This highway connects the Inside Passage community of Haines with Haines Junction in the Yukon Territory. First used by the Chilkat Indians, the highway became a packhorse trail to the Klondike goldfields in the late 1880s. In 1943, the U.S. Army used the highway as a military access road during World War II.
The story of the Haines Highway is how the highway is submerged in the natural and cultural settings of the true home of the Bald Eagle.
The most significant natural resource along the Haines Highway is the Chilkat River and the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The byway runs through the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve along the Chilkat River and through the prime eagle roosting and feeding grounds. This Preserve and its ecosystem are of national and world significance due to hosting the largest congregation of bald eagles in one location. The Chilkat River has the last salmon run in Southeast Alaska and during the months from October to February, more than 3,500 bald eagles will congregate within this 48,000-acre preserve to feed on the late spawning salmon. The eagles fly from more than 100 miles, as far away as the Yukon, to gather at the preserve.
The Chilkat River is a very unique body of water within the State of Alaska. Most rivers in Southeast Alaska fall from very high mountain elevations rapidly down to the sea and have a very short length. While this may be a typical river in other parts of Alaska, the river remains warm and ice-free throughout the year creating a unique environment in the region. The combination of slow, meandering river currents, gravel aquifers, and consistent water temperature provides a most unusual and exceptional situation for spawning fish and their eggs. The Tlingit name Chilkat means ‘winter storage container for salmon.’ All species of Alaskan salmon spawn in the Chilkat River and its tributaries. This offers a massive volume of food for a wide variety of creatures, including the bald eagle, black bear, and brown bear. Eulachon is another fish that spawns annually in the Chilkat River. This smelt-like fish spawns in the millions every spring and is extremely high in oil content. This unique ecosystem and its hydrology and geology tells a fascinating story to visitors.
This rich environment is home to a wide variety of creatures. A visit to Haines and the surrounding area offers chances to see many mammals and birds including moose, wolf, coyotes, sea otters, mountain goats, lynx, beavers, sea lions, humpback whales and orca whales. More than 120 species of birds have been sighted in this valley, including trumpeter swans and arctic terns.
The Haines Highway is also home to the Tlingit people. Klukwan Village lays approximately halfway along the highway and is home to the Chilkat people. This permanent village offers a view into one of the very few river-based (rather than ocean-based) Tlingit villages in Alaska. The Chilkat River has supported Tlingit people for centuries. Throughout that time, the people of this village have maintained an important cultural relationship with the bald eagle, whose populations have always been particularly high in this special place, which the Tlingit people named "Valley of the Eagles." Like the eagle, the Tlingit have lived from the riches of the Chilkat River and their stories and cultures are interwoven.
During the summer, autumn, and early winter, salmon runs in the river rounds out the diet of eagles. Like the eagles, the Tlingit people also subsisted off the rich year-round fish runs found in the Chilkat River.