Longing for a vacation from the ordinary? How about a cruise along Alaska’s Inside Passage? Spring in the “last frontier” is a great time to go. The heavy snow has stopped falling, temperatures are mild, and the lush green landscape stands out sharply against a backdrop of gleaming white glacial peaks. There’s plenty to see and do in this region, but let’s start with three of the most popular ports—Ketchikan, Juneau, and Haines.
This is the starting point for most Inside Passage tours. Nestled perfectly into Alaska’s coastal rain forest, Ketchikan offers a stunning preview of what’s to come. The city is often referred to as “Alaska’s First City,” and denizens live up to the motto by offering visitors much to do.
Make sure to stop by the Edmund C. DeWitt Carving Center, in Saxman Village Totem Park (907-225-4846). Kids will love watching the totem poles, canoes, and paddles emerging from the skilled hands of native carvers.
If totem poles are your thing, visit the Totem Heritage Cultural Center (601 Deermount Street; 907-225-5900), which is home to more than 30 authentic totem poles relocated from Tlingit villages. The Tlingit are indigenous to Alaska, and it’s believed by many that these poles were used by them as signposts.
To learn more about Ketchikan’s rich past, take a historical tour with Cape Fox Tours, which offers narrated bus rides through the city. Have your camera ready for the final stop at the Tlingit’s Saxman Village.
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Do pack your umbrella. This is the rainiest spot in Alaska, averaging about 160 inches of rain per year.
Alaska’s capital, affectionately nicknamed “Gateway to the Glaciers,” is a perfect blend of cosmopolitanism and ruggedness—the city provides all the pleasures of a big city while offering a variety of activities for the nature lover.
Make sure to pay a visit to Mendenhall Glacier (Glacier Spur Road; 907-789-0097), one of the most visited glaciers in the world. The glacier has “drive-up” access, which means you can see it by bus or car. Along the easy switchback path to the visitors center ($3 fee, handicapped accessible), you can see grooves etched in the rock by moving ice. Inside the center, floor-to-ceiling windows open onto excellent views of Mendenhall Lake and Photo Point Overlook.
Go back in time to the infamous Gold Rush days and take an underground mining tour. While most tunnels in Alaska are sealed off, Princess Tours can get a few lucky visitors into what used to be the world’s largest gold-producing mine. Guides explain how rock crushers work and how the ore traveled from mine shaft to rock crusher.
Haines has bragging rights to one of the best climates along the notoriously wet Inside Passage—it averages only two inches of precipitation per month during the summer. It’s among the smaller cities on the typical port-of-call itinerary, so the pace of life here is more relaxed than you’ll find in Juneau. Still, there is plenty to do and see.
Take a brief excursion to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve (Haines Highway; 907-766-2292), which rests on 48,000 acres of secluded river property. Eagle sightings are almost guaranteed during the spring. April is mating season for the eagles, and you can usually see the birds soaring overhead in an intricate aerial mating dance.
If you’re traveling with kids, make sure to stop by Kroschel Park (Mile 1.5, Mosquito Lake Road, 30 miles north of Haines; 907-767-5464) for more close encounters with Alaska’s native wildlife. The 40-acre sanctuary is home to lynxes, wolves, woodland caribou, and wolverines.
Every town has its novelty, and Haines’ oddity is probably the Hammer Museum (108 Main Street, uphill from the harbor). The museum has 1,200 hammers on display, everything from unwieldy sledge-hammers to the diminutive tack hammers used by upholsterers.
If you’re looking for a great souvenir, search the local shops for a hand-carved mask. The Tlingit were known for their exceptional carving skills and used to make gifts of masks to visiting ships (Captain James Cook carried back many beautiful masks to England in 1778). But buyer beware! Fake masks are made by proficient mask makers in Bali and other countries. Ask for a certificate of authenticity when buying.
For a more in-depth look at Alaska’s Inside Passage, check out Compass American Guides: Alaska’s Inside Passage, written by resident Ann Chandonnet. Filled with detailed maps, full-color photography, historical detail on various Alaskan ports, Compass Alaska’s Inside Passage is an essential guide for all Alaskan travelers.