If you loved the TV show "Northern Exposure," you'll love Haines. It's the kind of laid-back place you picture when you think about an Alaskan town. The first thing you'll notice when you arrive is how scenically beautiful Haines is. The setting is probably the best of any Alaska town. The town is located on the shores of the Lynn Canal, the state's longest fjord, and surrounded by glacier-covered mountains and rolling hills. Close to town are lakes and rivers.
The population here is only 2,500, and you can easily walk around the town in an hour or two. Only a few cruise ships visit here, which is a big bonus: Haines is not at all touristy (at least not yet). This is a place where you can mingle with locals, chat with a lumberjack at the Pioneer Bar and maybe even hear about how someone had a bear in their backyard the night before.
The first people to call the Chilkat Valley home were the Tlingit. In the 1800s, fishermen -- including Indians and imported laborers from China -- began commercially fishing the waters.
Missionaries arrived later, in 1879, led by S. Hall Young and the naturalist John Muir, and made the area a base for converting the Chilkoot and Chilkat Tlingit tribes to Christianity. The town was actually named for Francina Haines, who was secretary to the Presbyterian Home Missions Board (she never actually visited the town, but helped raise funds for the exploration).
The next chapter in Haines' history was the arrival of prospectors, who began stopping by in 1897 on their way to the Klondike in search of gold; the precious metal was also discovered about 36 miles away in Porcupine, though it quickly petered out there.
Then it was the turn of the U.S. military, which decamped here in 1903 at a time when America was concerned about border disputes with Canada. They chose the place for its protected location and set up the first permanent Army post in Alaska, Fort William H. Seward.
The fort was used until after World War II when it was decommissioned after 42 years of service. The veterans who stayed started local businesses, including a salmon smokehouse and the Hotel Halsingland, established art galleries and funded Indian arts training programs for local kids, including the Alaska Indian Arts Cultural Center at Fort Seward. Preservation efforts were put in place by one group who bought the fort's 85 buildings from the government in 1947 with the goal of turning it into a utopian art and business community – galleries and small shops exist there today.
Haines is also blessed with surrounding natural areas and wildlife in what is known as the "Valley of the Eagles." The area is a magnet for bald eagles, drawn by the warm open water and abundant supply of salmon. More than 3,500 of the birds visit from October to February – during that time a dozen eagles may share a single tree limb. But even during the May to September cruise season there's a resident population of several hundred. And if you head out of town you're likely to see plenty of them – on a bike ride to Chilkoot Lake (about 10 miles from the ship pier) we counted eight bald eagles.
Note: If you aren't on a ship that visits Haines, you can still get here easily on the fast ferry from Skagway. The two communities are both at the northern end of the Lynn Canal, about 35 minutes apart. Haines makes a great side trip, especially if you've been to Skagway before. Roundtrip ferry fares are $54 for adults and half price for kids.