Deep within Alaska’s longest fjord on a narrow peninsula of land can be found the beautiful port town of Haines which was originally named for the founder of a 19th century mission. Surrounded on all sides by stunning mountain scenery punctuated with waterfalls, ancient glaciers and true wilderness, Haines can boast a truly breathtaking setting. Although the community and town are small (the population of bald eagles in the area in fact far outnumbers the human population which is around 2500) Haines, unlike many other Alaskan towns in this south-east region, is actually accessible by road as well as by sea and air.
Haines’s history is a long and diverse one. Ancestrally the home of the Tlingit people, the first non-natives settled here upon the founding of a Presbyterian mission with much bigger growth seen during the gold rush years. A little later, in the early 1900s, Haines became the site for a permanent US military outpost whose aim was to keep law and order as the gold rush hordes descended and also to maintain an armed presence during border disputes with Canada. The wonderful Fort William H. Seward with its preserved historical buildings is one of the town’s principal gems to be explored while the magnificent surrounding wilderness serves as an outdoor wonderland in which to experience everything from glacier and whale viewing to exciting safaris high into the mountains.
If you want to explore native culture, arts and history the highly unique and inspiring Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage Center is an essential inclusion in your day. The principal museum in town will also take you on a journey through the area’s history including elements of both the people who have called this area home for thousands of years to the pioneers, miners, fishermen, soldiers and explorers who came later and helped shape Haines into the town you see today.
A Morning in Haines
Haines is compact and walkable and all of its principle attractions reached with little effort required in between. Your morning will begin with exploring the fascinating former fort grounds and buildings and end with a journey through history and culture at either the Sheldon Museum or the highly-inspiring Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage Center located in a tiny fishing community just out of town.
Fort William H. Seward
Fort William H. Seward – alternatively referred to as Chilkoot Barracks and Haines Mission – is not one building but instead a collection of historic structures spread out over a wide area and which were once collectively the parade grounds, barracks, hospital, working buildings and living quarters of a permanent US military outpost from the early 1900s.
Fort William H. Seward was one of a series of twelve such forts established during the Klondike Gold Rush era in an attempt to stem the lawlessness and mayhem which inevitably exploded into being as 100,000 people all intent on finding their fortune surged into an area. Its other purpose was to make a show of force while the border with Canada was undergoing dispute.
At full strength the fort was home to 400 infantry men along with 15 officers. For a period during the 1920s William H. Seward was the only functioning fort left of the original number albeit with a smaller garrison than previously but was itself officially deactivated in 1945 when it was sold to the Port Chilkoot Company.
Today one of the country’s National Historic Landmarks, the majority of wooden buildings are now a collection of restaurants, galleries, hotels or other guest accommodation and private residences. Although interpretation panels have been placed around the picturesque site, the best way to explore is to get hold of one of the excellent and detailed walking tour maps from the town’s Visitor Information Center.
While some privately-owned and business buildings can’t be entered – such as the former officers’ and chief surgeon’s houses, the signal office and the fort’s post office – they can still be enjoyed from the outside and there are others which are more public. For example the bachelor officers’ quarters and former commander’s house are now the Halsingland Hotel and what was once the hospital is today Alaska Indian Arts. Other points of interest include ‘Soapsuds Alley’ which housed lower-ranking officers and their wives who did the fort’s laundry (hence the name), mule stables, larger barracks buildings, a native-carved totem pole and a cannon dating from the 1860s which was formerly used during the fort’s flag raising ceremonies.
The former parade grounds are today home to the Totem Village which has reconstructed traditional tribal houses, totem poles and stages the Chilkat Storytellers’ Theater shows.
The Alaska Indian Arts
Once the fort’s hospital, the Alaska Indian Arts is a not-for-profit organization whose principal aim is to both honor and keep alive native arts, crafts and cultures. Visitors are welcomed inside to enjoy the lovely collections of silver jewelry, woodcarvings and silkscreen prints or listen to one of the lectures on history, culture and arts. Visitors can also enter the carving studio to watch both skilled artisans and apprentices at work on a variety of traditional-method projects from masks to totem poles.
