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Chicago to Alaska: Rail & Sail Adventure

Chicago to Alaska Rail & Sail Adventure (Part 4 of 4)

Chicago - Syracuse - Toronto - Jasper - Prince Rupert - Sitka

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Published: December 15, 2017

The above map shows our "Rail & Sail" journey that we took from Chicago, Illinois to Sitka, Alaska between September 9-18, 2017. Red marks the Amtrak "Lake Shore Limited" route we took from Chicago to Syracuse, New York; orange marks the Amtrak/VIA "Maple Leaf" route we took from Syracuse to Toronto, Ontario; yellow marks the VIA "Canadian" route from Toronto to Jasper, Alberta; green marks the VIA "Skeena" route from Jasper to Prince Rupert, British Columbia; and, finally, blue marks the route of the Alaska State Ferry we took Prince Rupert to Sitka, Alaska.

This article will be presented in the following four parts:

../index%20photos/trip-RailToAlaska12017.jpg Part One: Chicago to Toronto (Will be uploaded on November 1, 2017)
../index%20photos/trip-RailToAlaska22017.jpg Part Two: Toronto to Jasper (Will be uploaded on November 15, 2017)
../index%20photos/trip-RailToAlaska32017.jpg Part Three: Jasper to Prince Rupert (Will be uploaded on December 1, 2017)
../index%20photos/trip-RailToAlaska42017.jpg Part Four: Prince Rupert to Sitka (Will be uploaded on December 15, 2017)

We hope you enjoyed reading the first three parts of our article series about our trip from Chicago to Alaska using Amtrak, VIA, and the Alaska State Ferry (no flying allowed!). The final part of this article series (and likely our last TrainWeb article of 2017!) will deal with our trip on the Alaska Ferry between Prince Rupert, British Columbia, up to Sitka, Alaska, and then flying home. No, there were no railroads involved during the last leg of our trip. But, hopefully this will give you an idea of an interesting way to get home (or maybe you’ll want to explore further up into Alaska) once your Jasper-Prince Rupert train arrives in Prince Rupert
Around 2:00pm, we caught a cab from our hotel at the Inn on the Harbor in Prince Rupert to the Alaska Ferry terminal.  The ferry docks in Prince Rupert are a good one hour or so walk from the main area of the town and the hotels – so we decided to get a taxi over. The VIA Rail Station and BC Ferries share the same building, with the Alaska Ferry building being about a block or less away; they are really all in the same area.
The Alaska Ferry Dock in Prince Rupert, British Columbia; note the railroad tracks used by the Skeena also running behind Kandace in this photo

Kandace walks into the Alaska Marine Highway Terminal in Prince Rupert, BC; this is the boarding location for the Alaska State Ferry

The Alaska State Ferry departs literally right next to the VIA station in Prince Rupert where we arrived by train the night before from Toronto and Jasper -- talk about convenient!

Walking out on the dock to our ship/home for the next 30 hours - the MV Matanuska

We have had several friends comment to us that they have always wanted to take VIA from Jasper to Prince Rupert, but they didn’t quite know how to get home once they arrived in Prince Rupert. So, we’ll take a minute out of our report now to help you with those options. Of course, once you get to Prince Rupert you can always catch the train right back to Jasper. Since the train just lays over overnight in Prince Rupert, you would have almost no time to explore the town if you caught the train back to Jasper the next morning. Your other option would be to lay over in Prince Rupert for two or three days (depending on the schedule) and then catch the next train back. Unfortunately, this means if you ride up in “Touring Class”, you aren’t going to get it on the train that leaves in two or three days. You would have to make a quick overnight turn to continue on with the same train equipment.  Two or three days in Prince Rupert might be a little too much time too – but if you are looking to get caught up on sleep or do some wash at the mid-point of your trip or something – it might not be all that bad.  With the layover in Prince George, you are looking at a full 2 days back to Jasper too.  The one advantage of this though would be that you would get to see the beautiful scenery along the train line just east of Prince Rupert that it will likely be too dark to see coming in.

