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The Alaska Marine Highway

The Alaska Marine Highway

For such a big state, Alaska doesn’t have all that many major roads.

Alaska Ferry

For a lot of Alaska, driving from town to town just isn’t an option. It might seem strange to have a capitol city that no one can drive to, but in all of Southwest Alaska, there are actually only three towns that connect to the road system. The Canadian Road system. Not exactly an efficient or reliable way of getting from Town A to Village B.

Alaska Ferry

Instead, people use the Alaska Marine Highway: a set of connecting ferry systems, covering over 8,000 miles. For comparison, the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles on the classic Route 66 is about 2,000 miles. (See the part where I said Alaska is really big?)

Alaska Ferry

The Marine Highway is one of the USA official ‘All American Roads’ – National Scenic Byways that are considered landmarks in their own right,  for their scenery, history, and cultural value. Of course, the rest of them involve actual roads.

But Alaska is special.

Alaska Ferry

The entire Marine Highway is split into three systems. Southeast is the Inside Passage from Washington up to Juneau, Southcentral/Southwest goes out through the Aleutians, and the Cross-Gulf connects the other two.

Alaska Ferry

The full, 3-day trip from Washington to Juneau has a lot of vacationers from the Lower 48, but at the stops in-between and on the shorter runs, it’s often more of a commute.

My co-travelers on the 18 hour Milk Run from Sitka included a high school basketball team playing an away game, people taking the weekend off to go to a concert in Juneau, people on work trips, people visiting family and friends in other towns, and people planning on stocking up on bulk groceries in Juneau.

Alaska Ferry

Fortunately, the views are pretty enough that spending a full day on the ferry to get from one place to the next doesn’t bother me. The Inside Passage has the kind of scenery that sells cruises and makes Alaska seem just too pretty to be real, with glaciers, snow capped mountains, tiny fishing towns, and constant entertainment from the whales.

Alaska Ferry

Of course, you don’t get the luxuries of a cruise ship. Still, there’s plenty of space to make yourself comfortable and more amenities then your average Greyhound Bus. Details vary from ship to ship, but they all have a cafeteria or snack bar.  Nothing fancy, but it’s decent and I didn’t starve.

There are cabins available for overnight trips, but you don’t need one. Most people just bring sleeping bags or blankets and claim a deck chair under the outdoor heaters in the solarium, or a space on the floor inside. It’s surprisingly easy to find a quiet, out of the way place. If your tent can stand the wind, you can even set it up on the deck and duct tape it into place.

Alaska Ferry

Sleeping in your car isn’t an option – people are only allowed to visit the car deck while the ferry is in port. Not that this was a problem for me, since as a walk-on passenger, things are simple – just make sure you don’t have more luggage then you can carry.

Alaska Ferry

The bigger boats have movie theaters and quiet rooms with cubicles to work in. One one trip I found a small lending library shelf, helpfully stocked with ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Mutiny on the Bounty.’

Alaska Ferry

But the main entertinment is the landscape, which you can watch from indoor viewing lounges and outdoor heated solariums. There are stretches, for hours sometimes, where it’s just water and mountains, and nothing else exists.

Alaska Ferry

We spent a while traveling along where the coastal water, light and heavy with glacier sediment, meets the darker water of the open Gulf. That’s not the kind of view I could ever get tired of.

Alaska Ferry

Alaska Ferry

 

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4 Comments

  1. Love the shot of the person in the sleeping bag on deck – I’ve been that person before! The ferry system in Alaska is a lovely way to travel.

    Reply
  2. How fascinating. I use to go to school on Vancouver Island so I spent a lot of my university days on the ferry to visit home. That ride is only 1.5 hours. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself for 18! How does it work? Do you leave super early and arrive close to midnight? But you’re right in saying the scenery is stunning.
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