Less a cruise, more a coastal adventure – this scenic route through Alaska’s islands is easily explored using the state-run ferry system. Hop among remote communities to encounter rural hospitality, landscapes teeming with wildlife and glaciers galore.
My knees are pinned to my chest in the back seat of a tiny Cessna 185 Skywagon. I’m 2000ft in the air, staring through the portside window at a wall of granite shorn by glaciers during the last Ice Age. I am cold. I am sweating. Another tilt of the wings and I’m staring into the heavens; one more and I’m looking at a fingerling canal stained green with algae and snaking through the forest below. Alaska is beautiful. I am ready to vomit.
We finally land in a small, unnamed pocket of the Misty Fjords National Monument, and pilot Dave Doyon, whose white-toothed grin betrays his amusement, kills the engine. I step outside, balancing on the float, one hand still pressed to the cabin, gathering my senses as the water laps at the plane. Like the rest of Tongass National Forest – at 16.7 million acres, the largest intact coastal rainforest in the country – the monument is blanketed with spruce and hemlock, the trees doggedly fighting their way up the granite wherever the slightest scrap of topsoil will allow.
Book this trip: Misty Fjords Monument Floatplane Tour
I’ve come here to begin a journey north through Alaska’s Inside Passage: a 500-mile stretch of the Pacific which courses through the Alexander Archipelago and is studded with more than 1000 forested islands. One of the rainiest cities in North America, Ketchikan was bathed in sunshine on the day I arrived, the temperature well into the 20s. Rowdy teenagers jumped from the red-iron trestle bridge and into the harbor below. If this view was cleverly framed, you might think you were looking at a port city in the Caribbean; the sun, the jade waters, the glistening white cruise ships ushering visitors down the gangplanks.
Exploring Ketchikan's communities
Once a fishing camp of the indigenous Tlingit people prior to white settlement, by 1937 Ketchikan hosted seven major canneries, earning it the title "Salmon Capital of the World." In turn, the surrounding forests spawned a massive timber industry, supplying wood for salmon cases and a burgeoning port. When the city’s pulp mill closed in the late nineties, more than 500 people lost their jobs overnight – a fate mirrored in other small communities up and down the Inside Passage. Tourism helped fill the void: the industry now employs roughly a fifth of the workforce in the southeastern part of the state, also known as the Alaska panhandle.
Book this trip: Ketchikan Kayak Eco-Tour
Other communities of the Inside Passage often cite Ketchikan’s explosive growth as a cautionary tale of how quickly an unchecked tourism industry can change the face of a city. Still, it’s hardly without its charms: the slick brown harbor seals frolicking up the river, the eagles perched on the eves of historic Creek Street, the many narrow stairways cascading down the mountainside. And many of those who live in and love Ketchikan say visitors help the city stay lively and keep the island feeling connected and relevant to the rest of the world.
"I’m a traveler, but since moving here I’m so content I’ve only gone to one other country," says Raffy Tavidagian, owner and chef at the New York Café, a social hub in downtown Ketchikan. Born in Lebanon, he fits his native shakshuka (eggs poached in a tomato-based sauce) onto the menu whenever he can, alongside a host of other locally-sourced specials. "I’ve met so many cool people. If not for them, I don’t think I could live here," he admits. "I’ve never felt so at peace in one place, especially a small island."
There have been changes even in the town’s more traditional industries. Trish Pearson, the local fishmonger, is one of only three women in Alaska who owns her own plant. She runs her business, Fish from Trish, from a defunct cannery in Ward Cove, a moody, red-roofed outfit in the shadow of Signal Mountain. She lives onsite, sharing what used to be the watchman’s house with her 15-year-old dog, named, somewhat incongruously, "Meaty." Waiting for her "crab guy" to arrive at the dock and unload his haul, she explains the obstacles she’s overcome to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated industry: the competition, the cold-shouldering. But today she stands tall in her brown rubber boots, a living embodiment of the Alaskan state motto, "North to the future."
Trish, a native of Illinois, chose America’s last frontier as a place to start afresh – while others are more rooted in Alaska’s past. At Totem Park in nearby Saxman, a small Tlingit village, 24 towering poles tell stories of the area’s history. Nathan Jackson is a 79-year-old master-carver with a boyish smile and bright white hair, shaving down his next piece in a large workshop ringed with iron tools. The scent of cedar fills the air, and his scraper rattles as he draws it up and down the log. He speaks slowly, taking comfort in the silence he often lets fill the room. Though internationally recognized for his work, his temperament suggests he’d be just as happy carving away in complete obscurity.