Morning Coffee Break in Haines
Having toured and explored Haines’s historic fort buildings and grounds and maybe watched a native carver at work you might be ready for a coffee break before continuing your morning’s adventures.
While elsewhere things perhaps function differently with regard to eating and drinking venues in tiny Haines some businesses have decided to spread their net wide and fill multi-functional niches. As a result, here, it isn’t unusual to find an establishment which functions as bakery, bar, cafe and restaurant all at the same time although some lean more towards one thing than another.
One such example of this is Pilot Light which is a super-convenient spot for your coffee break as it sits within the confines of the fort’s boundaries. One of the town’s newer eating and drinking options which is run by a young couple and already proving popular with locals, Pilot Light is principally a restaurant but also offers some great organic coffee which can be enjoyed in a decidedly lovely wooden building. If the weather is good you can find a spot on the porch with mountains and sea as your backdrop.
Another wonderful coffee break spot for when the Alaska weather is fine is the quaint Sarah J’s. Little more than a stand-alone wooden shack near the Visitor’s Center, this Haines institution doesn’t have any inside seating but instead offers a scattering of picnic tables from which to soak up the fantastic mountain view.
With options for smoothies, milkshakes, juices and with an extensive coffee and tea choice, the coffee discerning will be pleased to know the coffee is sourced from the highly-respected Alaskan Kaladi Brothers so quality is assured. If you’d like some kind of coffee accompaniment you can choose from a range of baked goods or something a little more substantial.
Rusty Compass Coffeehouse
Another choice for the coffee purist is the cute and homely Rusty Compass Coffeehouse which has a long-standing reputation for offering one of the warmest welcomes in town. Once you step through the doors of this black-painted building with tasteful red and white accents you will immediately encounter the mouth-watering aromas of home-baking, the results of which you can enjoy with your expertly prepared coffee. Cakes, croissants, scones, pastries and muffins are all on the menu with the fantastic cinnamon buns something of a house specialty. The inside with its cheery red walls and wood paneling is cozy and when the sun shines there are usually a couple of tables outside for enjoying the mountain and sea backdrop.
The Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center
Enjoying a highly picturesque Chilkoot Inlet and harbor-view setting, the Sheldon Museum is a perfect example of how even the smallest of towns can have their share of the impressive. Home to thousands of valuable artifacts, a vast quantity of antique photo images (the oldest dating back to the 1800s) and a huge collection of historical documents such as mining ledgers, ship’s logs and vintage maps, the Sheldon’s mission is to take visitors on a journey through the entire Haines story.
Social history, native culture, art of the region, the industries of logging, fishing and mining and much more – all of this is part of the wonderful museum experience.
As you roam the galleries you will travel through the Gold Rush years, discover how life was for the soldiers at Fort William H. Seward, learn about the ceremonial feasts and traditional dances of the native Tlingit, discover the history of shipwrecks and their cargoes of lost gold and a great deal more.
The museum is divided into three principal galleries; the Main Gallery is home to the larger exhibits, the Hakkinen Gallery is essentially art and crafts and the Children’s Gallery is full of interactive displays for the young or young-at-heart.
Part of the Hakkinen Gallery space is given over to a project entitled the Six Week Spotlight Program which allows local artists to put together shows to exhibit their work for a short period. Accepted shows have to fulfill the brief of raising awareness of history, art and culture ‘to and for the people of the Chilkat Valley’.
Like most museums, what is on display at any one time represents just a small percentage of the whole collection and as the Sheldon Museum rotates its exhibits frequently quite what you might find will depend on what treasures the curators have decided to bring out of storage at the time of your visit. Certain major gems stay permanently on display such as the original lens of the Eldred Rock Lighthouse dating from 1906 and much of the Tlingit-themed collection of blankets, tools and dance regalia.
