(Last Monday Tales Told From The Road’s “Finding Alaska” post covered how to reach the 49th State and when to go there on your dream vacation trip. Today’s post tells you how to get around once you’ve arrived in Alaska. Next Monday I’ll give you some ideas for places to visit and things to do).
Getting Around Alaska
Single-destination trips are easy to plan: Pick a city, pick an island, pick a golf and tennis resort, and book one hotel, one round-trip flight, and one rental car, and you’re ready to pack up your bags to go. But odds are good that your Alaska vacation will involve more than one stop and that means you’ve got to know if and how “you can get there from here” in order to come up with a feasible itinerary.
Here are my suggestions for dealing with transportation logistics in Southeast Alaska where the rule is “my way, not the highway” and the rest of the state where travel by car is just one option for traveling from place to place.
You can rent a car and drive locally as I did in Juneau, Sitka, and Petersburg, but there are no roads connecting towns within Southeast Alaska. Your only transportation options within that region are ferries or aircraft.
Alaska Airlines serves Yakutat, Juneau, Gustavus (Glacier Bay), Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, and Ketchikan, but sometimes with only one flight a day in each direction. There is air service aboard small (e.g., six-seat) planes between Juneau, Gustavus, Haines, and Skagway. You may be able to charter a plane if you can’t get a seat on a scheduled flight, or if you are going to a remote fly-in cabin or camping area.
Alaska Marine Highway ferries connect many Southeast Alaska locations, although they do not necessarily run every day of the week and sometimes arrive and depart in the wee hours of the morning. Check schedules carefully and consider booking well in advance, especially if you want a private cabin on an overnight run like the 25-hour trip I took from Juneau to Petersburg. On-line booking is available.
Getting to Juneau, Ketchikan, or Sitka is relatively easy. But I found it challenging to plan a two-week trip around the entire Panhandle without a lot of back-tracking and “one-night stands” in Juneau, and the Alaskans I met on the trip were astounded that I had been able to come up with such a complicated itinerary all by myself. (They knew I wasn’t a “local” since I wasn’t wearing “Xtra-Tuff” rubber boots, had on a rain jacket, and carried an umbrella).
One way to see part of Southeast Alaska without spending hours trying to work out the transportation connections is to book a big-ship cruise. But you’ll get a more intimate look at the region and visit places the large ships can’t go if you sail on a small vessel such as those operated by Dolphin Charters (I’ve been out on San Francisco Bay with naturalist-skipper Ronn Patterson who takes his boat, Delphinus, up and down the Inside Passage each summer), The Boat Company (mentioned in “Finding Alaska”), or National Geographic Expeditions. Allen Marine, which has been running wildlife sightseeing and whale-watching day cruises at Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka, plans to offer longer, multi-night trips in the summer of 2011.
Once you get north of the Panhandle, roads can take you from one community to another. You can rent a car or RV, or take a bus.
The Alaska Railroad can take you between Fairbanks and Anchorage, and drop you off at stops like the entrance to Denali National Park or Talkeetna. The train also travels scenic routes between Anchorage, Whittier, and Seward, jumping off spots to Kenai Fjords and Prince William Sound.
Alaska Marine Highway ferries not only ply the waters of Southeast Alaska, but also provide service within Southwest Alaska to places like Whittier, Valdez, Cordova, Homer, Kodiak Island, and the Aleutian chain.
Alaska Airlines flies between Southeast Alaska and Anchorage (it’s just under two hours from Juneau) where you can catch flights to Cordova, Fairbanks, Kodiak Island, and the Aleutians, as well as other more remote places. Smaller air services can fly you from place to place as well as take you on scenic “flight-seeing” trips within each region.
(Next Monday: Dreaming Of Alaska Destinations)