Here are my favorite sights and restaurants in Southeast Alaska, along with a few tips for getting around when traveling via the Alaska Marine Highway System without a car.
Favorite Sights in Southeast Alaska
While Tracy Arm (see #2 below) probably has an edge over Glacier Bay on visually stunning geology, Glacier Bay National Park is blessed with sheer size, far more wildlife and greater recreational opportunity. If you are a nature lover like me and want to spend more than a day, Glacier Bay trumps Tracy Arm, though you should see both.
You can get from Juneau to Glacier Bay either by daily Alaska Airlines flights, or by twice a week Alaska Marine Highway service. Glacier Bay Lodge is the place to stay, though at $199 to $224 per night. They send a school bus to pick you up at the airport or fairy dock and shuttle you to any of the trailheads for free. They also run a fantastic full-day boat trip up Glacier Bay for $185 adult / $93 child, where you will see tidewater glaciers up close and tons of wildlife. Very knowledgeable Park Service rangers accompany the tour providing information on the wildlife and interpreting the landscape. Other nearby operators offer whale watching and sea kayaking excursions.
There are several good hiking trails nearby and I highly recommend doing at least one of these with a Park Service ranger walk.
#2 Tracy Arm, Juneau
Wow! Tracy Arm was the most visually stunning excursion on our trip. If you go to Southeast Alaska, you really should go to Tracy Arm. Reserve a seat with Adventure Bound Alaska for $150 and prepare to get your socks knocked off. Imagine yourself motoring through a partially submerged Yosemite Valley with towering cliffs all around you, as you spot whale, seals and other wildlife on your way to the Sawyer and South Sawyer tidewater glaciers. Adventure Bound maneuvers their small boats amongst all the icebergs to bring you in close to the glacier calving action.
This ranks #1 on my list for great single-day excursions. If you are in Juneau, make a day free to visit Tracy Arm.
#3 Anan Creek Bear Observatory, Wrangell
If you are going anywhere near Wrangell, I highly recommend a visit to the Anan Creek Bear Observatory. See adult and cub black bear and brown bear from 6 to 100 feet away. Watch from the viewing platform or the photo blind as they try to catch fish.
We traveled the 30 miles from Wrangell to the Observatory by boat service provided by Breakaway Adventures at a cost of $220 per person. Not cheap for a family of three, but if you want an unforgettable full-day adventure up close and personal to bears, this is a great place to go.
Boat and air service is also available through other guide services operating out of Wrangell, Petersburg and Ketchikan.
#4 Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka
Sitka National Historical Park tells two stories, first, about the Tlingit people and their culture and, second, about the settlement here by Russian fur traders in the first half of the 19th century. The Visitor Center has and exhibit on Tlingit artwork and clothing and protects several original Tlingit and Haida totem poles. It also houses a Native Culture Center where you can watch and talk to Native American artists and art students practicing native wood working, metal working and regalia.
Walk a lovely trail through adjacent woods to see 15 totem poles re-carved to match the originals protected within the Visitor Center. A movie explains the stories of Sitka from the Native American, Russian and modern-day American points of view.
#5 Alaska State Museum, Juneau
The Alaska State Museum has several very well done exhibits on the Japanese occupation of Alaska’s Attu and Kiska Islands during World War II; Eskimo, Athabascan and Aleut culture; the 126-year Russian settlement of Alaska; and the transfer of Alaska to the United States in 1867.
#6 Totem Bight State Historical Park, Ketchikan
Catch one of the blue buses for a 20 minute ride north to Totem Bight State Historical Park, $1 each way hourly. Tour the clan house and 15 Tlingit and Haida totems, and learn how to tell the difference between these two styles of totem art. The rangers are very helpful and give a great program in the clan house.
#7 Creek Street, Ketchikan
Staying at the New York Hotel, we had a room overlooking Creek Street for four nights. This made it super-convenient to photograph this historic little pedestrian backstreet suspended above the creek on piers.
Favorite Restaurants in Southeast Alaska
Restaurants in Southeast Alaska are generally expensive, but serve up large portions. We tried to save money by only eating dinners out and buying groceries for breakfast (when not included with lodging) and lunch. Our average food cost for a family of three: $76/day.
My top Southeast Alaskan restaurants are:
Ketchikan – Annabelle’s Keg and Chowder House, located within the Gilmore Hotel, has great seafood and American dishes and is open for dinner even after cruise ships have left town. My only complaint is that the menu is a little light on options. Reservations recommended if you want to avoid a wait.
Wrangell – The Diamond C Restaurant is full of locals chowing down on hearty breakfasts. For dinner, we enjoyed the Stikine Inn, where we also had a room. The Stikine Inn offers a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu and has great views over Zimovia Strait.
Petersburg – My favorite dinner in Petersburg was actually from a little outdoor café next to Scandia House called Tina’s Kitchen. They have an eclectic menu of fresh food served in eco-friendly packaging at attractive prices. Scandia House also makes for a modern and clean place to stay, and provides free transportation to/from the ferry dock.
Juneau – Juneau’s best restaurant is Chan’s Thai Kitchen, located out of town at Auke Bay. All the locals talked about it … even people in Sitka were asking “did you eat at Chan’s?” They don’t do take-out and they don’t take reservations, so expect a wait to get in the door. All food is made fresh to order, which means you will be waiting some more once inside. But all the wait is worth it, as the food is fresh and the servings are huge. We ended up with so much food on our first visit that we got two meals out of it. On our second visit, we only ordered a full set of spring rolls and one entrée for the three of us (two adults and a child). That’s right, three of our four Juneau dinners came from Chan’s!
Glacier Bay – We ate at the Glacier Bay Lodge, as there was no other practical options. But the food was good and the views out over Bartlett Cove were fantastic.
Sitka – We had both a lunch and a dinner at the Larkspur Café, an eclectic little café in downtown where all the tables are different and where they often have live music for tourists and locals. I can recommend the Greek Salad with Sockeye Salmon with a glass of Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling.
Getting Around Town
There are two types of towns in Southeast Alaska, those commonly visited by cruise ships (Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka) and those that are not (Wrangell, Petersburg).
For the cruise ship towns, you will find that the ferry dock is outside of town. You will need to catch a ride into town or rent a car. My advice is to seek lodging central to town for easy sightseeing, but that also offers free ferry dock pickup and drop off. We stayed at the New York Hotel in Ketchikan and rented cars in Juneau and Sitka.
The cruise ships can dump several thousand people into a town each day, typically arriving early in the morning and heading off to their next port around late afternoon. This creates an interesting dynamic. If you are in town while the cruise ships are in port, the sidewalks will be crowded with people walking at “shuffle pace”. If you are in town while the cruse ships are out, you’ll find many of the stores and restaurants closed. This means you need to research your dinner options carefully. Ketchikan, in which we ate our dinner at the same restaurants multiple times, is the most challenging in this way.