By Annika Hipple
By traveling via Alaska State Ferry, augmented with floatplane services—a classic form of Alaskan transportation—you can create a comprehensive two-week itinerary that takes in several of Southeast Alaska’s most fascinating communities.
To explore the beauty and culture of Southeast Alaska, you don’t have to take a mega-cruise. Instead, traveling with your own itinerary on alternate modes of transportation adds an element of adventure and discovery you won’t experience any other way. Sure, it takes some extra planning and creativity—and possibly a little extra time—but it’s worth it. By traveling via Alaska State Ferry, augmented with float plane services—a classic form of Alaskan transportation—you can create a comprehensive two-week itinerary that takes in several of Southeast Alaska’s most fascinating communities. This suggested itinerary, complete with ferry departures, takes in Ketchikan, Sitka, Haines, Wrangell, Petersburg, Gustavus, Juneau and other smaller communities.
As the first major port of call in Southeast Alaska, Ketchikan makes a good starting point for exploration. Catch the Alaska State Ferry from Bellingham, Washington, on Friday around 6:00 p.m. to arrive in Ketchikan mid-morning on Sunday. For a faster option, Alaska Airlines operates daily direct flights from Seattle. Whichever you choose, keep in mind the ferry heads north to your next destination on Tuesday.
Start by popping into the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center for an introduction to the ecosystems, people, and cultures of the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest. Head to the newly renovated Tongass Historical Museum to learn more about Ketchikan’s colorful past; then, wander through the historic district of Creek Street, a boardwalk set on pilings above Ketchikan Creek, where large numbers of spawning salmon can be seen in the mid to late summer.
Ketchikan has a strong native heritage and boasts the world’s largest collection of totem poles. Visit the Totem Heritage Center to learn more about the living artistic traditions of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people and to see an impressive assemblage of 19th-century totem poles recovered from abandoned villages.
If you’ve got more time, a great way to spend it is on a half-day excursion to Misty Fjords National Monument, a gorgeous wilderness area with steep, forested cliffs dotted with waterfalls cascading into deep inlets. Boat and flightseeing tours are available. Booking ahead is essential because of the large number of cruise ships passing through Ketchikan.
Wrangell & Petersburg
On Tuesday, depart Ketchikan by ferry around midday (schedules vary), heading north. Early in the evening, the ferry arrives in Wrangell, one of Alaska’s oldest towns, situated at the mouth of the Stikine River. The Wrangell Museum explores the community’s interesting history, which includes three gold rushes and periods of Tlingit, Russian, British and American control. You can survey Southeast Alaska’s largest concentration of ancient petroglyphs at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park.
From Wrangell, the ferry continues to Petersburg, arriving late in the evening. Known as Alaska’s Little Norway, Petersburg was founded in the late 1800s by Norwegian fishermen, a heritage evident in its architecture, shops and local culture.
With three full days (four nights) before the ferry passes by again, you can choose either Wrangell or Petersburg as your base or divide your time between the two. Alaska Airlines makes the 18-minute hop between Wrangell and Petersburg daily, and several Wrangell boat tour operators also offer water taxi service. If you take the ferry all the way to Petersburg, you’ll pass through the Wrangell Narrows, a tight passage separating Mitkof and Kupreanof Islands. It’s a dramatic crossing requiring careful navigation and perfect timing.
Whether you choose Wrangell, Petersburg, or both, you’ll find miles of hiking and biking trails, as well as excellent kayaking, fishing and wildlife viewing. In Wrangell, the Stikine River is an outstanding spot to view moose, sea lions, otters, bears and migratory birds. Petersburg is a good place to see bald eagles and a variety of marine life both from shore and on whale-watching tours in Frederick Sound and Stephens Passage.
If you’re traveling during July or August, don’t miss the chance to visit the Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory, where you can watch brown and black bears catching salmon in a waterfall along Anan Creek. It’s closer to Wrangell than to Petersburg, but day trips are available from both.
Another excursion you can take from either town is LeConte Bay, home to dramatic LeConte Glacier as well as large colonies of Steller sea lions and harbor seals. Some boat tours visiting LeConte Bay from Wrangell also include a stop in Petersburg.
On Saturday, it’s time to board the ferry again for an overnight journey to Sitka. Timing varies, with arrival into Sitka sometimes very early in the morning.
One of Sitka’s most distinctive features is its blend of Russian and Tlingit heritage. Sitka was the capital of Russian Alaska, and it was at Baranof Castle Historic Site downtown that ownership of the territory was transferred to the United States in 1867. Noteworthy Russian landmarks include onion-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Russian Bishop’s House, built in 1842. To experience Sitka’s living Russian heritage, catch a performance of the popular New Archangel Dancers.
Also, worth seeking out are the Naa Kahidi Dancers, who perform traditional Tlingit dances. Head to the Sitka Cultural Center to see native artisans at work carving totems and creating other traditional crafts. At adjacent Sitka National Historical Park, site of an 1804 battle between the Tlingit and the Russians, beautifully carved totem poles line easy walking trails through forests of spruce and hemlock.
On Tuesday, fly out to Gustavus, the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park, aboard Alaska Seaplanes, which offers midday connecting service through Juneau. Once you arrive in Gustavus, spend some time beachcombing or walking the 2.5-mile loop trail through the Nature Conservancy’s Gustavus Forelands Preserve. Another option is to take a bike ride on the flat paved roads around town. It’s less than an hour to Bartlett Cove, the farthest point.
If you only have one full day (two nights) in Gustavus, the best way to see a large portion of the national park is on an eight-hour catamaran tour departing from Glacier Bay Lodge. If you have more time or simply prefer something more active, Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks runs full- and half-day guided kayaking trips.
Your final step is Haines, reachable by scheduled floatplane flight with Alaska Seaplanes through Juneau, or direct air taxi with a charter company such as Mountain Flying Service. The price difference is often minimal. You may want to inquire about combining air taxi service to Haines with flightseeing over Glacier Bay.
The close-knit town of Haines is home to one of Southeast Alaska’s oldest canneries, where you can watch the work in progress and purchase salmon products processed on site. To learn about other aspects of the town’s past, visit the Haines Sheldon Museum, which has exhibits about everything from native Tlingit art and culture to fishing, logging, mining, shipwrecks and army history. Attention carpenters: Haines also has one of Southeast Alaska’s most unusual museums, the Hammer Museum, with more than 2,000 such tools on display.
The scenic Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve just outside Haines is one of the best places in Southeast Alaska to see these impressive birds, which arrive in the thousands each fall and are present in significant numbers year-round. Several operators run float trips, rafting tours and jetboat rides in the preserve.
Fast ferries depart Haines around 5:00 p.m. on both Saturdays and Sundays, arriving in Juneau 2.5 hours later. Choose whichever suits your schedule and spend a night or two in Juneau before flying or taking the ferry home.
Alaska State Ferry Travel Tip
The Alaska State Ferry only operates on certain days of the week, depending on the route, so integrating ferry travel with floatplane services to achieve your desired itinerary requires creative planning. Cabins are available onboard the ferry for an additional cost, and you can also pitch a tent on the upper deck or unroll your sleeping bag in a recliner lounge or the solarium. Hot and cold food items are available for purchase onboard, or bring your own food and take advantage of the microwaves and ice machines provided (no refrigerators available). For reservations on the Alaska State Ferry, visit dot.state.ak.us/amhs.
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