Inside Passage Vs Stephen’S Passage: A Comparison Of Popular Alaska Cruise Routes

Alaska’s gorgeous fjords, glaciers, and mountainscapes draw over 1 million cruise visitors every year. For many, deciding between sailing the iconic Inside Passage or the less trafficked Stephen’s Passage is a difficult choice.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The Inside Passage is the more popular Alaska cruise route, with stops at famous ports like Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway. Stephen’s Passage is less visited but offers stunning wilderness scenery and opportunities to see wildlife like humpback whales.

In this comprehensive 3,000 word guide, we will compare the Inside and Stephen’s Passages on key factors like scenery, wildlife, ports of call, and more to help you choose the best Alaska cruise option for your travel style and interests.

Introducing the Inside and Stephen’s Passages

Overview and map of the routes

The Inside Passage and Stephen’s Passage are two popular cruise routes in Alaska, offering breathtaking sights and unforgettable experiences for travelers. Both routes provide unique opportunities to explore the stunning natural beauty of the region, including majestic glaciers, towering mountains, and abundant wildlife.

The Inside Passage is a coastal route that stretches from Washington State, through British Columbia in Canada, and into Southeast Alaska. It is known for its calm waters, picturesque fjords, and lush rainforests.

This route is often chosen by cruise ships due to its proximity to popular Alaskan destinations such as Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway.

Stephen’s Passage, on the other hand, is located entirely within Southeast Alaska. It is a narrow channel that runs between Admiralty Island and the mainland. This route offers a more intimate experience, with fewer cruise ships and a quieter atmosphere.

It is often favored by those seeking a more off-the-beaten-path adventure.

When comparing the routes on a map, it is clear that the Inside Passage covers a larger area and offers more opportunities for exploration. However, Stephen’s Passage allows for a more concentrated journey, focusing on the beauty and tranquility of the region.

Brief history and current popularity of each route

The Inside Passage has a rich history that dates back thousands of years, with Indigenous peoples using the waterways for trade and transportation. In the late 18th century, European explorers began to navigate the route, establishing trading posts and settlements along the way.

Today, it is one of the most popular cruise routes in Alaska, attracting thousands of visitors each year.

Stephen’s Passage, named after Sir James Stephen, an early British colonial official, also has a fascinating history. It was a key route for early European explorers and fur traders, who sought valuable resources in the region.

Despite its historical significance, Stephen’s Passage remains relatively undiscovered by mass tourism, making it a hidden gem for those seeking a more authentic Alaskan experience.

Both routes offer incredible opportunities for wildlife viewing, including sightings of humpback whales, orcas, bald eagles, and seals. The Inside Passage is known for its bustling ports and vibrant communities, while Stephen’s Passage provides a quieter and more secluded experience.

In recent years, the popularity of both routes has continued to grow. Travelers are drawn to the pristine wilderness, stunning landscapes, and unique cultural experiences that can be found along these routes.

Whether you choose the grandeur of the Inside Passage or the tranquility of Stephen’s Passage, an Alaska cruise is sure to be an unforgettable adventure.

Comparing Scenic Landscapes

When it comes to Alaska cruise routes, both the Inside Passage and Stephen’s Passage offer breathtaking views of the state’s stunning landscapes. Let’s take a closer look at the scenic attractions each route has to offer.

Glaciers and glacier viewing opportunities

Alaska is famous for its magnificent glaciers, and both the Inside Passage and Stephen’s Passage provide ample opportunities to witness these natural wonders. The Inside Passage is home to the awe-inspiring Glacier Bay National Park, where visitors can witness massive tidewater glaciers calving into the sea.

Stephen’s Passage, on the other hand, offers the chance to see the majestic Sawyer Glacier, known for its brilliant blue ice and dramatic calving events. Both routes offer a truly unforgettable glacier viewing experience.

Fjords and channels

One of the highlights of cruising in Alaska is exploring the fjords and channels that cut through the rugged coastline. The Inside Passage is renowned for its deep fjords such as Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm, where towering cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and abundant wildlife await.

Stephen’s Passage, on the other hand, offers picturesque channels like Frederick Sound, where humpback whales are often spotted during their migratory season. Whether you choose the Inside Passage or Stephen’s Passage, you’re guaranteed to be surrounded by breathtaking fjords and channels.

