Want to see a hundred bald eagles in a single glance? Spy a couple dozen roosting in a lone tree? Listen to the hair-raising chorus of their weird, trilling calls? Visit the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve—site of the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world. Each October and November, between 3,000 and 4,000 bald eagles descend upon this 48,000-acre preserve centered on river bottomlands a few miles north of Haines to feast on late runs of salmon.
When these eagles converge, photographers travel from all over the world to capture images of the iconic birds jousting over chum and coho spawners. They perch in trees, land on gravel bars, and wing across a stunning Southeast Alaska vista. Even without the birds, the preserve anchors a pristine riverine wilderness traversed by a paved road minutes from a friendly small town with full services. The Chilkat River Valley forms a natural travel corridor between the interior and the coast, attracting moose, beavers, coyotes, wolves, brown and black bears, mountain goats on the ridges, forest birds, plus long distant migrants like trumpeter swans and Arctic terns.
Where Will You Find the Most Bald Eagles?
A vast sand-and-gravel “flat” where the Tsirku and Kleheni rivers merge with the Chilkat serves as the main viewing area, located along the Haines Highway between Mile 18 and 24. With thousands of fish finning and dying among a myriad of shallow channels that remain open well into winter, the zone draws thousands of eagles seeking a late-season snack. It is considered critical habitat for the species in the region, and the preserve was formed in 1982 with a mission to help protect this space. Eagles can be found throughout the preserve, however, with an estimated 300 to 400 of the birds in the area throughout the year.
Tips For Visiting the Park:
- Best viewing will be from four main pullouts between Mile 18 and Mile 24, but eagles might be anywhere along the river.
- The Council Grounds pullout at Mile 19 features pit toilets, informational displays, a boardwalk, viewing scopes and a two-mile river-side trail. Go there first.
- Please pull completely off the road to view or photograph bald eagles! Keep watch for other eagle enthusiasts so awestruck that they simply brake in middle of the highway and leap out with doors ajar. (Yes, this actually happens—a headache for park rangers.)
- Stay within the designated areas to avoid stressing individual birds. They need space to roost and feed.
- Much of the preserve is not easily accessible, but during summer, rafting and jet boat tours are a great way reach remote spots along the river.
- For more information, purchase the book Where Eagles Gather, the Story of the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Haines, Alaska by Joe Ordonez, which features incredible photographs of the area.
- Attend the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival held annually in November by the American Bald Eagle Foundation.