Alaska Inside Passage: What to Do and See

Each year, travelers and explorers head to Southeast Alaska to bask in the natural wonderland. Home to hundreds of rugged islands, stunning glaciers, and beautiful intact rainforests, the Southeast is a playground for outdoor adventurers.

But one of the region’s best-kept secrets is the natural waterway – the Inside Passage – that stretches for 500 miles, from Ketchikan in the south to Skagway in the north.

The Inside Passage is a favorite destination for yacht charters in Alaska, cruises, and ferries, and the reason is simple. The all-water route is protected by a network of sprawling coastal islands; this creates ideal sailing conditions. In fact, the waters are so calm in the summer, you feel more like a placid lake than open ocean.

Bottom line, the Inside Passage is the ultimate destination for a vacation, cruise, or yacht charter in Alaska.

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise: Yacht Charters in Alaska

Alaska’s Inside Passage offers some of the best cruising grounds in North America. That’s thanks to the vast protected ocean channel that runs for more than 500 miles. To the west, you’ll find dozens of rugged islands, like Admiralty Island, one of the largest islands in the United States and a refuge for the highest concentration of brown bears in the world. To the east, is mainland Alaska, which hugs the Coast Mountains that rise and serves as a beautiful backdrop.

Ultimately, the Passage is a superb cruising destination for a yacht charter or sailing vacation. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Excellent Cruising Conditions – The massive barrier islands completely protect the Passage. This creates smooth-as-butter cruise conditions. The waters are placid, much more like a slow-moving river than open ocean. In other words, it’s a perfect destination for people who get easily seasick.
  • Great Network of Towns – There are dozens of amazing towns and port cities along the passage, from Juneau, Alaska’s capital, to roughed outposts like Wrangell. That makes it great for multi-day charters and cruises.
  • Stunning Natural Beauty – A cruise or yacht charter in the Passage gives you a front-row seat to the region’s natural beauty. From lingering sunsets, and sprawling glaciers, to orca whale watching, and temperate rainforest hikes, travelers have a lot to explore in one of the world’s best-protected ecosystems.
  • A Variety of Itineraries – Southeast Alaska offers an experience for every traveler. In the north near Glacier Bay National Park, experience dozens of sparkling glaciers. Or experience supreme isolation and the rugged beauty of the barrier islands at Misty Fjords or Tracy Arm.

Alaska Inside Passage Towns: Where to Go

Sitka Alaska

The Inside Passage is home to dozens of small communities, each with its own unique flair. From quaint fishing villages to the museums and crab shacks of Juneau, you’ll find a range of experiences in Southeast Alaska. Some of the region’s most unique destinations include:

  • Juneau – The region’s most populated city – with about 35,000 year-round residents – is a hub for visitors in the region. Located in the northern part of the Passage, Juneau is a launch-off point for Glacier Bay cruises and trips to the barrier islands. Here, you’ll be able to explore the area’s rich culture – from indigenous art and history museums to incredible seafood.
  • Ketchikan – Ketchikan is the self-proclaimed “Gateway to Alaska.” Located at the southern entrance to Alaska’s Inside Passage, Ketchikan is a favorite destination for whale watching trips, to explore the history, or for the rainforests in Misty Fjords.
  • Sitka – Located near Juneau, Sitka is an important fishing hub for the area, and well-known for its unique blend of Native and Russian history. The Russian Church in Sitka is a must-see sight.
  • Petersburg – Known as Alaska’s “Little Norway,” Petersburg is a charming coastal fishing village, which was founded by Norwegian fishermen in 1910. Today, the town’s picturesque waterfront.
  • Wrangell – Wrangell is tucked away in the heart of the Island Passage, and can only be accessible by boat or plane. Visitors flock here to experience wildlife; glaciers, the Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory, and Petroglyph Beach are all nearby must-sees.
  • Skagway – The northern terminus of the Inside Passage is Skagway, a city rich in Gold Rush era history. Get a taste of the town’s mining past with a visit to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park or on a trip aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.
  • Hoonah – This small village is situated near the Icy Strait, a stunning natural wonderland and one of the best whale watching destinations in Alaska. Just 35 miles west of Juneau, Hoonah is a must-visit for wildlife viewing, hiking and ziplining.
  • Elfin Cove – Elfin Cove is an isolated outpost – no motorized traffic, and just 200 summer residents – that serves as one of the summer’s best fishing destinations. Head here for excellent halibut, King salmon and rockfish fishing.
  • Tenakee Springs – Located on the southern coast of Chichagof Island, Tenakee Springs is a historical fishing village. Today, visitors stop in here to refresh and revitalize in the natural springs located nearby.

