Thinking of going to Alaska this year? It’s time to start planning, especially if you want to avoid being part of a long line of RVs bumping along buckled frost-heaved highways. There is an alternate route.
The Alaska Marine Highway isn’t paved, doesn’t have a white line down the middle and definitely doesn’t suffer from frost heaves. It consists of 11 state-run ferries serving three regions of Alaska, with calls at 30 coastal communities from Ketchikan to Unalaska.
By jumping on one of the ferries that departs from Bellingham, Washington, or Prince Rupert, British Columbia, you will travel within the protected waters of the Inside Passage and have an opportunity to see some of the smaller towns that are not on the cruise ship itineraries. And if you are doing it with a tent or RV of any size and shape, you’ll have some really unique experiences.
The Alaska Marine Highway, which observed its 50th anniversary in 2013, is popular in the summer, so you should make reservations early if you plan to take your RV.
One town served by the Marine Highway that isn’t visited by cruise ships is Wrangell, which lies about 30 miles north of Ketchikan. It is a good introduction to Alaska, as it offers all you would expect: stunning natural beauty, good fishing, wildlife, unusual hiking, Native American culture and a friendly community.
Wrangell Island is 30 miles long, but you can focus on the northern 15 miles if your time is limited. The town of Wrangell (population about 2,400) has everything you should need: good grocery stores, marine/sporting goods stores, cafes, and a gas station. Here are some reasons to visit:
Camping: The city-owned Shoemaker RV Park (16 sites) overlooks the Zimovia Strait with a view so good it nearly paralyzes you. When the two resident eagles settle down on the tree shading your campsite, you will know you are in paradise. A lower price option (free) is the Nemo Point U.S. Forest Service area about 14 miles south of the town and also with great views. There are over 100 miles of forest roads for the rough and hardy, giving access to camping in the interior of the island. Visit the Forest Service office on Wrangell Island for more details.
Fishing: You pick it—lake, stream or ocean. Depending on the time of the year, you can catch king, red or pink salmon. That is if you can keep the Dolly Varden trout from taking your hook first.
Hiking: Lots! A beautiful example of the tropical rainforest trails in Southeast Alaska is the Rainbow Falls/Institute Creek Trail near the Shoemaker RV Campground.
Caution: due to the muskeg nature of the ground in these forests you will actually be hiking on a raised board walkway with many steps. There are also trails directly out of town, out of the Nemo campground, and off the various forest roads. Be sure to take bear bells.
Biking: There is a six-mile bike path along Zimovia Highway, or you can ride on any of the 100 miles of dirt forest roads.
Culture: Be sure to visit Tlingit Chief Shakes Island and Tribal House. There is a small museum in the visitors center. At Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park, you will find petroglyphs dating from ancient times.
Wildlife: If you don’t see enough wildlife while driving around, take a boat or plane to Anan Wildlife Observatory for brown and black bear viewing.
Other: A nine-hole golf course, views of the LeConte Glacier, and bird-watching at the Stikine River Delta (these last two require boat or plane transportation). The locals wax enthusiastically about their Fourth of July events.
Mary Taylor is an RVer and travel writer who lives in Long Beach, California.
IF YOU GO:
For information on the Alaska Marine Highway system, visit ferryAlaska.com.
For Wrangell tourist information, visit Wrangell.com.
For travel in Alaska, The Milepost is an essential guidebook. It has ferry schedules and maps and more than 700 pages of information. See themilepost.com.