Sitka…oh beautiful Sitka! There is no denying that Sitka, Alaska is one of the most gorgeous, picturesque cities in the state and that’s saying a heck of a lot. Nestled at the base of a dormant volcano, framed by the Tongass National Rainforest and kissed by the shores of the Pacific Ocean, this little city is a scenic dream come true.
Not only beautiful but rich in history too
Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer in the Russian Navy, lead the expedition that was credited with the discovery of Alaska.
The St. Peter and the St. Paul were two ships sent on the expedition that set out from Kamchatka, Russia in May of 1741. Along the way the two ships were separated by thick fog, the St. Paul eventually made landfall on June 15th 1741 near Sitka.
By 1799 a settlement called Redoubt Saint Michael was built by Alexander Baranof and was approximately 6 miles from where Sitka now sits. Two years later the settlement was destroyed by Tlingit Kiksadi warriors who fought to save their rightful land. The native Tlingit tribes as well as natives from the Haida tribes had been the original inhabitants of the land for over 10,000 years.
Baranof returned to the area from Kodiak in 1804 with his troops to retake the land. The Tlingits were ultimately defeated by the Russians during the battle at the Indian River and a new fort was built at the site which is now the city of Sitka. Baranof then relocated the headquarters of the Russian-American Company (a Russian trading company) from Kodiak to Sitka.
Alaska was acquired by the United States on October 18th 1867 and the Alaska Purchase took place in Sitka. The city remained the Capital of Alaska until 1912 when the government was moved to Juneau, where it remains today.
With a mixture of Russian, Tlingit, Haida and American heritage, Sitka is immersed in amazing culture and has 21 of Alaska’s 305 historic properties listed on national registries.
Sitka is located on Baranof Island in the northern Alexander Archipelago. It is part of the Alaska Panhandle otherwise known as the Inside Passage. The only way to get to this charming island is by air or by sea, thousands of people arrive yearly by cruise ship during the summer tourist season.
If you arrive by plane you will land on Japonski Island at Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. Japonski Island also houses the Coast Guard Air and Boat Station, Mt. Edgecumbe High School and Southeast Alaska Regional Health Center.
The two islands are connected by the John O’Connell Bridge (the first cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere) and the distance from the airport to downtown Sitka is 1.8 miles. There are no shuttles to take you across, but taxi cabs and car rentals are readily available. Due to the relatively small size of the city center renting a car isn’t really necessary as most everything is within walking distance and taxis are everywhere. If you plan to explore more of the island other than the downtown area then renting a car may be a good idea.
If it’s a beautiful day and you’re traveling light you can walk to town from the airport. This is a perfect way to relax and take in some amazing scenery along the way. It’s about a 30 minute walk, give or take, and it’s totally worth it. There is a safe walking/biking path across the bridge.
You will be taken in by the beauty that surrounds you. Here are a few photos that I took on the walk into town.
Welcome to Sitka
Sitka is known for it’s lush forests, picturesque mountains and abundant wildlife and is the only Inside Passage community that fronts the Pacific Ocean. It is home to around 9,000 lucky residents and is the largest incorporated city in the U.S. by land mass. Sitka boasts a total area of 4,811 square miles but has only 14 miles of roadway. This magnificent city sits on the west side of Baranof Island in the shadow of Mt. Edgecumbe, a beautiful 3,200 foot dormant volcano that is visible on a clear day. Unfortunately I didn’t have any clear days so no pictures of Mt. Edgecumbe were taken.
The rainfall average per year is 120 inches and the average snowfall is 44 inches per year. Chances are good that you will run into a little precipitation while you are there, but don’t let that stop you. It definitely doesn’t stop the locals from enjoying their gorgeous island. As the saying goes “there’s no bad weather, just bad gear”. Don’t forget to pack your raincoat.
The average high temperatures range from 37 degrees fahrenheit in January to 62 degrees fahrenheit in August. Layers are key.
Things to do
Whale watching, fishing charters, hiking, gift shopping, art galleries, golf, a totem pole trail, historic buildings and museums are just a few of the items on the list of things to do in Sitka. Make sure to stop in the visitors center in Herrigan Centennial Hall and pick up a map and brochure so you don’t miss out on anything. The staff are extremely helpful and friendly so if you have questions feel free to ask.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum
Immerse yourself in the history of native Tlingit, Haida and Inupiaq cultures at the Sheldon Jackson Museum. You will find exhibits of art and artifacts that are hundreds, even thousands of years old, as well as contemporary Alaska Native art.
The museum is named after it’s founder, the Rev. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary and the first General Agent of Education in Alaska. The artifacts in his collection were obtained during his travels across Alaska in the late 1800’s. To protect these precious artifacts from fire the museum was built of concrete in 1897. It was the first concrete building in Alaska and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The museum is located at 104 College Drive, just a short walk from downtown, and is open 9 am to 4:30 pm Tuesday through Saturday during the summer months and closed on holidays. Admission fees are $7 for general, $6 for age 65 and older and free for anyone under 18.
