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 Coast Mountains form the mainland portion of southeast Alaska. Southeast has a coastal climate with relatively mild winters compared with other Alaska regions, and often cool, cloudy days in summer.
Its geography dictates Southeast’s unique transportation system—travel by ferry—since the mountains and islands make road-building between many communities impossible. Geography as well gives Southeast its other name—the Inside Passage—referring to the protected system of waterways used by boats, cruise ships and ferries to connect the mainline port communities of Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, Haines and Skagway, as well as the smaller towns of Metlakatla, Coffman Cove, Hollis, Kake, Angoon, Sitka, Pelican, Gustavus, Tenakee and Hoonah.
The region is rich in Native and Russian history. Tlingit (KLINK-it) Indian, Haida (HI-duh) and Tsimshian (SHIM-shian) are the aboriginal peoples of the region. The Russians arrived in 1799, when Alexander Baranof built a fort at Sitka for the Russian-American Co.
Today, about 71,000 people live along the Inside Passage, with 75 percent residing in the 5 major communities of Juneau (33,064), Ketchikan (City 8,313; Borough 13,856), Sitka (9,084), Petersburg (3,200) and Wrangell (2,448).
Southeast Alaska boasts several major attractions on the most-visited list, in part because the region welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors who travel by cruise ship.
On the most-visited list, the Ketchikan Totems collectively refers to examples of this Native art form found at several locations in the community of Ketchikan. Totem Heritage Center houses 33 totem poles and fragments, the largest exhibit of original totems in the country, all of them retrieved from deserted Tlingit and Haida Indian villages. Saxman Totem Park, 2.5 miles south of town, has 21 totems and a clan house includes demonstrations at the Carving Center. Totem Bight State Historical Park, 10 miles north of town, has an example of a community house and a 14-totem park.
Sitka hits the most-visited attraction list with its Russian Church—St. Michael’s Cathedral—built in 1844—1848 and rebuilt after a 1966 fire; it’s New Archangel Russian Dancers, a group of local women who perform authentic Russian dances in authentic costume; and Sitka National Historical Park, with its totem pole collection (displayed along a self-guiding trail) and Russian Bishop’s House, 1 of 4 Russian log structures remaining in North America.
Breathtaking Mendenhall Glacier, 13 miles northeast of Juneau, Southeast’s largest city and the state capital, also makes the most-visited attraction list. The glacier is accessible by road and has an excellent visitor center with educational exhibits. The 1,500-square-mile Juneau Icefield is a popular flightseeing trip out of Juneau, and on a clear day the views are indescribable.