Ride the Ferry
The Alaska Marine Highway stretches all the way from Bellingham, Wash., through the Inside Passage and Prince William Sound and out to Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Chain to the east. Many of its routes are the same as those made famous in the advertising and imagery of the world’s major cruise lines, but the ferry is a distinctly different experience. Ships are smaller and more intimate, and are better suited to independent-minded travelers who want the flexibility to get on and off wherever it strikes their fancy and to visit lesser-known ports and small towns. Since Alaska’s ferries also accommodate cars (and bikes, and even kayaks), it’s the ideal way to combine some time at sea with an RV trip across the state. It also offers a great option for those considering driving to Alaska via the Alaska Highway: take the ferry for one leg of the journey.
Some travelers will use the marine highway as a fun way to jump-start an Alaska road trip, loading a car or motorhome onto a ferry in Bellingham, the system’s southernmost port, or in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, about 1,000 miles farther north. After touring through the Inside Passage, they can unload in Haines or Skagway and connect with the Alaska Highway for the journey to Alaska’s Interior and Southcentral regions. For other visitors, the marine highway and its charming seaside ports is a trip unto itself. Many fly to a community served by the ferry and visit several communities as they tour through Alaska’s coastal regions.
The ferries provide a luxury not often found on traditional road trips – space to roam. Kids can burn off some of their energy in the playroom or arcade, or listen to a U.S. Forest Service interpreter provide insight on Alaska’s geography, history and wildlife. At night, families can catch some Zs in a private cabin, or roll out sleeping bags in the recliner lounges and covered solariums on a vessel’s upper deck. Small tents are also allowed on the upper deck for those who want to stay outside under the stars.
Here are a few must-dos for families along the ferry system route:
- The spirit of Ketchikan’s logging days is still alive today in the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, a great choice for kids. Young and old alike watch with amazement as performers go head to head in competitions including speed climbing, log rolling, wood chopping and sawing.
- Wrangell’s marquee event, and one sure to thrill visitors of all ages, is called Bearfest. During the festival (held annually in late July) and over the course of several weeks in the summer, visitors have the opportunity to visit Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory and watch black and brown bears feasting on salmon, raising their cubs, rollicking around and otherwise just being bears – all from the safety of a controlled viewing area. Guides take small groups out to the area by jet boat or float plane and offer interpretation of the unique spectacle of these distinctly different creatures hanging out together.
- In Sitka, check out the Alaska Raptor Center. A bird rehabilitation and education facility, the center is home to owls, hawks, falcons, kestrels and, of course, bald eagles. Families can observe the animals in their natural habitat and participate in fun, educational activities.
- The annual Alaska Bald Eagle Festival in Haines is held each November. Kids will also enjoy eagle-viewing trips, up-close viewing of thousands of bald eagles and a tour of nearby Klukwan, an Alaska Native village.
For more information on the Alaska Marine Highway, click here or go to FerryAlaska.com.