Alaska’s Panhandle and the Inside Passage – the latter measuring about 500 miles long by 120 miles wide – stretches from Ketchikan and Misty Fjords National Monument in the south, to Sitka and Juneau in its midsection. To the north lie Skagway, Haines, Glacier Bay National Park and the Klondike Gold Rush.
The cities are characterized by small but charming centers and fisherman pit stops surrounded by mountains and rocky seashores. They are quiet and infused with cultural arts in colder months and manically boast locally-foraged cuisine and wildlife when the summer days get long and the fishing and cruise boats arrive to port in swarms. Tours, fishing trips, and adventure travel into the wilderness are abundant and easily-booked from cities during tourist seasons and can be arranged with a little more preparation during winter months.
The mountainous islands and mainland are blanketed by Tongass National Forest, which is both the U.S.’s largest national forest and the world’s largest temperate rainforest. This means moss carpets and huge, fairytale old-growth fir just steps from city roads, easy-access cabins, campgrounds, and day hikes, and plenty of opportunities to encounter bears, birds, and ocean beasts from a comfortable home base.
Backpackers, adventurous families, and cruisers alike are drawn to Southeast Alaska for its striking landscapes, its expansive and diverse wildlife, its fishing towns, and its rich roots in Native and Russian culture. The only means of transport to and within the area is air and boat, since the archipelago is boxed in by British Columbia’s rugged mountains and the North Pacific Ocean. So hop a ferry, fishing boat, cruise ship, or little plane to begin your southeast Alaskan adventure.
Get started with these itineraries:
Because a large portion of the Panhandle is a rainforest, short-term tourists may prefer to come in June, when average rainfall dips to around three inches for the month (compared to about 5 inches throughout the rest of spring and summer and upwards of 11 inches in the fall). Summer also means longer days, milder weather, and greener foliage, which makes for more comfortable tours and prettier pictures, but also draws cruise ships, fishing boats, and tacky tourist shops to surface. It is easier to book boat trips, floatplane tours, and rent fishing and tackle equipment in the summer. Some restaurants and shops open their doors for summer only. The Alaska Marine Highway ferry system runs more frequently from town to town in the summer. It’s the easiest time to visit the cities if you don’t mind the throngs of people, both in terms of weather and touring resources. If you’re more interested in escaping the bustle and experiencing the wilderness, you should consider touring the Panhandle cities off-season.
Though travelers often tend to shy away from visiting Alaska in the winter, the Inside Passage has relatively mild winters. Some businesses close down over the off-season, but it is going to be easier to experience a city’s character when the locals aren’t driven away by the tourism. The shorter days in isolated island towns spur the community’s involvement in live music festivals, contra dance parties, film festivals, and open mics. There is at times heavy snowfall at higher altitudes, so summitting mountains becomes a bit more difficult in that way, but most trails are easy enough for even newbie hikers to do in the snow (with some trekking poles and a change of socks). Fishing season is largely finished come October and the bears go to sleep, but the bald eagles, ravens, sea stars, and other wildlife remain in the moss-covered forests of the Panhandle. If you’re planning on visiting during the off-season, do be sure to double-check your travel dates, as commercial planes and ferries run far less frequently than during the summer. Your trade off is cheaper accommodation, which may save you hundreds.
Many cruises spend four or five days covering Southeast Alaska, hitting ports in Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, and Glacier Bay. There’s a great view from the water, but spending a few hours of every day in each place is a very quick overview of cities with such rich historical and natural wonders. You could stay a week to ten days discovering the richness of the towns with time to spare for day hikes, camping trips, boat outings, floatplane tours, tide pooling, skiing, fishing, and adventuring liesurely in whatever other way you may want to explore Alaska.
The majority of the inside passage has a temperate oceanic climate, which is characterized by relatively little temperature range across seasons (about 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the winters to 65 degrees in the summer) and a lot of rain. Glacier Bay and north, the climate shifts to subarctic oceanic, which means short, cool summers and longer winters.
Alaska Folk Festival, April, Juneau
Musicians, fans, and aspiring banjoists alike flock from all over Southeast to Juneau to take part in Folk Fest. Experts run all sorts of workshops and perform music and dance all week. Admission to all of the festival’s events is free, but make sure to book accommodation early, as hotels and hostels fill up quickly. The 2017 festival is slated for April 3 – 9 (subject to change). You can check up on the details at the festival site.
