Alaska is the farthest north and west US state. Portions of the state are due north of Hawai’i and the Marquesas Islands. It is also the largest state, so unless you are planning to spend a month here, I’m going to make the strong suggestion that you focus on a particular region. Alaska is not really a place where you can sprint and do all the things in a week so we are breaking it down into a three-part series: Southeast Alaska, South Central Alaska (including Denali), and the Best of the Rest (including lodges, aurora viewing, and places off the beaten path).
When most people think of Alaska, they picture this:
Commercial fishing boats in the Sitka harbor, Sitka, Alaska. (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)
People also think of whales. That’s not wrong for a good portion of the state, as rugged coastline and pristine mountains cover most of the southern area. Southeast (SE) Alaska is all raw beauty with amazing wildlife. The whole state is rich in Alaska Native (the terminology used for Indigenous people here) heritage and culture. Living off the land, fishing, and hunting are all integral parts of the general Alaskan culture (as I’m sure you have observed from the abundance of TV shows featuring these types of folks and industries!).
Southeast Alaska is composed of a thin strip of land running up the west coast of Canada and a collection of islands. If you make a fist and stick your thumb out pointing down, SE Alaska is the thumb. Most tourism here occurs by boat because of the terrain.
There are a lot of different cruise boats that come to Alaska, ranging from huge floating cities to small National Geographic ones. I’m not going to pretend to be a cruise expert, but I’ve had friends do them all, and your family’s travel style/preferences will determine which is best for you. The cruises sail up the inner passage (usually out of Seattle or Vancouver, BC) between islands, stopping in small port cities throughout. Many of them end in Seward or Whittier and transfer you to Anchorage to fly back out. Typical excursions include flight-seeing, kayaking, visiting glaciers, hiking, and fishing trips.
If cruises aren’t your idea of a fun vacation, you should know that SE Alaska has a very limited road system so it is not possible to do a road trip in the traditional sense. Even our capital, Juneau, does not have a road system. Boats and planes are the name of the game in this region. The SE version of a road trip would involve taking the Alaska Ferry (starting in Bellingham, Washington) and hopping on and off in ports of call throughout SE Alaska.
The Big Three
The three big towns in SE Alaska are Ketchikan, Sitka, and Juneau. Ketchikan and Sitka, populations of just over 8,000 each, both have beautiful views and that “fishing village on the side of a mountain” feel to them. Ketchikan’s airport is an adventure of its own, as it is located on an island which you have to take a ferry to and from.
Both Ketchikan and Sitka are in the ancestral lands of the Tlingit tribe. Ketchikan also has Haida and Tsimshian heritage. Both have beautiful totem parks and cultural centers such as Totem Bight State Historical Park, Potlatch Totem Park, Saxman Village Totem Park, and Sitka National Historical Park. Native crafts, carvings, and other goods can be easily spotted by a silver hand sticker that certifies authenticity.
In Sitka, there are plenty of places to explore like Fortress of the Bear, the Raptor Center, and Castle Hill. The golf course is really unique too! Some great family-friendly hikes are around Totem Park (where you can see salmon in the river), Cross trail, and Heart Lake/Thimbleberry Lake trail. Harbor Mountain and Verstovia are tougher hikes but reward you with great views! Stargavan campground (at Mosquito Cove) has lots of trails and you can always see bears with cubs in the summer. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, try one of many great restaurants:
- Ludvigs Restaurant (open in the summer – they do a chowder cart in the off-season)
- Mean Queen (pizza)
- Asian Palace/Little Tokyo
- Fisheye Cafe (smoothies, crepes)
- Pel Meni
If you stop in Juneau, make sure you check out Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. There are many trails where you can often spot spawning salmon and black bears in July and August. Macaulay Salmon Hatchery & Aquarium is a great place to learn about the fascinating salmon spawning process. Finally, check out Mount Roberts Tram (including Mount Roberts Alpine Loop Trail) to get some incredible views! Other great hikes to explore include Perseverance Trail, East Glacier Loop (Mendenhall Glacier), and Treadwell Mine Historic Trail. Delicious eats can be found at:
- The Hangar On the Wharf
- Twisted Fish Company
- Deckhand Daves
- Tracy’s King Crab Shack
I’ll leave you with a couple of pro tips:
- In the fall and winter, flights in and around SE Alaska can be a challenge due to high winds, limited visibility, and tricky and short runways for landings. Most Alaskans have a story of being on the ground somewhere in SE Alaska when the flights couldn’t go. Be prepared to go with the flow if you are visiting during that time of year.
- SE Alaska has great fishing charters. Fish run at different times of the year and there are many off-the-beaten-path lodges on remote islands if you want a weeklong fishing adventure. Lodge guests generally fly into one of the larger airports and then take a floatplane out to the lodge. These locations are all-inclusive and will pack your catch for transport.
Have you visited SE Alaska? Tell us about your hidden gems and attractions that are not to be missed. Stay tuned for parts II and III where I’ll share even more about this beautiful state.
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