The Inside Passage is the second-longest and -deepest fjord in the world, and a ride on the ferry up the Passage during summer months offers up fantastic views of waterfalls and sharp peaks cascading into the ocean; it can be a great way to spot orcas and humpback whales.
The Inside Passage is also known as Lynn Canal, but this is a misnomer: a canal is a man-made channel and the Passage is a glacially carved fjord.
Kick off your journey in Juneau, where you'll have to arrive by plane or boat, as there aren't any roads to the outside. Stay at Alaska’s Capital Inn, a bed-and-breakfast far away from the cruise-ship traffic. Be sure to book in advance, as this place is popular with returning visitors.
Once you’re settled into your quarters, take a trip to the Shrine of St. Therese. You can spend a good portion of the day on this tiny island, accessible by a pedestrian causeway. Afterward, head into downtown Juneau and peruse the shops and galleries, many of which specialize in original local art.
Finish the day with dinner at the bar in the Westmark Baranof Hotel; it serves the same menu as the hotel’s well-regarded Gold Room Restaurant.
(Excursion will take approximately 5 hours)
One of Juneau’s most popular attractions, Mendenhall Glacier is nestled right up against the town. Whether you arrive by boat or plane, you’re sure not to miss it as you approach the capital city. The glacier sits at the back of the icy blue Mendenhall Lake. Alaska Boat & Kayak Shop offers shuttle service from downtown Juneau, as well as kayak rentals. Kayak across the lake and up close to icebergs that have calved off the glacier, or hit the trails and hike up to the waterfalls.
Grab lunch before checking out of the inn. Board an afternoon or early-evening flight to Gustavus on Wings of Alaska (www.wingsofalaska.com).
(25 minutes by plane from Juneau; 4½ hours by ferry)
Located at the northern tip of the Inside Passage, Glacier Bay National Park is one of the country's most awe-inspiring national treasures. Stay at the Glacier Bay Lodge, the only accommodation located inside the park. The lodge can arrange a daylong boat excursion that will take you past hundreds of lush green islands and straight up to the calving glaciers. Some excursions allow you to disembark and kayak around the glaciers for a couple of hours.
Or take a kayaking adventure like none you’ve ever had before. Experienced guides can be hired for multiday excursions that paddle all the way to the calving glaciers. Regardless of how far you paddle, the experience is incredibly rewarding. Though the lodge does rent solo kayaks, unless you are a very experienced sea kayaker, we recommend taking a tour.
Whichever way you decide to explore the park, you’ll find great comfort in the hot meals and comfy beds at the end of the day.
If you’re only spending one night at the park, get up early on the day of your departure and set out on any one of a number of great hikes that begin at the lodge. If you have time, consider tacking on a few extra days.
(4½ hours by ferry from Glacier Bay)
The ferry departs Gustavus at different times depending on the day of the week, but it's usually before 3 pm.
Stay at the Alaskan Hotel, right in the heart of downtown. The location offers quick access to nature trails, the beach, and to the Douglas Island walkway. If you get back from Gustavus in time, try to catch a show at Perseverance Theatre on Douglas Island, a quick boat ride from Juneau. This theater is renowned for its great set designs and talented casts.
On your last day in Juneau, get out and see some of the countryside. One of the locals' favorite hikes is Perseverance Trail. To get here, follow Gold Street until it turns into 8th Street. Follow 8th until it dead-ends on Basin Road. Take a left and keep walking until you get to the trail. This 3-mile one-way trail takes about three to four hours to hike. In its past life, this was Alaska’s first road.
After your hike, grab lunch at any of the many eateries around downtown Juneau. Then immerse yourself in Alaska’s history at the Alaska State Museum. Sample some of the locally brewed beer at Hangar on the Warf, or take one last stroll along the waterfront.
Head to the airport for your flight back.
Hands down, the best way to experience the Inside Passage is by boat. For visitors and locals, the ferry is the number one choice for traversing the fjord; it's economical, relaxing, and offers tremendous views. To optimize your time and cover more distance, fly some legs of the trip. Don't worry, this won't compromise your sightseeing: a bird's-eye view from your plane window is breathtaking, and not to be missed.