If you don’t want to take the train back – your other options are to fly out or take the ferry out of Prince Rupert.  I believe the only real destination you can fly to from Prince Rupert is Vancouver – of course that could always change in the future, especially if the intermodal port continues to grow.  The ferry might be your best option and seemed pretty popular when we talked to other travelers on the Jasper-Prince Rupert train and asked them how they would be getting back.  From Prince Rupert you can either go south with BC Ferries (again, in the same building as the VIA Station) or go north with the Alaska State Ferry. Of course, when planning what days you are going to do your train trip to Prince Rupert – it’s very important to check the ferry schedule.  Ferries sometimes only operate a couple of times (at best) out of Prince Rupert to where you might be waning to go.  This could again mean a really long two or three day layover between the train and ferry in Prince Rupert.  Wanting to travel on a train like the Jasper-Prince Rupert train that only runs a few times a week and wanting to connect to a ferry that also only runs a few days per week some present some fun challenges when planning your trip.  We chose our travel days very carefully so that our train was scheduled to arrive at 8:30pm on a Thursday night (it actually arrived 1:00am on Friday morning with delays) and our ferry would depart at 4:15pm on a Friday afternoon. This left just enough time to explore a bit of Prince Rupert, but not have too long of a layover or feel like we were wasting vacation days killing time for the ferry.

Anyway, we had the taxi drop us off at the Prince Rupert VIA station so we would take a couple of photos there since it was quite dark and every early in the morning when the train actually got in. Since the train had already left earlier that morning to head back to Prince George and Jasper, there was no ticket agent in the station; there was someone selling tickets with BC Ferries however. We walked the one block over to the Alaska State Ferry terminal and checked in at the front counter.  Since we would be crossing back into the United States in the middle of the Inside Passage, we found out that all passengers would be pre-cleared by United States immigration at the ferry terminal. We got our boarding passes for the ferry around 2:30pm and waited for the Customs officials to arrive and open up their area around 3:15pm.  Passing through was quite easy and we were on our way after just a few questions about where we had been and where we were going.  Around 3:30pm we were able to board the Alaska State Ferry – our particular ship was called the Matanuska.

Be sure and set your watch back one hour when traveling between Prince Rupert, BC and Alaska on the Alaska State Ferry

The view of a Canadian National intermodal train beginning its eastbound journey from Prince Rupert, BC (as seen from the ferry leaving town)

Prince Rupert's large intermodal port can be seen very well from the Alaska State Ferry as we leave town - here containers go from ship to train and vice-versa

Passengers have several accommodation options when talking the Alaska State Ferry. The most economical option is not to get a state room and just ride on the coach areas of the ferry. Some people who chose to do this slept in tents on the upper back deck of the ferry, or just sacked out all night in one of the comfortable lounge areas on the ship that were open all night.  Much like how we only travel on a train overnight by sleeper, we knew that we would most definitely want to get a room on the ship.  There are three options when it comes to the state rooms on the Alaska Ferry – you can get a cabin for two, cabin for three, or a cabin for four.  Note that you don’t have to have three or four people traveling with you to get a cabin for three or four. The cabin for two features one pair of bunk beds; the cabin for three features one pair of bunk beds and a single bed; the cabin for four features two sets of bunk beds.  The beds are small enough that only one person can really use them. In order for both of us to sleep not in the upper level of the bunk, we decided to spring for the cabin for three even though there were only two of us traveling.
Kandace reading about the ship; this is what a 'Cabin for Three' looks like on the Alaska State Ferry - we chose this, even though there were two of us, so we didn't have to deal with bunk beds

A look at the schedule of the MV Matanuska - leaving Prince Rupert, BC at 3:15pm Friday and arriving in Sitka at 11:00pm on Saturday

