A World Away From Typical Tourism: Historic Haines is Worth a Visit

Take time to visit historic Haines, Alaska.

I’m setting the record straight right now: I love Haines as a family destination. Five hours from Juneau by ferry, two days from Anchorage by car, this community of around 2,400 people and almost as many dogs boasts truly Alaskan experiences to satisfy even the most seasoned 49th state traveler. It’s authentic, it’s cordial, and it’s one of the few places where history and art and recreation and culture all mingled together like hash in a gold miner’s frying pan, and with beautiful results.

The setting of the first United States military base more than 100 years ago in the form of Fort Seward, Haines is currently part cruise ship dock, part fishing village, part gold mining community, and part logging camp, and it rocks for kids. Tourism has increased thanks in part to active marketing campaigns and partly due to the show “Gold Rush Alaska” on the Discovery Channel, but whatever the reason, Haines is a stop worth savoring on the way to or from other points southeast. Heck, I’d stay there a week to truly soak up the atmosphere of this unpretentious community where local kids frolic with visiting kids and everybody is, frankly, perfectly happy with who they are and where they reside.

Rocky shoreline near Chilkat State Park.

One of the few southeast Alaskan communities accessible by sea, air, and road, Haines is often a jumping-off point for ferry/car travelers heading to Anchorage or Fairbanks. While many travelers do continue on their merry way up the Haines Highway towards Canada and Interior Alaska, lots of curious visitors stick around, entertaining themselves with a fascinating selection of Native Alaskan art, wild animal viewing, and some of the most scenic landscape I’ve found anywhere. Sitting along the deepwater fjord of Lynn Canal, Haines is picture-perfect and worth taking the time to explore. While a car is not necessary (for walk-on ferry or cruise ship passengers, in particular), there do exist a few rental agencies in town, found HERE.

Fabulous Haines community playground. Try dragging the kids away, though, for more fun!

Kids are welcome in Haines, as evidenced by the community playground at the city’s park just up from the docks on First Avenue, and where AK Kid likes to run the ya-yas out before venturing on to other activities. Just up the street from the playground is the Haines Visitor Center, where parents can accumulate a healthy itinerary of activities for the entire stay. Most of the Visitor Center staff are either parents or grandparents, to ask for their favorite spots to recreate and heed their advice.

A walking tour provides a good “lay of the land” experience and some interesting views into military-based history, including impressive Fort Seward above town. Built because of a skirmish with Canada over border rights, the Fort Seward site is now home to the wonderful Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center, where visitors capture a wonderful look into pioneer life in Haines, the military’s presence, and the Tlingit tribe who settled the area hundreds of years ago.

Don't miss the Hammer Museum. No, really. Don't.

Another kid-pleaser is always the Hammer Museum in downtown Haines. Yes, hammers. A vital but oft-overlooked tool, hammers and plowshares created this country, don’t you know, and it’s in homage to them that visitors flock to the Hammer Museum each summer. Located on Main Street, the Hammer Muse is hard to miss, where 1500 hammers await careful inspection. Anyone with even a passing interest in tools and/or hardware will not want to bypass this Alaskan icon. No, really. It’s very cool.

One of Haines’ signature creatures is the majestic bald eagle, whose populations double, or maybe even triple, each fall and winter to congregate in the Chilkat valley. Do not miss a visit to the American Bald Eagle Foundation, an always-evolving organization that now features a new raptor center for flight-training for injured birds. Located at 113 Haines Highway, just two blocks from downtown, the Eagle Foundation provides fascinating insight into the lives and habits of our national bird, with incredibly knowledgable staff and volunteers available to answer questions.

Charming Haines Presbyterian, still a thriving church family.

Back near the playground sits Haines Presbyterian, a mission church that sat upon and founded the original Haines townsite. Overlooking Lynn Canal and the marina, the church is open for visitors and has a wide expanse of lawn for kids to frolic. An active church, services are held weekly by Pastor Ron Horn, a noted wildlife photographer and Haines ambassador.

Hungry or thirsty? Swing by the Mountain Market on Third Avenue for some tasty sandwiches, wraps, and other organic treats, not to mention great coffee. This is where the locals hang out, and I had a wonderful afternoon chat with noted author Heather Lende, author of “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name” on sunny June afternoon. Other dining options include Mosey’s Cantina for fresh Mexican fare (907-766-2320) or the Fireweed Restaurant (907-766-3838) for local, organic seafood and freshly-made pizzas.

Beautiful Battery Point is a great family hike in Haines.

Need more activity? Haines offers stellar family hiking opportunities and a great brochure titled “Haines is for Hiking”, available at the Visitor center. A favorite of ours is Battery Point, where a 2 1/2 mile RT trail weaves through a dense forest but always within view of Lynn Canal. It’s a serene walk most kids can handle, although some tree roots do stick up occasionally. Once the trail terminates upon a smooth-rocked beach, however, it’s Alaskan outdoors at its best, with beach grass, sand, and rocky outcroppings reminiscent of Anne of Green Gables territory. Watch for cruise ships, fishing boats, and the ferry entering the canal, and spy the occasional humpback feeding nearby. Magic. Contact the visitor center for transportation options to the trailhead.

A beautiful afternoon at Chilkoot Lake, 10 miles from Haines but worth the drive.

Ten miles from Haines proper is beautiful Chilkoot State Park, where the enormous but placid Chilkoot lake flows into busy Chilkoot river, and where impromptu bear-viewing is almost guaranteed during the salmon runs of June, July, and August. A 32-space campground offers lovely views of the lake, and local kayak outfitters provide tours of the lake area. It’s worth the drive to see the fish weir and subsequent bruin activity, and close-cropped Lynn Canal from this rugged vantage point. Great fishing here, too.

If your visit is of the overnight variety, try the Captain’s Choice motel in downtown Haines, within walking distance of most sights and just right for most families (wifi, courtesy shuttle, tours, fridge, mircowave). For a bit more history and view, head back to Fort Seward and the Hotel Halsingland, listed on the National Register for Historic Places (full-service, car rental, lounge).

Haines is real. Haines is beautiful. Haines wants you to stop and smell the fireweed and pick blueberries. Bring the kids, stay a while, and soak up real Alaska. You’ll be glad you did.

Posted in Alaska Marine Highway, Miscellaneous, Southeast Alaska.