Alaska Marine Highway System Celebrates its 50th
From of its southernmost port in Bellingham, Wash., all the way to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, the highway’s 3,500 miles offer some of the most spectacular views in the world on board one of 11 ferries of various sizes that make up the fleet. The story begins in 1949, before Alaska was a state, with a single surplus navy vessel that carried passengers between the Inside Passage communities of Juneau, Haines and Skagway. Two years later, the private company that owned the M/V Chilkat sold it to Alaska’s territorial government (Alaska didn’t become a state until 1959). For years, the vessel operated alone, transporting people, vehicles and goods. Cars were driven onto the ferry over two narrow planks – one under each tire. With time, the fleet grew as newer and faster ferries were added and the ferry system gained popularity among visitors and locals alike as a fun, affordable way to travel.
Alaska’s ferries offer independent-minded travelers the flexibility and convenience to tailor their trip to their exact specifications, hopping on and off for a few hours or days at a time. Passengers can take a car, motorhome, motorcycle, kayak or bike on board and see remote destinations along with some of the state’s most popular cruise ports. With so many experiences just minutes from the main deck, the ferry is a great way to get to know the area without the scheduling constraints of organized tours.
On top of that, the ferry follows the same phenomenal routes through the Inside Passage and Prince William Sound as the cruise ships that ply state waters during the summer. In recognition of the exceptional experience offered on board, in 2002, the National Scenic Byway program named the Alaska Marine Highway System the first marine-based route in its portfolio, and in 2005, the system was upgraded to All-American Road status – the highest level of recognition available under the program. What the designation signals to travelers is that the route features nationally significant scenic, cultural and historical characteristics.
For sleeping accommodations, passengers can book a cabin or hang out in one of the covered lounge areas, but many choose to save some money and pitch a tent right on deck. With so much sunlight during the summer months, the deck is place to be, with people mingling and visiting to pass the time and sharing adventure stories and travel tips with other independent travelers. Showers, dining facilities, on-board naturalists, a movie lounge and other amenities make the ferries a great family travel experience. It is recommended to make reservations ahead of time for cabins and car space on deck, as those are often in high demand. When packing for the trip, keep a camera and binoculars within reach as you may need them to see breaching whales and calving glaciers, which are common sights in these waters along with porpoises, seals, sea otters, bald eagles and numerous other wildlife species.
More information about routes, times and services on board the Alaska Marine Highway, visit www.FerryAlaska.com or click here.