Celebration, June, Juneau
Every other June, the native Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska gather together in Juneau for a festival of culture. Traditions from each tribe combine to form new forms of dance, art, and food. Celebration is meant to honor the development of Native Alaskan culture in the modern world, represented by the gathering and sharing of people from all over Alaska and beyond. The next Celebration is slated to be held June of 2018.
Alaska Day, October 18, Sitka
Sitka holds week-long festivals, parades, live music, and themed food and drinks to celebrate the day that Alaska was transferred from Russia to the United States in 1867. Though it is a state-wide holiday, the festivities are particularly raucous in Sitka because it was here that the sale was made official and the US flag was first hoisted over Alaskan soil.
Alaska’s time zone is UTC-09:00, except for the western Aleutian islands, which are UTC-10:00.
South of Glacier Bay, be prepared for the weather to turn from sunny day to ten-minute downpour with little warning. Because Tongass National Forest is, after all, a rainforest, it’s important that you bring rain gear. Summers can get relatively warm, especially if you’re out hiking in the sun. Bring light layers with a waterproof shell and waterproof shoes no matter what the season. In winter, icy sidewalks are not unusual, because sand and ice would go straight into the sea and throw off the wildlife balance. Bring boots with good grip or slip-on ice grips. No matter when you go, bring warm, protective gloves and a hat. You’ll need them when you’re hiking in the shade of some ancient trees, summiting a mountain, or catching the Northern Lights.
Southeast Alaska tends to be on the pricier side in terms of accommodation, food, and activities, especially since so much is shipped up from the “lower 48” states. The quotes below are not all-encompassing, for sure, but are just meant to give you an idea for how to budget your trip. Costs do not include alcohol, tax, or tip.
Hostel: $15 / person/night
Campgrounds: $0 – 10/night
Log cabins and shelters: $0 – $40/night
Airbnb: $60 – 100 / person/night
Motel: $100 / person/night
Hotel: $200 – 250 / person/night
Quick breakfast, small cafe: $10
Brunch, sit-down restaurant: $18 – 20
Lunch, cafeteria-style restaurant: $10 – 15
Lunch, sit-down restaurant: $20
Dinner, pub or bar: $15 – 20
Dinner, sit-down restaurant: $20
Cup of drip coffee: $2
Cup of craft coffee: $5
Bus ticket, one-way: $1
Taxi into city: $10
Kayak rental, per day: $50 – $75 ($50-65 half-day)
Kayak tours: $80
Bike rental: $10 /hr, $25 /day
Floatplane tours and charters: by quote only; varies depending on the destination
Water taxi: $250 /hr (generally up to six passengers)
Decent beer: $6
Rail drinks: $6
House wine: $8
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Alaska uses the USD just like the rest of the United States. Do not let anybody tell you otherwise.
Alaska’s Panhandle can only be accessed by boat or plane due to its ocean and mountainous borders. Many people come in on cruise ship, but that only allows for a minimal amount of time on land. Visitors may decide to rent a car in Sitka or Juneau, especially campers and cabin-renters who decide to stay further outside of town for the wildlife or those who want to readily go further out of town for hikes. Buses are available in some places and are reliable but do not run often, even during tourist season. In most cases, cab fares are cheap enough, seeing as how there isn’t much road to drive on in any city.
For traveling to the Inside Passage from the Lower 48, the most time-efficient option often still makes several stops along the way. The amount of flights picks up during tourist season, saving many travelers an overnight in a hub like Seattle or Anchorage. Be aware of those layovers–the most cost-efficient connection may end up costing you extra in hotels or airport meals in the end. Otherwise, commercial flights are going to get you to Southeast Alaska the fastest. Traveling between cities by plane once already on the Inside Passage is quick, with no flight lasting longer than an hour or two, but is going to cost you big money. Consider taking an extra day and using a ferry in this case.