While the Sheldon is the town’s main museum it is not, surprisingly for such a tiny town, its only one. Located just a stone’s throw from the Sheldon Museum can be found one of a very different kind whose entire collection is made up of hammers called (unsurprisingly) the Hammer Museum. And if you are thinking hammers make for something of a dry and uninteresting subject you could miss out on what is in reality a fascinating and wonderfully special attraction. Additionally, if you thought this tool was simply for hammering in nails or re-shoeing horses you are going to be amazed to learn that through the centuries the humble hammer has been an essential piece of equipment not just for craftsmen and construction workers but also an incredible diversity of people ranging from dentists to musicians. In total the museum has around 1400 different types of hammers.
Of the 2,000 or so pieces on display at any one time you will be able to see some truly ancient examples which include a stone tool from the days of the pyramids’ construction in Egypt or an example which dates from Roman times.
Although nothing is very difficult to find in small-size Haines the Hammer Museum really is impossible to miss – it has a giant hammer outside, visible from quite some way away.
American Bald Eagle Foundation Museum
The third of Haines’s trio of museums is the American Bald Eagle Foundation Museum. Originally a bald eagle protection project of locals Dave Olerud and Hans Flueher, the entire thing morphed into a permanent museum in 1994 and expanded its theme to include all species of wildlife which call Southeast Alaska home.
An essential stop for all nature enthusiasts, the exhibits and detailed dioramas teach visitors about habitats, behavior, breeding, conservation, specific dangers which threaten certain species and other interesting snippets with regard to birds, marine creatures and land animals.
Part of the museum is a raptor center whose mission is to promote conservation through education and which is achieved with the aid of its 12 ‘avian ambassadors’ made up of hawks, falcons, owls and eagles, all of which you can meet. One of the center’s oldest veterans is the bald eagle known as Vega who is at least 20 years old.
If you intend to mix and match your museum time you can purchase discount tickets which allow entry into both the Sheldon Museum and the American Bald Eagle Foundation Museum.
A Museum Alternative – The Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage Center
For those who have an interest in native Tlingit culture and would like to play their part in preserving this valuable heritage while also actively helping to keep a community alive a visit to the Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage Center is an essential itinerary inclusion.
Located a little out of town can be found the small fishing village of Klukwan – population 100 and falling. For thousands of years here, beneath the mountains, there has been a settlement of Tlingit people. However, changing times have seen survival of this ancient village under severe threat and in a desperate bid to preserve their ages-old language, traditions and way of life the villagers came up with the idea of the heritage centre to attract tourists and ultimately prevent the loss of something so personally, ethically and historically valuable. Such an admirable purpose deserves to be supported for itself alone but in truth the center makes for an incredible experience.
The heritage center is home to a priceless collection of rare and ancient artifacts which were gathered through a series of 1970 initiatives which saw property ownership reinstated to the ancestral owners from clan houses previously sold or abandoned.
The whole is made up of a museum, a reconstructed clan house, a fish-drying and smoking house and a carving studio. As you explore you will discover things such as exquisitely woven dance robes and blankets in myriad colors, canoes, original totem poles, one of the mostly-highly acclaimed collection of area-specific native artworks anywhere in the world and some truly unique treasures such as a 200 year old rain screen and original house posts, all intricately carved. While you are free to roam under your own direction guided tours led by a villager add considerable richness to the whole experience as do the traditional drumming and dance performances in full regalia which are regularly performed here.
A visit to this wonderful facility and living monument will leave you impressed with the myriad ways in which this specific native community honors its history and traditions. Interestingly, the village’s name translates to the ‘eternal village’ which perhaps, thanks to this initiative, may be as much prophecy as title.
If you would like to take home a souvenir to remember your visit the center also has a shop selling gifts, books, crafts and Klukwan-specific items.
Lunch in Haines
The small size of Haines doesn’t mean a small choice where eating venues are concerned. Here they come in every shape and size and from laid-back casual to elegant dining options. What’s more, browsing a lunch menu at the same time as soaking up incredible views is far from uncommon here.
