How to Explore Alaska’s Inside Passage by Ferry

My week traveling with the Alaska Marine Highway System went a little like this...

By: Hayden Quinn + Save to a List

When I decided to make the move from Washington to Alaska for the summer, transportation was the furthest thing from my planning. In my mind, I was already tearing through the waves in a kayak as flocks of birds flew across the water and the sea otters twirled with the tides next to me. I accepted my new job with tunnel vision to this moment, and then realized I had no idea how to get myself up there. With Canada limiting through travel I needed a way to get myself (and my car) up to Alaska without risking a hold-up at the border.

Views from the outer deck just past Wrangell, Alaska.

Enter: the Alaska Marine Highway System. Before I knew it I was booked on the 5 ½ day ferry from Bellingham, WA to Whittier, AK with my dad and older brother, who both insisted on escorting me up north. This ferry experience was a bucket list item for my dad- who had been to Alaska a handful of times to climb mountains but had never experienced the magic of the water travel and the views of the Inside Passage. 5 ½ days is a good (emphasis on the good) amount of time on a mid-sized ferry with limited activities, mask mandates, no cell service, and a shared cabin with two men in your family. We drove the car on, grabbed our backpacks, and walked up to the upper decks aimlessly, not knowing what the next week would look like. I definitely learned a few things using the AMHS- so here’s a list:

1. The Ferry is for EVERYONE.

I met so many different people from various walks of life with all sorts of different occupations, intentions for travel, and stories. There were retired couples out for a relaxing honeymoon, fishermen returning to Alaskan waters for their 25th season, families moving to Anchorage with the dogs and UHaul in tow, and young solo travels making their way up to various parts of Alaska to see it for the first time. The ferry is an ideal time to make new friends and learn from others!

Window reflections in Glacier Bay.

    2. Unless you like burgers & fries for 5 days straight- BRING FOOD.

    Biggest mistake of our trip was not bringing our own snacks, lunches, and adult beverages. Don’t get me wrong, the ferry does it’s best to make decent meals but unless you’ve got the money to spend on 3 square meals a day and don’t mind feeling like you are turning into a potato, I recommend bringing ALL the snacks and a stocked cooler.

    3. Be prepared to potentially never leave the boat (COVID-19 rules).

    Upon boarding and booking, the ferry staff kept it pretty vague as to whether or not we’d be able to visit at our port stops. We stopped in Ketchikan and Juneau and were not able to wander further than the parking lot. We made the best of it, but if you decide to loiter in the parking lot for the few hours in which the ferry is docked be prepared for some questioning by undercover coastguard members looking for drug deals. Whoops.

    Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

    4. Don’t underestimate the cab drivers & markets in the port towns.
    Along the lines of my last two points, when at our first stop in Ketchikan my brother and I found ourselves desperate for some fruit or anything besides French fries. As we docked we noticed the town market across the street and the cabs lined up along the walkway waiting to assist folks to departing the ferry as their final destination. We called a wonderful lady at the market who put together a big bag of food and snacks for us and took down our credit card information, then we paid a cab driver to drive across the street to snag it and bring it back. Never underestimate the power of human kindness & resourcefulness!

    My brother, Taylor, with the foraged goodies from A&P Markets in Ketchikan. We definitely earned this.

    5. Try out ALL the seats and areas available!

    The Inside Passage has a special aura- it’s easy to feel like you are the only boat for miles cutting though glassy water as the fog dances along the coastline. It’s easy to find your own space on the ferry to stare out in all directions, be present in the journey along the Passage and get in allllll the feels.

    6. Make a moody playlist, bring cards, and a few different books!

    Limited-to-no WiFi in this day in age will definitely test your mental capabilities. Channel your early-quarantine routine and try to get some reading done, listen to some calm music, or learn a new game. You’ll definitely have the time to do it.

    Entering Petersburg, Alaska.

      7. The Solarium is cool (& cost-effective) but a cabin room is better.

      On the middle deck of the ferry, there is the ‘Solarium’ where you can pitch a tent or hammock and get a social experience while saving some cash. Had I been traveling alone this would have been my jam. But on the second to last day when we left Glacier Bay entered the Gulf of Alaska the swells rocked the ferry a decent amount and almost everyone experienced some type of sea sickness- it was nice to have a real bed to crawl up into and sleep off the Dramamine.

      8. Bring a map or Inside Passage history book & binoculars.

      Each ferry has information and maps scattered throughout their decks- but if you want to gain the full experience and feel as though you are truly exploring the Passage then following along with your own map or book will lead to a more in-depth experience and understanding of the remote coastal towns you pass through and the changing geography.

      Dad with the binoculars- always.

        9. Keep your expectations low for wildlife.

        Five days of staring at the ocean you’d think you’d definitely see a whale breach. Think again. You’ll likely see 100% more wildlife when you land in your Alaskan destination than your journey along the coastline- just sit back and take in the views and the lull of the boat engine.

        10. Enjoy the time.

        The pace of life is becoming faster again. You can take your time while on the ferry. Walk a little slower, breathe a little deeper, and enjoy the changing coastline.

          If you have the time, take the ferry. You never know what you’ll discover or who you will meet. When you land in Alaska you’ll feel as if you were an early coastal explorer- transported through time to land in a wild place. Safe travels!

          -hq

          We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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