Fly directly into Ketchikan and stay at the Black Bear Inn, an elegant, affordable, waterfront B&B. It's highly regarded, so be sure to book well in advance.
Get settled in and take a day trip on a catamaran by Alaska Travel Adventure to the awe-inspiring Misty Fiords National Monument. The Ketchikan area is known for its salmon fishing, so if you’re interested in catching your own dinner, book a day trip that includes fishing and license.
On your second day, acquaint yourself with the beautiful town of Ketchikan. This charming town is known for its contemporary and traditional art. Spend a few hours walking through the town’s two famous totem pole parks, Totem Bright and Saxman Totem Pole Park. Stop in at the Soho Coho Gallery, owned by well-known Alaskan artist Ray Troll, where you’ll find an array of original, Alaska-made collectibles. And don’t miss the Ketchikan Arts and Humanities Council’s Main Street Gallery.
(6 hours by ferry from Ketchikan)
Wrangell is less touristy than many of the towns along the Inside Passage. It’s an excellent place to get away from the hectic cruise-ship foot traffic and the T-shirt and knickknack shops that go along with it. Book your room at the Stikine Inn downtown and try to get one of the rooms with views of the water.
After you’ve unloaded at your hotel, take a stroll through the galleries and shops featuring wares by local artists and artisans. Grab lunch and walk down to the Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park and see ancient art chiseled on the rocks. No one knows who created these carvings or how long ago; they’re curious, original, and intriguing.
For the latter part of the afternoon, take a jet-boat ride with Breakaway Adventures and soak in the nearby Chief Shakes Hot Springs.
(3-hour ferry ride from Wrangell)
Petersburg’s Scandinavian heritage is evident from the moment you arrive. The Norwegian-style homes and boat docks set it apart from other Alaskan towns. Book a room in Scandia House and then spend the day glacier viewing and whale watching with Tongass Kayak Adventures. Just 25 miles outside of town is LeConte Glacier, the continent's southernmost tidewater glacier and Petersburg's biggest draw.
(8-hour ferry ride from Petersburg)
Most of the ferries from Petersburg to Juneau depart in the wee hours. You can book a cabin, or do as most Alaskans do and just curl up with your blanket on a deck chair under the heat lamps.
Once you’re in Juneau, check into your room at Alaska’s Capital Inn. Grab breakfast at Heritage Coffee Company and then take a helicopter ride on Temsco Helicopters to the Juneau Icefields. Spend an exciting afternoon dogsledding across the ice like the great Iditarod mushers do.
Once you’re back in town, grab the bus to the Gold Creek Salmon Bake for dinner. If you'd like to walk off the meal, hike up to the remains of the old Wagner Gold Mine and do a little gold panning of your own.
(4½-hour ferry ride from Juneau)
Check into Hotel Halsingland, the old Victorian officers’ bunkers of Ft. Seward, then head over to the Mountain Market. This popular hangout is a health-food market–deli–coffee shop. Grab some things for a packed lunch, then rent a bike from Sockeye Cycle and spend an afternoon on the well-groomed trails that meander through the rain forest.
Get back to your hotel in time to take the Twilight Bear Viewing Trip or Valley of the Eagles Nature Tour (3–4 hours) with Alaska Nature Tours. Afterward, have a libation at the Fogcutter Bar and rub elbows with the locals. Don’t lose track of time, though: Southeast bars have a tendency to stay open until the wee hours of morning, and you’ll need to catch the ferry or flight back to Juneau the next day for your trip home.
Travel back to Juneau and depart for home.
The Inside Passage is part of the Alaska Marine Highway, and for most towns and villages along the fjord, this aquatic highway is a lifeline to the outside world. Hop on a ferry and share the waterway with barges delivering mail, produce, fuel, and other essentials. Food often begins its journey far south, in Bellingham, Washington, which explains the mediocre quality of produce here, and shipping expenses help account for the high costs.