The Alaska Ferry makes several stops between Prince Rupert, British Columbia and where we were getting off in Sitka.  For those just looking to set foot in Alaska after taking the train ride to Prince Rupert, we would highly recommend the short 6 hour ferry ride between Prince Rupert and Ketchikan, Alaska. That is correct – you can take the train from Chicago Union Station to just shy of a 6 hour ferry hop up and across the Alaska border by following our itinerary presented here on TrainWeb.  A lot of travelers probably didn’t know this was even possible, we bet!  Anyway, if you are doing the quick hop between Prince Rupert and Ketchikan, you probably don’t even need a state room on the ship, as we departed at 4:15pm Pacific Time and arrived into Ketchikan at 10:15pm Alaska Time.  Unfortunately, our sleep got out of whack with the late train arrival the night before and we didn’t stay up for the stop in Ketchikan. Everyone is allowed off the Alaska State Ferry at the various ports of call, but it’s usually for only 15-30 minutes because there isn’t much layover time built in.
Kandace shows off just how far we will be traveling on the Alaska Ferry -- from Prince Rupert (bottom of map) to Sitka, Alaska (top of the map)

Passing a beautiful lighthouse, while still in Canadian waters

A float plane flies over the upper deck of the Alaska Ferry shortly after departing Prince Rupert, BC

Before going to bed, we make a couple of observations about our evening on the Alaska State Ferry thus far. We haven’t been on a traditional cruise together before because Robert gets quite sea sick on the open ocean. We have tried boat rides on the Pacific Ocean at the Channel Islands National Park and in the Virgin Islands to see Buck Island Reef – and there results were not good for Robert’s stomach. He decided to give the Alaska Ferry a try because except for a small stretch between of about 10 miles, this route goes through the much smoother Inside Passage, which is blocked by islands from the open Pacific Ocean. Robert was perfectly fine with the trip up the Inside Passage, so we would recommend our itinerary even for people who are prone to sea sickness. Of course before leaving home, Robert got a sea sickness patch to put behind his ear in the event he did begin feeling some of the side effects.  But again, it wasn’t needed.  We really enjoyed our experience on the Alaska Ferry!  The price was just about right (around $500 for two people in the three bedroom cabin for the 30 hour ride between Prince Rupert and Sitka).  Cruises tend to be a lot more and we aren’t people who need to be entertained by shows or fancy food – just sitting out on the deck and enjoying the beautiful scenery was enough for us.  Meals were cafeteria style, not the fancy spread you see on cruise ships, but were quite tasty – and include specials like spaghetti, sloppy joe’s, and a turkey dinner.  Another advantage of taking the Alaska Ferry over a traditional cruise is you really get to see more of the Inside Passage the way we designed our trip. Most traditional cruises stop at ports of call all day long and then sail the Inside Passage when everyone is asleep or it’s dark outside. By taking the Alaska Ferry, we were able to actually see the Inside Passage was like – including a lot of wildlife – including seals, sea lions, and whale.

A marker in the ocean marks the border between Canada and our return to the United States

Our GPS shows we are officially crossing back into the United States; we left the country a week earlier on Amtrak/VIA's "The Maple Leaf" (see Section #1 of this trip report for that border crossing)

A wind-swept Kandace points out the international border between British Columbia, Canada (mountains in distance) and Alaska, United States (closer mountain range)

The indoor lounge area of the Alaska State Ferry

The outdoor lounge area of the Alaska State Ferry; Kandace enjoys the views while staying warm under the heat lamps

