Southeast Alaska, referred to by Alaskans simply as “Southeast,” is Alaska’s Panhandle. It stretches from Dixon Entrance at the U.S.–Canada border south of Ketchikan to Icy Bay, northwest of Yakutat. Comprised of a narrow strip of mainland backed up against the Coast Mountains and Canada, and hundreds of islands of the Alexander Archipelago, Southeast forms the all-water route to Alaska known as the Inside Passage.
The Alaska Marine Highway ferries move people and vehicles between communities in Southeast and connect Southeast Alaska via the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert, BC, and Bellingham, WA, and to southcentral Alaska via Cross-Gulf sailings between Juneau and Whittier.
A region where industry, transportation, recreation and community planning are dictated by its unique topography, Southeast also offers unique attractions for visitors. Enjoy Russian (Sitka) and Tlingit (Haines) dance performances; colorful saloons like the Red Onion (Skagway); sportfishing throughout; and sightseeing and/or whale watching cruises of Glacier Bay, Misty Fiords, LeConte Glacier, the Stikine River and Tracy Arm. Bear viewing (at Anan and Pack creeks) is also a top attraction.
The region is accessible by air, land or sea. Jet service is available to Juneau,
Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka and Gustavus. Smaller communities are served by local commuter aircraft.
Cruise ships are a popular way to visit Southeast, with hundreds of sailings and varied itineraries to choose between.
Southeast Alaska lies between 54°40’ and 60° north latitude, the same as Scotland and southern Sweden. The region measures about 125 by 400 miles, with 60 percent consisting of islands covered with spruce, hemlock and cedar forests characteristic of moist coastal climates. The largest island in the region is Prince of Wales Island (third largest island in the U.S.). Prince of Wales Island also has the most extensive road system in Southeast Alaska. The Inter-Island Ferry Authority offers daily, year-round passenger and vehicle service between Ketchikan and Hollis on Prince of Wales Island.
The majority of Southeast Alaska lies within Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States.
Some 71,000 people live along the Inside Passage. Slightly less than 20 percent of the region’s population is Alaska Native: Tlingit (KLINK-it) Indian, Haida (HI-duh) and Tsimshian (SHIM-shian). Alaska’s Natives occupied this region long before Vitus Bering arrived in Alaska in 1741.
Russia controlled Alaska from the turn of the 19th century until October 18, 1867, when Alaska was transferred to the U.S. As the Russian capital of Alaska, Sitka was the center of Russia’s fur-trading empire and a port of international trade, controlling trading posts from California to the Aleutians.
In 1867, the United States, under President Andrew Johnson, purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. The American flag was raised at Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867. As the Russian population moved out, and the fur trade declined, so did interest in Southeast Alaska. But it was rekindled by the salmon industry as canneries were established, the first at Klawock in 1878. Salmon canning peaked in the late 1930s then declined from overfishing.
The first significant white populations arrived because of gold. Thousands of gold seekers traveled through the Inside Passage in 1898 to Skagway and on to Canada’s Klondike (sparking interest in the rest of Alaska). The largest gold ore mine of its day, the Treadwell near Juneau, began operation in 1884.
Juneau became Alaska’s capital in 1906, and Southeast remained Alaska’s dominant region until WWII, when military activity and the Alaska Highway shifted emphasis to Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Additional population growth came to Southeast with new timber harvesting in the 1950s. Increased government activities, as a result of Alaska statehood in 1959, brought even more people. Fishing is an ongoing industry in Southeast.
The Inside Passage is the last stronghold of the American bald eagle. More than 20,000 eagles reside in the region, and sightings are frequent. Humpback and killer whales, porpoises, sea lions and seals are often observed from ferries, cruise ships and charter boats. Bear viewing opportunities are offered at Pack Creek on Admiralty Island, Anan Creek near Wrangell, Fish Creek near Hyder and Herring Cove near Ketchikan.