Tongass National Forest Overview

Alaska has been "super-sizing" for a lot longer than McDonald's restaurants have. Everything—or so it seems—in the 49th state is bigger than in the Lower 48, national forests included. The biggest of the big is Tongass National Forest, which encompasses roughly 17 million acres and extends 500 miles northward along the Pacific coastline from the Alaska-Canada border. As a matter of scale, consider that the largest national forest outside of Alaska (Nevada's Toiyabe) weighs in at 4 million acres.

The Tongass' terrain varies from coastal rain forests to volcanic uplands, from glacial fjords to tundra meadows. Wide stream valleys carved by glaciers slice through dense forests, and the forest's tall snow-capped mountain ranges count some of the highest peaks in North America.

Often called "the forest of islands," the Tongass is in many locations only accessible by air or boat, via a route known as the Inside Passage. The Tongass is also characterized by its lush rainforest of gigantic western hemlock and Sitka spruce. A wet, maritime climate ensures that most areas of the Tongass are doused with anywhere from 8 to 13 or more feet of rainfall a year. Prime growing conditions for the world's largest temperate rainforest means that visitors to the forest should invest in good raingear before arriving.

Hike Deer Mountain Trail
Dramatic alpine scenery defines the 10-mile hike on Deer Mountain Trail from downtown Ketchikan to Lower Silvis Lake. The trail is rated "most difficult." It ascends steeply from the Ketchikan Trailhead to a spectacular overlook of Ketchikan and the surrounding area. Along the way to Lower Silvis Lake you'll find the Deer Mountain Recreation Cabin. From there, experienced hikers can continue past the summit. The trail crosses high alpine ridges and is not well marked as it approaches Silvis Lakes.

Kayak Among Dolphins
Sea kayaking is one of the best ways to explore marine life. Drifting at water level among a school of feeding dolphins, or finding that perfect beach off the beaten path are just a few advantages of kayaking. A highlight tour is the paddle to Shakes Glacier, where you can examine floating icebergs up close. Shakes Lake is nearby, with its sheer walls of granite falling into deep blue waters. Continue to Dog Salmon Creek and Camp Island via North Arm. Explore the lower river where you're likely to see beavers, moose, wolves, and eagles. Look for the picturesque canvas of wildflowers amidst the rich marsh grasses. Here you'll find hiking opportunities, waterfowl, salmon, bears and mountain goats. Other recommended trips: exploring the back side of Wrangell Island or a trip into Dry Pass. From Earl West Cove you can paddle to Berg Bay and the Anan Bear Observatory.

Hook a Really Big One
The waters off of Tongass National Forest make for some of the world's best fishing. No matter how bad your luck is normally, up here you're guaranteed to catch your limit. The salmon run starts with the Chinook (King), Sockeye (Red), Humpy (Pink) and ends with the Coho (Silver) salmon. Chum (Dog) salmon run all summer long. Although Alaska is well known for salmon, its halibut are something to write home about. These large flounders can reach 400 pounds. One hundred pounders aren't uncommon and you can fish for them all year long.

Spot Mega Wildlife
Virtually any exploration of the Tongass on foot, boat, or in the air will yield sightings of moose, brown and black bears, seals, bald eagles, and a host of marine and land-based mammals and birds rare or absent anywhere else. But you can stack the odds in your favor of seeing particular species by timing your visit. For example, visit Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve from October to January to see more than 3,000 eagles flock to this five-mile stretch of the Chilkat River. Or stake out a seaside perch in summer and fall to watch for Killer and Humpback whales as they make their annual northward migration.


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