing up the Inside Passage to Glacier Bay National Park in search of whales and other marine life aboard a small ship cruise, limited to 70 or so passengers. You could be following grizzlies on the summer salmon run in a converted school bus with a purpose-built observation deck on top. You could be on a specialist bear photography tour led by a professional photographer and an expert in bear behaviours.

Your accommodations will likely vary from wilderness lodges to small hotels, but it’s likely you’ll spend at least a night or two camping as well. Unzipping your tent in the morning to a view across a pristine lake, or overlooking a glacier or mountain range, is a pretty special feeling and bound to cancel out any discomfort from quite basic facilities in these remote areas.
Experiences vary widely too. If you’re overlanding then you’ll regularly pause for backcountry hiking, usually self guided. One day might find you canoeing along a fjord past icebergs, the next hiking across a glacier. You might have a lesson in ice climbing, or try your hand at fishing for Alaskan salmon. You can explore an old mine, learn about the Alaska gold rush in the 19th century, or the 1,300km Exxon pipeline in Valdez. You could take a sightseeing flight above Denali National Park in a helicopter, or catch a floatplane in Lake Clark National Park to an isolated reserve teeming with bears.
Powell Ettinger is the founder and director of our specialist operator The Small Cruise Ship Collection: “On a small ship, your daily itinerary is only ever a guideline. We have the flexibility to adapt to circumstances. But two or three times a day you’ll have a choice of activities, from Zodiac boat tours to paddle boarding. We also provide expert-led talks whenever the opportunity arises. It’s important to note that any ship going into Glacier Bay National Park has to pick up a park ranger on the way. If you’ve only got 60 or so passengers, you have lots of time to talk with and learn from them. If you’re on a massive cruise ship, though, you’ve got one ranger trying to educate 3,000-odd passengers, not nearly so valuable.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Paxson Woelber] [All photos: Infinite Adventures]