Forests, beaches, and mountain scenery

Both the Inside Passage and Stephen’s Passage offer diverse landscapes that include lush forests, pristine beaches, and majestic mountains. The Inside Passage takes you through the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States, where towering Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees create a lush green canopy.

Stephen’s Passage, on the other hand, offers stunning mountain views as you cruise past the Chilkat Range and the Coast Mountains. Whether you prefer the tranquil beauty of a forest or the awe-inspiring grandeur of mountains, both routes have something to offer.

Wildlife Viewing Along the Routes

One of the most exciting aspects of an Alaskan cruise is the opportunity to witness the incredible diversity of wildlife that call these passages home. The Inside Passage and Stephen’s Passage are both renowned for their abundant marine and land animals, offering passengers an unforgettable wildlife viewing experience.

Whale species that frequent each passage

Both the Inside Passage and Stephen’s Passage are known for their incredible whale watching opportunities. In the Inside Passage, passengers have the chance to spot humpback whales, orcas, and minke whales.

These majestic creatures can often be seen breaching, tail-slapping, and feeding in the nutrient-rich waters of the passage. Stephen’s Passage, on the other hand, is famous for its sightings of humpback whales as they migrate through the area.

These gentle giants are known for their acrobatic displays, making for an awe-inspiring sight.

Bear, sea lion, puffin, and other wildlife sightings

Both passages also offer incredible opportunities to observe a variety of other wildlife. The Inside Passage is home to a thriving bear population, with sightings of black bears and grizzly bears being quite common.

Passengers may also catch a glimpse of Steller sea lions, harbor seals, and bald eagles as they navigate the passage. In addition, the Inside Passage is a haven for bird enthusiasts, with puffins, guillemots, and cormorants being just a few of the species that can be spotted along the route.

Stephen’s Passage is known for its bustling sea lion colonies, where passengers can watch these playful creatures as they bask in the sun or frolic in the water. In addition, sightings of harbor seals, otters, and porpoises are also quite common.

Bird lovers will be delighted by the presence of tufted puffins, common murres, and bald eagles soaring above the passage.

It is important to note that wildlife sightings can vary depending on the time of year and other factors. To maximize your chances of seeing your favorite animals, it is recommended to book a cruise during the peak wildlife viewing seasons and consult with the cruise company for more information.

Major Ports of Call on Each Route

Overview of Inside Passage ports like Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway

When it comes to the Inside Passage route, there are several major ports of call that are worth exploring. One of the most popular stops is Ketchikan, known as the “Salmon Capital of the World.” Here, visitors can immerse themselves in the rich Native American culture, witness the breathtaking beauty of the Misty Fjords National Monument, and even try their hand at fishing.

Another significant port on the Inside Passage route is Juneau, Alaska’s capital city. This vibrant city offers a wide range of attractions, including the stunning Mendenhall Glacier, where visitors can witness the awe-inspiring beauty of nature up close.

Additionally, Juneau is home to a thriving arts scene, with numerous galleries and museums showcasing the region’s rich history and heritage.

Skagway is another must-visit destination along the Inside Passage. This charming town is steeped in Gold Rush history and offers a unique glimpse into Alaska’s past. Visitors can take a ride on the historic White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, explore the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, or simply soak in the picturesque beauty of the surrounding mountains and fjords.

Introduction to less visited Stephen’s Passage ports

While the Inside Passage route boasts popular ports, Stephen’s Passage offers a different kind of charm with its lesser-visited destinations. One such port is Petersburg, a small fishing town known for its vibrant Norwegian heritage.

Visitors can explore the town’s historic district, sample fresh seafood, and even try their hand at fishing in the abundant waters surrounding the area.

Another hidden gem along the Stephen’s Passage route is the town of Wrangell. This historic town is home to the impressive Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park, where visitors can marvel at ancient rock carvings dating back thousands of years.

Wrangell is also a gateway to the nearby Anan Wildlife Observatory, a prime spot for observing bears feasting on salmon during the summer months.

