Three times larger than any other national forest in the country, Southeast Alaska ’s Tongass National Forest is America’s rainforest masterpiece. Within these 17 million acres are magnificent coastal forests, dozens of glaciers, snowcapped peaks, an abundance of wildlife, hundreds of verdant islands, and a wild beauty that has long since been lost elsewhere.
Originally named Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve in 1902, the area became Tongass National Forest in 1907 by proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt. It was later enlarged to include most of the Panhandle. For more information, visit the Forest Service Tongass website (www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass ) or contact the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center in Ketchikan .
The Tongass is a paradise for those who love the outdoors. It has dozens of scenic hiking trails and over 1,000 miles of logging roads accessible by mountain bike (if you don’t mind the clear-cuts and can avoid the logging trucks and flying gravel). The islands contain hundreds of crystal-clear lakes, many with Forest Service cabins on them. Fishing enthusiasts will enjoy catching salmon, cutthroat trout, and other fish from these lakes, the ocean, and the thousands of streams that empty into bays.
The Inside Passage is composed of a wonderful maze of semiprotected waterways, a sea kayaker’s dream come true. Particularly popular with kayakers are Misty Fiords National Monument , Admiralty Island National Monument , Glacier Bay National Park , and the waters around Sitka  and Juneau , but outstanding sea kayaking opportunities can be found throughout Southeast Alaska . If you have a sea kayak, access is easy, since they can be carried on the ferries (for an extra charge). Ask the Forest Service recreation staff in the local district offices for information on nearby routes and conditions.
Less than 5 percent of the Tongass has been logged or otherwise developed, so it isn’t necessary to visit an official wilderness area to see truly wild country. However, 21 wilderness areas total well over 5 million acres in the national forest, offering outstanding recreational opportunities. The largest are Misty Fiords National Monument  (2.1 million acres) near Ketchikan  and Admiralty Island National Monument  (956,000 acres) near Juneau . Other major wildernesses include Tracy Arm–Fords Terror  (653,000 acres) south of Juneau, Stikine-LeConte (449,000 acres) near Wrangell , Russell Fiord (349,000 acres) near Yakutat , South Baranof (320,000 acres) south of Sitka , and West Chichagof–Yakobi  (265,000 acres) near Pelican .
Several wilderness areas, such as the remote islands off the west coast of Prince of Wales  (Coronation, Maurelle, and Warren Islands), are exposed to the open ocean and are inaccessible for much of the year, even by floatplane. Others, such as the Stikine-LeConte, Admiralty Island, Russell Fiord, and Petersburg Creek–Duncan Salt Chuck Wilderness Areas are relatively accessible. There are developed trails or canoe and kayak routes within the Misty Fiords, Admiralty Island, Stikine-LeConte, Tebenkof Bay, and Petersburg Creek–Duncan Salt Chuck Wilderness Areas.
Tongass National Forest has 150 public recreation cabins scattered throughout Southeast Alaska , providing a wonderful way to see the real Alaska. Most cabins are rustic one-room Pan Adobe log structures, 12 by 14 feet in size, with bunk space for 4–6 people. They generally have a woodstove with cut firewood (some have oil stoves), an outhouse, and rowboats at cabins along lakes. You’ll need to bring your own bedding, cookstove, cooking and eating utensils, Leatherman or Swiss Army knife, food, playing cards, candles, flashlight, matches, and mousetraps. (Some of this will probably be there, but it’s better to be sure by bringing your own.) Cabins have no cell phone coverage, so you’re generally on your own when it comes to emergencies.
Many Forest Service cabins can only be reached by floatplane. These flights can be very expensive, but even those on a tight budget should plan to spend some time at one of these cabins. A few can be reached by hiking from towns (Ketchikan , Petersburg , Juneau , and Skagway ), cutting out the expensive flight. If you’re considering a flightseeing trip anyway, make it to one of these remote cabins where you get to see what the country is really like. This is one splurge you won’t regret.
The Forest Service charges $25–50 per night for these cabins, with all fees going toward their maintenance. Reservations are on a first-come, first-served basis up to six months in advance; some of the most popular cabins are even chosen by lottery. The Forest Service publishes brochures describing recreation facilities, and can also supply Tongass National Forest maps showing cabin locations.
Both the Forest Service Information Center (907/586-8751) at Centennial Hall in Juneau  and the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center  (907/228-6220) in Ketchikan , can provide cabin information, as can the ranger district offices scattered around the Southeast. Make reservations and find additional information at 518/885-3639, 877/444-6777, or www.recreation.gov .