The Alaska Purchase from Russia by the U.S. took place on Castle Hill on Oct. 18th, 1867. It was also the site of the official raising of the 49 star United States flag on July 4, 1959 just minutes after Alaska became a state. The hill was also the site of the Tlingit fort Noow Tlein before the Russians came and built the company managers residence there.
Climb to the top of this historic hill, read more about the history and admire the amazing views.
St. Michael’s Cathedral
St. Michael’s Cathedral is located in the heart of downtown Sitka in the center of Lincoln Street. The current church is a replica of the original Cathedral which burned in a fire in 1966. The original building was erected in the 1840’s. Well known for it’s onion dome, bells and spire topped with a gold Russian Cross, the Cathedral creates an impressive center piece for the little city of Sitka. (minus the construction cones)
The collection of religious and historical archives that date back to the days of the Russian American Company, from the early 1800’s, are on display inside the cathedral. The archives were saved from the fire by the quick actions of the townspeople before the original building was destroyed.
The cathedral was designated as a National Historical Monument in 1962, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
Worship services are held Tuesday through Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings, but the church may be open other times for visitors. Schedule information is posted on the door.
The Sitka Pioneers Home
The Pioneers Home is now an assisted living facility but began as a log barracks built by the Russians and later used as the quarters for U.S. Marines that were stationed there in 1879.
The statue, called The Prospector, has stood on the front lawn since 1949. Visit the gift shop for unique handmade gifts.
Sitka National Historic Park
Sitka National Historical Park is one of the most historic sites in Alaska. The 112 acre park was the site of the battle between the Tlingit warriors and the Russians in 1804. After being defeated by the Russians during the 5 day battle the Tlingit tribes withdrew to the north end of Baranof Island and the Russians established the colonial capital of New Archangel (now Sitka).
The park is comprised of the Visitor Center and a 2 mile maintained Totem Trail. Both feature Tlingit and Haida Native art and the trail is lined with red cedar totem poles carved by Southeast Alaska Native artists.
This scenic park offers beautiful views along the way and if you’re lucky you may see Bald eagles, ravens, ducks, mink, river otters and maybe an occasional brown bear (hopefully from a distance) that frequent the area. Pink salmon spawn in the Indian River from mid-July to mid-September and the footbridge that spans the river is a perfect place for viewing.
Self guided cell phone tours of the totem pole collection is available by calling 1-866-387-1122 and selecting the number posted on the back of each totem pole. Daily tours of the historic Russian Bishops House, also located on the park grounds, are given daily during the summer from 9 am to 4:30 pm. The park trails are open daily from 6 am to 10 pm from May 1st to September 30th.
The Alaska Raptor Center
The Raptor Center is the only full-service avian hospital and rehab facility in Alaska and treats around 200 wild birds each year. They also provide a permanent home for 22 non-releasable Raptors-in-Residence.
The facility provides education to more than 40,000 visitors a year that come to admire the birds. Bald eagles, great-horned owls, red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, snowy owls, American kestrels, northern saw-whet owls and western screech owls are some of the past and present residents of the center.
The rescued sick and injured birds are treated and cared for in hopes that they will be able to be returned to the wild. The Raptor Center also provides education in raptor ecology and environmental conservation.
Take a 15 minute nature walk on the trail that leads you along the Indian River, through the Tongass forest and into a muskeg meadow. Be cautious and bear aware!
The center is located across Sawmill Creek Road from Sitka National Historical Park and is about a 25 minute walk from downtown. Admission is $13 for adults, $6 for children ages 12 and under and free for children under 5. The admission fee includes an interpretive guided tour of the facility, grounds and bird viewing area. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and the tours are wonderful. It is open 7 days a week from 8 am to 4 pm from May through September.
Fortress of the Bear
Fortress of the Bear is an educational, non-profit bear rescue center that is located about 5 miles from downtown Sitka. You’ll get to observe the bears from a large, safe viewing platform while learning the history, management and behavior of the bears in the wild.
The facility currently is home to 4 Alaskan brown bears, Chaik, Killisnoo, Toby and Lucky, and 3 black bears, Smokey, Bandit and Tuliaan.
The brown bear pictured above is giving a sign, taught to him by staff, for food, by placing his paws in front of him. How smart and cute!
The fortress was formerly the Alaska Pulp Co. and was re-purposed as the bear sanctuary, it consists of 2 large concrete enclosures. The resident bears are unable to be returned to the wild due to their individual circumstances. You can read about each of the bears and the unfortunate situations that led to them to the fortress at fortressofthebear.org
Watch my video of two of the bears playing with their toys in the water.