"Um… okay, well, here we go on some stories," he says, stepping away from the log, resigned to losing another 20 minutes of work. "When I was younger, fishing was the main source of income. But also it was a seasonal thing. The rest of the winter months become something else. My great uncle’s stepson challenged me to do a little tiny totem pole with a pocket knife. He carved one and then said, 'Copy this one,' so I did. It was the start," he says, and starts scraping again.
A journey into bear country
At Ketchikan’s Ferry Terminal, I board the MV Malaspina, one of the three original ships belonging to the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS). A 407ft-long steel juggernaut, her buoyancy seems faintly miraculous. Built in 1963, the Malaspina has 83 cabins for overnight travel and can haul more than 80 vehicles on her lower deck, thanks to an 8,000 horse-power engine. She has a brawn and sturdiness that commands respect, and soon the white masts in the harbor are little more than pixels on the horizon, giving way to awe-inspiring wilderness.
The six-hour journey north to Wrangell is long enough to explore the ship and take in the views from the upper deck, of shadow-green mountains and ashen clouds, and the restless wake of the Malaspina trailing out behind. Under a yellow-tinted solarium, passengers spread out on white plastic recliners, some of them settling in with coolers and sleeping bags, others pitching small tents in readiness for a longer journey somewhere further north. Founded in the middle of the 20th century, the AMHS now runs a total of 3500 miles and serves visitors and locals alike. The only marine route recognized as a National Scenic Byway, for Alaska’s coastal communities it’s much more than a pretty way to get around. It’s a crucial link between different settlements, a major employer, a way for local schools to connect and compete.
"People call it the 'poor man’s cruise,'" says the captain when I visit him in the bridge. Lured to Alaska by Jack London novels, Kevin Dickman left his home in Massachusetts and slowly worked his way up what crew call the "hawse pipe," a phrase that otherwise refers to the duct through which an anchor’s chain passes. The AMHS hired him as a captain in 2016. "They say this job is 99 percent boredom and one percent terror," he says. "We do the same thing all the time, but it’s important to do the same thing all the time." Suddenly the multicolored homes of Wrangell appear on the shore ahead, and minutes later, the crew is working in lock-step to secure the ship to the dock with ropes as thick as telephone poles.
I sleep at an inn where water laps at a dock outside my window then, with a dozen others, board a small jetboat headed for Anan Creek. The largest pink salmon run in the southeast part of the state, and it’s a magnet for brown and black bears. We pull ashore an hour later, walk the half-mile boardwalk to a viewing platform over the creek. Below, the circle of life is compressed into a single setting. The salmon pushing upstream. The black bears teaching their cubs to fish, spilling entrails on the rocks. The eagles and ravens swooping down to steal the scraps and retreat to their perch. Even the trees benefit from the salmon, absorbing the extra nitrogen left in the soil after they decompose. We leave the still-active bears reluctantly, hours later, with the light filtering through the trees.
Doing business alongside the 'bergs
The next town I visit, Petersburg, is similar in size to Wrangell, but the streets feel a little busier, the shops a little brighter. This is the gateway to the LeConte Glacier, which lies 25 miles east of town. From a jetboat I see the small icebergs known as ‘bergy bits’, glowing blue in contrast to the grey above, and feel the air grow colder as the fjords rise up. Mew gulls nesting in the rock face fill the bay with piercing shrieks, and dozens of harbor seals lounge on the ice, a new head appearing every few seconds. "A professor at the university who’s been studying this glacier for a long time thinks it’s pinched," says guide Scott Roberge. "His analogy is a garden hose that has a bend in it. Not as much water comes out. His theory is that once it gets around this corner, it’s going to recede really fast."
Back at the harbor, we bump into Scott’s bearded nephew, Eric Grundberg, who is selling fresh fish directly from his troller boat. He and his wife Malena run Schoolhouse Fish, and say their relationship with their customers is the aspect of their work they most cherish. It’s an attitude shared by their friends Bo Varsano and Marja Smets of Farragut Farms, an off-grid enterprise 25 miles northwest of town. Using a series of high-tunnels, they grow fresh produce (a rare commodity here) from March to mid- September, sailing into Petersburg once every two weeks to sell their goods at the community market. They also do business with small cruise ships that travel up the bay, delivering produce by water using a small skiff. Both businesses share a commitment to environmentalism, marketing their values alongside their goods.
A homecoming in Juneau
The further north I travel on the Inside Passage, the more this emphasis on place, community and environmental stewardship comes to the surface. After an overnight journey on the Malaspina, I close in on my last stop: Juneau. Clouds hang low over Alaska’s capital, obscuring the top of its namesake massif. The view, like most in this part of the world, amazes me. I recall a line from local writer Ernestine Hayes’s unique memoir, Blonde Indian: "The smell of the ocean, the feel of the spray, the sound of the gulls, the taste of the salt, the sight of mountain behind mountain behind island behind island, falling back and back in shadows and grey and dark green… It was a good life, being on a boat."
