By Allen Cox
A majestic maze of islands, fjords, remote channels, hanging glaciers and endless forests make up the 500-mile-long Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska. It is a region teeming with both marine and land wildlife, one of the many reasons well over one million travelers visit every year.
But it’s not all wilderness—it’s home to some of the country’s most unique and fascinating towns (although wilderness is never far away). The capital city of Juneau and the charming cities of Ketchikan and Sitka are only a few of the cities in Southeast Alaska not to miss.
Whether you visit via cruise ship (as most travelers do) or visit as an independent traveler unencumbered by a cruise itinerary, Alaska’s Inside Passage is like no other region of the country.
The Magic of the Inside Passage
Because Southeast Alaska is a jumble of islands, both massive and small, bordering an extremely mountainous mainland strewn with fingerlike fjords, all but one city in the Inside Passage is accessible only by boat or plane. This extremely remote aspect of the region in part defines its mystique. Southeast Alaska is home to the nation’s largest National Forest at 17 million acres—Tongass National Forest—as well as Glacier Bay National Park and Misty Fjords National Monument.
Tongass is a massive outdoor recreation paradise that envelopes the villages, towns and cities of the Inside Passage, where outdoor guides and outfitters are readily at hand to share this magnificent region with visitors. One activity that is particularly popular is sport fishing— day charters and full-service fishing resorts abound in the region.
A region as rich in wild lands as the Inside Passage is of course home to abundant wildlife. When it comes to wildlife watching, partial-day wildlife cruises are the way to go to spot orcas and humpbacks, otters and sea lions, and even bears foraging along the shoreline.
Independent travelers can book any and all of the activities to get them out into the wilds of Southeast Alaska, and those visiting on a cruise ship can sign up for these excursions on board.
Alaska Native culture thrives in the Inside Passage, which is the traditional homeland of the Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida people. Visitors can gain an introduction into the region’s Native cultures by attending traditional dances, observing Native carvers at work and simply viewing the extensive collections of totems and other Native art.
Southeast Alaska’s Cities
The three main cities of Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka each has its own character and unique history. Many other towns and villages dot the shorelines of Southeast Alaska and hold adventures and cultural gems worth experiencing. Cruise ships go to most, and all are accessible for the independent traveler.
Juneau is the Alaska State Capital and the largest city in Southeast Alaska. Located in a stunning natural setting, forested mountains steeply descend to the channel that’s home to the city’s waterfront. Downtown is easy to explore on foot and has most of the city’s attractions.
The Alaska State Museum is an excellent place to learn more about Alaska. And the Sealaska Heritage Institute is a must-visit to learn about the Native cultures and art forms of Southeast Alaska.
Downtown streets are lined with shops, galleries, eateries, saloons and more, making a day of browsing downtown an action-packed experience. One such activity is a ride to the top of Mount Roberts via tram is a great way to take in an eagle-eye view of Juneau and the surrounding landscape. The tram station is downtown on the waterfront near many restaurants, shops and the cruise ship docks.
The waterfront docks are the best place to browse and book available tours. A tour to Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area is one of the most popular. The glacier is a short drive out of town, and offers an excellent visitor center and hiking trails to get the best views of the glacier and 377-foot Nugget Falls.
Another tour worth taking is Juneau Food Tours. Juneau is a culinary hotspot for authentic Alaska cuisine, and these tours expose visitors to the best of the best local eats featuring locally sourced foods.
Juneau is set amid the Tongass National Forest, so wilderness is not far away for those seeking a guided outdoor adventure, such as whale watching, kayaking, cycling, hiking, camping excursions, helicopter tours and much more.
Independent travelers might want to target their visit for when the fewest cruise ships are in port or during shoulder season when cruise ships are not in port at all. Juneau streets, shops, restaurants, tours and attractions can get very busy when cruise ships have docked.
Find lodging and plan your Juneau trip at traveljuneau.com.
Ketchikan is the southernmost city in the Inside Passage, making short work of air travel from the Lower 48—only a 90-minute flight from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The city of Ketchikan is perfect for exploring on foot, and the surrounding area is ripe for adventure.