You can visit these magnificent animals seven days a week from 9 am to 5 pm from May to September. Admission is $15 for adults, $5 for children ages 7 to 18 and children under 7 are free.
The Fortress of the Bear is located at 4639 Sawmill Creek Road. There are tours and shuttles that will take you to the fortress from downtown. We took a cab and arranged a pick up time with the driver in advance since there’s not much of a cell phone signal from there.
Take a hike or bike through the Tongass National Forest, one of the few temperate rainforests in the world. The Tongass spreads over 17 million acres and is perfect for getting a glimpse of brown bears, wild salmon, bald eagles and a forest full of plants that only grow here.
Watch out for the Devil’s Club plant though, DO NOT Touch It! It’s little pricklys (for lack of a better word) will get into your skin and cause severe infection. It’s not pretty so heed the warning.
Sitka has a well developed trail system that begins with a 10 minute walk from downtown. Pick up a trail guide at the Tongass National Forest Sitka Ranger District, located at 2108 Halibut Point Road.
The trails range from easy walking, perfect for an afternoon stroll, to hard core trails to the top of a mountain. There are campsites available as well if you are looking for a multi-day adventure in the wilderness.
Pick some berries along the way. You can find huckleberry, salmonberry and blueberry bushes throughout the woods and pretty much anywhere in Sitka.
Day trips and adventures
Book a fishing charter and land a halibut, ling cod or king, silver or pink salmon at Alaska Premier Charters. 800-770-2628
Experience Sitka’s beautiful waters by kayak with Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures. 907-752-0660
Spend your day golfing at Sea Mountain Golf Course located at 301 Granite Creek Road.
Places to eat
Where to begin.
You can find almost anything your heart desires in Sitka.
Dining options include:
American A Little Something, Bayview Pub, McDonald’s, Subway, Nugget Restaurant and Mean Queen at Totem Square
Cafe Back Door Cafe, The Chocolate Moose, Our Town Catering, Fish Eye Coffee, Fish Eye Organic Cafe and Highliner Coffee Company
Chinese Asian Palace and Kenny’s Wok and Teriyaki
Filipino Kusina Mang Sol and Sizzling Chow
Mexican Agave Mexican Restaurant
Pizza Pizza Express and Mean Queen
Seafood Alaska Today, Ashmo’s Food Truck, Beak Restaurant, Baranof Fish Market, Longliner Lodge, Ludvig’s Bistro and Winebar and Sitka Hotel Restaurant and Lounge
The Back Door Cafe is an adorable little coffee shop located in the back of Old Harbor Books store. It has a separate entrance in the back (hence the name) or you can walk through the bookstore, as they are connected.
The coffee was terrific and the service was friendly, so grab a book and a coffee and enjoy. I would highly recommend the clam chowder at the Sitka Hotel Restaurant as well, it was the best I’ve ever had, hands down.
Where to stay
There are many options for lodging to fit your needs in Sitka.
Katlian Street Suites
Totem Square Hotel and Marina
Talon Lodge and Spa
Dove Island Lodge
We stayed at the Super 8 because, truthfully, I had a bunch of Wyndham points to use up. It was a nice experience, the rooms were clean and the service was excellent. No regrets here.
There are many other options available through Airbnb and VRBO if you are looking for a more homelike atmosphere. Book your stay well in advance especially during the summer months. Sitka is a busy little place during fishing and tourist season and the prices will definitely spike during this time as well.
Shopping is divine in Sitka and you will be sure to find something that you just can’t live without.
There are so many cute little shops offering gifts galore. Take a walk down Lincoln Street and check out Old Harbor Books, or stop in Alaska Pure Sea Salt and sample the large variety of handmade, flavored flake sea salts and salted confections. We had to test out the complimentary brownies sprinkled with wild blueberry sea salt. Sooo good! I also bought a bag of vanilla bean sea salt to take home, it went perfect with fresh watermelon and cantaloupe. Alex went for the Sitka spruce and alder smoked. They also offer sea salt body scrubs and other gift items.
Tlingit and Haida artwork and inspired gifts of all kinds are wonderful keepsakes from your trip and they make excellent gifts for friends and family that weren’t fortunate enough to be there themselves.
Taking a walk down this quaint, flower lined street, while you browse the unique specialty shops is a nice way to spend the afternoon. It can be a very crowded busy place, especially when there is a cruise ship in port.
Make sure to stop in The Russian American Company while you are there.
Take a walk around town
Take a walk around town and down to the harbor to experience the beauty and charm of this glorious little city. I’ll leave you with a few more reasons to visit Sitka in pictures.
With so much history, culture, charm and amazing beauty in this adorable city you will definitely want to add Sitka, Alaska to your bucket list.