The Inside Passage on the Alaska State Ferry

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Since we moved to Washington I had been wanted to explore the Alaskan Inside Passage and this summer my plan was followed through and we couldn’t have asked for a better trip. It was a blast, but didn’t come without some serious planning. We went with three friends and all worked together to plan nine days exploring the Inside Passage. The planning process was actually a little difficult because I had trouble finding out details outside of the typical cruise guide books since so much of the tourism in the region is based on the cruise ship model which takes passengers to a port for 6-8 hours and aren’t in one place long enough to really get to know the area. The cruise ship industry in that part of Alaska is overwhelming, with up to around 10,000 passengers a day in towns of 10,000 residents it has quite the impact. While the cruise ship industry certainly makes the economy of the area for the season it also creates what feels like a semi non-authentic experience with the passengers coming ashore for a few hours and shopping on the main streets and returning to their luxury accommodations. I am sure this is great for some people and I am sure that plenty of people on those cruises get out there and see amazing sights and experience Alaska’s Inside Passage for all it has to offer but for those that want a more rugged Alaskan experience I would highly recommend the Alaska State Ferry.
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The Alaska Marine Highway System has been operating year-round since 1963, with regularly scheduled passenger and vehicle service to 33 communities in Alaska, plus Bellingham, Washington, and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Tickets and planning need to be done in advance. If you are leaving from Washington the ferry departs Bellingham every Friday afternoon in the summer season.  We booked our tickets I believe around May or June for our trip in late August. You have the option of booking a state room or staying out on the deck, in a random spot you can find inside or in the deck recliners in the solarium. I highly recommend the camping on the deck option, just remember to bring your duct tape so you can secure your tent to the deck. The community on the deck is fun and everyone is on a unique and exciting adventure unique.  We arrived about an hour early for the ferry in Bellingham and had no problem checking in and getting a spot on the solarium deck. We put our two tents down and claimed our chairs and watched as we pulled out from Washington state on our adventure. Our plan was to try and stay in two places a little longer rather than getting off at every stop along the way. We left on a Friday morning from Seattle, arrived in Bellingham that afternoon after leaving our car at a friends house(another option would be to take the train up from Seattle) and return to Seattle on Alaskan Airlines from Juneau the following Sunday.  Since we only had nine days we decided to only go up to Juneau, but if you have a little more time the ferry makes its way up to Hanes which would be a great jumping off point for the Glacier Bay National Park. Our trip was planned on a shoestring budget and most our planning involved ways to camp where we could make our own food where we could and see as much as we could in the short time we had. The ferry also made two stops along the way between Bellingham and Juneau to Wrangell and St.Petersburg.IMG_1408

We spent Friday evening through early Sunday morning on the ferry. The first night on the deck was a little rough because it was super windy and we didn’t have our tent taped down enough. Lesson learned here make sure to secure your tent really well. We woke to a breathtaking sunrise that morning which was worth every sleepy second spent. We spent Saturday relaxing on the deck in lounge chairs chatting and watching the amazing view pass us by.  IMG_1480

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We arrived in Ketchikan on Sunday morning at 7am and called our free hotel shuttle to pick us up from the ferry terminal. We stayed at The Gilmore hotel in downtown Ketchikan. It was reasonably priced and the allowed us to check in early (really early at 8am) and included a free shuttle to and from the terminal. After checking in we rented bikes from Ketchikan bike rentals for $20 each for the day. They are located walking distance from the hotel and were a self-service shop with an easy put your money in the can method and off we went. One of our friends is an avid fly fisher and we biked down to Ward lake for the afternoon. We packed a picnic from the Safeway on our way out and headed out in the cold and rainy weather to spend an afternoon biking. (Oh by the way it is ALWAYS raining on this trip so just assume that it is going to be cold and rainy at every point) Ward lake was really beautiful had a lovely campground and picnic area perfect for spending the day. There are a few hiking trails around and one little one that circled the lake. From Ward lake we biked down to Totem Bight State Park. Totem Bight was a really amazing State Historical Park with totems, a clan house and beautiful scenery. We went in the later afternoon and had the place to ourselves. After warming up in the welcome center with tea we wondered around the park exploring the history and culture of the area. This park is a must see in Ketchikan. If you don’t have bike to rent there is a free shuttle that you can ride from town to and from the park.IMG_1487 IMG_1491 IMG_1502 IMG_1516 IMG_1533 IMG_1534 IMG_1535We spent the next day kayaking around Knudson Cove Marina through the Ketchikan Kayaking Company, which offered rental kayaks without having to go on a guided tour. We spent the morning exploring the shoreline, islands and inlets around the harbor. If you time it right at low tides there are countless starfish and sunstars to check out. The owner of Ketchikan Kayaking was really friendly and gave us great tips and advice for checking out the area. I would recommend renting from them and exploring the area for a morning or afternoon. The harbor can be reached via cab ride. From Knudson Cove Harbor we ate lunch in the convenience store snacking on chips and bars (I would recommend packing a lunch) and then headed to Settlers Cove State Park. Settlers Cove was one of the most beautiful areas I have ever been to. It was like a scene from a movie, lush thick forests, a waterfall brimming with salmon and microenvironments that one could explore for days. We went fly fishing, explored and spent the afternoon virtually alone in this beautiful park. The entire day we had both areas practically to ourselves even though it was the busiest day of the cruise ship season with 11,000 passengers in Ketchikan that day.