While nothing is really very far away in Haines there is a choice of spots within a stone’s throw of the Sheldon Museum if you want to make the transition from attraction to lunch as simple as possible.
Literally just one minute’s walk away from the museum will bring you to the Small Boat Harbor front and the terracotta-red Lighthouse restaurant. The location ensures stunning mountain and wide inlet water views from the window as you select from a menu of seafood, burgers, sandwiches and more.
Other choices which are just steps away include Yuko’s Sushi, the Fogcutter Bar with its casual vibe serving pizza and wings-type selections and the decades-long-established Bamboo Room Restaurant which is attached to the Pioneer Bar. This latter specializes in seafood with burgers, sandwiches, wraps and soups also on the large-choice menu.
One of the newer restaurants in town – Pilot Light – is quickly proving to be a favorite with the locals. Owned and run by a young couple, Pilot Light, which lies within the Fort Seward boundaries, is housed inside a spacious pretty turquoise and bleached-white building which appears to be perched on the rocks. It arrived on the Haines dining scene in 2016 and since then has been charming both locals and visitors with the quality of its food. It has a special reputation for its sourdough bread which is baked daily on the premises. The focus is seafood with such inclusions as salmon risotto and fisherman’s stew with a menu-encompassing emphasis on organic and locally-sourced ingredients. The pretty outdoor deck frames the natural splendor of Haines perfectly which makes it a particularly lovely lunch spot when the Alaska sun shines.
An Afternoon in Haines
For most people, making the effort to get to Alaska is all about two things – the incredible amount of opportunities for exploring the color, culture and heritage of the native peoples and its out-of-this-world natural magnificence. Whether you spent your morning exploring the Sheldon Museum or the unique Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage Center you will have satisfied the first of the two. Your afternoon will be all about experiencing the second.
Haines has an astounding menu of possibilities in this category with some of the most easily accessible wilderness opportunities found in Alaska. From hopping on board a boat to get an unforgettable close-up encounter with whales to kayaking glittering lakes, Haines offers multiple ways to enjoy the grandeur that Mother Nature has so plentifully supplied here.
The Haines Skagway Fast Ferry
One of the easiest and cheapest ways to get a general wildlife and scenery tour of the highest caliber is to buy a return fare ticket on-board the Haines Skagway Ferry. If you chose to drive from Haines to Skagway you would have to cover 350 miles of road. However, the same journey can also be made by traveling up the Taiya Inlet – a journey of just 14 miles – and this is exactly what the ferry does.
Of course not all ferry routes are created equal and if there was a prize for the most scenic in the world this particular one would surely be a top contender. The Taiya Inlet is both the deepest and longest fjord in North America, surrounded by dramatic snow-capped mountains, punctuated with magnificent waterfalls and generally offering something stunning no matter where you look. As if this wasn’t enough your entire ferry journey is also full of wildlife spotting opportunities with seals, sea-lions, eagles, otters and mountain goats all frequent sights while orca, whale and even bear are also possible, particularly at certain times of the year. Those with an interest in natural history can take advantage of the on-board naturalist guides who will show what to look for and answer any questions you might have.
Quaint Skagway – known as the Garden City of Alaska – with its rich gold rush era history and the Harding Glacier right on the doorstep is worth exploring if you have time but otherwise just hop on one of the frequently departing return ferries to head back to Haines. You may have already just done the journey but with so much to see a second trip gives you the opportunity to take in all you might have missed on the way there. And of course the wildlife is ever-changing and will be totally different on each and every voyage.
If you have your heart set on seeing some local Alaskan wildlife and don’t want to leave things so much to chance there are plenty of ways of doing just that.
One popular Haines activity is bear viewing as the easily accessible Chilkoot River surrounded by stunning mountain scenery offers some of the best bear-encounter opportunities to be found in the whole of the state. The river is chock-full of salmon which is what brings in the bears as well as acting like a magnet for the otters and the eagles.