Most of the following day – Saturday, September 16th – was spent aboard the Alaska Ferry as we cruised towards Sitka. We spent much of the day sitting on the upper ‘solarium’ deck. Part of the deck was uncovered and part of it was covered with small heat lamps stationed above. When we got too cold, we simply moved our chairs over to the heated solarium portion of the deck. We honestly felt like we had the whole ship to ourselves – at one point we were just two of 87 passengers aboard. From what the crews said, this time of the year, most passengers are headed south, while we were headed north. They said on the trip south to Prince Rupert, the ship was almost sold out due to several sports teams who were riding (apparently a lot of student athletes from small towns in Alaska often take the ferry between points in order to compete in intermural athletics; you have to remember these towns are only connected by the ferry and that there are no roads except right in the towns).  It was quite incredible what a large ship that we had to what seemed like ourselves most of the day – but no complaints from us! We enjoyed having a lot of room. Hopefully the lackluster passenger numbers though don’t cause the State of Alaska to cut back on ferry service, which they have been doing in recent years.  Talking to some of the crew, we learned that the Alaska State Ferry is quite a hot political item in Alaska. For those who live in the southeast arm of Alaska, the ferry serves as a vital lifeline of transportation for people and visitors – as there are no connecting roads because of the steep terrain and mountains.  However, since the ferries only serve the southeast arm of the state, many others who live in interior locations like Anchorage and Fairbanks think they are a waste of money and should be cut.  The political back-and-forth with the ferry actually caused us to delay our trip booking a little because a schedule and funding was not agreed upon until late December 2016.  By taking the ferry, you really see how people rely on it for public transportation and to transport their vehicles between the “Lower 48” and between points with-in Alaska.

A look at the cafeteria line on the Alaska State Ferry; everything is cooked onboard and was quite tasty!

The dining area on the Alaska State Ferry

Ummmm... are we really traveling that close to a place called Murder Cove, Alaska?  Let's not stop there, huh?

We took advantage of several of the stops to briefly get off the ship and stretch our legs throughout the day.  In the early morning hours was a stop at Wrangell – but we both decided to skip this in order to sleep in a bit.  In the late morning, we got off and walked around the small town of Petersburg, Alaska for about 15 minutes.  In the mid-afternoon, we did the same at the very small town of Kake, Alaska.  Kake is actually a place that neither of us heard about. Getting off and walking around for a bit, it seemed like most of the population was Alaska Natives and there were not any paved roads in the whole town. Some of the locals we talked to said Kake was one of the best places in Alaska to see brown bear – however we did not see any during our very short time there.

We had just about 15 minutes off the boat in Petersburg, Alaska to snap this picture and walk a few blocks

A view of our boat at Petersburg, Alaska

Some sleepy sea lions are spotted from the boat leaving Petersburg, Alaska

We also saw whales and other sea life at various points from the Alaska State Ferry

Shortly after departing Kake, there was some adventure on our ferry as we became part of a water rescue. Kandace noticed that two crew members ran to the “man overboard” rescue boat and lowered themselves in the water. An announcement was made that a fishing vessel nearby was in distress and that the crew from our ferry would be coming to the rescue. After about 45 minutes, we saw the “man overboard” boat come back around into view and it was towing the boat that needed assistance. It was quite the site!   It was then turned over to another boat that was sent by the Kake Fire Department. We were kind of wondering if this was something that was common on Alaska Ferry trips or not!?  One of the things we did note was that during our whole voyage between Prince Rupert and Sitka, we only saw a small handful of other boats actually out on the water – and it was a relatively clear and calm day.  One can not really appreciate the remoteness of Southeast Alaska without taking a cruise up the Inside Passage!   We covered a distance of around 400 miles and only saw about four towns in that whole stretch – it was pretty much just national forest land and water and mountains the entire time.  One of the crew members provided us this map of Alaska which covers the “Lower 48”… to go from one end of Alaska to the other is like going across the country from almost Florida to California.  Anyway, those who were watching gave a round of applause to the crew members who came to the rescue.

