Heading north of Juneau on the state ferry takes you up Lynn Canal, North America’s longest and deepest fjord. Along the way, Eldred Rock Lighthouse stands as a picturesque sentinel, waterfalls pour down off the Chilkoot Range to the east, and the Davidson and Rainbow Glaciers draw ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as they snake down out of the jagged Chilkat Mountains to the west. You end up in Haines, a scenic departure point for Southeast Alaska and a crucial link to the Alaska Hwy. Every summer thousands of travelers, particularly RVers, pass through this slice in the mountains on their way to Canada’s Yukon Territory and Interior Alaska.
Haines is 75 miles north of Juneau on a wooded peninsula between the Chilkat and Chilkoot Inlets. Originally a stronghold of the wealthy Chilkat Tlingit Indians, it was put on the map by a gun-toting entrepreneur named Jack Dalton. In 1897 Dalton turned an old Indian trade route into a toll road for miners seeking an easier way to reach the Klondike. The Dalton Trail quickly became such a heavily used pack route to mining districts north of Whitehorse that the army arrived in 1903 and established Fort William H Seward, Alaska’s first permanent post. For the next 20 years it was Alaska’s only army post and then was used as a rest camp during WWII.
WWII led to the construction of the Haines Hwy, the 159-mile link between the Southeast and the Alcan. Built in 1942 as a possible evacuation route in case of a Japanese invasion, the route followed the Dalton Trail and was so rugged it would be 20 years before US and Canadian crews even attempted to keep it open in winter. By the 1980s, the ‘Haines Cut-off Rd’ had become the paved Haines Hwy, and now more than 50,000 travelers in cars and RVs follow it annually.
After logging fell on hard times in the 1970s, Haines swung its economy towards tourism and it’s still surviving. And it should. Haines has spectacular scenery, quick access to the rivers and mountains where people like to play, and is comparatively dry (only 53in of rain annually). All of this prompted Outside magazine to plaster a photo of Haines on its cover in 2004 and call it one of the country’s ‘20 best places to live and play.’
You’ll immediately notice that this town is different from what you’ve experienced elsewhere in the Southeast. Maybe it’s the relative lack of cruise-ship traffic that gives Haines a tangible sense of peace and tranquility; as a port Haines receives less than 40,000 cruise-ship passengers in a season – it is lucky to reach the number that Juneau sees in a good weekend. Or maybe it’s the fact that there isn’t a restaurant, gift shop or tour operator along Main St that is owned by a corporate conglomerate. Haines’ businesses are uniquely Haines, and most likely the person behind the counter is the one who owns the store. The town isn’t especially well developed for tourism: you won’t find a salmon bake here and, no doubt for many travelers, that’s part of its charm.