Destination Guides,  Great Debate

Haines vs Skagway: How to Choose When Planning Your Alaska Trip

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Planning your Alaska trip is a series of seemingly impossible decisions. How long to visit, and when. How much to spend. Where to go, what to do, where to stay. Oh my! You might find yourself stuck between two different destinations, uncertain which will be the right one for you and the kinds of memories you want to make during your bucket list trip to The Last Frontier.

This is why I’ve started a new series of posts I call the “Great Debate;” in each post, I compare two Alaskan communities to help you choose between the two. If you have time to visit both, awesome – but if you (like most visitors) are time constrained, these posts will help.

Haines vs Skagway Hero

In this post, I’m comparing Haines and Skagway. I had the chance to visit both Skagway and Haines on a single day during my Windstar Cruise in Alaska in June 2022; while this wasn’t enough time to explore both completely, I returned to Haines in July 2022 and feel like I can now compare them to help you choose.

So if you’re stuck on the great debate of Skagway versus Haines, read on. This guide covers the similarities and differences between the two, as well as the unique aspects each one has to offer travelers. Then I end with a recommendation for which to visit, to wrap everything up nicely for you. Ready to dig in and settle this great debate for your own Alaska trip?

(Short on time? Use the Table of Contents to quickly navigate this post!)

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the Lingít Aaní (traditional lands) of the Tlingit people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Haines vs Skagway: What are the Differences?

Although both have wildlife and beautiful landscape vistas, I’d like to point out the differences between Haines and Skagway that may help you choose which one to visit.

🗺️ Geographically, Haines and Skagway are close – both are located in Alaska’s Inside Passage on the Lynn Canal (Skagway being further up on the Taiya Inlet than Haines, on the Chilkoot Inlet), so you can’t expect any major differences in things like weather, climate, or terrain. Instead, the differences between Skagway and Haines have to do with what you’ll experience – and how.

🛳️ The first significant difference between Skagway and Haines is the crowds and pace. Given that it’s a popular Alaskan cruise port, Skagway is a lot more crowded. Especially in the summer, Skagway can become a real tourist trap – but goes down to about 300 population in the winter. Haines is less crowded; more slow-paced and mellow, with far fewer ships making port. It feels a lot more “local Alaskan” than Skagway, which makes it a more authentic experience.

🏛️ Another difference is the main attractions you can find in each town. Skagway has a wonderful rich history and is known for its well-preserved Gold Rush-era architecture. Haines is the answer for more wildlife sightings; it’s instead renowned for its abundance of wildlife, including eagles, bears, and marine life.

Now let me dig into each of these differences in more detail, before aiming to answer the question of which one you should pick between Skagway and Haines.

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Haines: Great for Wildlife & Escaping Crowds 

If you love outdoorsy stuff and are deliberating between Skagway or Haines, let me tell you… There’s no argument here. 

Haines is known for its diverse wildlife population and incredible opportunities to see them. The area is home to tons of wildlife; you can observe eagles, bears, marine life, and hundreds of bird species in their natural habitats. One of the most popular activities in Haines is bear watching on the Chilkat River – cruise excursions from Skagway even include this as an option!

Haines is a quaint little town that has less historical significance than Skagway (more on that below). Consequently, it doesn’t attract the crowds – especially the cruise crowds disgorged from mega-ships each day – as Skagway does. This means that it won’t feel as touristy; Haines is much less commercialized than some of the more visited ports (like Skagway). This is a welcome option as I often hear from members of the V&V community that they’re looking to “escape the crowds” – Haines is the place to do that.

So, if you prefer to “avoid the tourists” (even though you are one and that’s okay!), experience a more authentic side of Alaska, and/or seek out wildlife, Haines is the way to go.

More Haines Resources I’ve Written:

Skagway: Great for History & Culture

I know people associate Alaska with beautiful landscapes and outdoor activities, but these lands are incredibly rich in history, too; Skagway is a great example of that. In fact, the town itself is a national historical landmark. 

In 1896, gold was found in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory, and, as a result, Skagway was established as the gateway to the Yukon and Klondike goldfields. Thousands of hopeful gold-seekers arrived in the new town and prepared for the arduous 500-mile journey to the gold fields. The stampeders used two trails to reach the headwaters of the Yukon River: the Chilkoot Trail and the White Pass Trail. 

The arrival of gold-seekers brought with it stores, saloons, and other businesess to the streets of Skagway. While the miners have long gone, the buildings and culture still remain as a testament to the town’s past. Skagway has a historic district of about 100 buildings original to the Gold Rush days. The area is also home to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and White Pass and Chilkoot Trails. 

It’s this history and culture that sets Skagway apart from Haines – and from all of the other communities in Southeast Alaska, to be honest. (While others, like Juneau and Ketichkan, certainly have historical aspects, Skagway’s the cream of the crop for experiencing it today!)

One other unique experience in Skagway is the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, which was created as part of the gold rush. It’s the only train trip in Alaska that’s not part of the Alaska Railroad system and well worth doing even if you’re planning another train ride during your trip. The route ascends from sea level into the mountains; narration provides additional context for Skagway and the Klondike Gold Rush… it’s hands down my top recommendation for what to do in Skagway, whether you’re a cruise passenger or there on your own via ferry or car.

More Skagway Resources I’ve Written:

Skagway or Haines: How to Choose

Riding the Fast Ferry between Skagway and Haines

So, which is the one to go: Skagway or Haines? Well, it all boils down to your likes and interests, as you can probably guess based on what I’ve shared so far.. 

If you love history, Skagway will have you covered. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t have your fair share of nature. In fact, there are lots of wonderful hikes that you can get to from the dock (assuming we’re talking about cruising here). Skagway also has the White Pass train, which is one of the best shore excursions in all of Alaska because you get to experience so many different climate zones which is really unique.

As for Haines, it is the best option for travelers who don’t like touristy destinations or crowds and are all about outdoor activities. It’s also worth noticing that it’s well-suited for more experienced travelers as you won’t find all the comforts you find in… well, a more touristy area. This means you won’t have as many restaurants or drinking spots or attractions. 

If you have the time, you can easily visit both Haines and Skagway on your own. There’s a Fast Ferry that connects the two communities with a 45-minute boat ride; it allows you to visit both in a day (if you really pack it in and time everything just right) or – ideally – in two days.

Unlike some of these comparison posts, I can’t tell you which one is “better,” because it depends… it’s a classic “it depends!” kind of situation. Stuck still trying to decide between Haines vs Skagway after reading this post? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll try to help you choose.

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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