The Inside Passage. Photo by Tavish Campbell

Inside Passage

The Inside Passage, also called the Inland Passage or the Inner Passage, is a stretch of protected ocean approx. 1,500 km long, that runs from Puget Sound in Washington State, USA, along the British Columbia, Canada coastline, to Skagway, Alaska, USA. It is a popular cruising area and marine transportation route, due to its absence of open ocean swells and its relatively flat and calm waters.

The Inside Passage: Along the Alaska and BC Coast

inside passage mapContents:

What Is the Inside Passage? |
Tour the Inside Passage (Alaska or Canada’s Inside Passage) |
A Brief History |
Inside Passage Today |
Cruising by Expedition Ship

  • TIP: On Inside Passage cruises with Maple Leaf, you’ll sail on an 88-foot converted tugboat, or a 92-foot classic schooner, with just 8 to 12 guests. These trips explore the wildlife and spectacular natural world — whales, bears, seabirds, rainforest, and other wildlife, with our expert, local naturalists and guides. Read more about these small ship cruises here.

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What Is the Inside Passage?

The Inside Passage is one of earth’s best cruising routes.

It is formed where the mountainous coast of Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State meets the Pacific Ocean.

A thousand-mile chain of island archipelagos lie west of the continent’s edge. Open ocean swells of the Pacific break against the islands’ western shores and their energy is released.

The protected waters of the inside passage are calm and teem with life. Photo by Jeff Reynolds.Thus, the ocean inside these islands is calm and protected — hence the name. This means virtually anyone can cruise here without getting sick.

The combination of the thousands of islands and the upwelling at the continent’s edge also creates a rich marine environment.

The Inside Passage teems with marine life: from humpback whales, fin whales, killer whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, salmon sharks and other large animals to millions upon millions of fish, seabirds and invertebrates.

On shore, the coastal rainforest provides habitat for grizzly/brown bears, black bears including the rare spirit bear, wolves, and many other mammals.

An emerging expedition cruise or small ship cruise industry, mostly operated by local Canadian and American companies, lets visitors experience the wonder of this natural world by becoming part of it. These are the Inside Passage small ship cruises that we offer at Maple Leaf Adventures.

Much of the area is still in its ancient, natural condition. There are some cities and towns along it, including Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver, Campbell River, Bella Bella, Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Juneau, and Skagway.

Tour the Inside Passage

GBR_160-DSC_4721This incredible stretch of coastline (about 50,000 km when you count the coasts of every island and fjord!) has several distinct areas. Each is worth a separate tour, which is why we have divided it up this way.

Alaska’s Inside Passage

Alaska’s Inside Passage – Southeast Alaska is home to the coast’s only remaining tidewater glaciers – glaciers that calve into the sea.

Highlights of our southeast Alaska cruise include glaciers,rainforest, sea otters, brown bears, humpback whales, hot springs and historic towns such as Ketchikan, Petersburg and Sitka. We take just a small group of guests per trip, which gives you a very personalized experience of this spectacular natural world!

Canada’s Inside Passage 

GBR_412-UP_26U9606This part of the route is in British Columbia, and is divided into several areas:

  • The Great Bear Rainforest (north part of Canada’s Inside Passage) – Highlights are spectacular fjords, incredible bear viewing of grizzly bears and the rare white spirit bear, rainforests, hot springs and rich First Nations cultural history. This area contains the largest intact temperate rainforest on the planet. Large ships do not visit this area and travelling here is one of the most astonishing experiences in nature.

  • Vancouver Island’s Inside Passage (southern Inside Passage) – Highlights are killer whales and dolphins, island-hopping, rainforests, beaches, warmer weather, and remote coastal communities.
  • Gulf_IMG_0582Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (southern Inside Passage) – Highlights are the dry rainforest, island-hopping and great sailing, warmer weather, marine mammals such as sea lions and porpoises, great hiking, superb local agriculture, and its wild and natural state that is yet close to metropolitan areas of Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle.

