A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Anchorage: 47°/66°/Mostly sunny
Fairbanks: 45°/75°/Partly sunny
High along the ridgeline of the Granite Creek Trail, my hiking partners and I heard a whoosh sound, like a train locomotive bearing down the valley below us. The rain was coming down hard, and despite dressing in layers, we were soaked from head to toe. Occasionally, lightning blasted above, eventually becoming so frequent we decided it was a good time to turn around and hightail it back into town.
People say Southeast Alaska is a rainy place, but on that soggy July Saturday in Juneau last year, 1.85 inches of rain reportedly fell in just one hour. The whoosh sound we had heard was part of the banks of a steep-running stream giving way to form a chocolate torrent of mud rushing down the mountainside. On the hike back, we waded through knee-deep mud along parts of the trail that only two hours earlier had been clear and hard-packed.
That day proved to be one for the record books. In fact, Southeast Alaska is a bit rainier than the rest of the state -- that's what gives it that special, green, rain-forest feel -- but heavy rains and lightning are a rarity. The locals are used to slow drizzles now and then, but it's a small price to pay when such mind-blowing beauty surrounds you.
Juneau, for instance, is postcard-perfect. There is the waterfront, with seabirds flitting about, small boats coming and going, and even large cruise ships impressively floating into the harbor, surrounding most of the city's 3,248 square miles. As a backdrop, though, there are the steep-walled mountains -- Roberts, Juneau, Jumbo and McGinnis among them. The town itself has character too, with old, clapboard-sided homes that have been maintained and landscaped to fit in perfectly with the town.
Visiting Southeast Alaska is a treat even for those Alaskans who live in other parts of the state. This portion of the state enjoys a temperate rain forest climate and offers a cross-section of outdoor activities within a few square miles. This is the type of place where you can be on a glacier one minute and a fast-flowing river the next. You can go sea kayaking for a day and backpack later in the week.
It's no wonder so many visitors choose Southeast as their destination of choice when visiting the state. It's a condensed version of the whole of Alaska, yet manageable for those with only a certain amount of time to visit.
Juneau, the state's capital city, is a good launching-off point for any Southeast vacation. Daily jet service and travel by the Alaska Marine Highway System allow for relatively easy access, although you can't get there by road. Juneau's main road system supports more than 30,000 residents, but it is only 45 miles from end to end and still maintains a remote and small-town atmosphere. Interestingly, Juneau has more miles of hiking trails -- 130 miles, according to the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau -- than roads.
Wildlife viewers will enjoy this part of the state because there are endless birding and wildlife-viewing options. The Visitors Center can help you arrange a whale-watching tour -- there are several reputable operators that depart daily in the summer to places such as Icy Strait. While on the water, look for sea otters and seabirds. There are more than 100 species of birds in the Juneau area, and birders flock here to pad their logs.
Another wildlife viewing option is on nearby Admiralty Island. One of the world's largest concentrations of brown bears -- 2.34 per square mile -- live on the island, and while access is limited to keep the bear population healthy, it is still available for most visitors.
Juneau is a historic place too. Lorene Palmer, president and CEO of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, grew up in the city and said that while the town has changed and modernized, it still maintains that old-time feel.
"We came to Juneau in 1968," she said. "What makes Juneau so special is it is such a great blend of things old and new. ... Some of those homes (on the hill) are from the late 1800s."
Palmer said she has never desired to leave Juneau. There is so much to do in such a compact amount of space that locals love it.
"Depending on what your interest is, you're likely to have it satisfied here," she said. "You can kayak out to a remote cabin, or if you want to be involved in the arts, you can because we have a nice theater and symphony. And everything is very close. You don't have to drive an hour and a half. Sometimes you can have whale watching right in the harbor."
The discovery of gold is what put this nugget of land on the map, but it is the continued existence of the Chilkoot Trail that keeps it well known in the minds of people today. Forty-thousand gold seekers passed here before heading up the Chilkoot and White Pass trails during the Days of '98 -- 1898, that is. The thousands of would-be gold-seekers poured into the community to outfit themselves for treks to the Klondike gold fields.
Today, visitors to Skagway can retrace the steps of the Klondike Gold Rush miners by climbing the Chilkoot Trail, a steep two- to six-day walk, depending upon your stamina, with shelters along the way. For details on planning a trek and getting the necessary permits, call 1-907-983-2921.
Skagway's White Pass and Yukon Route Railway is one of the area's biggest attractions, and for good reason. The company calls itself the "Scenic Railway of the World," and it's really not an exaggeration when you see how the tracks are etched into the mountainside. Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, this narrow gauge railroad is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. It shares that distinction with fewer than 20 other landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.
There are half- and full-day tours available, all in vintage parlor cars. For more information, call 1-800-343-7373 or click on www.whitepass railroad.com.
About 70 percent of the downtown Skagway area is part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, so no matter where you go, there likely is a story behind every building or monument you pass.
"That's part of the appeal of Skagway because we haven't had any major fires and everything is basically intact," said Buckwheat Donahue, head of the Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Ask at the Skagway Visitors Information Center downtown for one of the city's self-guided walking tour maps to learn more about Skagway's historic sites. It will point out such places as the Gold Rush Cemetery, were "Soapy" Smith is buried.
From Skagway, you can take a long drive or a short ferry ride to beautiful Haines, a town known for its friendliness, beautiful summers and impressive population of eagles -- not to mention spectacular scenery all around. Outdoor enthusiasts of all levels find unlimited recreation opportunities for all seasons.
Of all the Southeast communities, Haines enjoys a bit of a drier climate, receiving less rainfall than its neighbors but the same warmer temperatures Alaskans come to appreciate after a long winter. It's a place with a rich Tlingit culture and Alaska history, yet it offers many of the modern conveniences travelers come to depend on.
"The mother village for the Tlingits, Klukwan village, is here, and there is a company in town that does tours of the area," said Julie Shook on the Haines Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Anyone can drive into that area, but you really wouldn't know what you're looking at, so it is nice to have someone to guide you."
Getting to Haines is half the fun. The scenic Haines Highway, accessible from the Alaska Highway, is in the process of achieving National Scenic Byway status, and vacationers enjoy the drive as much as they do the destination. Stop and watch eagles nesting alongside the road. View steep mountains and panoramic vistas. Enjoy a picnic along a tranquil lake.
Freelancer Melissa D. Hall lives in Eagle River.