At 140 miles long and more than 2,230 square miles, Prince of Wales Island is the fourth largest island in the United States.
About Prince of Wales Island
Located just a three-hour ferry ride from Ketchikan, Prince of Wales Island is a vast, rugged island home to eleven small communities. Known locally as P.O.W., the island is the perfect destination for adventurous visitors who come to Alaska to paddle, backpack, or land a trophy salmon or halibut.
Things to do
The 990-mile coastline of Prince of Wales Island meanders around numerous bays, coves, saltwater straits, and protected islands, making it a kayaker's delight. Chains of inland lakes are well suited for exploring in a canoe. The island is scattered with 20 public use cabins available through the Tongass National Forest for those who want to spend a night in the wilderness.
The island has the most extensive road system in the Inside Passage, with 1,300 miles of paved or maintained gravel roads that lead to small villages, rustic campgrounds, fishing lodges, and 34 hiking trails. There are also several hundred miles of logging roads that many visitors explore on mountain bikes.
Prince of Wales Island is heaven on earth for mountain bikers. The knobby, fat-tires are perfect for the hundreds of miles of dirt roads. Bikes can be rented on the island and then taken on any road for some backcountry exploration that most vehicles won’t dare travel. On the less adventurous side is the scenic ride on South Beach Road from Coffman Cove to Thorne Bay. It's a 37-mile ride along the narrow, winding dirt road that skirts Clarence Strait.
Kayaking and Canoeing
Opportunities abound for kayakers and canoers on Prince of Wales Island. Kayaks can be rented on the island and drop-off transportation can be arranged. For a day of kayaking, depart from Klawock and paddle into Big Salt Lake, where the water is calm and the birding is excellent.
At the north end of on Prince of Wales Island, off Forest Road 20, is the Sarkar Lakes Canoe Route, a 15-mile loop of five major lakes and portages. Along the way canoers can spend a night at a U.S. Forest Service cabin.
Forest Service Cabins
There are 20 U.S. Forest Service cabins on Prince of Wales Island, in the Thorne Bay and Craig Ranger Districts of Tongass National Forest. Two cabins can be reached by rowing across a lake, thus eliminating the floatplane expense required with many others. Control Lake Cabin is reached from State Highway 929, where a dock and rowboat are kept on the west end of the lake. Red Bay Lake Cabin is at the north end of the island, off Forest Road 20, and is accessible via a half-mile hike to a boat and then a 1.5-mile row across the lake.
Fish Hatchery & Fish Ladders
The Prince of Wales Hatchery was first established in 1897 and today is the second-oldest hatchery in Alaska. The present facility was built in 1976 and raises coho, king, and sockeye salmon with many released into the adjacent Klawock River. Inside the Matt Turner Visitor Center is an aquarium and gift shop where fresh salmon is often for sale. Outside you can occasionally see black bears feeding across the river. During the summer the hatchery offers visitors free guided walking tours of the facility.
On the island's southern half, you can watch salmon attempt to negotiate ladders at Cable Creek Fish Pass and Dog Salmon Fish Pass. Both have viewing platforms from which to see spawning salmon and hungry black bears.
On the north end of the island is a broad cave system with more than 850 grottos and caves. The most popular cave to visit is El Capitan Cave northwest of Thorne Bay, a 94-mile drive from Hollis. “El Cap,” as the locals call it, can be easily viewed even if you've never worn a headlamp. During the summer the U.S. Forest Service offers a free, two-hour ranger-led tour along a stairway trail that leads 600 feet into the cave. Along the way you’ll view hollows where otters and bears have spent the winter.
In the same general area of El Capitan Cave is Beaver Falls Karst Trail. The short, wheelchair-accessible trail is a series of boardwalks and interpretive displays that offer an aboveground experience as you walk past sinkholes, pits, underground rivers, and other typical karst features. Also near El Capitan Cave on the road to Whale Pass is Cavern Lake Cave. The spot features an observation deck allowing visitors to peer into the cave's mouth at the gushing stream inside.
Klawock Totem Park
There are three totem parks on Prince of Wales Island and the Klawock Totem Park is without question the most impressive. Situated on a hill overlooking the town's cannery and harbor, Klawock's 21 totems are one of the largest collections in Alaska and make for a scenic, dramatic setting. The park features both original totems from the former village of Tukekan and replicas.
Sandy Beach Picnic Area
Sandy Beach Picnic Area along Sandy Beach Road between Coffman Cove and Thorne Bay is not only a scenic spot to have a picnic but an excellent place to see humpback whales, orcas, and harbor seals offshore. At low tides you can examine intriguing tidal pools along the shoreline.
Staying on Prince of Wales Island
Prince of Wales Island is home to a eleven small communities, several offering accommodations and other services. The largest, most visitor-friendly towns are Craig and Klawock, only seven miles apart but still a 31-mile drive across the island along the paved Hollis-Klawock Highway. Also providing lodging, restaurants, small grocery stores, and other visitor amenities are Thorne Bay, 38 miles northeast from Klawock, and Coffman Cove, 55 miles north of Klawock.
Getting to Prince of Wales Island
Prince of Wales Island is accessible by air and water. Regularly-scheduled air service and air taxis are available from Ketchikan, Juneau, and Sitka, with most visitors arriving from Ketchikan. The Inter-Island Ferry Authority provides daily service from Ketchikan, docking in the small town of Hollis, and water taxis are available from Wrangell. Once on the island, car rentals, taxis, and bus service are available to get around the island.
Prince of Wales Island is traditional Tlingit territory, although the Kaigani Haida moved into the area in the 18th century, and its indigenous residents today are primarily of Haida descent. Although Russian, British, Spanish, and French explorers passed by the island throughout the 1700s, western interest in the island didn’t come until the late 1800s, when rich deposits of gold were found.
Later, the primary industry became logging. Prince of Wales Island is located in the heart of the temperate rainforest that defines most of the Inside Passage and northwest coast of British Columbia. Much of its towering Sitka spruce and western hemlock were thoroughly harvested in the 1970s and ‘80s. With the decline of the logging and timber industry in the 1990s, workers on the island shifted their focus to commercial fishing, which remains the primary economic force today.