With few exceptions, whale-watching tends to feature high up on the must-do list of most visitors to Alaska and little wonder. Seeing one of these ocean giants simply moving through the water is a once-in-a-lifetime experience while all those who have been lucky enough to see the incredible sight of such a creature breaching the ocean waters stays etched in the memory banks forever.
There are several choices for whale-watching options from Haines on a range of crafts and with trip lengths varying from two hours upwards.
Many of the boat tours which operate out of Haines are often general sightseeing tours rather than specific to one animal with an overall aim to get you amid stunning scenery while simultaneously meeting the local marine wildlife. On such trips a large number of bird species, otters, seals, porpoises and sea-lions are all typically part of the experience.
With an astonishing number of bald eagles in the area it is highly likely you will encounter these majestic birds with little effort during your day. However, if you’d like to learn a little more about this Haines resident head to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve which is both state park and wildlife refuge and happens to be home to more bald eagles than any other one place in the world. Here you will find opportunities for scenic rafting along the river valley with eagles and other wildlife encountered along the way.
Around 10 miles from Haines center can be found Chilkoot Lake which is fed by the Chilkoot River. Breath-takingly beautiful natural surroundings are standard here whether you decide to explore the lake shores on foot or get out on the water in a canoe, kayak or boat. If you opt for a led tour you will typically be in the company of a guide spilling over with local and naturalist knowledge who will escort you to wildlife viewing hotspots as well as waterfalls and glaciers amid the secret coves and hidden inlets. Watching a bear emerge from the thick greenery on the shoreline from a kayak you have just paddled across a turquoise lake is something hard to beat and far from unusual in this highly bear-populated area.
Up there at the top of most Alaska visitors’ wish-lists with whale-watching is a glacier experience. Glaciers are found in their tens of thousands in Alaska, covering more land mass here than that covered by human settlement. Less than 10 miles to the south of Haines can be found Chilkat State Park which provides opportunities for seeing two of these mighty and ancient wonders – the Davidson Glacier and the Rainbow Glacier.
Neither the Rainbow or Davidson Glacier are actually located on the Chilkat Peninsula but boat trips and kayak tours can take you across the narrow strip of water to have a close encounter with these magnificent valley glaciers.
Other Outdoor Activities
Quite how else you might enjoy the magnificent Alaska wilderness is really only limited by your imagination and budget; float-plane scenic flights, fishing in both isolated rivers and ocean and so much more are all on the menu of possibilities. There are also some lesser typically found inclusions such as mule safaris although the ‘mule’ here is actually a golf-buggy-type mode of transport which you get to drive into the mountains yourself.
Hiking is of course highly popular and Haines offers options for everything from short scenic strolls to multi-day hardcore challenges. One easily accessed, suitable-for-all and lovely wildlife-rich walk is the two mile Battery Point Trail. With some paved sections, this trail leads you through forest and meadow with a pebble beach along the way – great for spotting seals, sea-lions, otters and even whales in the summer. The Visitor Information Center has a wealth of tourist information and maps regarding all of the walks and hikes in the area for those who want to immerse themselves in nature in this way.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Haines
After a full day of soaking up the fresh Alaskan air, surrounding yourself with the naturally magnificent and discovering the art, history, culture and way of life of the Haines people of past and present you can now start thinking about winding things down. The time has arrived for hunting down the ideal spot for some relaxing pre-dinner drinks followed by your choice of cuisine and restaurant for your evening dining.
Consistently rated by visitors as an authentic spot to rub shoulders with locals, the Fogcutter Bar has been a Haines institution for over 30 years. It is easier to list what you can’t drink here rather than what you can. Choices include hand-crafted cocktails, Alaskan beers straight from the Haines Brewing Company or Juneau’s Alaska Brewing Co. and spirits which have been made right in the town’s backyard at its very own award-winning Port Chilkoot Distillery. The drinking surroundings are traditional pub and there is even a beer garden if the temperature gauge hasn’t dropped too low as the night advances.
