Tongass: America’s Largest National Forest

LeConte Glacier

by Henry Allen

Daunting in scale, magnificent in beauty and rich in natural resources, Alaska’s Tongass National Forest seems too grand to grasp. At more than 26,000 square miles, Tongass occupies a land mass nearly the size of Ireland. It spreads across 80 percent of Southeast Alaska, has the world’s second largest rainforest and covers 11,000 miles of shoreline—a jumble of islands, forests, mountain peaks, glaciers and communities. 

2021 is a prime year to take in Southeast Alaska and the Tongass National Forest without the crowds. In years when cruise ships are sailing to Southeast Alaska from Seattle and Vancouver, most visitors arrive by ship. Due to cruise restrictions in 2021, visitation to this part of Alaska has decreased dramatically, making it all the more attractive for independent travelers. Airlines fly into the region’s communities and the Alaska Marine Highway System transports passengers by ferry.

Cities in Tongass National Forest include Alaska’s capital, Juneau, as well as Ketchikan, Sitka, Wrangell, Haines, Petersburg and many other smaller communities. Visiting any of these communities surrounded by world-class recreation, a thriving Alaska Native culture and vast wilderness areas is what bucket-list vacations are made of. 

The land occupied by the Tongass National Forest is the traditional home of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. And their communities, culture and art live large in the region today. Visitors can learn about these cultures in virtually every community in the region, from the biggest cities of Juneau and Ketchikan to smaller communities like Hoonah. Museums, totem poles, cultural and historical sites, and performances of song and dance all bring these traditions alive for visitors. 

Nature in Tongass National Forest takes center stage. It is a place where wildlife outnumber humans, and photo-worthy scenic beauty is everywhere you look. And the region’s scenery and wildlife are easy to access. Tour operators, outdoor guides and wilderness resorts expose visitors to the Tongass and impart an insider’s view into this unique land.

Here are top picks of experiences that put you in the middle of America’s largest national forest. 

Sport Fishing

If you dream of catching the big one, you have lots of options in the Tongass, from full- and half-day fishing charters to fishing resorts and fly-out fishing excursions. And Ketchikan isn’t known as the “salmon capital of the world” for nothing. In Ketchikan alone, there are dozens of fishing charters that know the best spots and can give you an exhilarating day of angling; you can find them at visit-ketchikan.com/Things-To-Do/Sportfishing-and-Guiding/Fishing-Charters

World-class fishing resorts offer guides who coach beginning anglers and let experienced anglers stretch their wings. Add comfortable accommodations, excellent food and drink, and an evening of sharing fish tales, and you are in angler heaven. Waterfall Resort combines history, wilderness, wildlife and epic fishing into one sweet Tongass experience. It occupies the site of the former Waterfall Cannery on 52 pristine acres on Prince of Wales Island. Guests can head out each day for a full day of fishing and return with their catch, which the staff processes and packages for the trip home. Learn more at waterfallresort.com.

Sightseeing and Wildlife

No trip to the Tongass is complete without at least a few hours of sightseeing and an opportunity to spot the wild residents of this national forest: bears, whales, sea otters, sea lions, bald eagles and more. Most excursions head out by boat or small plane, and in some communities, like Juneau and Ketchikan, motorcoach or van tours are an option. Whichever mode of transportation you choose, the choices of guides are plentiful. 

In Sitka, Allen Marine, an Alaska Native corporation, operates wildlife-spotting excursions by tour boat. In a region with so much wildlife and with guides who know where to find them, Allen Marine’s tour is well worth it. Learn more at allenmarinetours.com/sitka.

One of the scenic wilderness gems of the Tongass is Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness, easily accessible by boat or sightseeing plane. This series of finger-like fjords framed by mountain peaks and waterfalls is a must-see if you’re in Ketchikan, the launch point for tours to the monument. Allen Marine operates a 4.5-hour boat tour from Ketchikan to Misty Fjords where the spectacular scenery and wildlife are the stars of the show. Learn more at allenmarinetours.com/ketchikan/fjord-wilderness.

Southeast Exposure Outdoor Adventure Center in Ketchikan has come up with several ways you can experience the Tongass. They offer a number of sea kayaking adventures, Zodiac tours and even ziplining, all designed to get you out into the national forest and experience its natural wonders up close. Their ultimate immersive adventure is a 6-day sea-kayaking and camping excursion in the Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness. Learn about these adventures at southeastexposure.com.

Wilderness Cabins

Adventuresome spirits who want to experience the vastness, beauty and seclusion that a trip to the Tongass can bring should consider renting a wilderness cabin from the Forest Service. More than 100 rustic cabins are available in Tongass National Forest. Located far from services, they are truly isolated. The cabins provide a roof over your head but few creature comforts; guests must bring their own gear, food and bedding.

For example, Winstanley Island Cabin sits in the heart of Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness. It is popular with adventurers wanting a secluded sea-kayaking experience in one of the most scenic wildernesses on the planet. You have to arrive by boat or float plane and arrange for pick up at the end of your stay. The tiny cabin has wooden bunks, a wood stove, table, no electricity or plumbing and an outhouse. To find cabins in the Tongass, go to recreation.gov, and enter “Tongass” in the search field. 

Lodging in Town 

If a wilderness cabin is not your style, there are plenty of lodging options in the communities located throughout the Tongass National Forest. This allows you to stay in comfy surroundings, explore the community, experience Southeast Alaska dining and take day excursions at your leisure. 

Each city and nearly every smaller community in the Tongass has a place to call home during your stay, whether a hotel, a bed and breakfast or a private vacation rental. Here are a few recommendations: in Juneau, The Alaskan Hotel & Bar, a historic throwback to gold-rush days; in Ketchikan, Cape Fox Lodge for Tlingit art and surroundings; in Sitka, the Westmark Sitka Hotel, located in the heart of downtown; in Haines, Halsingland Hotel, for old-world charm and history on the site of Historic Fort Seward.

When you go

Tongass National Forest, fs.usda.gov/tongass

Southeast Alaska Tourism Council, alaskasinsidepassage.com

Travel Juneau, traveljuneau.com

Visit Ketchikan, visit-ketchikan.com

Visit Sitka, visitsitka.org

Visit Haines, visithaines.com

Alaska Marine Highway System, dot.alaska.gov/amhs