Our ship's rescue boat (orange) came to the aid of fishing vessel in distress (left); the U.S. Coast Guard comes in to take over (on the right)

Several glaciers can be seen from the Alaska State Ferry between Prince Rupert, BC and Sitka, AK

TrainWeb authors Robert and Kandace Tabern pose for a picture on the top deck of the boat with a glacier in the background

Beautiful views of mountains and trees can be seen as the Alaska State Ferry navigates the narrow waters of the Inside Passage

Our sleep was still thrown off with a couple of late nights (due to train delays) and traveling through five time zones over the course of 10 days, so we decided we would get some rest in back in our cabin before the ferry’s scheduled 11:00pm arrival in Sitka. We thought with the hour delay we took near Kake that we would maybe not get in until Midnight, too.  Our only real complaint about the Alaska Ferry was that there really wasn’t much to do on the ship once it got dark outside. There were supposed to be some movies in the lounge, but that did not happen either evening we were aboard.  Plus, being on the far eastern edge of the Alaska Time Zone, it got dark around 6:30pm that time of the year – and nothing could really be seen from the boat beyond that.  But, hey, a little nap and going to bed early is what a vacation should sometimes be about.   In case we made up some time, we set our alarm for 10:30pm. As it was going off, the Captain was making an announcement that we made up the time and we would be arriving in Sitka right ‘on time’ at 11:00pm.
Just enough time to hop of the boat at Kake, Alaska and grab a photo or two

Re-boarding the boat in Kake, Alaska

A beautiful sunset in the Inside Passage of Alaska, a few hours away from our arrival in Sitka

Our GPS shows the route of the boat up the Inside Passage of Alaska

Upon our arrival in Sitka, we got off the ship and was greeted by a worker from the Eagle Bay Inn, which would be calling home for the night. We heard this was one of the nicest hotels in Sitka, and the real advantage with booking with them was they provided shuttle service from the ferry dock to the hotel and from the hotel to the airport for us (even though we were only going to be staying with them one night!).  This was a nice perk offered by the Eagle Bay Inn because it is about seven miles from the Ferry Dock to the downtown area of Sitka and where all of the hotel area. Most cabs were charging $20 one-way for the trip.  We got to the hotel and went to bed just before Midnight – as we knew we wanted to get up early the next morning to explore around town.

We had most of the day – Sunday, September 17th – to explore around Sitka. Most everything we wanted to do was with-in walking distance of the hotel so we decided to avoid renting a car and just walk and/or take a cab. There is only one rental car choice in Sitka (Avis, which has a location at the airport) and because of the lack of competition there – prices were pretty high. We learned most of the vehicles in town had to be brought in on ferry from Juneau, so that kind of explained why the rental prices were so steep.

Anyway, about a five minute walk away from the Eagle Bay Inn was where wanted to spend most of the day – Sitka National Historical Park. If you follow some of our travelers or know us personally, you know that one of Robert’s goals is to visit every unit of the National Park Service. There are currently 417 units – and Sitka makes #352 for Robert and #272 for Kandace. We still have a few more parks to go before reaching our goal, but we think our numbers aren’t too shabby. Of course, the parks that we have left to visit are becoming increasingly more remote like Sitka – where you have to ferry or fly-in to.  Anyway, the main purpose of the park is to commemorate the Russian history on the area. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, the Russian Empire stretched all of the way to just north of San Francisco along the Pacific Coast. There was a pretty significant battle between the Russian settlers and local Native Americans between 1802 and 1804.  As fur trading began to dwindle and Russia experienced economic problems at home, Russia decided to sell Alaska to the United States in 1867 (150 years ago!).  Many thought the United States was foolish for purchasing Alaska, as it was just woods and mountains and very barren land. That was until gold was discovered a few years later!  Anyway, we found Sitka National Historic Park to be very interesting. Featured there was a collection of totem poles from across Southeast Alaska. We watched two movies and attended a ranger talk – where the National Park Service ranger explained the differences between totem poles and what the various symbols on a totem pole met. There was a special guest at the park on the morning we were there – a wood carver who made several modern-day totem poles himself.  Besides having some totem poles on display in the visitor center and museum, there is a very beautiful one mile walk through the woods and along the shoreline where you can see even more totem poles.  From there, we walked about a mile into town and went to another part of the national historical park that preserves the Russian Bishop’s house. The Russian Orthodox Church was established in Sitka with hopes of converting many of the local Native Americans to their religion. We learned that the Russian Bishop’s House was only one of four remaining structures in North America that survived from when Alaska was Russian Territory.

