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EXPLORING ALASKA

February 20, 2009
Filed under Camping Destinations, West Camping

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VIEW OF JUNEAU BELOW FROM MT. ROBERTSIf you’re thinking about a trip to Alaska’s Inside Passage, then you know a cruise is the most popular way to go. Yet, a cruise a few years earlier left us yearning for more. This time, we wanted more than eight hours in each port—we wanted days in each place. In planning our trip, we decided to begin in Ketchikan. We made reservations with the Alaska Marine Highway System to take the ferry to the towns of Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, and Haines. We also arranged to fly from Juneau to Gustavus and back because Gustavus is not accessible by ferry. And all the towns we visited offered campgrounds for RVs and tent campers.

Ketchikan—Misty Fjords National Monument


Our adventure began in Ketchikan, the southernmost town of Alaska’s famed waterway. Located on Revillagigedo Island, the town is a big cruise ship destination. Instead of shopping, we viewed the largest totem pole collection in the world. Both Saxman Native Village and Totem Bight State Park display totems and clan houses. Both offer traditional Native dance performances, and at Saxman you’ll see artisans carving totem poles.

Ketchikan is a haven for the arts. Recognized as one of America’s Top 100 Small Arts Communities, you’ll see treasures made by Native artists. Works in traditional forms include everything from carving to weaving. Attractions include The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show showcasing woodsmen competing in logrolling and tree-climbing events. History buffs need to visit the Tongass Historical Museum, Dolly’s House and the Totem Heritage Center.

A tour of Misty Fjords National Monument, located 40 miles south, is a definite must-see. Though some opt to fly out to the 2.3 million-acre preserve, we chose to take a boat both ways. We saw an array of animal life, a multitude of waterfalls, and New Eddystone Rock, a 237-foot high picturesque volcanic core near the entrance to the monument.


Wrangell—Anan Wildlife Observatory

We ferried to Wrangell on a sunny day and viewed the snow-capped mountains that hug the town. Located along the northern tip of Wrangell Island, about 1900 people call it home, including local children who sell garnets harvested at a local mine to ferry travelers.

Wrangell gets less rain than Ketchikan, but we had rain our first full day in town. We climbed Mount Dewey despite it—the payoff was a fine view of Wrangell and Zimovia Strait. Another gloomy day, we walked to Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site, and were there at low tide, the best time to see the petroglyphs carved by Stikine Tlingits about 1000 years ago.


We found many treasures in the Wrangell Museum. The museum features the history of Wrangell and the nearby Stikine River with exhibits on natural environment, Native culture, the fur trade, military presence, gold rushes, and more.

The Southeast’s only regulation golf course is in Wrangell. Golf in clear skies and you’ll see ocean, mountains, and perhaps a bald eagle fly by. If you’re lucky, you may also see a black bear on the course. We don’t golf, but we saw plenty of black bears and brown bears at the Anan Wildlife Observatory, one of the highlights of our entire trip.

Breakaway Adventures transported us 35 miles from Wrangell to Rain Haven, a houseboat we rented from Rainwalker Expeditions to use as our base of operations for exploring Anan. Once there, we unpacked, made a sack lunch and canoed the four miles to Anan. We made the eight-mile round-trip paddle each day for two days, and while we had tired arms, we saw lots to keep us paddling—gorgeous vistas, bald eagles, harbor seals, marbled murrelets and a humpback whale.

We ate lunch at the trailhead while a Forest Service employee checked our permit and talked about area rules and regulations. (60 permits a day are issued during July and August, when the pink salmon spawn.) After eating, we headed up the half-mile trail to Anan. We were all smiles as we arrived at the observatory. We immediately saw a black bear with two cubs, and later we dropped down along Anan Creek for a close-up view from the photo blind. We saw up to seven bears at once and watched a grizzly bear feeding from 15 feet away. Approximately 70 black bears and 20 grizzly bears inhabit the area along with countless bald eagles, gulls, crows and some harbor seals.

Petersburg—Frederick Sound

The ride through Wrangell Narrows to Petersburg was an adventure that big cruise ship passengers never witness. The town, located on Mitkog Island, harbors one of the state’s most prosperous fishing fleets. A 32-mile road allows access to part of the island, much of which is covered by muskeg bogs. We discovered muskeg bogs while hiking the Hungry Point Trail, a beautiful walk with wildflowers and Sitka black-tailed deer.

Visit Petersburg in summer and you’ll want to make arrangements to see the humpback whales in Frederick Sound. One of the best places in the world for whale watching, about 500 humpbacks visit the Sound each summer. We saw dozens of whales, and had never been surrounded by so many at one time.

