The majority of Alaska visitors arrive by cruise ship, and the majority of those cruise ships ply the Inside Passage in Southeastern Alaska on seven-day roundtrips out of Vancouver, British Columbia and Seattle, Washington. It is a fine way to experience the region's "pure and sublime" wilderness—to borrow from John Muir's description of Glacier Bay—in addition to its charming port cities.
Along the way, the ships journey through narrow fjords and stop at small towns that were once wilderness outposts. Visit Alaska's capital city, Juneau, and sail through waters under a backdrop of towering peaks. Here's a guide to top ports of call on the Inside Passage and what you'll want to see along the way:
Ketchikan, “Alaska’s First City,” has a wonderful waterfront promenade, where visitors can stroll by local fishing boats that are docked right alongside mega cruise ships. Don’t miss the Totem Heritage Center, Saxman Totem Park or Totem Bight State Historical Park. George Inlet Lodge, located on the South Tongass Highway, does a crab feast for tour groups.
Many cruise ship itineraries include scenic cruises of the spectacular wilderness of Misty Fiords National Monument, bisected by Behm Canal. The monument is also accessible as a day cruise or floatplane trip from Ketchikan.
Wrangell is the only Alaska city to have existed under four nations and three flags—the Stikine Tlingits, Russia, Great Britain and the United States. Wrangell Museum and Chief Shakes Island are highlights in town. There also are tours to Anan Wildlife Observatory (for bear viewing), the Stikine River Delta and LeConte Glacier by floatplane or boat.
Petersburg is a picturesque little town at the northern end of the aptly named Wrangell Narrows. Its downtown reflects both its Norwegian heritage and its major industry—commercial fishing—with waterfront canneries and small shops decorated with rosemaling and stuffed with Scandinavian items for sale. Activities here include whale watching, sea kayaking, LeConte Glacier boat tours, fishing charters and bear viewing; inquire with Viking Travel.
Sitka, beautifully situated on the west side of Baranof Island, was the capital of Russian Alaska. It was here, at what is today Baranof Castle Hill State Historic Site, that Alaska changed hands from Russia to the United States on Oct. 18, 1867. Popular attractions in Sitka include St. Michael's Cathedral, the Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka National Historical Park and the Alaska Raptor Center.
Tracy Arm, Endicott Arm and Fords Terror, southeast of Juneau and adjacent to Stephens Passage, are popular cruise destinations. The long, deep and narrow fjords of Tracy and Endicott Arms extend more than 30 miles into the glaciated Coast Mountain Range. Fords Terror, off of Endicott Arm, is a small fjord with a narrow entrance and sheer rock walls. In 1889, a crewman off a naval vessel was caught in a rowboat in turbulent, iceberg-laden currents for six hours when the tide changed. Adventure Bound Alaska offers a full day cruise to Tracy Arm Fjord out of Juneau.
Juneau, Alaska’s capital, is the only U.S. capital not connected by road to the rest of the state (Honolulu is connected to other cities on the island of Oahu). It is a gem of a city—and often referred to as a “little San Francisco.” Don't miss the Mount Roberts Tramway, with its amazing views of the city and Gastineau Channel on the way up and on the way down between the harbor and the mountaintop complex. Top area attractions include Mendenhall Glacier and the Shrine of St. Therese.
Haines, gateway to the Alaska Highway for Inside Passage travelers, is located on Chilkoot Inlet against a backdrop of rugged snow-covered peaks. It is home to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where more than 3,500 eagles congregate each October. Take a walking tour of historic Fort William H. Seward; visit the Hammer Museum; learn about Tlingit art and culture; raft the Chilkat River; go hiking, biking, fishing or kayaking.
Skagway dates back to the Klondike Gold Rush and evidence of its past is everywhere, from historic false-fronted buildings and boardwalks to the historically significant—and still operating—White Pass & Yukon Route Railway. National Park Service rangers offer guided tours of Skagway's downtown historic district and of Dyea townsite near the Chilkoot Trail; get details at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park visitor center on Broadway.
Glacier Bay, a National Park and Preserve, has seven active tidewater glaciers and is a sanctuary for the endangered humpback whales that summer here. Scenic cruising of Glacier Bay is on some but not all cruise ship itineraries. Glacier Bay Lodge & Tours offers a day cruise of the bay as well as accommodations and dining.