If you have never traveled on the Alaska Marine Highway you still have at least one great travel adventure awaiting. The ferry system operates along the southcentral coast of the state, the eastern Aleutian islands and the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, Canada. Ferries serve communities in Southeastern Alaska that have no road access, and
the vessels can transport people, freight, and vehicles. AMHS’s 3,500 miles of routes go as far south as Bellingham, Washington in the contiguous United States and as far west as Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, with a total of 32 terminals throughout Alaska, British Columbia, and
Washington. It is part of the National Highway System and receives federal highway funding.
The Alaska Marine Highway was founded in 1948 by Haines residents Steve Homer and Ray Gelotte, who used a converted LCT-Mark 6 landing craft which they christened the M/V Chilkoot. Their business was purchased by the territorial government in 1951 and renamed the Alaska Marine Highway System in 1963.
The Alaska Marine Highway’s main hub is in Juneau, though administrative offices were recently and controversially moved to Ketchikan. Other smaller operational hubs include Cordova (Prince William Sound), Ketchikan (southern Panhandle), and Kodiak (SouthcentralAlaska). The AMHS serves the following communities year-round: Akutan; Angoon; Bellingham, Washington; Chenega Bay; Chignik; Cold Bay; Cordova; False Pass; Haines; Homer; Hoonah; Juneau; Kake; Ketchikan; King Cove; Kodiak; Metlakatla; Pelican; Petersburg; Port Lions; Prince Rupert, British Columbia; Sand Point; Seldovia; Seward; Sitka; Skagway;
Tatitlek; Tenakee Springs; Unalaska/Dutch Harbor; Valdez; Whittier; Wrangell; and Yakutat. Bartlett Cove, location of the Glacier Bay National Park ranger station and eight miles (13 km) from the community of Gustavus, is served occasionally by the M/V LeConte in summer months.The AMHS carries over 350,000 passengers and 100,000 vehicles every year. It is very popular with summer tourists (one of the primary reasons Bellingham and Prince Rupert are AMHS destinations). Tent cities commonly sprout up on the aft of mainline vessels, and for
budget-travelers, the AMHS is one of the top modes of transportation.
The following vessels, from smallest to largest, currently serve in the Alaska Marine Highway’s fleet:
* M/V Lituya – Solely dedicated to serving the Ketchikan-Metlakatla route.
* M/V Chenega – (Fast ferry). Operates in Prince William Sound during
the summer and serves the Juneau-Petersburg-Ketchikan route in the
* M/V Fairweather – (Fast ferry). Operates a variety of routes in Southeast Alaska.
* M/V Aurora – Operates in Prince William Sound.
* M/V LeConte – Serves the feeder communities in northern Southeast, or for the more widely recognized term “the milk run.”
* M/V Tustumena – Serves Southcentral and Aleutian Island communities.
* M/V Taku – Runs mainline throughout Southeast Alaska.
* M/V Malaspina – Runs mainline throughout Southeast Alaska, frequently beginning in Prince Rupert or Bellingham.
* M/V Matanuska – Runs mainline throughout Southeast Alaska, frequently beginning in Prince Rupert or Bellingham.
* M/V Kennicott – Runs mainline throughout Southeast Alaska, frequently beginning in Prince Rupert or Bellingham and making a cross-Gulf of Alaska trip to Southcentral Alaska once a month.
* M/V Columbia – Runs mainline throughout Southeast Alaska, frequently beginning in Prince Rupert or Bellingham.
Most Alaska Marine Highway System vessels are built for multiple-day voyages due to the large distances between ports. For example, it takes just under three days to travel from Bellingham to Skagway, and 18 hours for the Sitka to Juneau “milk run.” Because of this, larger vessels (M/V Tustumena and larger) come with staterooms, while all mainline vessels have solariums and lounges for
sleeping. Hot food services and, on the M/V Columbia, a sit-down restaurant are also offered.
All current vessels are named after Alaskan glaciers.
Service drops off significantly in winter. Vessels usually undergo overhauls and renovations during this period due to the decline in passenger and vehicle traffic (attributed to lack of tourists). Lower-income and Alaska Native groups are primary patrons of the ferries because of the system’s relatively cheap fares compared to air carriers such as Alaska Airlines for larger towns and bush plane carriers for villages.
Indescribable adventure awaits at every bend of Alaska’s incredible coastline. Each magnificent fjord, towering glacier, and historic waterfront town urges you to linger and discover its wonders. Give
yourself the freedom to answer this “call of the wild” on an AMHS ferry ship, through the Inside Passage, across the Gulf of Alaska, into Prince William Sound, and out to the Aleutians. And in every port, there’s plenty to do and see.