In an area where there are few good roads, mountains acting significant roadblocks to proposed roads but perfectly good waterways it is plain common sense to utilise boats rather than cars to travel both long and short distances. Alaska is one place which, because of a climate which creates permafrost and substantial mountains that are difficult to traverse, has relatively few roads and many isolated communities.
Fortunately, most of Alaska’s communities are coastal so one of the best ways to travel around, terrestrially at least, is by water along the Alaska Marine Highway.
In order to facilitate travel, the state has established the Alaska Marine Highway System, a ferry service which plies the waters from Dutch Harbour in the Aleutians as far south as Bellingham in Washington State. This route is considered to be so important that it has been designated National Scenic Byway and an All American Road, the only marine route with this designation.
All of the ferries are vehicle carriers, which allow you to disembark at your designated port and continue to explore Alaska by road in the comfort of your own car.
The Alaska marine Highway System is divided up into sections, all of which connect at certain ports which act as hubs. The most southerly of the routes is the famed Inside Passage. On this journey you are treated to spectacular natural beauty and an unmatched variety of wildlife. The entire region is contained within the Tongass National Forest, which is the largest National Forest in the United States and the largest contiguous temperate rain forest in the world.
The next section crosses the Gulf of Alaska, beginning at Prince Rupert it stops at Ketchikan and other southern ports before proceeding as far north as Whittier. The entire trip takes about 65 hours for the one way journey but needs some planning as it is only operated semi-monthly.
The next connecting route is the south central passage which begins at Valdez and heads south west to Kodiak, but you can connect at Whittier to the Gulf service. This route also gives you access to Denali National Park and Mt McKinley. Highlights of the crossing include spectacular sights of ice-blue glaciers, tranquil fjords, lush forests, and unbelievable concentrations of seabirds and marine wildlife.
The most westerly of the routes is the Aleutian Chain which links Kodiak to Dutch Harbour. This land of mystery is home to numerous national wildlife refuges, and hundreds of species of sea birds, fur seal colonies, walrus and other wildlife.