A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
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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One of the White Pass & Yukon Railroad trains leaves Skagway, Alaska.
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.