Ketchikan

Tour the Alaska Panhandle

Grab a map of the Alaskan Highway for the ultimate adventure road trip through the Alaska Panhandle.

A cabin is buried in deep snow with northern lights in the sky.
Look up to Alaska's clear night skies to catch the northern lights. — Photo courtesy Chris McLennan

There’s no need to plan a cruise to see Alaska. All you need is an RV, a map of the Alaskan Highway and reservations on the ferry system that locals refer to as “the blue canoes.”

Alaska has 119 state parks to discover—way too many for a single road trip. Instead of cramming in as much as possible, we’ve narrowed our search for the best Alaskan views to Southeast Alaska: The Inside Passage or the Alaska Panhandle.

We suggest starting your Panhandle tour near Ketchikan. From there, the extensive ferry system criss-crosses travellers through the port towns of Alaska’s islands. RVers can choose from plenty of campgrounds around the state. “That’s the best way to see Alaska,” said Monty Tuha, the owner of Panhandle Excursions.

1. It’s a history buff’s paradise.

Shown is a large totem pole.
Ketchikan, Alaska, is a great place to learn about the history of the local native peoples. — Photo courtesy Jocelyn Pride

Gold Rush, Russian, Norwegian and native peoples cultures combine in Alaska. While visitors will find historical sites scattered throughout the state, Ketchikan is a good place to start looking at the southern tip of the state. Learn about native history through the art and artifacts at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan.

A ways north along the ferry system, stop in Wrangell to see the native petroglyphs of Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park: ancient symbols carved into the boulders along the shore. For Norwegian history, continue north to the island fishing town of Petersburg. Also known as “Little Norway,” Petersburg embraces its Scandinavian and Viking roots. It even celebrates Norwegian Independence Day every May 17. Learn about Petersburg’s origins at the Clausen Memorial Museum.

2. Watch Alaska’s wildlife in their natural habitat.

Before leaving Petersburg, learn about the surrounding marine wildlife at the Marine Mammal Center. Then continue your blue canoe voyage onto Juneau. Although Petersburg is a great port for whale watching, Alaskan locals argue that Juneau is even better. “It’s actually 100 per cent guaranteed,” said Tuha. Humpback whales migrate from Hawaii to Alaskan waters each summer to feed. Bubble-net feeding is common in Juneau as well. “It’s one of the most beautiful things you will witness,” he said.

Whales are breaching out of the ocean while bubble-net feeding.
If you're lucky, you might see the rare bubble-net feeding while whale watching in Alaska. — Photo courtesy Reinhard Pantke

3. Thrill-seekers love Alaskan adventures.

The glacier town of Juneau offers all the outdoor adventures Alaska is known for. “We are surrounded by the Juneau Icefield. You can only access Juneau by boat or plane,” Tuha said. Juneau was built where the mountains and glaciers run into the ocean. A popular adventure is a helicopter ride to the top of a glacier, where dog sleds wait for a once-in-a-lifetime Alaskan experience. Tuha recommends this excursion to all of his visitors: “It’s awesome!”

Other activities include hiking, kayaking, fishing, ziplining and gold panning in the summer. Winter visitors can try heli-skiing or snowboarding. “Coming into the winter months there is a robust ski and snowboard community here,” said Tuha.

Dogs are pulling a sled through the snow.
You can't get more Alaskan than taking a helicopter to the top of a glacier for an afternoon of dog sledding. — Photo courtesy Brian Adams

4. Wet your whistle at an Alaskan saloon.

The Red Dog Saloon in Juneau, Alaska, transports locals and visitors to the Gold Rush era of the Last Frontier as they step through the swinging doors onto sawdust floors. Previously a brothel and beer hall for the first Alaskan miners, now the Red Dog is an iconic lunch and dinner spot. Though its location has moved a couple times since its heyday, all the mining era memorabilia has been preserved in its original places inside the room. Rumour has it that the first location of the Red Dog was actually a tent on the beach, before its recorded origin on Franklin Street, just two blocks from the current location.

However, Tuha recommends Hangar on the Wharf. “The Wharf was the first airport back in the day,” he said. Locals and visitors like The Hanger for its pub-style food, brews and views: it overlooks the seaport where float planes take off.

5. Catch the northern lights.

The northern lights are especially bright in Alaska through fall and winter’s long, dark and clear nights. At the end of a busy day, look towards the stars for the natural lightshow. “It just needs to be a clear night, and those are the nights that it’s mind blowing,” Tuha said.

An RV trip through the Alaska Panhandle isn’t for the faint of heart, but the views and adventures are unlike anywhere else. “If you’re an outdoor person, Alaska is amazing,” Tuha said.

Two people are kayaking, with snowy mountains in the background.
Kayaking, canoeing and fishing are popular activities in Alaska. — Photo courtesy Reinhard Pantke

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