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Alaska's Inside Passage

Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage is a voyage of discovery, leading to where both cultural gems and natural wonders get the chance to shine. Lucy Jones sails north.

Less than 100,000 people live along Alaska’s Inside Passage, sprinkled between tiny fishing villages and historic gold rush towns that are inherently tied to the ocean. Many are secluded from the outside world, only accessible by water and that’s the way the locals like it. A cruise along the Inside Passage is an insight into these fascinating communities, and the best way to see some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet soaring ice cliffs, ancient glaciers and unspoilt forests

At its northernmost point, the Inside Passage enters Glacier Bay, into the Gulf of Alaska and on to the town of Seward, the perfect jumping off point for exploring the majestic Denali National Park.
brown bear facing away standing on grass at edge of lake, mountains in background

Ketchikan

Known as Alaska’s “first city”, Ketchikan is the first port of call (literally) for cruisers sailing up the Inside Passage. The town is built along a narrow strip of coast in front of a steep hillside and sections of it actually perch above the water on wooden stilts, connected by raised boardwalks.
View of totem pole close up, Alaska
Ketchikan is the salmon capital of the world and during the summer you can see thousands of salmon making their way up the “ladder” in Ketchikan Creek, turning the water into a writhing black mass of fish. It also retains a strong connection to the heritage of its three indigenous communities, the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian nations, and is home to the world’s largest collection of Native American totem poles.

Juneau

Two prospectors discovered gold here in 1880 and, within a few years, the town became home to the three largest gold mines in the world. Today, Juneau (as it was later named) is an exercise in contrasts -it’s the state capital, yet no roads lead there. 
Though it has a population of only 35,000, Juneau draws more than a million tourists a year. The bustling commercial hub backs straight on to soaring mountains and the vast Mendenhall Glacier is just 20 kilometres from the centre of town, so it’s easy to step straight out into the rugged Alaskan wilderness.
Pine trees in the foreground with a large glacier between the mountain range reaching the bay

Skagway

Another gold rush town, Skagway was the gateway to the famed Klondike fields -some 30,000 eager prospectors passed through this remote outpost at the end of the 1890s. Skagway was rough and ready (and often downright dangerous), brimming with hastily erected brothels and saloons. 
Single and double storey timber homes built on stilts suspended over the river
More than 20 historic buildings are preserved in the compact downtown area, complete with bright paint and wide wooden porches. The Skagway Museum is housed in the City Hall, Alaska’s first stone building, and is well worth a visit. The town has a population of less than 1000 and retains an authentic “wild west” feel (complete with costumed characters walking the streets). 

Denali National Park

Away from the crystalline waters of the Inside Passage is Denali National Park - Alaska at its most raw and untamed. Sitting in the shadow of the great Denali peak (formerly known as Mount McKinley), the highest on the North American continent, it is an ever-changing panorama of dramatic glacier fields, icy rivers and thick forest. 
Almost 40 species of mammal live inside the park, including Alaska’s “big five” -moose, grizzly bear, caribou, wolf and Dall sheep. The park covers more than two million hectares, and there are very few roads or trails, meaning the animals are free to roam through the untouched wilderness.
Danali National Park during Autumn, Alaska