Sailing the Inside Passage
Cruise through some of the country’s most majestic wilderness
The Inside Passage is like a red carpet to the 49th state, stretching through some 500 miles of Southeast Alaska, from British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands in the south to the corner of Canada’s Yukon Territory in the north. Forty-plus cruise ships sail here each summer, carrying a full third of all visitors to Alaska. And that’s not even counting the long-distance state ferries, known as the Alaska Marine Highway, which operate year-round.
The big draw is the wilderness, with snowcapped mountains and deep rain forests stretching as far as the eye can see. Glacier Bay is the best known of Southeast’s wild areas, but it’s hardly alone. In Tracy Arm Fjord, mile-high mountains rise right from the waterline, striped by falls of meltwater from the peaks. Near the fjord’s forked end, the waters can become almost impassably choked with ice, which carves off the twin South and North Sawyer glaciers by the ton. Some icebergs are as big as your ship, while others are only large enough to accommodate a sunbathing harbour seal.
Further to the south, Misty Fjords National Monument is a primordial place, its 2.3 million acres of wilderness accessible via a series of narrow fjords—so narrow that only small ships can enter. Hemlock and spruce forests crowd the waterline, backed by 3,000-foot cliffs, with an almost ever-present mist giving the area its name and its otherworldly, Tolkienesque atmosphere.
And everywhere there’s wildlife, from the bald eagles soaring overhead to the brown and black bears feeding on salmon at the water’s edge. The stars of the show are undoubtedly the whales, especially the giant humpbacks that feed and play in the region’s cold waters each summer.
Tucked into all that nature are the towns. Sitka, midway up Southeast, is the region’s prettiest, while southernmost Ketchikan may be its most touristy. Further north lies Juneau, Alaska’s easygoing capital city, with its hilly downtown, its mountaintop hiking trails and nearby Mendenhall Glacier. Skagway, to the east of Glacier Bay, is a charming, well-preserved gold rush town that now mines tourists’ wallets instead. Admire the 19th-century architecture, then grab a trail map and walk into the hills, or ride the historic narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad to the 2,865-foot summit of White Pass.
Ships operating in Alaska range from mega cruisers carrying 2,000 or more passengers, down to 100-passenger expedition ships. The megaships offer cheaper rates, but the small ships offer the better experience of real Alaska, often concentrating on natural areas and smaller, less-visited towns. For a more bohemian experience, the Alaska Marine Highway ferries afford a kind of Eurail adventure along the coast, letting you stop for days at a time in different towns.
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.