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Juneau, the Inside Passage, and Southeast Alaska Travel Guide

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  • Photo: Peter Guttman/Peterguttman.com

Plan Your Juneau, the Inside Passage, and Southeast Alaska Vacation

The communities of Southeast Alaska occupy a small fraction of this dramatic landscape, dotting mountainsides and natural harbors every hundred miles like far-flung pebbles. Ketchikan in the south, Sitka in the middle, and Juneau in the north are among the most visited locales. In between, layers of mist-covered mountains and stretches of quiet forest remind visitors of what Southeast residents

know and respect: this is nature’s domain. West of Haines in the far northern reaches lies Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, with its soaring glaciers, and the entire region provides habitats for bears, mountain goats, wolves, whales, and eagles.

This is a world of steep-shouldered islands, cliff-rimmed fjords, snowcapped peaks, and majestic glaciers. Even in the biggest population centers, such as Juneau, man-made structures seem to sit lightly on the land, invariably dwarfed by their surroundings. Lush stands of spruce, hemlock, and cedar blanket thousands of islands. The region's myriad bays, coves, lakes, and swift, icy rivers provide some of the continent's best fishing grounds. Many of Southeast's wildest and most pristine landscapes are within Tongass National Forest, composed of nearly 17 million acres—almost three-quarters of the Panhandle's land.

Southeast lacks only one thing: connecting roads. The lack of pavement between the area's communities presents obvious challenges to four-wheeled transport. The isolation and the wet weather discourage people from moving in. To help remedy the transportation question, Alaskans created the Alaska Marine Highway System, a network of passenger and vehicle ferries, some of which have staterooms, observation decks, video theaters, arcades, cafeterias, cocktail lounges, and heated, glass-enclosed solariums.

Southeast's natural beauty and abundance of wildlife have made it a popular cruise destination. About 25 big ships ply the Inside Passage—once the traditional route to the Klondike goldfields and today the centerpiece of many Alaska cruises—during the height of summer. Smaller ships (some locally owned) also cruise through. Regular air service to Southeast is available from the Lower 48 states and other parts of Alaska.

Three groups of Native peoples inhabit the Southeast coastal region: the Tlingit (klink-it), Haida, and Tsimshian (sim-shee-ann). Because their cultures were once in danger of being lost, there's an ever-growing focus on preserving Native traditions and teaching visitors about their history. Efforts are underway in many towns to teach the often tricky-to-master Native languages in schools and through other programs. These efforts received a boost in 2014, when Alaska’s legislature voted to recognize 20 indigenous languages as official state languages, including Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.

Southeast Natives, like their coastal neighbors in British Columbia, have rich traditions of totemic art, including carved poles, masks, baskets, and ceremonial objects. At villages such as Klukwan, outside of Haines, there's been a push to help residents learn these art forms and keep them alive for generations to come.

Residents—some from other states, some who can trace their ancestors back to the gold-rush days, and some whose ancestors came over the Bering Land Bridge from Asia thousands of years ago—are an adventurous bunch. The rough-and-tumble spirit of Southeast often combines with a worldly sophistication: those who fish for a living might also be artists, Forest Service workers may run a bed-and-breakfast on the side, and homemakers may be Native dance performers.

The Southeast Panhandle stretches some 500 miles from Yakutat at its northernmost point to Ketchikan and Metlakatla at its southern end. At its widest point, the region measures only 140 miles, and in the upper Panhandle just south of Yakutat, at 30 miles across, it is downright skinny by Alaska standards. Most of the Panhandle consists of a sliver of mainland buffered on the west by islands and on the east by the imposing peaks of the Coast Mountains.

Those numerous coastal islands—more than 1,000 throughout the Inside Passage—collectively constitute the Alexander Archipelago. Most of them present mountainous terrain with lush covers of timber, though large clear-cuts are also common. Most communities are on islands rather than on the mainland. The principal exceptions are Juneau, Haines, and Skagway, plus the hamlets of Gustavus and Hyder. Island outposts include Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, and the villages of Craig, Pelican, Metlakatla, Kake, Angoon, and Hoonah. Bordering Alaska just east of the Panhandle lies the Canadian province of British Columbia.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. Native art and culture Ancestral home of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, Southeast is dedicated to preserving Native heritage. Native crafts include totem poles and masks.
  2. Rivers of ice Visitors relish the opportunity to walk on Southeast's accessible glaciers or to admire them on flightseeing or kayak trips.
  3. Tongass National Forest America's largest national forest is home to bears, bald eagles, Sitka black-tailed deer, wolves, and marine mammals.
  4. Fishing nirvana Southeast is an angler's paradise. The region's healthy populations of salmon and halibut—as well as the wealth of charter boats and fishing lodges—make this a premier fishing destination.
  5. Taking the ferry The Alaska Marine Highway is the primary means of transportation here. It's a low-cost, high-adventure alternative to cruising, and an easy way to spend time talking to Alaskans.

When To Go

When to Go

The best time to visit is May through September, when weather is mildest, rain is less frequent, daylight hours are longest, wildlife is most...

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Check historic weather for your trip dates:

Travel Tips

Juneau, the Inside Passage, and Southeast Alaska Travel Tips

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