We love Alaska -- and plan to return to spend more time there visiting national parks in September 2018

After our tour of the house, it was time for lunch and we headed to a local brewery that everyone recommended in town – it was quite tasty (but a little pricey, but I guess you can’t complain too much knowing that all food is brought in on planes or by barge). From there, we hit some of the local souvenir shops, the historic Russian Cemetery, and made our way walking to the Alaskan Raptor Center. Besides the national historical park, this was one of the two other sites we wanted to check out during our time in Sitka. The center is a non-profit that helped endangered animals such as eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey who are injured. Despite calling ahead and making sure they would be open, we found out they were closed. We got to see a couple of birds who were outside but that was about it… it would have been fun to watch them re-train injured eagles how to fly and all of the fun things that we read about… but I guess our visit wasn’t meant to be.  It seemed some of the tourist detestations in Sitka really only cared about being open when large cruise ships were in town – and obviously the weekend we visited – there were none.  Locals told us that there were around 7,000 people who lived in town year-round, and as many as 2,500 visitors arrive at a time on the cruise ships. 

After our disappointment with the Raptor Center, we decided to catch a local taxi and head out to the Fortress of the Bear – the last destination we wanted to check out in Sitka.   It is located about six miles (in the opposite direction of the ferry terminal) from downtown and is not really walk-able distance.  The owner, who we had the pleasure of meeting, said he was tired of reading about how baby bear cubs were being shot when their mother was killed in a car accident, etc. and decided to form his own non-profit in order to care for the bears. There were four brown bears and three black bears at the center when we arrived. The volunteers and the owner did a nice presentation about the bears – explaining how usually on the various islands in Southeast Alaska, you would either have brown bears or black bears – and almost never both. On the part of Alaska connected to the mainland, you could have both type of bears mingling. Brown bears are native to the island that Sitka is on, but not black bears.  Brown bears were also much larger – some of the ones at Fortress of the Bear weighed over 1,000 pounds. We spent about two hours there watching the afternoon feeding.

Our end destination for the trip - a new National Park Service unit for us - Sitka National Historical Park

A beautiful walk through the woods amongst totem poles at Sitka National Historical Park

Kandace inside the Russian's Bishops House in Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska

Thousands of salmon were spawning in the rivers around Sitka, Alaska

A couple of bears you can visit at 'Fortress of the Bear' in Sitka, Alaska

Our day in Sitka went way too quickly and before we knew it – it was time to start heading back to the Eagle Bay Inn to catch our 5:15pm ride to the airport.  From there, we flew from Sitka to Juneau and down to Seattle on Alaska Airlines. After a quick overnight in Seattle, we flew on home to Chicago on the last day of the trip – Monday, September 18th.

Because of having to be back at work, we did have to fly home to Chicago on Alaska Airlines (via Juneau and Seattle)

What an amazing whirl-wind trip!  We used four trains (Lake Shore Limited, Maple Leaf, Canadian, and Skeena) to cover over 5,000 rail miles… spent 30 hours on the ferry… and took three planes to get home… and of course spent extensive time in Canada.  We hope you enjoyed reading our four entries here on TrainWeb about our Fall 2017 trip.   We enjoyed our time on the Canadian and Skeena, but some of our favorite memories were also made on the Alaska Ferry cruising up the Inside Passage and walking around the beautiful small towns of Jasper and Sitka – and especially seeing all of the amazing wildlife that we did. We hope that our journey will inspire you to try and trip like this of your own – now that you know you can travel from Chicago to just shy of Alaska without having to step foot on an airplane – and can do the whole route by train, except for  quick ferry hop.



Amtrak "Lake Shore Limited" |  Amtrak/VIA "Maple Leaf" |  VIA "The Canadian"VIA "The Skeena"Alaska State Ferry System

More information about VIA Park CarsJasper SkyTramColumbia Icefields ParkwaySitka National Historical Park


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