Alaska Inside Passage Tours: What to Do

Photo opportunities, adventure, and excellent fishing await in every port of call and seaside village in the Inside Passage. There’s just so much to see and do; you’d need a lifetime to explore all that it has to offer. Some of the best experiences include:

  • Tongass National Forest – Encompassing nearly 17 million acres, Tongass National Forest is the nation’s largest forest, and one of the world’s most intact temperate rainforests. Tongass offers it all: Amazing hiking, wildlife viewing (especially brown and black bear, bald eagle and whales), ATV tours, waterfall explorations and much more.
  • Misty Fjords National Monument – The 2-million-acre section of Tongass known as Misty Fjords is an adventurers’ dream. Known for its towering waterfalls, excellent sea kayaking, and hiking. Just 40 miles from Ketchikan, this is a must-stop on an Inside Passage charter or cruise.
  • Tracy Arm Fjord – Near Juneau, you’ll find Tracy Arm Fjord, a natural oasis known for its glaciers, whale watching and sheer mile-high rock walls.
  • Glacier Bay National Park – A northern terminus of the Passage, Glacier Bay is an amazing destination for glacier viewing (with several here to see), as well as whale watching. Harbor seals, grey whales, orcas and humpbacks are found in abundance during the summer months.
  • Ketchikan Totems – The salmon capital of the world, Ketchikan, is also rich in Native history. Come here to see the Totem Heritage Center, where you’ll find the largest collection of 19th-Century totem poles anywhere in the world.
  • Fishing – The Inside Passage is one of the world’s most revered fishing destinations. Salmon, halibut and rockfish are found in abundance during the summer fishing season. You’ll also find excellent seafood in almost any port.
  • Helicopter Tours – Explore the region’s rainforests and glaciers by helicopter. You’ll find world-class helicopter and seaplane tours in Juneau, Ketchikan and Glacier Bay.

Alaska Inside Passage Glaciers: Natural Wonders to See

Glacier Bay National Park

A trip to the Inside Passage wouldn’t be complete without experiencing glaciers up-close. The icy-blue crags are a photographer’s dream and offer great opportunities for ice climbing, wildlife viewing, and more. Some must-see glaciers include:

  • Mendenhall Glacier: Located near Juneau, Mendenhall is a must-see in the Juneau Ice Field.
  • Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve – At more than 3 million acres, Glacier Bay is home to more than 1,000 glaciers, including Margerie Glacier, Johns Hopkins Glacier, and Muir Glacier.
  • Tracy Arm Fjord – The fjord offers lots to see and do. But be sure to see the two tidewater Sawyer Glaciers, known for their distinctive icy blue color.
  • LeConte Bay – This beautiful bay is home to incredible towering glaciers, known for its amazing sea kayaking. Some of the best include LeConte Glacier, Summit Glacier and Shakes Glacier.

Explore the Natural Beauty of Alaska’s Inside Passage

Bottom line: Alaska’s Inside Passage offers a world of adventure for travelers. One of the last great wildernesses in the world, the Inside Passage offers respite and relaxation, away from the modern world. In short, if you’re thinking about your next cruising vacation destination, consider the stunning and rugged Inside Passage. It’s a life-altering experience.