Alaska Regions in Brief
- Southeast Alaska — The Southeast Panhandle is the relatively narrow strip of mountains and islands lying between Canada and the Gulf of Alaska. To Alaskans, it’s Southeast, but to the rest of the country, it’s more like the northernmost extension of the lush Pacific Northwest. This is a land of huge rainforest trees, glacier-garbed mountains, and countless islands ranging in size from the nation’s third largest to tiny, one-tree islets strewn like confetti along the channels and fjords. The water is the highway of Southeast Alaska, as the land is generally too steep and rugged to build roads, but there are lots of towns and villages reachable by the ferry system or cruise ships. Southeast contains Juneau, Alaska’s capital and third-largest city, and Ketchikan, next in size to Juneau. Southeast’s towns are as quaint and historic as any in Alaska, especially Sitka, which preserves the story of Russian America and its conflict with the indigenous Native people. Alaska Native culture — here, Tlingit and Haida — is rich and close at hand. No other region offers more opportunities for boating or seeing marine wildlife. Likewise, no other region is as crowded with tourists. More than 800,000 visitors flood into Southeast annually aboard cruise ships, jamming the little towns all summer. The weather is wet and temperate.
- Southcentral Alaska — As a region, Southcentral is something of a catchall. The area is roughly defined by the arc of the Gulf of Alaska from the Canadian border on the east to Cook Inlet and the end of the road network to the west. It’s a microcosm of the state, containing Prince William Sound, which is similar to the wooded island habitat of Southeast; the Kenai Peninsula, a fishing, boating, and outdoor mecca with roads; Anchorage, the state’s modern, major city; and the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, an agricultural and suburban region of broad flatlands between steep mountains. Southcentral dominates Alaska, with most of the state’s population and a more highly developed transportation system than elsewhere, including a network of highways and the Alaska Railroad. The ocean influences Southcentral’s weather, keeping it from being very hot or very cold. The coastal areas are wet, while just behind the coastal mountains the weather is drier.
- The Interior — The vast central part of the state is crossed by highways and by rivers that act as highways. Big river valleys lie between great mountain ranges, the largest of which are the Alaska Range, which contains Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, and the Brooks Range, the northern end of the cordillera that includes the Rockies. McKinley is the centerpiece of Denali National Park, Alaska’s premier road-accessible wildlife-viewing destination. The region’s dominant city is Fairbanks, Alaska’s second largest, which lies on the lazy Chena River, roughly in the middle of the state. The natural environment is drier and less abundant than that in Southeast or Southcentral. The Athabascans, the Interior’s first people, still subsist on this sparse land in tiny villages and river fish camps. Summer days can be hot and winters very cold in the Interior, because of the distance from the ocean.
- The Bush — Bush Alaska is linked by lifestyle rather than by geography. One good definition would be that the Bush is the part of the state that’s closer to the wilderness than to civilization. It’s also the only part of the state where Native people outnumber whites and other relative newcomers. In many Bush villages, readily accessible to the outside world only by small plane, people still live according to age-old subsistence hunting-and-gathering traditions. The Bush region includes the majority of Alaska outside the road and ferry networks, ranging from the north end of the Canadian border all the way around the coast, out to the Aleutians, and the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island, south of Anchorage. But some towns in each of the other regions also could be called “Bush villages.” The Bush contains many regions, including the Arctic, Northwest, and Southwest Alaska.