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, comprises 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, the state 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 Seattle and other parts of Alaska, primarily Anchorage.
Three groups of Native peoples inhabit Southeast's 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 under way 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 tongues, 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 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.