Visitors to Juneau can arrive by air or by sea, and one way to experience other nearby port towns like Sitka, Ketchikan and Petersburg is by hopping aboard the Alaska Marine Highway. There are many regularly scheduled sailings from Juneau, making it an excellent base for exploring southeast Alaska.
Despite the fact that its history dates back to 1948, the Alaska Marine Highway remains under the radar to many travelers, but it's a memorable form of transportation throughout southeast Alaska – with connections as far west as the Aleutian Islands.
For many, it's the highlight of their trip to "The Final Frontier."
A night spent aboard the Alaska Marine Highway offers moonlit skies — Photo courtesy of Ward Mace / Alaska Marine Highway
The Alaska Marine Highway just celebrated its 50th anniversary since it first expanded from one ship into a bona fide fleet in 1963. Today, there are 11 vessels providing regular transport to hard-to-reach coastal towns. These vessels transport cars, pets, cargo and passengers, and they're unlike any other ferry system in the United States.
Traveling on these ships is like a stepping back in time: there's no phone or internet service for days, and walk-on guests must “claim” a spot on the ship to sleep. Some passengers pitch tents and curl up in the sleeping bags on sun lounges in the heated solarium, while others track down a quiet corner in the viewing lounges.
The solarium offers sweeping views of the sunrises, sunsets and vibrant starry skies – and perhaps northern lights in the winter months. Those seeking privacy can opt to book a cabin; however, these bunk bed accommodations are Spartan-like and sell out quickly.
For dining, a cafeteria serves up moderately priced items on a changing menu of hot and cold items, like breakfast sandwiches, casseroles, soups and salads. Passengers can also use microwaves to heat up items they brought with them.
Restrooms and showers are available, and during scheduled stops, passengers can get out and stretch their legs. But ferry terminals are often outside of town centers and require ground transportation.
Onboard entertainment comes from mingling with other passengers in the bar or viewing lounges, reading, watching movies in the theater and enjoying the spectacular scenery. The entire Alaska Marine Highway system has been designated a scenic byway, and the route from Juneau to Ketchikan though the Inside Passage is especially beautiful. Be sure to keep binoculars handy and cameras ready for whales, porpoises, eagles and other wildlife.
Traveling on the Marine Highway gives a true sense of how vast Alaska really is, and the ride offers a peaceful way to get off the grid and experience the state's natural beauty.
Surreal scenery aboard the Alaska Marine Highway — Photo courtesy of Alaska Marine Highway