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Majestic Misty Fjords

In Punchbowl Cove, south of Ketchikan in Misty Fjords National Monument, sheer cliffs rise 3,150 feet straight up from calm water, as high and smooth as those in the Yosemite Valley. Misty is more than twice Yosemite's size, but there isn't a single car here; there isn't so much as a mile of road -- in fact, there are hardly any trails. It's something like a great national park before the people arrived.

Two companies currently offer boat tours to Misty's Punchbowl Cove, Rudyerd Bay, and back, and both offer meals in the price. Sitka-based Allen Marine (tel. 877/686-8100 or 907/225-8100; www.allenmarinetours.com) has some distinct advantages. The fast, quiet boat makes the round-trip in 4 1/2 hours. All seats face forward. A knowledgeable naturalist interprets the scenery. Adult passengers can peruse regional books while children work with craft boxes and activities. Tickets are $159 adults, $109 children ages 3 to 12; 2 and under sail for free. Sailings every day in the summer coordinate with the cruise ships' dockings. A Misty Fjords tour operated by Alaska Travel Adventures, doing business as Alaska Cruises (tel. 800/323-5757; www.bestofalaskatravel.com), offers the opportunity to see the fjords from above by floatplane and return to Ketchikan by water for $329 adult, $289 child; taking the boat both ways is $159 adult and $106 child.

We prefer seeing the fjords on an extended floatplane flight (and we certainly recommend it for those susceptible to seasickness). Flying over the scenery is amazing, but it's the floatplane landing that really blows your mind, because then you get a sudden sense of the scale of everything you've seen from the air. The cliffs are magnified while you shrink to a speck. Go in the late afternoon, when the light is pretty and the swarms of planes carrying cruise-ship passengers are gone. Several air-taxi operators in Ketchikan take flightseeing day trips to Misty Fjords or drop clients at remote cabins. Promech Air (tel. 800/860-3845 or 907/225-3845; www.promechair.com) is a large one with many years' experience, charging about $200 for a 75-minute flight, including about 10 minutes on the water.

We prefer a smaller company, Island Wings Air Service (tel. 888/854-2444 or 907/225-2444; www.islandwings.com). The owner and pilot is Michelle Masden, and our flight with her was among the most memorable of the many we've taken around Alaska. She flew with a choice of music on the iPod as background to her impromptu commentary about the fjords. We soared with Van Morrison while Michelle told us about her favorite places down below. The landing was as long as anyone needed to soak in the awesome surroundings. It felt like an outing with old friends. Masden charges $239 for a seat on a six-passenger DeHavilland Beaver for a 2-hour flight that includes 45 minutes on the ground at the fjords. She also flies guests to Forest Service cabins (many of them in Misty), places she knows intimately, and she will take the time to help you choose one that suits your interests and budget. Take a look at her informative website for a good start.

Visiting the fjords by kayak is a real expedition, advisable only for those who already know they enjoy this mode of travel, but we can think of few more spectacular places to paddle. Southeast Exposure (tel. 907/225-8829; www.southeastexposure.com) offers guided paddles there, and has for 20 years, earning a good reputation. Their 4-day trip is $850 per person.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.