Hiking & Paddling in Juneau & the Southeast
There's no better place in North America for a wild and adventurous combination of hiking and kayaking than the thickly forested Alexander Archipelago.
Mt Edgecumbe & Kruzof Island Hike & Paddle
- Start Sitka
- End Summit of Mt Edgecumbe
- Duration/Distance Two days/10-mile paddle and 7-mile hike
- Difficulty Medium
From Sitka harbor your eye can’t help being drawn toward the almost-perfect volcanic cone of Mt Edgecumbe, which crowns the heavily forested mass of Kruzof Island on the western horizon.
Kruzof is Alaska’s last barrier before the Pacific Ocean, and with forward planning and reasonable kayaking skills, it’s possible to paddle across to the island from Sitka and summit Mt Edgecumbe in two days, overnighting in a United States Forest Service (USFS) cabin on the island's eastern shore on the way up and/or down.
While suitably spectacular, Mt Edgecumbe, a dormant strata-volcano, is not particularly tall or difficult to climb. It measures slightly more than 3000ft with its upper slopes poking above the tree line like a mini–Mt Fuji.
The 10-mile paddle across Sitka Sound, studded with islets, to Kruzof Island should only be attempted by kayakers with reasonable open-water experience due to occasional ocean swells and regular motorboat traffic. In terms of navigation, however, the going is easy with the haunting form of Mt Edgecumbe visible throughout.
The trailhead for Edgecumbe starts at Fred’s Creek on Kruzof’s eastern shore, where there is a USFS cabin. The hike starts gradually ascending through a mix of spruce forest and muskeg. Just over halfway up you’ll pass a three-sided shelter, another potential overnight stop. Beyond the shelter, the path gets steeper, breaking above the tree line at 2000ft, whereupon the route becomes less clear as it proceeds through volcanic ash to the crater rim.
Across Wrangell Island Hike
- Start Wrangell
- End Wrangell
- Duration/Distance Two days/15 miles
- Difficulty Medium–difficult
By combining three different hikes on the northern part of Wrangell Island, you can construct a decent overnight loop out of Wrangell Town that takes you coast to coast with a night spent in one of two basic (free) shelters. The hike takes in a waterfall, a mix of muskeg and hemlock forest and some panoramic views above the tree line.
To access the trails directly out of Wrangell, you’ll first need to hike along some asphalt. Follow the Zimovia Hwy south out of town past the cemetery and City Park and proceed 4½ miles along the coast on a good paved cycle path to Shoemaker Bay. Opposite a recreation area/campground sits the clearly marked Rainbow Falls Trail which leads 0.6 miles uphill to a view of the precipitous falls emerging out of the hemlock forest.
The trail continues past the falls as the Institute Creek Trail, on long wooden boardwalk steps ranging from 6–12in in width that carry you over the boggy terrain. At the 2.2-mile mark, branch onto the North Wrangell Trail (signposted) and head up above the tree line to the High Country Shelter (free, no reservations), a rudimentary three-sided sleepover spot for those who come armed with the correct gear. The trail continues, all the time on boardwalks across wet muskeg, past a junction to another shelter (the ‘Pond’) before descending to a trailhead on Wrangell Island’s eastern side. From here it’s a 3.6-mile walk along the little-trafficked Ishiyama Rd, past the Muskeg Meadows Golf Course to Wrangell Town.
Misty Fiords Paddle
- Start Alava Bay
- End Walker Cove
- Duration/Distance Three to four days/40 miles
- Difficulty Medium, open water
The Misty Fiords National Monument encompasses 3594 sq miles of wilderness and lies between two impressive fjords – Behm Canal (117 miles long) and Portland Canal (72 miles long). The two natural canals give the preserve its extraordinarily deep and long fjords with sheer granite walls that rise thousands of feet out of the water. Misty Fiords is well named – annual rainfall is 14ft.
The destinations for many kayakers are the smaller but impressive fjords of Walker Cove and Punchbowl Cove in Rudyerd Bay, off Behm Canal. Dense spruce-hemlock rainforest is the most common vegetation type throughout the monument, and sea lions, harbor seals, brown and black bears, mountain goats and bald eagles can all be seen.
Misty Fiords has 15 USFS cabins, but only two – Alava Bay and Winstanley Island, both in Behm Canal – are directly on the water, meaning kayakers should also be prepared for some wilderness camping.
An alternative option is to use the Winstanley Island cabin as a central base and make short day forays out into the surrounding waters.
You can’t do this trip without good rain gear and a backpacker’s stove – wood in the monument is often too wet for campfires. Be prepared for extended rain periods and make sure all your gear is sealed in plastic bags.
Experienced kayakers can paddle straight out of Ketchikan to Alava Bay at the entrance to Misty Fiords (23 miles/seven to 12 hours) but most paddlers arrange to be dropped off either at Alava Bay at the mouth of the fjord, or at Winstanley Island, halfway in. Southeast Exposure in Ketchikan rents kayaks from $45 per day and has a water-taxi service costing $300 per hour (for up to eight people). Alava Bay is a two-hour transfer, Winstanley is three hours.
A reasonable intermediate trip would be to paddle from Alava Bay to Walker Cove with stops at Winstanley Island and Punchbowl Cove, a journey of around 40 miles, excluding side trips.
Tracy Arm Paddle
- Start South Sawyer Glacier
- End Harbor Island
- Duration/Distance Two to three days/30 miles
- Difficulty Easy, open water
Tracy Arm is a 30-mile-long fjord in the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, a 653,000-acre preserve fed by two calving glaciers and guarded by imposing granite walls.
