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Home  >  Know Alaska  >  Alaska Geography  >  Regions
Alaska’s Regions

When a place is as big as Alaska, it is useful to divide it into parts or regions. Alaska is often divided into six regions: Arctic, Interior, Western, Southwestern, Southcentral, and Southeast.

Arctic Alaska

Arctic Alaska spans the northern edge of the state. It stretches from the Canadian border on the east to the Chukchi Sea to the west. The Brooks Range forms the southern border. The Arctic Ocean marks the region's northern edge. Very few people live in this area. Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States, and Kotzebue, located on Norton Sound, are the largest towns.

The land north of the Brooks Range is flat and treeless tundra with many rivers. Huge herds of caribou travel across the area. In the spring, the caribou come here to have their babies. They take refuge from the millions, if not billions, of mosquitoes in the breezes off the arctic coast. This is also the area where millions of birds come to nest and feed on those same mosquitoes. Whales, polar bear, and bearded seals live offshore. These sea mammals are an important source of food for the Inupiat Eskimo people who live here.

The Arctic is a cold and dark place during the deep of winter. In Barrow the sun sets on November 18 and does not rise again until January 24, so it is dark all the time. The opposite is true in the summer. On May 10 the sun rises but does not set again until August 2. You could say this is both the darkest and lightest of all the regions in Alaska.

Interior Alaska

Interior Alaska is the land between the Brooks Range to the north and the Alaska Range to the South. From the border with Canada, this huge region stretches west about two-thirds across the state. The Arctic Circle cuts across the region. This imaginary line marks the latitude above which the sun does not rise on December 21, winter solstice. On the summer solstice, June 21, the sun does not set.

Fairbanks is the largest community in the region and is known as the Golden Heart city. It sits nearly right in the middle of this large area. Between the mountain ranges, the land is filled with rivers, rolling hills, wet and dry tundra, and forests of skinny birch, spruce, aspen and alder. Bears, moose, wolves, caribou roam the area. The mighty Yukon River flows southwest through the region and provides salmon and other fish for the Athabaskan Indians who call the area home.

Western Alaska

Western Alaska extends from the Arctic Circle south to Bristol Bay. The Bering Sea forms the western border. Only a few local roads are found here. To visit this region you must arrive by plane or boat. In the winter you can also travel the region on snow machine or by dog team when the ground and the rivers are frozen.

Nome, Dillingham, and Bethel are the largest towns in this region. Small villages are spread all over the area. Most of these villages are along the southern part of the Yukon River and next to the coast. Fishing for salmon is the main activity here. Yupik Eskimos of the region have depended on salmon for food for hundreds of years. The area is another important place for migrating birds, so important that the Yukon-Delta National Wildlife Refuge was created to help protect them.

Southwestern Alaska

Southwestern Alaska includes the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands. This region runs nearly 1,500 miles in an arc that separates the Bering Sea from the Northern Pacific. The land sits on top of The Ring of Fire. The Ring of Fire is an area of volcanoes that encircle the Pacific Rim. The temperatures in this area are mild compared to the arctic. But the storms that blow through are some of the worst in the world. The area is home to lots of wildlife, including some of the largest brown bears. Other animals include walrus, otters, and fur seals. Seabirds flock to the region to nest during the summers. The rivers and lakes are filled with salmon and other fish.

Aleuts were the first humans to live in this harsh land with plentiful wildlife. The Russians came in the 18th century to hunt seals and otters for their fur. Kodiak was the first capital of Russian America, as they called Alaska. During World War II, the Japanese invaded Attu and Kiska Islands in the Aleutians. The world-class fishing brings lots of people to the region now. If you have ever watched "Deadliest Catch" on the Discovery Channel, you've seen the commercial fishing folks at work. Many people fly in to the lakes and streams of the area to catch trophy-sized salmon and trout.

Southcentral Alaska 

Southcentral Alaska is bounded by the Gulf of Alaska to the South and the Alaska Range to the north. The Chugach Mountains mark the eastern border. The Aleutian Range forms the western border.

Southcentral is home to more than two-thirds of all the people in Alaska. Anchorage, Alaska's biggest city, is in this region. There also are lots of animals in this region. These include brown bears, wolves, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, mountain goats, lynx, beavers, fox, and hundreds of species of birds.

You'll find more variety in land and climate here than any other part of Alaska. Thanks to the warming effects of the ocean, most of the weather is milder than the Interior and Arctic. Still, some inland areas can be among the coldest in the state. You can climb mountains, hike in broad valleys, and sea kayak in the protected waters of Prince William Sound and Kachemak Bay. Rivers offer some of the biggest runs of salmon found anywhere in the state. Athabaskan Indians, Yupik Eskimos, Aleuts all called this region home.

Southeast Alaska

Southeast Alaska is the region that looks like it should be in Canada. It is often called Alaska's Panhandle. You can see that if you think of the rest of Alaska as a pan and the long and narrow Southeast Alaska region as the handle. It runs 500 miles along the northern Inside Passage. This waterway snakes through a maze of islands offshore from the mainland of Southeast Alaska. These islands are also part of Southeast Alaska. The Coastal Mountains, some of the highest peaks in the state, form the border between Southeast Alaska and Canada. These mountains are one of the reasons this area is one of the wettest on earth. The warm, wet air blows in off the Pacific Ocean. This heavy air bumps into the mountains and is forced up and over them. As the air rises, it cools. Then the heavy clouds build up with moisture until they can't hold any more and rain pours down. This near constant rain over thousands of years created the rainforest that now forms the Tongass National Forest. It can rain up to 200 inches in just one year. The forest provides a great place for deer. Mountain goats roam the mountains and whales and porpoises swim along the protected waters. Salmon are plentiful. This rich region was a great spot for the early residents. Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Indians live here.

Juneau, Alaska's State Capital, is located in Southeast and is the area's largest city. Many towns in Southeast began as centers for logging and fishing. Tourism is a big business in Southeast today.

Sources:

Alaska: A Land in Motion, Nancy Warren Ferrell, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1994
Alaska's Natural Wonders, Bob Armstrong and Marge Hermans, Alaska Northwest Books, 2000
The Great Alaska Nature Factbook, Susan Ewing, Alaska Northwest Books, 1996


Gallery of Images

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Arctic Circle Sign

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Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay

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Arctic - P Endres

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Black Bear-Southcentral

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Charley River

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Haines

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Ketchikan

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Southeast Alaska Salmon Troller

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Stephens Passage

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St. George Island

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Stephens Passage

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Valley view of Chugach Mountains

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Alaska Northwest Books and the map is used with permission of Alaska Northwest Books, an imprint of Graphic Arts Books, P.O. Box 56118, Portland, Oregon 97238-6118

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