Alaska ’s Inside Passage consists of thousands of islands spread in a long “Panhandle” hanging from the rest of the state. Most towns here are off the road system, with access by air or sea. Cruise ships are the most popular way to visit Southeast Alaska , but the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system is a wonderful alternative for independent travelers.
There are all sorts of possible routes, and your options depend on how much time you have, the ferry schedule, and, of course, money. The routing below begins and ends in Seattle, WA .
Alaska-bound ferries depart from Bellingham, WA , and passengers flying into Seattle will need to take a shuttle bus from Sea-Tac Airport. The ferries run daily during summer and have comfortable cabins, reasonably priced dining, and a Forest Service naturalist onboard, but budget travelers can spread out their sleeping bags in the solarium.
It’s a 36-hour ferry ride from Bellingham to the first Alaska stop, Ketchikan , famous for its rain forests, totem poles, and picturesque waterside setting. The town has good bus service, but a rental car makes it easy to get around in the rain, especially if you’re heading out on the road or camping at Ward Lake .
Local attractions include historic Creek Street , famous for its buildings on pilings that once housed the local red-light district, a fine Forest Service visitors center , and gorgeous collections of totem poles at Saxman , Totem Heritage Center , and Totem Bight State Historical Park .
Take a day trip to spectacular Misty Fiords National Monument , accessible by boat tours, floatplane trips, or a combination of the two.
Hop back on the ferry for the five-hour ride to Wrangell  with its cozy harbor centered around Chief Shakes Island . The big attraction here is the Stikine River , and several companies have half-day jet-boat trips up the river to an active glacier and a relaxing riverside hot spring. Also popular are trips to see black bears at Anan Creek .
Next up is the ferry ride though scenic Wrangell Narrows  to Petersburg , where snow-capped mountains create a backdrop for this pretty town known for its Norwegian heritage. Day trips to LeConte Glacier  are popular.
Take the ferry north and west to remote Sitka , located on the Pacific Ocean side of Baranof Island. The town hosts the Alaska Raptor Center , Sitka National Historical Park  (totem poles, Native Alaskan arts, and the old Russian Bishop’s house), and other interesting sights, but it also has fun hiking trails , good fishing , and one of the finest restaurants in Southeast Alaska, Ludvig’s Bistro .
The fast ferry Fairweather provides frequent service connecting Sitka with the next stop, Juneau , considered by many the nation’s loveliest state capital. The city is home to the Alaska State Museum , a scenic tramway up Mt. Roberts , a busy salmon hatchery , and easily accessible Mendenhall Glacier .
One could easily spend several days checking out the sights, hiking a couple of trails , taking a day trip by floatplane to Taku Glacier Lodge  or a helicopter flight onto Juneau Icefield , or just enjoying the fine dining , funky bars , rain-forest zip lines , and other adventures.
There are enough roads and out-of-the-way places in Juneau to justify renting a car.
Take an all-day boat tour to Tracy Arm  on board the Adventure Bound boat to see an active glacier up close and personal, or tack on a couple of days for a side trip to Glacier Bay National Park .
The latter requires a flight from Juneau to Gustavus , followed by an all-day boat tour into this spectacular bay. Lodging and food are available (Gustavus Inn  is especially nice), or you could pitch a tent at the Park Service campground .
Haines  is the next ferry stop, with the old white clapboard buildings of Fort Seward  as a focal point. The Chilkat River  is popular for summertime floats and wintertime eagle viewing. Stay at Hotel Halsingland —in one of the old fort buildings—and walk down the hill to Fireweed Restaurant  for meals.
A private ferry service provides fast connections between Haines and Skagway , an amazingly busy town packed with thousands of cruise ship passengers all summer. The town’s downtown contains more than a dozen buildings within Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park , and the narrow-gauge trains from the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad  take visitors on an incredible ride to the summit of the pass at the Canadian border.
The town is the starting point for the difficult Chilkoot Trail , a four-day trudge up the route traversed by the miners more than a century ago. Skagway has several fine restaurants (try Stowaway Café ) and comfortable B&Bs .
It’s the end of the line, so turn back south to Juneau  on the ferry (or hop on one of the frequent flights from Skagway). You could return by ferry all the way to Bellingham, WA , but an Alaska Air flight from Juneau gets you home quicker.