Haines Brewing Company
The beer-passionate can cut out the middle man and simply head straight to source at the Haines Brewing Company on Main Street. Offering a bright, modern and wood-features brew bar and tasting room on site and a pleasant beer garden, the Haines Brewing Company is of course THE place to sample the micro-brewery’s many fine ales with a huge choice of seasonal, flagship and vintage brews all on tap. Favorites include the establishment’s signature brew – the Dalton Trail Ale – as well as the Devil, Made Me Do It IPA and the 8,2% alcohol content Black Fang which is a stout for the brave.
The brew bar is only open until 7pm each night and by Alaska brewery laws each customer can only consume 36 oz/2.25 US pints per day on site which makes it work well as a pre-dinner stop-off.
Officer’s Club Lounge
If you would prefer a rather more refined pre-dinner drinks venue head for the Officer’s Club Lounge in the Hotel Halsingland. Located right in the grounds of historic Fort Seward, the hotel was once the fort commander’s private residence and the bachelor officers’ quarters hence the name for the bar and the attached Commander’s Room Restaurant. The lounge manages to achieve an ambience of both cozy and elegant with views of the former parade grounds. The bar has an extensive wine list with global selections covering everything from New Zealand to California, local beers, cocktails and spirits including bourbon, gin and vodka from the local distillery.
If dinner for you means fine dining you can head for the up-scale Commander’s Room Restaurant in the Hotel Halsingland (which will be simply a few steps if you chose the Officer’s Club Lounge for pre-dinner drinks). Stark white tablecloths and glittering glass in a spacious room with large windows make for an elegant dinner venue in what was once the Fort Seward commander’s private residence and bachelor officers’ quarters. The excellently presented fare is a selection of fish, lamb, duck, rabbit and beef dishes along with an extensive dessert menu and a diverse wine list.
If your tastes run more to pizza make your way to the Fireweed Restaurant which is also located within a historical building in the Fort Seward grounds. With a clean and bright casual bistro feel beloved by the locals, Fireweed produces what is arguably the best pizza in town along with choices for seafood, pasta, salads, daily specials and quite a great deal more on a very extensive menu.
Pizza fans can also try Alpen Glow which specializes in gourmet wood-fired pizzas and salads.
Although it only opened in 2016, the Pilot Light is quickly establishing itself as the town’s go-to restaurant for discerning seafood fans. With a focus on organic and locally-sourced ingredients, the menu isn’t vast but is being added to all the time and what it does serve it does to perfection.
An Evening in Haines
Along with many small-town Alaska communities, evenings out are typically centered around a favored drinking spot and the right company. Some bars are known for staging live music in the evenings such as the local hangout venues of the Fogcutter Bar and the Pioneer Bar so you might get lucky during your Haines visit.
There are a handful of Haines companies who offer sightseeing or wildlife tours in the evenings during the summer months when it never really gets dark and sometimes the Sheldon Museum stages after-hours evenings of art and entertainment which are listed on their website.
With an incredible number of artists residing and making an income from their work in Haines – at last count more than 100 – it is often referred to as the ‘art Capital of Alaska’. Mediums include wood carving, pottery, nature mosaics, photography, painting, glass art and jewelry and such a wealth of artists means a great many galleries. Some of these are open on occasion later into the evening if you are interested in viewing or are looking for a 100% Haines-authentic and highly unique souvenir.
If your visit coincides with the first Friday in the month Haines hosts a First Friday calendar of events which typically includes an art walk and also has such events as temporary sculpture gardens, native craft demonstrations, exhibitions and talks related to the art world.
The Chilkat Center for the Arts in the historic Fort Seward grounds with its Lynn Canal and mountain view is an intimate and atmospheric venue for a range of performing arts. The center stages everything from storytelling evenings to dance performances and film screenings to drama. Check their website for events which coincide with your visit.
Return of Windstar
Image by RobW_
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