Southeast Alaska is a stunning region consisting of mostly islands and inlets that stretch along the coast of Northwest Canada including Yukon and British Columbia. It’s everything you think of when you imagine Alaska- the ocean, forest, mountains, islands, cute small towns, glaciers, fresh salmon, Native heritage, and much more.
Skagway, Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka
I’m going to focus on the areas I have personally visited- Skagway, Ketchikan, Juneau, and my current home- Sitka. Although I have been to Southeast Alaska a few times before, it has always been in Spring/Summer, so this is my first time in Alaska over winter since I moved to Sitka in November.
I will say the region is stunning year-round and can be visited at any time but if you want more temperate weather for more outdoor time and more hours of daylight May-Sept (high season) tends to be the best time to come.
If you do opt for the quieter season of winter expect sundown around 3 PM, the winter is surprisingly mild compared to Northern Alaska and tends to be more rain than snow but it definitely requires a winter coat and some sturdy boots. Also unlike Northern Alaska, the chances of seeing the Northern lights tend to be lower here as well but still possible!
How To Get There
Alaska Airlines flies into several locations in Southeast Alaska year-round including Sitka, Juneau, and Ketchikan. Delta also flies into this region seasonally over the summer months.
Skagway doesn’t have a major airport but can be reached from one of the other areas via the regional Alaska Seaplanes or the Alaska Marine Ferry System (same with the other areas within Southeast Alaska that do not have major airports).
A Quick Note On Cruises
I highly recommend skipping the cruise! I know this is a tempting way to visit Southeast Alaska but there are a few reasons to avoid this option:
1) Environmental- big ship cruising is the more environmentally destructive way to travel, in addition, there have been several cases of these cruise lines illegally dumping in Alaska’s protected waters (they all still operate)
2) You miss out on so much! With only a few hours in each port, you are shuttled off in a crowd of thousands to get to a few quick sights before getting back on. This leaves you missing out on so much of the beauty in Alaska.
3) You are supporting big cruise lines instead of the lovely local communities. Cruise lines tend to buy out the buildings around the port and push many local businesses out. When you cruise you tend to eat on board and also shop at these port souvenir shops instead and miss out on local restaurants, shops, galleries, and more. *Read more about responsible travel in my 2 other blog posts: “Top 5 Ways to Travel Responsibly” and “How to Be a More Sustainable Traveler” HERE.
Have a More Authentic Experience
I highly encourage you to fly to Southeast Alaska and get an authentic experience. Choose the main airport to arrive and depart from and another destination or 2 in between to explore depending on how much time you have and have fun utilizing the local ferry system or hop on a seaplane for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Here’s a mock itinerary including my favorite spots. You can follow this guide, add/remove stops or simply pick just 1 with the main airport and settle in for a week at your leisure.
2-Week Alaska Itinerary:
In this itinerary, I am starting with a 2 night stop in Seattle. For anyone traveling from outside of Washington state, you’ll most likely want to fly to Seattle to take one of Alaska Airlines non-stop flights from Seattle to their many Alaskan airports. So, why not stop and explore Seattle a bit? If you want to just layover or you live in Washington you can skip this 2 night stop but otherwise, stop and enjoy the city and catch some great sights and food!
Day 1: Arrive in Seattle.
Day 2: Explore Seattle.
For more on planning your stay in Seattle, I recommend this guide right HERE.
Day 3: Catch a non-stop flight via Alaska Airlines from Seattle to your first stop- Ketchikan for a 3-night stay.
I recommend staying on or near Creek Street to be in the center of it all. Creek Street is a historic boardwalk along Ketchikan Creek that used to be the Red Light district.
Day 4: Full day in Ketchikan
I highly recommend taking a tour outside of the town center on your first full day. I personally LOVED the Rainforest walk and totem park tour with Wild Wolf Tours a small locally-run tour company. I did this one HERE, but they also have a shorter/easier option for anyone with mobility challenges. The Tongass Rainforest is the largest temperate rainforest in the world and the largest old-growth forest in North America and the largest National Forest in the US.
It is STUNNING and one of my favorite experiences in Southeast Alaska. The hike we went on was a very moderate and easy trail that took in a lot of stunning nature including gorgeous waterfalls. The Potlach totem park was equally amazing and a great way to see Native culture and history. Not only were there tons of totem poles but a clan house, plenty of native artwork, and a carving shed where you can see in-progress works and sometimes even meet one of the artists (if you’re lucky!)