Also related: Haida Gwaii / The Queen Charlotte Islands – just west of the inside passage, directly along the continental shelf, lies the archipelago of Haida Gwaii. Known also as the “Canadian Galapagos”, these approx. 140 islands teem with whales, seabirds, intertidal life and rainforests.

They are also home to the Haida culture, where guests can visit traditional Haida village sites on islands in the archipelago. This little-known but incredible place is on many Canadians’ “bucket list”. Contains UN World Heritage Site SGang Gwaay.

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A Brief History

Much of the Inside Passage was covered in ice during the last ice age.

Advancing glaciers carved massive fjords into the coastline, which are now navigable and which our small ship cruises explore.

However, people have been living along the Inside Passage for a very long time.

When you realize how rich it is in food and how easy it is to travel by water, the theory that migrations of people moved along the coast before they moved inland makes sense.

Due to the fluctuations in sea level over the millennia, likely much record of human habitation is under water.GBR_317-DSC_9668

The coastal First Nations have travelled these waters in spectacular seagoing canoes for a very long time. Footprints found at Calvert Island, BC, in 2015, could be the oldest to date in North America. These footprints are radiocarbon dated to 13,200 years ago.

In Europe’s age of exploration, Russians, Spanish and English explorers sailed into the area and began charting it. From 1791-95, England’s Capt. George Vancouver did extensive charts of the entire region, and he and his crew are responsible for many of the non-First Nations names on the map today.

When the United States purchased Alaska, in 1867, Americans began travelling north to see this new part of their country. Not long after, the first expedition- type cruises to Alaska started. Cruising Alaska has been popular ever since.

The Inside Passage Today

MV Swell in BC by Jeff ReynoldsToday, this body of water is best known for inside passage cruises (or inner passage cruises, as some people call them).

It is also a marine transportation route for goods travelling between Seattle and Alaska (and points in between), as well as for passenger ferries. It’s a popular boating route for private boaters as well as commercial cruise companies.

Recently, as people started to demand high-quality, experiential trips, the diversity of cruise ships has increased.

Now, in addition to the large 2,000-passenger ships traditionally associated with cruise tours, you can enjoy active, small ship cruises like those that we offer at Maple Leaf Adventures.

Broughton-Archipelago-smallThe Inside Passage is still a popular area to live, as it has been since time immemorial (as the First Nations say), with people moving to the communities in the southern portion from other parts of the US and Canada.

And while much of the area is in its natural state, citizens are working hard to protect it by law from destruction – protecting the rainforests, the marine life, the bears and whales and remote beaches.

Cruising by Expedition Ship

What’s your style? Compare Alaskan and Inside Passage cruises here:

  • Expedition Cruises by Small Ship – These are the trips that we at Maple Leaf Adventures have offered for over 25 years. On these inside passage cruises, you are part of a group of just 8 or 9 guests who experience the wonder of the coastline, its wildlife, its rainforests, beaches and cultures. Our trips include: Alaska Adventures (Alaska Inside Passage), Great Bear Rainforest (Canada’s Inside Passsage – north), Gulf Islands National Park and Vancouver Island area (Canada’s Inside Passage – south). Also we visit Haida Gwaii / Queen Charlotte Islands, just west of the Inside Passage (the Canadian Galapagos). You’ll go ashore frequently to experience the coastal world, as well as sailing the inside passage .These are all-inclusive cruises. View these Inside Passage expedition cruises.

  • WT_tavishcampell-0780Inside Passage Ferry – Both the Alaskan and British Columbian government ferry systems operate a transport network between coastal towns. Some people who wish to see the landscape but not spend time exploring it also choose to travel the inside passage this way.
  • Big Ship Cruises – These are the cruises most people think of when they hear the the words “Alaska cruise tour”. The ships are about 950 feet long and carry about 2,000 passengers. Unlike small Alaskan cruise ships, these big ships stop only at port towns. The experience is completely different from expedition cruises by sailing ship and are for people who don’t wish to experience the nature of Alaska as their top priority.

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