Juneau is impossibly scenic, and the launchpad for a litany of adventures – but one thing I really want to do before I leave is meet with Ernestine Hayes. Her memoir, which explores – in part – the relationship between southeastern Alaska’s native people and their environment, has influenced my time on the Inside Passage. She’s waiting for me when I arrive at the University of Alaska Southeast, where she teaches English; a short woman with greying hair and the sort of charming self-assurance that comes from a life of challenges overcome. She never knew her father, experienced a childhood on the margins of Juneau society, and stints of homelessness in San Francisco before finding her place in life. We talk as rain slants against the windows and she signs the front of my book: "Gunalchéesh, Ernestine" (thank you, Ernestine).
We wait for the city bus together outside. "I’m often asked," she says, "'Why was it so important for you to come back?' And I’m always surprised not everyone has that feeling. It’s called home, you know?"
Explore Juneau: Juneau Shore Excursion: Whale-Watching Adventure
Make it happen
Getting there and around
For the most scenic experience, cruise the Alaska Marine Highway System from Bellingham in Washington state. Ships pass Canada’s Vancouver Island and go through the Queen Charlotte Sound before re-entering US waters to arrive in Ketchikan and continue to other Alaskan ports. Book a stateroom on the AMHS for maximum comfort. Bellingham is under two hours’ drive from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a major hub. Vancouver’s airport, across the border in Canada, is closer – just over an hour’s drive from Bellingham. If you opt to miss the two-night trip starting from the contiguous US, you can also fly into Ketchikan from Seattle or Anchorage, and back to either of those bigger airports from Juneau at the end of the ferry route. Alaska Airlines is the main carrier, with Delta also operating some flights. Most of the communities within the Inside Passage are located on islands, accessible only by boat or plane. There are roads within the communities themselves, but most of them are small enough to roam on foot. For slightly longer distances in Juneau, you can also use taxis or public buses.
When to go
The entirety of the Inside Passage is considered a temperate rainforest, and southeast Alaska experiences distinct seasons comparable to Seattle or Vancouver further south. Traveling the Inside Passage is especially pleasant in summer and early autumn, with temperatures around 59°F–77°F. If you’re open to a chillier journey, you might avoid peak tourist season by waiting until after mid-August.
Take a running start at the Inside Passage by starting your voyage in Bellingham, Washington. Spend a quiet evening before your trip at the Fairhaven Village Inn, a quaint old hotel in the Historic Fairhaven District, and less than a ten-minute walk from the AMHS ferry terminal. Enjoy dinner and a glass of wine on the deck at Keenan’s at the Pier while the sun sets over Bellingham Bay. Before departing, have a hearty breakfast from local favorite Homeskillet.
After two nights on the ferry, you’ll be ready for a bed on land. Stay at the Cape Fox Lodge, overlooking Ketchikan from a hilltop reached by an old-school funicular. Book ahead for a flightseeing tour of Misty Fjords National Monument with Misty Fjords Air. For a less pricey excursion, take a kayak tour of the tranquil Tatoosh Islands. Be sure to visit the New York Café for meals or just a beer, while the Alaska Fish House serves the best local fish and chips.
Passes to tour the Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory are in high demand. Alaska Vistas offers a package that includes a permit, guide and two-hour round trip jetboat ride through the scenic Back Channel. In town, stay at the Squawking Raven B&B with its wrap-around deck, or Stikine Inn – its restaurant is the best in Wrangell. Look out for the Dungeness crab grilled cheese. Take a sunset hike to Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park and ponder the mysteries in the rocks.
For a simple room with easy downtown access, book at the Tides Inn. Grab breakfast at The Salty Pantry before touring LaConte Glacier Bay via kayak or in the comfort of a heated powerboat, with guide Scott Roberge. Afterwards, hike the Hungry Point Trail, a gravel path cut through a spongy and surreal muskeg (Arctic bog). Don’t leave without ordering halibut beer bits in the diner at Coastal Cold Storage.
Enjoy the charms of the Silverbow Inn, a downtown boutique hotel. On nearby Franklin Street, grab dinner and beers at Devil’s Club Brewing Company. Walk one block north for a nightcap of Alaska’s best gin and tonic at the Amalga Distillery tasting room. The next day, head to Mendenhall Glacier, just twelve miles from downtown Juneau. Finish with a short hike along the Treadwell Mine Historic Trail to Sandy Beach.
Carson Vaughan visited southeastern Alaska with support from Travel Alaska. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.