There’s also a display of antique firearms and cars on-site if that’s something that interests you. Overall there’s a lot to see and the tour is a great way to get a lot into a day especially if you don’t have a car rental. Of course, if you do have a car rental you have the option to self explore and head to the forest for a hike on your own and drive to Potlatch Totem Park and self visit as well.
Day 5: Ketchikan – Take a day to explore the town!
Walk the Creek Street boardwalk, do some shopping, explore the town and eat all the delicious seafood. In Ketchikan, I recommend getting some fresh crab while here – try Annabelle’s for dinner.
Day 6: Catch the daily flight on Alaska Air from Ketchikan to Sitka.
I recommend staying at The Sitka Hotel, it includes breakfast and has the perfect location for exploring the town on foot- no need for a rental car. If you opt for a car and prefer camping during your stay check out the Starragavin campsite.
Day 7: Sitka – If you visit during the summer a whale watch is a must.
Take a look at this option HERE. If you are visiting during another time of year you could instead opt to visit the Raptor Center which is an amazing rehabilitation center for predatory birds including the Bald Eagle. Other wildlife centers worth visiting are the Fortress of the Bear (a refuge for orphaned bears) and the Sitka Sound Science Center – a marine biology center with a small aquarium – all 3 of these are open year-round.
Day 8: Sitka – Take the day to explore some history!
Sitka has a unique blend of Tlingit and Russian history. There are plenty of spots worth visiting but I particularly love the Sitka Historical Park – not only does the center display Native art and history, but the trail through the beautiful forest is lined with totem poles. As far as Russian history there is St. Michaels Cathedral and the Russian Bishop’s house. Baranof Castle is also worth a visit.
If you have time to explore downtown, it is also worth a visit, just be sure to go earlier in the day- most things close by 6 PM. The lines of local shops are lovely and there are plenty of food choices as well, but I recommend trying the Pel’Meni Russian dumplings. If you have a car and can head farther out of town try the brews and fire oven pizza at Harbor Mountain Brewing.
Day 9: Take an Alaskan Seaplane from Sitka to Skagway.
Unlike the other stops, Skagway does not have a major airport so the seaplane offers a unique experience! In addition, Skagway is connected to the mainland (Yukon Canada) via the South Klondike Highway. This was an old gold rush route. In Skagway try the Historic Skagway Inn Bed & Breakfast or again if you get a car rental or RV and prefer to camp try the Dyea campground about 9 miles outside of town.
Day 10: Skagway – I highly recommend doing a day tour into the Yukon!
It was one of the most stunning days of my trip and also an opportunity to visit Canada if you’ve never been- just don’t forget your passport! Emerald Lake was particularly gorgeous but the various lakes, wildlife stops, and the historic gold rush towns all made for an amazing day.
Day 11: Skagway – Dog sledding is a dream for most people who visit Alaska and Skagway is a perfect spot to do it.
And yes, you can do this in the summer too! The dogs train in the summer with “sleds” on wheels! If you’re interested in dog sledding take a look at this option HERE. Otherwise take the time to explore the historic town, try some spruce tip beer or fresh salmon.
Day 12: Take an Alaskan Seaplane from Skagway to Juneau.
Juneau is my favorite spot in Southeast Alaska, it is absolutely beautiful and if you just do one spot I would recommend this one. Try staying at the historic Alaskan Hotel – it’s the oldest hotel in Juneau established in 1913! For camping try Eagle Beach State Park.
Day 13: Juneau – Mendenhall Glacier is a MUST!
You can visit the glacier in multiple ways. You can shuttle to/from the glacier and explore the walking paths and stunning views at your leisure. But, if you want to get up close try one of the paddling tours HERE. Or, if you want the adventure of a lifetime, take the helicopter to the glacier and participate in an ice walk HERE.
Day 14: Juneau – There’s so much to do in Juneau, if you’re looking for a historic experience try gold panning!
If you’re an adrenaline junky, try a zip-line through the forest. Regardless of what you choose to do on your trip to Southeast Alaska you’ll surely be in awe of the region’s natural beauty and want to come back to see more.
Day 15: Depart Juneau and head home!
If you’d like to add on some of Northern Alaska and the mainland take a look at this guide HERE that covers Anchorage, McCarthy/Kennicott, Valdez, Whittier/Seward, and Girdwood.