Lastly, the city of Sitka is a must-visit destination on the Stephen’s Passage route. This picturesque town offers a unique blend of Russian and Native American culture, with attractions such as the Russian Orthodox St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Sitka National Historical Park.

Visitors can also explore the stunning Sitka Sound by kayak or embark on a whale-watching excursion to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.

While both the Inside Passage and Stephen’s Passage offer incredible experiences, the choice ultimately depends on what kind of adventure you are seeking. Whether you opt for the bustling ports of the Inside Passage or the hidden gems of Stephen’s Passage, one thing is for certain – an Alaska cruise is an unforgettable journey through some of the most stunning landscapes on Earth.

How to Choose: Inside vs. Stephen’s Passage

Key differences and recommendations based on traveler interests

When it comes to choosing between the Inside Passage and Stephen’s Passage for your Alaska cruise, it’s important to consider your interests and what you hope to experience during your trip. Here are some key differences and recommendations to help you make an informed decision:

  • Scenic Beauty: The Inside Passage is known for its breathtaking scenery with lush forests, towering mountains, and pristine fjords. If you’re a nature enthusiast or simply want to soak in the awe-inspiring landscapes, the Inside Passage is the perfect choice.

    On the other hand, Stephen’s Passage offers its own charm with stunning glaciers, picturesque islands, and abundant wildlife.

  • Wildlife Viewing: Both routes offer incredible opportunities to spot wildlife, but Stephen’s Passage is particularly renowned for its whale watching. It is home to a large population of humpback whales, orcas, and other marine creatures.

    If seeing these majestic creatures up close is a priority for you, Stephen’s Passage should be at the top of your list.

  • Outdoor Activities: If you’re an adventure enthusiast, both routes offer a wide range of outdoor activities. The Inside Passage provides opportunities for hiking, kayaking, and fishing in its stunning natural surroundings.

    Stephen’s Passage, on the other hand, offers thrilling experiences such as glacier trekking and sea kayaking among icebergs. Consider your preferred outdoor activities when deciding between the two.

  • Cultural Experience: The Inside Passage is dotted with charming coastal towns and indigenous communities, offering a rich cultural experience. You can immerse yourself in the local history, art, and traditions of the native people.

    Stephen’s Passage, while not as culturally focused, still offers the chance to learn about the Alaskan way of life through interactions with locals and visits to small fishing villages.

Ultimately, the choice between the Inside Passage and Stephen’s Passage depends on your personal preferences and what you hope to get out of your Alaska cruise. Consider the factors mentioned above and decide which route aligns with your interests and desired experiences.

Sample Inside Passage and Stephen’s Passage itineraries

Here are a couple of sample itineraries for both routes to give you an idea of what to expect:

Inside Passage Itinerary Stephen’s Passage Itinerary
Day 1: Depart from Vancouver, Canada Day 1: Depart from Juneau, Alaska
Day 2: Cruising the Inside Passage Day 2: Whale watching in Stephens Passage
Day 3: Explore Ketchikan, Alaska Day 3: Visit Tracy Arm Fjord
Day 4: Scenic cruising in Glacier Bay Day 4: Glacier trekking in Juneau Icefield
Day 5: Visit Skagway, Alaska Day 5: Explore Petersburg, Alaska
Day 6: Cruising the Inside Passage Day 6: Scenic cruising in Frederick Sound
Day 7: Arrive in Anchorage, Alaska Day 7: Arrive in Sitka, Alaska

Please note that these itineraries are just examples and can vary depending on the cruise line and specific trip.


With its captivating scenery, remarkable wildlife, fascinating history, and range of cruise options, Alaska promises an incredible travel experience. Choosing between sailing the famous Inside Passage or the more remote Stephen’s Passage depends on your interests and priorities.

The wildly popular Inside Passage serves up Alaska’s iconic landscapes alongsidevisits to top ports of call. Meanwhile, the road less traveled on a Stephen’s Passage cruise trades busy towns for close-up glacier encounters and plentiful wildlife sightings in pure wilderness.

Use this guide to weigh the key differences between the Inside and Stephen’s Passages. Let your travel dreams lead you north to glacier-capped mountains reflecting in emerald waters on an unforgettable Alaskan cruise.

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