Southeast Alaska’s Must See Places and Towns
by Ailis Vann
If you’ve ever been to Alaska or live in Alaska, you know that it is a truly majestic, wonderful, and diverse state. It is also huge. There are so many places to see and visit that if you’re planning a trip it can be hard to narrow down where to go. Here’s several places I have had the joy of visiting in SEAK (Southeast Alaska).
I spent four years in Juneau attending college at the University of Alaska Southeast. While there I was fortunate enough to spend a fair amount of time in Haines. After Juneau I moved to Petersburg for two years, and then moved back up to Southcentral Alaska where I was born and raised. I miss Southeast Alaska dearly, and I highly recommend visiting multiple times, but, if you can only go once, here’s a few of the wonderful places and things to do there.
Juneau – Alaska’s capital city. It has three distinct parts: Auke Bay (where UAS is located), the valley (Mendenhall Glacier), and downtown (where the capital building is). Auke Bay and the campus are beautiful. Harbor seals can be seen from the road, and on a good day, so can orca and humpback whales. Heading north “out the road” as they say in SE, you’ll find great views of Lynn Canal and the Shrine of St. Therese. There is not a more tranquil, peaceful place than the shrine. A short walk leads you out to an island with a quaint little church and 360 degree views of gigantic trees, ocean, and sea life. You can drive out to the end of the road; it’s about 40 miles and offers beaches, views, and fun driving that is hard to beat.
In March there is a huge basketball tournament. Most of the surrounding villages empty out to come to Juneau for a week for the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament. Great basketball, dedicated fans, and fun rivalries abound. Admission is pretty affordable and the fry bread they sell is outstanding.
In early April the town fills up with musicians from all over the state for the Alaska Folk Festival. This weeklong music festival, held downtown at Centennial Hall features Alaskan artists and a few headliners from out of state. The music schedule runs all day and sometimes late into the night and is well worth a trip.
From Juneau, take the Alaska Marine Highway, aka the ferry. It’s the cheapest, best cruise you can get in Alaska. During the summer months a lot of the ferries have a naturalist aboard to point out features and wildlife during the ride. Heading north to Haines takes about four hours on the slow ferry and two hours on the fast ferry.
Haines is one of the only communities in SEAK connected to the road system. The quaint little town is set against the ocean with breathtaking views of big mountains, and it has a strong sense of community. Check out the great local shops, eateries, farmer’s market, and the SEAK State Fair. The fair is held at the end of July and offers super affordable admission, live music, great food, local vendors, and fun activities for children.
Heading south on the ferry from Juneau, you’ll reach Petersburg. I’m incredibly partial to Petersburg because I spent two years working as a waitress there and absolutely fell in love with it. It is located on Mitkof Island and the ferry ride into town gives you a great view of all of the houses along the water, the harbors, and canneries. Devil’s Thumb is visible from town, as well as lots of sea life. There are three harbors to stroll through with every kind of boat you can imagine. One of the highlights of the year in Petersburg is the Little Norway Festival, or as the locals call it, Mayfest. This three-day festival celebrates Petersburg’s Norwegian history. Locals make traditional Norwegian food, the parade highlights traditional dancing, and be on the lookout for the Vikings and Valkyries dressed in traditional furs. There is always a locally produced melodrama that packs the local auditorium and is guaranteed to make you laugh, boo, hiss, and sigh.
Another few hours south on the ferry from Petersburg is Sitka. Sitka was the first capital in Alaska, when Alaska was owned by Russia. I’ve only visited Sitka once, but the memories of it will stick with me for the rest of my life. A dormant volcano, Mt Edgecumbe, sits across the bay from town, covered in snow with beautiful textures and lines. There are islands out in front of Sitka that can be kayaked to or viewed from town. And, although I didn’t dine there, the McDonald’s in Sitka has the best view of any McDonald’s in the WORLD. The ferry ride can be kind of wild from Petersburg to Sitka, but if you’re on board in late July or early August, be sure to look down and see the salmon jumping.
Southeast Alaska offers something for everyone, get out and enjoy!
– Article by Ailis Vann
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