“Wild” Alaska can be found here, in the United States’ largest national forest
The treasures inside the Tongass National Forest are vibrant and abundant. Spanning across 500 miles of Southeast Alaska, and bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Mountains, the Tongass is the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, and is home to a majestic array of islands, mountains, forests, glaciers, salmon streams, fjords and bays.
Tongass National Forest, the largest in the United States, received its name from the Tongass Clan of the Tlingit Indians. More than 80 percent of Southeast Alaska is in Tongass, spanning 11,000 miles of coastline, and home to approximately 70,000 people living in 32 communities, including Alaska’s state capital, Juneau.
The area was designated in 1902 as the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve by President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1908 the forest was renamed and expanded, and today the 16.9 million-acre Tongass National Forest stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the vast inland ice fields that border British Columbia and from the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island to Malaspina Glacier 500 miles to the north.
Tongass' vast coastal terrain is the world’s largest temperate rain forest, and its canopy consists of towering hemlock, spruce and red and yellow cedar. Beneath the massive conifers are young evergreens and shrubs such as devil's club, blueberry and huckleberry. Moss and ferns cover the ground, and lichens drape many trees.
Though home to the world's largest temperate rain forest, almost half of Tongass is covered by ice, water, wetlands and rock. Its most famous ice floe is the Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska's famous "Drive-in glacier," because it is only 13 miles from downtown Juneau along a paved road. A boat ride from Petersburg or Wrangell brings you near the face of LeConte Glacier, the southernmost tidewater glacier on the continent. Just 30 miles north of Yakutat is Hubbard Glacier, the longest tidewater glacier in the world and easily Alaska's most active. The 76-mile-long glacier has galloped across Russell Fjord several times, most recently in 2008. The rip tides and currents that flow in front of the 8-mile-wide glacier are so strong they cause Hubbard to calve almost continuously.
Wildlife is abundant throughout Tongass. Sitka blacktail deer and its two main predators, wolf and brown bear, are found here. Black bear are common as well as mountain goats and moose. Marine mammals found along the shores include Dall and harbor porpoises, hair seal and humpback, minke and killer whales and a growing population of sea otters. The waters teem with fish including halibut and all five species of Pacific salmon. More bald eagles live in this region than in any other place in the world.
The Tongass contains 19 wilderness areas, including the 545-sq-mile Russell Fjord Wilderness, as well as Admiralty Island National Monument and Misty Fjords National Monument, and activities abound to entertain and educate locals and travelers alike.
Visitors can hike dense forests, alpine meadows or boardwalks through peat bogs called muskegs along maintained trails. In the Juneau area the U.S. Forest Service maintains more than 20 trails including five that end at a glacier with West Glacier Trail along the Mendenhall Glacier known as one of the most spectacular hikes in Southeast Alaska. Other activities range from ranger-lead tours of El Capitan Cave on Prince of Wales Island to kayaking in Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness and canoeing and portaging a chain of lakes across Admiralty Island.
Bear viewing is also very popular in Tongass. During the salmon spawning season visitors gather at bear viewing sites at Fish Creek near Hyder, Anan Creek near Wrangell, Pack Creek on Admiralty Island and Steep Creek at Juneau's Mendenhall Glacier. Equally popular is whale watching tours to view migrating humpback whales. Charter boat operators in Juneau, Sitka and Petersburg offer such tours while Forest Service interpreters staff the Alaska Marine Highway to help passengers spot wildlife from the mainline ferries, particularly whales.
The Tongass National Forest offers outstanding recreation opportunities and facilities. Scattered throughout the forest, usually on remote lakes or bays, are 150 Forest Service cabins that can be reserved in advance (877-444-6777, 518-885-3639). The vast majority are accessed via a float plane but five in Juneau and one in Petersburg can be reached on foot. Many communities in Southeast have one if not several Forest Service campgrounds, rustic facilities in a scenic location out the road.
There are U.S. Forest Service offices in many communities in Southeast Alaska that can provide information and maps on the trails, campgrounds and programs in their region. In addition there are three Forest Service visitor centers with interesting displays and exhibits; Southeast Alaska Discovery Center in Ketchikan (907-228-6220); Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in Juneau (907-789-0097); and the Petersburg Visitor Information Center (907-772-4636)
There are entry fees to Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, nightly fees for campgrounds and Forest Service cabin rentals and fees for some programs and permits.
There is no mainland road access to most of Southeast Alaska. To Sitka, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell and Juneau there is daily jet service from Seattle and Anchorage while scheduled air taxi service is available to many other smaller Southeast communities. Year round Alaska Marine Highway service connects many communities to Bellingham, WA, and Prince Rupert, B.C., Canada.
Tongass National Forest (907-225-3101) has nine Ranger District offices including Sitka Ranger District (907-747-6671), Juneau Ranger District (907-586-8800); Ketchikan-Misty Fjords Ranger District (907-225-2148) and Wrangell Ranger District (907-874-2323).