Sailing Alaska's Inside Passage

Lorna Griggs

08 Nov 2017

Glaciers, Mountains & GRIZZLY bears 

"We were thinking of heading to Alaska in the summer." I've lost track of how many times I've heard that opening line. Don't get me wrong, it’s a fantastic opening line when you work in a job like mine! Problem is... Alaska is huge... and there are so many things to see, so many parts of the state to visit... how do you know where in Alaska you want to go? 

I'll start by saying that in the time I spent in Alaska, it stole a piece of my heart.
I was working there in the summer of 2016 for about 4 months.  Specifically, I spent 4 months sailing Alaska's Inside Passage in search of wildlife, jaw dropping landscapes, tumbling glaciers and the best fish and chips on the planet. I found it all, so here it is!


The remote capital of Alaska sits at the base of Mount Roberts. Stepping ashore here feels like you are stepping back into a different time. The main street looks out over the Gastineau Channel; quaint storefronts, a maze of streets and a distinct 'gold rush' aura greet you in this beautiful city.

Take a ride up the Mount Robert's tramway for breathtaking views, and as you rise through the low lying clouds i'd be amazed if you didn't spot a bald eagle or three. Take a whale watching tour through the channel and look out for the 60+ resident humpbacks (and orcas) that frequent these waters in the summer, take a helicopter tour over the glaciers, or visit the most famous of them all - Mendenhall Glacier. The 1500 square mile Juneau ice field feeds 38 major glaciers, including Mendenhall. You may have seen Steve Backshall presenting from here over the summer for BBC Alaska Live as he kayaked in front of the glacier, before heading right into the heart and exploring the ice caves. 

You can spot black bears here if you are really lucky, but even without the bears Mendenhall is well worth exploring.

Juneau also boasts some pretty spectacular fish and chips! With most places serving the catch of the day, some fish just hours out of the water, you'll be hard pushed to find better anywhere in the world.


Welcome to the salmon capital of the world! Well-known as a stop for fishermen and tourists alike, Ketchikan offers not only amazing fish, but quintessential Alaskan wilderness too. Heading out from Ketchikan, Misty Fjords National Monument is as Alaskan as it gets, accessible only by float plane or boat. Filled with crystal clear icy blue lakes, tumbling waterfalls, snow-capped mountain peaks and glacial valleys, this is the Alaska you came to see! Keep your cameras at the ready and on the book out for the brown and black bears, Sitka black tailed deer and mountain goats you can find here.

Time your visit right and you will have an opportunity to see black bears at the salmon run in nearby Traitor’s Cove (Margaret Creek). Jump on a floatplane (lots of floatplanes in this part of the world!) and between the end of July and September you can watch as steelhead, coho, sockeye, and pink salmon race upstream and into the waiting paws of the black bears found in this area. As many as 10 have been seen here at one time, so this is the place to be! You’ll walk just over a mile from the floatplane dock to a viewing platform with space for just 14 people, so this truly is bear viewing away from the crowds.

Glacier Bay National Park

This is a real "wow!" destination, only accessible by plane or boat and usually quiet enough to hear the ice cracking and popping. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, at 3.3 million acres this Biosphere Reserve is well worth a visit. From the moment you arrive you'll be greeted with towering mountains and rivers of glacial ice which run down the mountain valleys to form sheer cliffs of ice. If you are visiting by boat, one of the park rangers will join your ship at Bartlett Cove and they will stay with you as you explore – not only to provide fascinating insight into the park’s history, but to answer any questions you might have too.  

The glaciers here are truly spectacular. Margerie Glacier is a wall of ice you can sail right up to, providing most visitors with an opportunity to watch the ice calving into the bay - even if it's just little chunks! Johns Hopkins glacier is around 12 miles long, Margerie 21 miles and Grand Pacific 25. These might just sound like impressive numbers but I promise you once you're there you'll be in absolute awe - it's then that the scale starts to sink in.

Look out for the orange beaked puffins, guillemots and murrelets who live in the area, and try and include a stop at South Marble Island to see the sea lion haul out. 

Last but not least, keep your eyes open for whales – I had a really close encounter with a humpback whale here in 2016!

Icy Strait Point

Wild and remote, and along the shore from Hoonah, Icy Strait Point was the quintessential image of Alaska for me. A small town perched on the waters edge, serving local caught crab and fish, with the world’s largest zip-rider, it’s the perfect place to stop for lunch. Hoonah is Alaska's largest Native Tlingit village, and all the staff you’ll find at Icy Strait are from Hoonah.

Aside from the fresh seafood, whales and marine mammals are the highlight of Icy Strait. Spot whales along the shallow shores, dolphins hitching a ride on the bow waves from your boat, and sea lions watching the day unfold. The rugged coastline is home to eagles too, and the locals will be keen to point out their nests high in the treetops. Bring your binoculars or a long camera lens as these are tall trees! 

Chichagof Island - Peril Strait and Chatham Strait

Only truly accessible by boat, the shoreline along Chichagof Island is covered in fjords carved by glaciers, giant trees and tidal pools. With one of the highest concentrations of bears per square mile that you’ll find anywhere on earth, you stand a chance of seeing them if you head out with expert guides who will take you on trails through the trees in search of these magnificent creatures.

Entirely within the Tongass National Forest, Chichagof is part of the Alexander Archipelago, and is one of the ABC islands – Admiralty and Baranof making up the other two.

During peak season, chum salmon race up the rivers and create excellent hunting opportunities for the bears. If you’re lucky you can spot them hunting not just in the waterfalls, but in the shallows too, and the moss covered rocks at the waters edge will make for fantastic framing for your photographs.

Personally I think this part of Alaska is given a bad reputation by the large cruise ships that frequent the waters. It’s seen as a tourist destination rather than an incredible place to get up close to wildlife and immerse yourself in the natural world. While you’ll certainly find tourists in some spots, it’s time to get off the beaten path and let us show you the real Alaska. The wild Alaska. The bears that roam the forests, the salmon that run the streams, the glaciers that tumble towards the seas while eagles soar over the mountains. 

That’s the Alaska I go north to see, and long may it last.


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