A Day Exploring Prince of Wales Island
A remote Southeast Alaska community rich in beauty and history
article and photos by Sabrena Combs
“I’m going to Prince of Wales Island this weekend.”
“Like, in Canada?”
“No, Prince of Wales is in Alaska. By Ketchikan.”
This is a conversation I had with no less than six people prior to my two trips to Prince of Wales Island over the last year. All with Alaskans. We sometimes forget how gigantic Alaska is and, in doing so, it can be difficult to remember each nook and cranny this state has hidden away. But, after visiting this gorgeous place, you’ll never forget it.
Prince of Wales Island is the fourth largest island in the United States, behind Hawaii, the Alaskan island of Kodiak, and Puerto Rico. It’s roughly the size of Delaware but only about 4000 people live there. It consists of several small communities around the island, the most populated and known being Craig, Thorne Bay, Hydaburg, Klawock, and Hollis.
The island is a shining example of how different Southeast Alaska is from the rest of the state. The air is thick with the smell of wetness and ocean breeze. The forests are heavy with moss, lichen and just green everything. And the mountains are close enough to reach out and touch no matter where you’re standing. It’s beautiful.
This trip to Prince of Wales found me doing one of the best activities there is to do in Southeast: beach combing. We took a small boat out of Klawock into the ocean. The coast is dotted with what seems like hundreds of small, uninhabited islands open for exploring. We found a good one with a wide-open beach and docked. The tide was out, revealing a plethora of life clinging to the exposed rocks. Starfish, tiny crabs, baby wolf eels, sea anemones, clams and kelp were abundant along the shore. We found a bevy of treasures, too: shells, fossils, quartz and limestone rocks, and even the skeleton of a sea otter, perfectly intact.
There are lots of opportunities for great hikes across the island. I decided that on this trip I would find the caves that so many local folks talk about. A two-hour drive from Hollis to the north end of the island brought us to El Capitan, the most popular cave destination on Prince of Wales. It wasn’t the easiest journey to El Cap – the paved roads end about 30 miles prior to the destination and you have to keep a close eye on the wooden signs that tell you where to turn. There was also a multitude of distractions to sidetrack us along the way. Cavern Lake and its corresponding limestone cave was a fun field trip. Whale’s Pass has some gorgeous beaches perfect for photo ops. But when you finally arrive at El Capitan, it’s time for a real adventure.
There’s a groomed campground surrounding the base of the hike. Picnic tables, restrooms, a ranger station and posted infographics make the area perfect for visitors. There are 370 maintained wooden steps that lead you upward through a lush, thick forest to the entrance of the cave. A posted warning sign tells you about the dangers of the cave and what exploring it entails. This cave is monitored by the Forest Service so alone, you can only go in about 25 yards before encountering a locked gate. Past this, a guided trek further into the cave is required. It’s everything you want and expect in a cave: holes that plunge into obscurity, caverns that take you in different directions, stalagmites and stalactites, lime dripping down the walls, and, of course, pitch black scariness. We all turned off our flashlights to fully experience the complete and utter nothingness of the depths of the cave and I lasted about five seconds before my imagination got the best of me. It was my first cave experience and entirely lived up to expectations.
Outside of everything awesome that nature provides on Prince of Wales, the culture is also uniquely Alaskan. Evidence of the strong native values and culture is bountiful in each village on the island. Totem poles and native Alaskan art decorate the landscape and many locals speak to each other in their tribal language. Logging is a primary industry here and it certainly leaves its footprint. While it’s evident that current logging practices sustainability, the past generations left their mark with clear cut lands that are slowly but surely experiencing regrowth. Lumber mills, mining sites, fishing boats and the tourism industry employs the majority of the population on the island and you can sense that the locals here work hard to maintain their lives on the island. Prices are high at the grocery store—I experienced sticker shock on every item I purchased.
Like many small, secluded areas in Alaska, you get a sense that the locals are comfortable living in such an isolated and private community. While many of us may balk at the idea of such seclusion, it’s obvious that these folks have little to no interest in what’s happening on the “mainland.” Which is good, considering leaving the island, even to nearby Ketchikan, is an endeavor in itself. Accessible only by boat or plane, leaving or arriving on the island is costly. It’s fifty bucks just to walk onto the ferry, a three-hour trek from Ketchikan. An air taxi will get you there much faster—25 minutes—but will cost between $115-$150 one way. Trips to the “city” are well thought out by locals, or avoided altogether. Most necessities are easily available here, though—it just simply depends on whether you’re willing to pay the cost.
Being born and raised in Alaska, it’s sometimes easy to forget that we can take a vacation right here in our own state. Prince of Wales Island is filled with adventure and I look forward to return trips. It’s entirely indicative of the beauties and nuances of Southeast Alaska life and truly a gem to explore.
If you enjoyed this article, check out “Must See Southeast Alaska Places and Towns“.