Alaska Excursions

Alaska Excursions

A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.

Iditarod 41

Photos and stories from the last great race.

Anchorage: 36°/52°/Cloudy

Fairbanks: 32°/55°/Partly sunny

Juneau: 32°/54°/Partly sunny

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Lush Panhandle is picturesque and historic

Two humpback whales swim by a cruise ship in Glacier Bay National Park.

Two humpback whales swim by a cruise ship in Glacier Bay National Park.

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2012 Alaska Visitors Guide - Front

South to Alaska

Entering the canopy of huge grandfatherly trees in Sitka National Historical Park, most people feel transported to some mystical place. The giant Sitka spruce trees envelop visitors to this small -- and first -- national park in Alaska (established in 1910 to commemorate the 1804 Battle of Sitka). Whether the sun is shining brightly or it's a typical drizzly Southeast Alaska day, you'll feel protected here, and the sharp smell of spruce needles will linger with the more pungent aroma of cedars.

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AP Alaska
One of the White Pass & Yukon Railroad trains leaves Skagway, Alaska.

Editor's Picks
• Little town, big memories: When I first visited Alaska, back in 1998, our small excursion cruise stopped at Elfin Cove, population 29. Strolling on the boardwalks, talking with the locals and watching a floatplane take off is still a favorite experience.

• Whales galore: One thing cruise-ship visitors want to see on a trip to Alaska is whales. On the same '98 trip, we awoke at Icy Strait, just outside Glacier Bay. And then we watched humpback whales for about four hours. Simply amazing.

• The birds: The Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka cares for injured bald eagles and other birds. It will be difficult to find a better place to look at raptors.
Be Prepared
Be prepared The very trees and lush scenery that make Southeast Alaska so beautiful are the product of a large amount of precipitation received there annually. It is one of the rainiest regions of the state. As such it helps to be prepared for the elements. Don't let the rain stop you; to the contrary, it can add to a unique Southeast experience.

1. Dress in layers. Keep a light rainproof jacket handy at all times to be used as an outer shell.

2. No cotton. Even for walking around towns, cotton clothing such as blue jeans and sweatpants can get wet and cold quickly. Opt for quick-drying synthetic or wool clothing.

3. Footwear matters. Heavy hiking boots aren't necessary unless you're doing some serious backpacking. Choose mid- to lightweight boots instead that will be just as comfortable in town as they are on the local trails. A lot of locals wear mud boots such as Xtra-Tuffs, which are surprisingly comfortable.

4. Lighten the load. A small daypack, worn on your shoulders, is convenient for exploring towns and stashing souvenirs or rain gear and doubles as a pack for shorter hikes.

5. Cover up. Chances are you won't need them, but stashing a pair of light gloves and hat in your pack is a smart move. If it rains and the temperature drops, you'll be glad.
What locals say
"My favorite activity is to go for a hike in the Tongass (National Forest), where the trails make you feel good about how your taxpayer dollars are spent, and the trees are so big they remind you of how insignificant you are." -- Lisa Busch, Sitka resident

And that is just the beginning of the charm of Southeast Alaska. Here is a place surrounded by jagged coastline, abundant wildlife, meandering trails and massive glaciers. It's home to towns and villages with friendly locals who greet you heartily. It's got outdoor adventure and fine culture. There's shopping, dining and entertainment galore.

But those huge trees -- those magnificent western hemlocks, Sitka spruce and yellow cedars -- are unlike any other trees you'll find in Alaska. And they're all part of the vast Tongass National Forest, 17 million acres of land that filters throughout Southeast.

Southeast Alaska is unique in this way. It's a northern rain forest that produces some of the most spectacular scenery in Alaska. Among these forests and along the thousands of miles of coastline of this region, you'll also discover a land that promises much to do and see. It stretches some 500 miles from end to end and encompasses more than 1,000 scenic and sometimes remote islands. Many people simply call it "the Panhandle" for its long slender shape. The people who live in the Panhandle make their livings fishing, harvesting timber, mining and, more, catering to many visitors who appreciate the area's beauty.

Surrounding the Panhandle are the waters that make up the Inside Passage, and cruise ships are well-suited to this waterway, not only for its tucked-in coves and relatively mild seafaring conditions, but also by the stunning scenery that is so close at hand. From the comfort of a ship, whether a monstrous cruise ship or a smaller 20-person yacht, a visitor to this area can comfortably see a sampling of Alaska up close and personal.

The communities of Southeast are varied too, each with its own history and personality. The colorful culture of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Alaskans punctuates the serene backdrop of the entire Inside Passage. Traces of European influence are here too. Russians, Spanish, English, French, Americans and Scandinavians also explored the land beginning in the 18th century, and evidence of their presence can be found throughout the region.

There are several ways to explore Southeast Alaska. Many choose large cruise ships, which inevitably will take them to the postcard-pretty Juneau, Alaska's state capital and a bustling town with plenty to do. Daily jet service and travel by the Alaska Marine Highway System allow for relatively easy access to Juneau too, although you can't get there by road. Juneau's main road system is only 45 miles from end to end, but despite its brevity, it's a jumping-off point for many activities.

"(Juneau) has the most accessible glaciers in Alaska," said Elizabeth Arnett, tourism marketing manager at the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We can drive right up to them."

In fact, she said, there are nearly 40 glaciers right outside Juneau, and while not all of them are accessible by road, there are plenty of flight-seeing opportunities for visitors -- including ones in which passengers can land on a glacier and go dog mushing or ice trekking.

"Glaciers are our thing, and they are easily accessible," she added.

Also off the road system are more than 90 miles of maintained hiking trails, maps of which are available at the visitor center. The center also can help arrange whale-watching tours, fishing charters, bird-watching tours (roughly 280 species of birds live here or pass through annually) and other activities in and around town.

Other communities in Southeast Alaska include Skagway, home to the famed Chilkoot Pass Trail, and the place to learn more about Alaska's great Gold Rush; Ketchikan, considered by many to be the Gateway to Southeast Alaska as it is a popular first stop among cruise ships; Haines, an independent little town with quirky personalities and some of the best weather of the region; and of, course, Sitka, with its massive trees, well-kept historic buildings, and friendly townspeople who take pride in their seaside homes.

Southeast Alaska is indeed one of the most economically, socially and historically important regions of the Last Frontier. As such it makes a great destination for travelers who want to sample "a little of everything" and get a good feel for the state as a whole. Its older buildings have a bit more character, its coastline is a bit more accessible and its outdoor opportunities a bit more varied. Come for a weekend, come for a week. You will not be disappointed.

Outdoor and adventure travel writer Melissa DeVaughn can be reached at www.melissadevaughn.com.

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