The Alaska Panhandle, sometimes referred to as Southeast Alaska, is the southeastern portion of the U.S. state of Alaska, which lies just west of the northern half of the Canadian province of British Columbia. The majority of the panhandle's area is part of the Tongass National Forest, the United States' largest national forest. In many places, the international border runs along the crest of the Boundary Ranges of the Coast Mountains (see Alaska boundary dispute).
The Alaska Panhandle is the northern terminus of the Inside Passage, a protected waterway of convoluted passages between islands and fjords, beginning in Puget Sound in Washington state. This was an important travel corridor for native canoeists, as well as gold-rush steam ships, and in modern times is an important route for ferries and cruise ships. The Panhandle has a land area of 91,008.18 km2 (35,138.46 square miles), comprised of six entire boroughs and three census areas, in addition to the part of Yakutat Borough lying east of 141° West longitude. Although it has only 6.14 percent of Alaska's land area, it is larger than the state of Maine, and almost as large as the state of Indiana. The 2000 census population of the Panhandle was 72,954 inhabitants, about 42 percent of whom were concentrated in the city of Juneau.
It includes the Tongass National Forest, Glacier Bay National Park, Admiralty Island National Monument, Misty Fjords National Monument, Alaska's Inside Passage, and myriad large and small islands. The largest islands are, from North to South, Chichagof Island, Admiralty Island, Baranof Island, Kupreanof Island, Revillagigedo Island and Prince of Wales Island. Major bodies of water of the Alaska Panhandle include Glacier Bay, Lynn Canal, Icy Strait, Chatham Strait, Stephens Passage, Frederick Sound, Sumner Strait, and Clarence Strait.
Southeast Alaska is a temperate rain forest within the Pacific temperate rain forest zone, which extends from northern California to Prince William Sound. The most common tree species are sitka spruce and western hemlockWildlife includes brown bears, black bears, wolves, Sitka deer, humpback whales, orcas, five species of salmon, bald eagles, harlequin ducks, scoters, and marbled murrelets.
Major cities are Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan. Other towns are Petersburg, Wrangell, Metlakatla, Haines, Hoonah, Angoon, Kake, Craig, Klawock, Yakutat, Skagway, and Gustavus. There are also many tiny (under 100 people) towns and villages, such as Baranof Warm Springs, Edna Bay, Elfin Cove, Excursion Inlet, Hyder, Meyers Chuck, Pelican, Port Alexander, Port Frederick, Port Protection, and Tenakee Springs.
This area is the traditional homeland of the Tlingit people, and home of a prehistoric settling of Haida as well as a modern settlement of Tsimshian. The region is closely connected to Seattle and the American Pacific Northwest economically and culturally.
Major industries in Southeast Alaska include commercial fishing and tourism (primarily the cruise ship industry). Logging has been an important industry in the past, but has been steadily declining with competition from other areas and the closure of the region's major pulp mills.
Due to the extremely rural nature of Southeastern Alaska, almost all communities (with the exception of Hyder, Skagway, and Haines) have no road connections outside of their locale, so aircraft and boats are the major means of transport. The Alaska Marine Highway passes through this region.
Alaska Airlines is by far the largest air carrier in the region, with Juneau's Juneau International Airport serving as the aerial hub for all of Southeast and Ketchikan's Ketchikan International Airport serving as a secondary hub for southern Southeast Alaska. However, Alaska Airline's Boeing 737s can only be handled by a few airports in the region and Alaska's bush airlines serve many of the smaller and more isolated communities and villages in the regions. L.A.B. Flying Service (based out of Haines), Wings of Alaska (based out of Juneau), Alaska Seaplane Service (based out of Juneau), and Skagway Air Service (based out of Skagway) are the primary bush carriers in region and also offer cargo service to smaller communities.
Numerous carriers serve other parts of the Alaska Panhandle. For example, [Sunrise Aviation] (based in Wrangell), provides flightseeing and chartered service to outlying areas and international charters up the Stikine River to places such as Telegraph Creek, Dease Lake as well as numerous lakes and communities in Northern British Columbia.
Southeast Alaska is primarily served by the state-run Alaska Marine Highway and secondarily by the Prince of Wales Island-based Inter-Island Ferry Authority although small companies like Sitka-based Alaska Catamaran and a myriad of independent operators in the Lynn Canal also occasionally offer marine passenger service. Ship traffic in the area is also seasonally busy with cruise ships.