Over a million visitors will view Alaska’as spectacular Inside Passage this year, and the vast majority willdo so from a cruise ship. Yet very few of these folks will spendquality time exploring Alaska’s wonderful coastal communities orget a glimpse of authentic local life.
For an alternative to an Alaskan cruise, consider exploring the49th state as Alaskans do—by state-run ferry. Serving travelers for50 years, the “blue canoes” of the Alaska Marine Highway Systemprovide a vital link to rural towns, sailing along 3,500 miles ofcoastline between Washington State and the Aleutian Islands.
Ferries aren’t as fancy as cruise ships, of course. Most of themoperate a small cafeteria-style restaurant; larger vessels, likethe Columbia, also offer staterooms and dining roomsserving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Still, it’s a good idea topack extra food, drinks, games, and movies, and remember that wi-fiwill be spotty at best. Yet what ferries lack in creature comforts,they more than make up for in value. After all, AMHS vessels offermultiple decks for viewing the same wildlife, glaciers, and ruggedAlaska shoreline cruise passengers pay top dollar to see.
Families have plenty of options when it comes to seeing Alaskaby ferry. Here are three routes with definite kid appeal:
Bellingham to Ketchican
The three-day journey north from Bellingham, Washington,offers a spectacular view of the Pacific Northwest, following theroute taken by steamships during Alaska’s gold rush in the 1890s.Ketchikan is known as “Alaska’s first city” for its location nearthe southern gateway to the Inside Passage. A family of four withtwo school-aged kids can expect to pay just under $2,200round-trip, including stateroom accommodations both ways.
In Ketchican, active families can take a zip-line tour of therainforest canopy, or a day trip aboard a vessel from the realityTV show “Deadliest Catch.” In town, the Southeast Alaska DiscoveryCenter offers a hands-on overview of the 49th state’s history andindustry, while the Great Alaska Lumberjack Show delivers a dose ofraucous Alaskan fun, with logging antics that keep kids yelling fortheir favorite “Bull of the Woods.”
Juneau to Skagway
With only 45 miles of paved streets, Juneau is the only U.S.capital inaccessible by road, yet it offers wonderful museums,whale-watching excursions, and the famous MendenhallGlacier and surrounding trails that are ideal for all ages. Besure to takethe tram to the top of Mount Roberts to hike alpine trails,explore the Native Alaskan cultural center, and revel in thesweeping views of the Gastineau Channel.
Between Juneau and Skagway lie 100 nautical miles ofbreathtaking scenery. The six-and-a-half-hour trip traces the routeused by gold-seekers on their way to the Last Frontier and offersmyriad opportunities to spy humpback whales and countless fishingvessels. A family of four with two school-aged kids would pay $300for round-trip ferry tickets in mid-July.
The northernmost Inside Passage port served by the ferry system,Skagway honors its rich past with the Klondike Gold Rush NationalHistorical Park. Don’t miss a train ride up the Chilkoot Pass viathe White Pass Yukon Route railroad, a steep climb into the Alaskawilderness with breathtaking vistas of the Lynn Canal, which is notactually a canal but the longest fjord in North America.
Juneau - Sitka - Petersburg - Juneau
Site of the official transfer of Alaska from Russia to theUnited States in 1867, Sitka brims with Russian and Native Alaskaninfluence and is a charming town to explore with children. You canhike the scenic trails at Totem National Historical Park, paddle akayak among leaping salmon and bobbing sea otters, or visit theSitka Sound Science Center to understand the science of the saltyocean.
This ferry loop takes in the famous Wrangell Narrows, a popularhaunt for humpback whales and sea lions and a delicate navigationalchallenge for larger vessels. As you approach Petersburg, nicknamed“Little Norway,” tell the kids to look out for Devil’s Thumb, arocky projection poking up behind the mountains. You can learn allabout Alaska’s whales at the Petersburg Marine Mammal Center orfind excellent eagle-viewing at nearby Eagle Roost Park.
A family of four with two school-aged kids can travel this loopfor as little as $470 in midsummer. If you opt for an overnightpassage to or from Petersburg, you can book a four-berth stateroomfor an extra $84.
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