The Alaska Marine Highway offers ferry routes from ports in Washington state to all of the same cruise docks in Southeast. During the off-season, these have a particularly long route time and run less frequently than spring and summer. The ferries do not run all connections every day, so be sure to check out a schedule before booking your trips. Cabins are available to purchase for overnight trips on the ferry, but many travelers bring tents to pitch on deck beneath heaters to save on funds, which is warm and pleasant enough for many and makes for some new friend opportunities. There are not always shuttles running readily from ferry ports to town, so be sure to check on how you will be getting from the dock to your destination. Ferry trips provide a “cruise-esque,” water-side perspective on Southeast without the same cost and quick timetable as a cruise, so they’re recommended for travelers hopping between towns along the Inside Passage.
There are several different companies offering Inside Passage cruise packages. Pick one that docks at the cities that seem right for you and has a nice mix of city and wilderness viewing. Cruise ships either dock right in town or organize their own shuttles to and from the city center.
Travelers who expect to be moving around the outskirts of a city on their own time may want to rent a car. Car rental companies are located mainly at airports and vehicles should be reserved ahead of time.
Most destinations in Alaska’s Panhandle are easily navigable by bikes, and bike rentals are cheap. Those who choose to plan to explore the cities with this option should remember proper clothing for the weather, such as rain pants and jackets.
You can find backpackers tramping through the cities on the Inside Passage. Though campsites and cabins are often a decent walk from city centers, the experience (and the money you save on accommodation) may be worth it.
Travelers with a particular island destination in mind may want to hire a water taxi. The rates are high (expect $250/hr), but this can be split between a group of people.
Buses are available and reliable in the cities for around $1/one-way trip, but do not run often. If you’re pressed for time, consider hiring a cab.
Taxi cabs are available for hire and sometimes offer tours in the cities of Southeast Alaska. There are sometimes flat fees for getting into town from out of town and vice-versa. Cab companies on the Inside Passage have a limited fleet and may stop picking up calls when their vehicles are out, and some private cab companies close early, so make sure to jot down all of the cab numbers if you anticipate using them.
The cities of the Alaskan Panhandle have a history of dispute between the Native Alaskan and Russian peoples, and it has left its mark in the residents and arts of the areas. The locals are knowledgeable about the wildlife, waters and trails of the area and care about keeping their environment safe and beautiful. The drinking culture is rich, with raucous fishing bars just steps from harbors. Everyone fishes and/or hunts, and many prepare their own smoked salmon or deer jerky. The islands, mountains, lakes, and rivers are pristine due to hard-working volunteers and a population that cares about leaving the wilderness wild. Southeast Alaska has something adventurous and exciting to offer everyone.
Alaska’s Panhandle has been home to Tlingit and Haida Native Alaskan tribes since ____, whose people built communities centered around the abundant natural life and telling stories with iconic totem poles. Europeans began exploring the area when it became clear that sea otter pelts were easy to come by, leading to the establishment of the Russian American Trading Company and its ensuing government in Sitka. With this, the institutions of the Europeans were brought to the area, clashing with the Native cultures and religion. The US purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, in a deal where both Russia and the US thought they were doing each other a favor. Alaska remained a US Territory until 1958, and the 49-star American flag was first hoisted at Castle Hill in Sitka. Today, both the Native Alaskan and the Russian cultures are celebrated through arts, museums, and preserved architecture throughout Southeast Alaska.
Russian and Native Alaskan cultures are celebrated throughout the Panhandle with traditional dance, art, artifacts, and architecture. Children of all backgrounds are taught about Native cultures at a young age and some tribe members teach Tlingit language, though it is not widely spoken.Traveling fishermen add some flavor to the nightlife and may buy the bar a round on more prosperous days. The communities are tightly-knit, creative, and proud to live among–and are protective of–the natural resources and beauty of the area.
Fish and other seafood come fresh to the restaurants of the Inside Passage straight off the boats, especially during the spring and summer months. Salmon chowder is abundant and delicious, and foodies may enjoy sampling many recipes and choosing their favorite. Smoked salmon is a favorite, and many locals make their own. Rockfish wraps, tacos or sandwiches are also a local highlight. If you’re a bit more adventurous, try a grilled octopus or squid. Here, you won’t have to worry about whether or not you’re buying local–at least when it comes to seafood. The hunters in the area also cart in a lot of local deer meat. Deer or salmon jerky is a great local snack when hiking in Alaskan backcountry–just look out for hungry bears.