For many people, the name Alaska  conjures up images of bitterly cold winters and sunshine-packed summers, of great rivers, enormous snowcapped mountains, and open tundra reaching to the horizon. If that’s your vision of the state, you’ve missed its Garden of Eden, the Southeast.
Almost entirely boxed in by British Columbia , Southeast Alaska’s “Panhandle” or Inside Passage stretches 500 miles along the North American coast. Everything about this beautiful lush country is water-based: the rain that falls on the land, the glaciers that drop from giant ice fields, and the ocean that surrounds it all.
Gray-blue clouds play a constant game of hide-and-seek with the verdant islands; deep fjords drive in between snow-covered summits; waterfalls plummet hundreds of feet through the evergreen forests to feed rivers rich in salmon; brown bears prowl the creeks in search of fish; bald eagles perch on treetops beside the rugged rocky coastline; and great blue glaciers press down toward the sea.
Nearly 95 percent of the Southeast is federal property, most of it within Tongass National Forest  and Glacier Bay National Park . The Panhandle is composed of a mountainous mainland and hundreds of islands, varying from rocky reefs that barely jut out of the sea at low tide to some of the largest islands in North America. Collectively, these islands are called the Alexander Archipelago.
This ragged shoreline stretches for more than 11,000 miles and includes over 1,000 named islands, the largest being Prince of Wales , Chichagof , Baranof , Admiralty , Revillagigedo , and Kupreanof —names that reflect the British, Russians, and Spaniards who explored the area.
Visitors come to Southeast Alaska by three primary means: cruise ship, jet, and ferry (the Alaska Marine Highway). Cruise ships are easily the most popular method—more than 800,000 people travel this way each year—but also the most expensive and the least personal. Cruise options include the more expensive small-ship voyages that take you to less-traveled spots.
The second option, air, is more popular with independent travelers. Alaska Airlines (800/426-0333, www.alaskaair.com ) has daily flights from Seattle, with service to Juneau , Ketchikan , Wrangell , Petersburg , Sitka , Gustavus , and other Alaskan cities. Floatplanes connect these towns to smaller places and provide access to even the most remote corners of the Inside Passage, such as Elfin Cove , Tokeen, and Port Alexander .
Only three Southeast towns (Haines , Skagway , and Hyder ) are connected by road to the rest of the continent. All the others, including Juneau, the state capital, are accessible only by boat or plane. This lack of roads—hopefully they will never be built—has led to an efficient public ferry system, the best in the western hemisphere and the longest in the world. Most ferries sail between Prince Rupert , British Columbia , and Skagway, stopping along the way in the major towns. There is also weekly service from Bellingham, WA , all the way to Skagway, a three-day voyage. In the larger towns, summer service runs almost daily, but in the smallest settlements, ferries may be up to two weeks apart.
Get schedules and make reservations from the Alaska Marine Highway (907/465-3941 or 800/642-0066, www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs ). Since most travel in Southeast Alaska centers on the ferry schedules, it’s wise to check the ferry schedule before making any solid travel plans. Reservations for the summer can be made as early as December, and travelers taking a vehicle should book as early as possible to be sure of getting a space.
The Inter-Island Ferry Authority (907/826-4848 or 866/308-4848, www.interislandferry.com ) has a vehicle and passenger ferry that connects Prince of Wales Island with Ketchikan.