Dutch Harbor is part of Unalaska, one of the Aleutian Islands, and is visited by cruise vessels en route for Japan or – increasingly – by expedition vessels heading through the Bering Straits to the High Arctic and Northwest Passage. Its appeal lies in its stark beauty, extreme remoteness from the rest of Alaska, abundant wildlife, unique World War II history and daily life of the largest fishing port in the United States (the town features in the popular TV reality show Deadliest Catch).
Cruise port location
Most cruise ships dock at City Dock, part of the Unalaska Marine Center, a no-nonsense berth with few facilities on Amaknak Island, which is connected by causeway to the main Unalaska Island. From the terminal it is 2.5 miles (4km) along the waterfront road (turn left from the dock) to the main town of Unalaska. Taxis meet ships but most cruise companies provide shuttles to the town center.
Can I walk to places of interest?
You can explore downtown Unalaska on foot and undertake hikes under your own steam to local summits such as Mount Ballyhoo and to some of the area’s World War II bunkers and other landmarks, built when the island was part of the first line of defence against a possible Japanese invasion of Alaska.
Unless you want to hike or make the 45-minute walk to the heart of downtown Unalaska from the cruise terminal, you will need to use cruise-ship shuttles, local taxis or tour operator transportation to get around.
What to see and do
The main sights are the World War II Visitor Center, the Museum of the Aleutians, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Dutch Harbor Mall. It is well worth hiking or joining tours to see the region’s wartime defences and other heritage.
Unalaska has more than 600 bald eagles, so you will see these majestic birds around town, but keen birdwatchers should join a tour to experience some of the 40 million other birds that nest in the Aleutians during the summer.
A full day in the area allows you to see the main sights and add a hike or wildlife tour.
What can I do in four hours or less?
Take a town shuttle or organised tour and you’ll be able to see the main sights (see above) in four hours or less. Make your first port of call the visitor centre, a mile (1.6km) from City Dock, or the excellent Museum of the Aleutians another 1.5 miles (2.4km) beyond.
The visitor centre occupies a former weather station and operations building from World War II. Much of this is given over to rooms restored to their period appearance and exhibits connected with 1941 and beyond, detailing the military build up in the Aleutians, the evacuation of residents and the invasion and attacks on parts of the Aleutian chain. The centre also details the wartime monuments elsewhere on Unalaska, which make up one of the most remote national historic areas in the US.
Equally compelling is the excellent Museum of the Aleutians, with modern displays on all aspects of this remote and fascinating island chain. One area covered is the era of Russian presence in the region, a perfect introduction for a trip to the out-of-town Russian Orthodox Church, which is included on most islands tours, but probably not worth a trip in its own right if you are exploring independently.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
Hiking is a great option for wonderful views and seeing wildlife and the wartime monuments. World War II targets include Bunker Hill (one mile/1.6km; 400ft climb), which you can see alone or on a two-hour guided walk with the visitor bureau. A second site, Fort Schwatka, can be reached either from town or by turning right from the cruise terminal and hiking the gravel coast road up and (left fork) inland (two hours; 800ft ascent). The most popular trek is straight up – and down – Mount Ballyhoo, distinctly visible, with its trail, above the town.
Note that the local Ounalashka people own much local land and inexpensive permits are required for some trails. Inquire on your cruise ship or at the visitor center.
Tour operators in the area vary from year to year, but usually include guided hiking, kayaking, fishing and wildlife tours. Current listings can be found on the town’s civic website. One of the longest established operators, Miss Alyssa, runs a boat that offers a variety of tours.
Eat and drink
Dutch Harbor has been the United States’ largest fishing port by volume of fish landed for 20 consecutive years, thanks to the teeming, nutrient-rich waters of the Bering Sea and North Pacific. Tuck into freshly caught pollock (1.5 million tons are landed a year), Pacific cod, halibut, red king crab, sablefish and yellowfin sole.
Don’t leave without…
Dutch Harbor’s fishermen have to contend with some of the most extreme weather on earth, so it’s fascinating to visit the supply stores in the Dutch Harbor Mall and elsewhere, notably Alaska Ship Supply, where you’ll be able to buy the most formidable outdoor gear available anywhere in North America. In a different vein, the shop at the Museum of the Aleutians has local art and handicrafts you’ll be hard pushed to find elsewhere.
Need to know
Dutch Harbor is safe to explore under your own steam, but if you are hiking alone, keep an eye on the weather – mist can descend quickly – and make sure you are properly equipped.
Best time to go
The cruise-ship season runs from May to mid-September. July and August are the warmest months, with average highs of 57F (14C) and 59F (15C) respectively. The driest month is July, when you can expect rain seven days in the month: in June and August it rains eight and nine days a month and 11 and 14 in May and September.
Most tour operators, museums and other sights close from mid-September to May.