GETTING THERE: You can fly into Ketchikan, the southern end of the Inside Passage, or to various cities along the Alaska Marine Highway route, including the capital of Juneau and the former Russian capital, Sitka. Summer fares from D.C. to Ketchikan on Alaska Airlines, with a stop in Seattle, cost about $660 round trip.
GETTING AROUND: The Alaska Marine Highway (800-642-0066, www.dot .state.ak.us/amhs) offers frequent ferry service to 30 Alaskan communities. Some of the more popular routes include Ketchikan to Wrangell, for $54 (ferry only) round trip in summer, with an additional $128 if you want an outside cabin with four berths; and Ketchikan to Juneau, for $174 (ferry only), with an additional $236 for a cabin. Children ages 2 to 11 travel half-price.
Since ferries have comfortable seats, deck chairs and a solarium, most locals don't bother to rent cabins: You can take a sleeping bag and spread out on overnight journeys.
WHEN TO GO: June to August is best, with late July and early August considered peak season. May and September can be beautiful and uncrowded. Although I made ferry reservations a few weeks ahead of my August trip, it's wise to reserve in February or March for summer travel.
WHERE TO STAY: WestCoast Cape Fox Lodge (800 Venetia Way, 800-325-4000, www.westcoasthotels.com) sits atop a hill and can be reached by tram from downtown Ketchikan. Rates start at $170 a night. The New York Hotel (207 Stedman St., 866-225-0246, http://the newyorkhotel.com) in downtown Ketchikan has doubles for around $100, with discounts for extra nights. For B&B listings, contact the Ketchikan Reservation Service, 800-987-5337, www.ketchikan- lodging.com.
In Wrangell, the Grand View B&B (across from the two-mile marker south on Zimovia Highway, 907-874 3225, www.grandviewbnb.com) has three guest rooms with private entrances and bathrooms costing $85 to $100 a night. The Stikine Inn (888-874-3388, www.stikine.com), one block from the Alaska Marine Highway, has an art gallery, waterfront restaurant and visitors center on the premises; doubles from $100.
WHERE TO EAT: In Ketchikan, the WestCoast Cape Fox Lodge's Heen Kahidi Restaurant offers Alaskan king crab, wild king salmon, halibut and other local catches; entrees up to $40. The New York Hotel's 100-year-old cafe serves southeast Alaskan cuisine. On warm days, you can eat on the boardwalk deck. Breakfast is under $10, dinner entrees under $20. The Waterfront Grill at the Stikine Inn in Wrangell offers fettuccine, chicken teriyaki, sandwiches, pizza and calzones; entrees $12 to $25. At Zak's Cafe, on Main Street in Wrangell, lunch goes for less than $10, dinner under $20.
WHAT TO BRING: Pack rain gear, like ponchos and umbrellas -- believe it or not, southeast Alaska is a rain forest. Plan to dress in layers, since temperatures can dip into the 50s in summer, and most outdoor excursions will have some cold spells. Also pack good boots for hiking.
* Alaska Vistas Co. (866-874-3006, www.alaskavistas.com) offers a host of active outings from Wrangell, such as rafting the Stikine River and watching bears hunt salmon at Anan Observatory.
* Anan Bear Observatory, run by the U.S. Forest Service, lets visitors get a close-up view of the black and brown bears hunting for pink salmon in Anan Creek. The viewing boardwalk and platform are accessible only by floatplane or boat; round trip from Wrangell is $150 per person through companies like Alaska Vistas.
* Sunrise Aviation (800-874-2311, www.sunriseflights.com) offers flight-seeing trips to various glaciers from Wrangell. Cost is $100 per person or $300 for a planeload of five.
* Rainwalker Expeditions (907-874-2549, www.rainwalker expeditions.com) has bike and kayak rentals as well as adventure and cultural tours of Wrangell.
* Alaska Cruise Lines (800-228-1905, www.mistyfjord.net) offers trips to Misty Fjords National Monument from Ketchikan. Cost: $150 per person.
INFORMATION: "Inside Passage & Coastal Alaska" by Ed and Lynn Readicker- Henderson is an excellent resource for independent travelers. For more info: Alaska Division of Tourism, 800-862-5275, www.dced.state .ak.us/tourism.
-- Shankar Vedantam