We spent our last day in Ketchikan exploring the downtown area and some of us went looking for bears. Back on the ferry headed to Juneau Tuesday evening. The ferry from Ketchikan to Juneau was quite a bit different. Less tourists, mostly locals and no washer and dryer like we were hoping for. However, the ferry was still a blast and we had more room to ourselves and didn’t have to work to have enough chairs. This time since we were only going to be in for the night we opted out of setting up our tents and slept under the heat lamps of the solarium and set our sleeping pads up on the white plastic lounge chairs. On this leg of the trip we saw lots of wildlife including whales, porpoises, seals and otters.  We got a nice little whale show in the afternoon while we were having a little yoga session on the stern of the boat, complete with tails flaps! The beautiful thing about the ferry was that there was nothing to do but sit there and enjoy the view, no internet to distract you, nowhere you had to or even could be just time to sit talk with friends and relax. We passed lots of little islands and port towns along the way and even though we felt super remote we would often pass another boat or cruise ship and it would remind us that we were in well traveled waters. People were on the ferry for all different reasons, traveling home from a trip, commuting for work, vacation, adventure….. Some people had taken the journey many many times while others like us were seeing it all for the first time. There is a nostalgic feel to slow travel like that, something inherently peaceful and enduring. My favorite part of the trip was sitting there talking with our friends telling stories and laughing together as a beautiful landscape lay out before us. We visited the bar lounge a few times, played cards, talked with other passengers and made our rounds exploring the boat. We arrived after one night the next evening in our final destination, Juneau. The boat dropped us off and after a few hours layover the boat continued northward towards Haines.

Juneau, the capital of Alaska. Full of rainy days and overcast skies and summertime tourists downtown. I really enjoyed Ketchikan but between the two I loved Juneau a little bit more. We were going to be in Juneau Thursday through Sunday so we decided to rent a car. We got a cab at the ferry terminal to the airport where we booked our rental car. After we got our car we explored town a little bit, got groceries and made our way to our first campsite at Auke Village Campground. We set up our tent and since it was pouring down rain we went to the nearby picnic shelter complete with a beautiful outdoor stone fireplace. We made s’mores and spent time by the fire looking out at a dark Auke bay. The next morning we went to the Shrine of St.Therese and drove to the end of the road (there is only about 40 miles of paved road in Juneau). The Shrine of St.Therese a peaceful little spot on the shoreline. We camped that night at a cabin in Eagle Beach Rec area. The cabin was really cute complete with a stove and bunks in the woods. The only problem- BEARS! Lots of them we had 5 bear sightings while there, lots of eagle, lots of salmon and lots of bears!! Needless to say I didn’t leave the front porch after we walked up on the bear sleeping in a tree while we were down looking at the river. Tommy and I went back up to the cabin so I could lock myself inside until it was time to leave while the others went to go walk around a bit and when we were in the cabin a big black bear comes up to our campfire to say hello. We survived the night but I didn’t sleep much thinking bears could open doors and come get us 🙂 The next day we went on a great day hike up West Mendenhall glacier trail to see the glacier. The top portion of the hike got a bit slick and was a little tricky but definitely worth the breathtaking view.  We camped at the Mendenhall campground and spent the evening in Skater’s cabin roasting our second round of s’mores and making dinner.  The view was out of the world, who doesn’t want to see a glacier outside a beautiful stone cabin while eating their dinner! Saturday we made our way back to town after checking out Nugget Falls and Mendenhall Glacier and checked into our hotel. We spent the afternoon at the Alaskan Brewing Company, fly fishing and exploring downtown. The final day was spent hiking Perseverance trail right outside of the downtown area. It was a great hike along the river to old mining ruins and up to a waterfall. We flew out from Juneau to Seattle for a one-way fare of $90 each on Alaskan Airlines.IMG_1562 IMG_1565 IMG_1566 IMG_1582 IMG_1586 IMG_1607 IMG_1666 IMG_1670 IMG_1681 IMG_1686 IMG_1725

We had a wonderful trip and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a Inside Passage adventure. Things to know- it rains- alot! Wear warm clothes. Avoid cruiseship tourist traps. Plan to pack your own food on the ferry it is overpriced and terrible. Get a camping spot on the solarium deck. Plan ahead. Expect to see bears.

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