On a bluff just above downtown, and easily accessible by tram, Cape Fox Lodge is an Alaska Native-owned lodge with an authentic Southeast Alaska ambiance, complete with Native art and artifacts. This is a perfect home base for independent travelers with views of the city and its waterfront.
Ketchikan’s visitor information center offers helpful information and guides to Ketchikan’s historic walking tour, hiking trails, restaurants and shopping. Staff can provide recommendations for tours, museums and other activities.
The best way to get to know Ketchikan is on foot. Ketchikan’s downtown area stretches from the waterfront docks to the wooden boardwalk of historic Creek Street, truly the heart of the city. Vast runs of salmon have been returning to the creek for centuries, so much so that the Tlingit people chose the creek as the spot for a summer fish camp, catching and preserving salmon for winter foods. During Ketchikan’s early influx of settlers, Creek Street was the home of saloons, bordellos and other social gathering spots. Today, Creek Street houses shops, galleries and more, and is a must-see when visiting Ketchikan.
Ketchikan is the totem pole capital of the world, and the Totem Heritage Center displays an amazing collection of ancient totems. Ten miles north of downtown, Totem Bight State Historical Park displays totem poles along a trail through the rainforest and has a Tlingit Clan House where visitors can learn more about traditional Tlingit culture. South of town, Saxman Village is a modern Tlingit community with a display of historic totems, a Clan House where visitors can watch traditional dances and a carving shed where carvers can be observed at work on new totem poles and other art projects.
Ketchikan has been recognized as one of the top small arts communities in the U.S. due to the number of practicing artists who live here and are inspired by the natural beauty and cultural traditions. The city’s galleries and shops are the best places to see the creations of local artists.
Of course, Ketchikan is situated within the Tongass National Forest, so adventure is minutes away—hiking trails, kayaking, fishing, boating, camping, biking, wildlife tours and excursions by boat or plane into Misty Fjords National Monument all await. And, as the “Salmon Capital of the World,” Ketchikan is a sport fishing paradise with charters and world-class fishing resorts.
Those visiting Ketchikan for a partial or full day while on a cruise will find plenty of options from exploring the city independently or taking any number of tours and excursions.
Plan your travels to Ketchikan at visit-ketchikan.com.
Sitka is steeped in Russian and Tlingit history. It was the Russian colonial capital before the U.S. acquired Alaska, and the Sitka National Historical Park holds its legacy and shares its story with modern visitors. Downtown is small and walkable, and its centerpiece is Saint Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, which is open to visitors who wish to learn its history and admire its artifacts and icons.
Also downtown is the Russian Bishop’s House, which today is a museum that is part of the National Historical Park. Also, nearby the Sheldon Jackson Museum holds a treasure trove of Alaska Native artifacts and art.
Downtown, a highlight of Sitka is a visit to the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House to catch a traditional Tlingit dance performance.
Sitka is the outermost city in the Inside Passage, its protective islands exposed to the open Pacific. Here, wildlife cruises are a great opportunity to observe and photograph everything from rafts of sea otters, to bears combing the shore, to breaching humpbacks and pods of orcas.
Find lodging and learn more about visiting Sitka at visitsitka.org.
Other Inside Passage towns worth visiting are Haines, Wrangell, Skagway and Petersburg. Find more information about these cities and their surrounding regions at travelalaska.com/Destinations/Regions/Inside-Passage.
Visiting by Ship
Most visitors to Alaska’s Inside Passage visit on a cruise ship. Ships that cruise to Alaska range in size from large-scale cruise ships to intimate expedition ships. Alaska Dream Cruises is an Alaska-based expedition cruise operated by a Tlingit corporation out of Sitka. The expeditions are focused on culture, wildlife viewing and outdoor activities. Other expedition cruise lines that operate in the Inside Passage include Uncruise Adventures and Lindblad Expeditions. Cruise lines that operate small ships include Windstar Cruises and American Cruise Lines. Large-scale cruise ships are operated by Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney Cruises and others.
A memorable journey for independent travelers to the Inside Passage is designing your own itinerary and taking a ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway System from Bellingham, Washington to Alaska ports. The ferry offers state rooms, dining, and even the ability to pitch a tent and camp out on deck.