The Local Perspective: Travel on Alaska’s Marine Highway

The only way in and out of Juneau is by plane or boat, due to the fact that it is surrounded by ice fields. I certainly prefer Alaska’s Marine Highway when traveling to other small Southeast Alaska communities. This past weekend Micah and I traveled to Sitka, Alaska for work and, needing the car, took a Ferry boat. For this trip we sailed on one of the fast ferries, the Chenega, both ways. The fast ferry gets us to Sitka in half the time it takes the older ferries to travel the same distance, which is nice when traveling with a time constraint such as we were on Sunday. We had to make it to town in time for an engagement party. The slow ferries take 8 hours, so it’s an all-day adventure just to get to our destination. It may surprise you, but I actually enjoy the slower ferries more.

Alaska Marine Highway Ferry, Chenega

The fast ferry is smaller. It has only one floor above the car deck which contains airplane like seats down the middle, table and chairs along the windows, a snack kiosk, and a children’s play area in one corner. Personally, I like the table seating best, so I always try to be one of the first on the boat in order to grab a table. For this trip Micah drove the car on while I was a walk-on passenger so that I could grab a table and then wait for him. Teamwork!

Interior of Chenega ferry

The slow ferries have multiple floors because they have many more amenities. First are the floors of state rooms, a cafeteria, a movie room, a bar, an observation lounge, a quiet lounge, and a kids area. There is plenty of space to move around. The cooks are often Cordon-Blu trained so the food is actually good. For longer, or middle of the night voyages, you can rent a room with a bed. Back when the slow ferries were our only option, we would bring games and spend the day playing board and card games in a room with tables for just that purpose. We made a day of it and I quite enjoyed it! Sadly, these rooms have since been renovated out of the ferries in favor of carrel spaces with power for computers. 

<Soap Box>
I try and stay away from political topics, but I’m going to use my little slice of internet as a soap box for just a minute. For years there have been proponents of building a road out of Juneau in order to connect us to a road system. I am not a fan. This proposed road would run through something like 96 avalanche zones, and in the end, just move the ferry terminal farther away. Eventually you will run into an ice field and you’ll have to put the car on the ferry anyway to get to another community. So really, what’s the point? Rather than being stuck in the seat of the car for hours, I would much rather drive the car onto the boat, and then ditch the car and be able to move around for the several hours of travel time. Who wouldn’t rather let someone else do the driving while you enjoy sights on the water, hot meals, and space to stretch your legs? Despite having to wake up at some ungodly hour to line up the car two hours early (4a.m. if you’re wondering), I would still rather take the ferry than drive.

</End soap box.>

5:30 a.m. and ready to board the ferry!

If you’re thinking of exploring Southeast Alaska I definitely recommend the Alaska Marine Highway. All thoughts are my own and do not reflect those of the Alaska Marine Highway.

What’s your favorite mode of transportation when traveling?

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  • Hi Elizabeth,

    I was totally amazed when I learned that there are no roads in and out of Juneau, that’s just inconceivable to me! But I didn’t realise that Juneau was surrounded by icefields, so no roads makes sense now. Still, quite mind-boggling…

    Coming from Australia, the Inside Passage was totally incredible for us when we took the ferries last year! Next time we make it over to that part of the world, we’ll have to try out different ferries and explore much more Southeast Alaska than just seeing pass us by on the ferry.

        • I recommend spending at least a few hours in Skagway. It maintains a fun 1898 Klondike Gold Rush feel. I haven’t been to the various Gold Rush museums, but I’d like to go back and see those. I usually pass through in the off season on my way to Whitehorse, Canada. If you’ve got a car, I highly recommend not just the drive, but spending a few days in Whitehorse.
          Sitka also has a nice walkable downtown, but if you have a car you can also get out to the Fortress of the Bears and various hiking trails. One thing I enjoy about the Sitka food scene is that almost all the restaurants have strange ethnic combinations because it’s a small town with not that many places and they’re trying to bring more food variety!
          There are so many tours and things to see/do/eat in Juneau you could easily fill several days here (I might be biased here too…).
          Petersburg is nice too. I’ve only been once, but it’s a friendly community with, again, a cute downtown.
          No matter which towns you visit, you’ll (hopefully) appreciate the small town feel and find the communities friendly!

          • Yes, we totally skipped Skagway last year and chose to get off at Haines instead – I’ve heard that it’s really touristy, especially when all the cruise ships come in but you make it sounds fabulous!! We loved Dawson City so I guess Skagway would have similar charms? 🙂

            I want to start planning our SEA adventure now, getting excited!! 🙂