The ‘Arm’ makes a rugged two- to three-day (30-mile) paddle for people with reasonable kayaking experience. Calm water is the norm due to the protection of the steep granite walls. Camping is limited, however; the best spot deep inside the fjord is on tiny Sawyer Island (note: there’s no fresh water source here) at the point where the North and South Sawyer Glaciers branch off. As you paddle west out of the fjord, the cliffs and icy surrounds diminish meaning viable campsites become more common. Note, unlike Misty Fiords further south, there are no USFS cabins in Tracy Arm.
The magnificence of the fjord has one notable downside – the area attracts copious cruise ships, tour boats and flightseeing planes, which can detract somewhat from the wilderness experience, though by late afternoon, most have gone home.
Most kayakers arrange for a deep-water drop-off at the head of the fjord close to the calving South Sawyer Glacier. From here it’s possible to make a quick side trip to the North Sawyer Glacier where more deep-blue chunks of ice are sent crashing into the water.
Sawyer Island is a good place to camp on the first night with a second night spent further west. There's a good mossy campsite next to a creek at the point where the Arm swings south (sometimes known as ‘Elbow Camp’). An ideal pickup point at the end of day three is Harbor Island in Holkham Bay at the mouth of Tracy Arm.
The departure point for Tracy Arm is Juneau, where drop-offs and pickups can be arranged to make the trip considerably easier. Kayaks can be rented from Adventure Bound Alaska, which also offers a water-taxi service for drop-off and pickup services deep inside Tracy Arm for around $190 per person.
Cross Admiralty Island Paddle
- Start Angoon
- End Mole Harbor
- Duration/Distance Three to four days/31.7 miles
- Difficulty Medium; mostly class 1 water
Admiralty Island National Monument, 50 miles southwest of Juneau, is the site of one of the most interesting canoe routes in Alaska. This preserve is a fortress of dense coastal forest and ragged peaks, where brown bears outnumber anything else on the island, including humans. The Cross Admiralty Canoe Route is a 31.7-mile paddle and portage (where you'll have to carry your canoe) that spans the center of the island from the village of Angoon to Mole Harbor.
The majority of the route consists of calm lakes connected by streams, but there are a half-dozen portages on undulating trails, the longest of them around 3 miles long.
The initial 10-mile paddle from Angoon to Mitchell Bay is subject to strong tides that must be carefully timed. Avoid Kootznahoo Inlet as its tidal currents are extremely difficult to negotiate; instead, paddle through the maze of islands south of it. Leave Angoon at low tide, just before slack tide so that the water will push you into Mitchell Bay.
The traditional route is to continue on to Mole Harbor via Davidson Lake, Lake Guerin, Hasselborg Lake, Beaver Lake and Lake Alexander, all connected by portages. Because of the logistics and cost of being picked up at Mole Harbor with a canoe, most paddlers stop in the heart of the chain and after a day or two of fishing backtrack to Angoon to utilize the Alaska Marine Highway for a return to Juneau.
There are good camping spots at Tidal Falls on the eastern end of Salt Lake, on the islands at the south end of Hasselborg Lake and on the portage between Davidson Lake and Distin Lake. Complementing these are several USFS cabins along the route, including those on Hasselborg Lake, Lake Alexander and Distin Lake. Book in advance.
This adventure begins with a ferry trip to the village of Angoon aboard the Alaska Marine Highway. The one-way fare from Juneau to Angoon is $51, plus another $26 for a canoe.
You can rent a canoe in Juneau from Alaska Boat & Kayak Shop, which is conveniently located near the ferry terminal in Auke Bay. Canoes are $55 a day, with discounts for rentals of three days or more.
While there are better bear-viewing opportunities out of Wrangell and Juneau, Ketchikan’s charter pilots have, nonetheless, met the public’s interest. Flightseeing aside, the most affordable way to see bears is to paddle a kayak to Naha Bay, where black bears feed on salmon in August, or to visit Alaska Canopy Adventures, which provides access to the bears feeding in Herring Creek.
Seeing Bears in Southeast Alaska
The biggest bears – browns tipping the scale at 1000lbs or more – are seen at such exotic locations as Katmai National Park and the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. But for sheer numbers, ease of transportation and affordable bear-watching it’s hard to pass up Southeast Alaska. Like elsewhere in Alaska, in the Southeast bear-watching is best in July and August, and each location corresponds with particular salmon runs:
Fish Creek, Hyder It may be hard to reach, but once there it’s easy to spend an afternoon watching brown bears.
Naha Bay, Ketchikan It’s an 8-mile paddle by kayak to Naha River National Recreation Trail, where in August black bears snag salmon at a small waterfall.
Herring Creek, Ketchikan After ziplining down a mountain you can watch black bears catching salmon.
Margaret Creek, Ketchikan Bears gather at this creek, located 26 miles north of Ketchikan on Revillagigedo Island, in late August and the first two weeks in September. Most visitors arrive on a charter floatplane and then walk a quarter-mile trail to a viewing platform.
Anan Creek, Wrangell You can rent a USFS cabin and spend your entire day watching black and brown bears.
Pack Creek, Admiralty Island This wilderness island has one of the highest densities of bears in Alaska; you can see them from the safety of an observation tower.
Steep Creek, Juneau It’s a short hike in Mendenhall Valley to reach Steep Creek Fish Viewing Site and watch black bears feeding on salmon.
Bear Highway, Haines Between Haines and Chilkoot Lake is easily accessible brown-bear viewing.