Sitka—By Night

Our 12-hour-plus ferry ride from Petersburg to Sitka was our only nighttime jaunt. We boarded the ferry at midnight and crashed in our berth. Soon we were in Sitka, located on Baranof Island. We spent our days walking around town, enjoying everything from bald eagles to the Sitka National Cemetery. A peaceful place to reflect, it was the first national cemetery in the country west of the Mississippi River. The Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, a non-profit facility that cares for raptors, including bald eagles, was also worth a visit.

Sitka National Historic Park, known as “Totem Park,” was a treat. Founded in 1910, it is Alaska’s oldest and smallest national park with just over a hundred acres of forest and beach. Sitka’s Russian heritage is best seen in the Russian Bishop’s House, one of four surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America. It is the largest Russian log building in the country. Built in 1842, it was home for Alaska’s first Russian Orthodox Bishop and is a time capsule for 19th century Russia.

Alaska’s oldest museum, the Sheldon Jackson Museum, shouldn’t be missed, either. Housed in Alaska’s oldest concrete building and built in 1895, the museum preserves one of the largest and oldest collections of Native cultural artifacts.

Sitka is also a great place to observe wildlife. A guide took us to St. Lazaria National Wildlife Refuge to see humpback whales, Stellar’s sea lions, sea otters and a variety of birds. On our last day in town we hiked the trails at Starrigavan Valley and Beaver Lake. We also drove five miles up Harbor Mountain Road for wonderful views of Sitka Sound.

Juneau—Tracy Arm Fjord National Park

Upon our visit to Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, we saw more than just the glacier and an awesome waterfall, we saw black bears fishing and a crowd gone wild. The black bears were no doubt more popular than the glacier, at least that evening.

Alaska’s capitol, and third largest city, is a nice place to visit, but the downside is the up to eight cruise ships are in town some days. One day we escaped the crowds and took a 10-hour cruise on a small boat up Tracy Arm Fjord. We saw countless waterfalls, massive glaciers, numerous icebergs of varying shades of blue, and wildlife, including harbor seals, humpback whales and Arctic terns.

Another day we decided to take the 5-minute tram ride to the Mountain House at 1750 feet. It was a delightful way to gain access to Mount Roberts. After viewing the bald eagle exhibit and the Nature Center, we hiked up to Mount Roberts. It was another 3.1 miles one-way to the 3819-foot summit, but we saw stunning views, a couple of hoary marmots, and a black bear.

Gustavus—Glacier Bay National Park

The ferry doesn’t make a run from Juneau to Gustavus so we flew with Air Excursion. Our flight in the four-passenger plane was truly memorable. We visited Glacier Bay National Park the following morning. It was a foggy morning, the kind when you can’t see a thing, but the ranger promised the fog would lift and it did as we motored into the bay. Once the fog lifted, we saw the mighty Fairweather Range and the grandness of Glacier Bay. We had been before, but had never really seen the park. Now we were seeing all of it and it was spectacular. We cruised through the bay searching for humpback whales, brown bears, sea otters and bald eagles. After our boat cruise, we spent time walking the Forest Trail.

The next day, we booked a whale watching tour and during the five-mile trip across Icy Strait to Point Adolphus, we found a group of 15 humpback whales. They put on a wonderful show for us with one surprising us with a huge breach.

Our last full day in Gustavus dawned cloudy with some rain, but the rain stopped and the sun came out so we biked around town, hiked a trail to Sandy Pond, and watched a cow moose and her calf nibbling willows.

Haines—And Homeward

We had to fly back to Juneau to get on the fast ferry to Haines, also known as the Valley of the Eagles. We spent the afternoon walking around and looking for wildlife. We searched for bald eagles, knowing that in the summer, we wouldn’t see anything close to the 4000 eagles that congregate in the area in November.

We rented a car the following morning and headed north on the Haines Highway looking again for wildlife and amazing scenes. Along the way we visited the Steve Korschel Film Wildlife Park. Korschel is a filmmaker with a deep love for animals and the environment. While there we were able to meet (and even pet) some of his animals including a moose and porcupine. The next day we drove straight to Chilkoot State Park for an exciting day of brown bear watching. We spent hours watching bears as they hunted for fish, floated in the river, and just spent time being bears.

Our journey to Southeast Alaska was a memorable one filled with all we had imagined—wonderful scenes, more bears and whales than we could count, all of this along with icebergs and glaciers and so much more. Our trip was made all the more fun because we were not on a big, crowded cruise ship and we could stay as long as we wanted in each town. We got to see the real Alaska.

For More Information

Alaska Marine Highway System: /dot.state.ak.us/amhs/; 800/642-0066

Ketchikan: /visit-ketchikan.com/; 800/770-3300

Wrangell: /wrangell.com/; 907/874-2381

Petersburg: /petersburg.org/; 866/484-4700

Sitka: /sitka.org/; 907/747-5940

Juneau: /traveljuneau.com/; 800/587-2201

Gustavus: /gustavusak.com/; 907/697-2454

Haines: /haines.ak.us/; 800/458-3579

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