Destination Spotlight: Sitka, Alaska

Sitka is named as one of 1000 Places to See Before You Die.

1000 Places to See Before You Die

Sitka is settled on Baranof Island, located on the outer coast of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Like most Southeast Alaska communities, Sitka is accessible only by air and by sea. The downtown area is centrally located and most points of interest are within walking distance of one another.

Sitka is bypassed by many of the larger ships. Due to it’s harbor, the larger ships have to tender passengers into town, which is a hassle for both the cruise line and the passengers. Smaller cruise ships can dock in the harbor right in town.

Activities in and around Sitka are based on the great outdoors and include hiking, wildlife watching, kayaking, fishing and camping.

A Little History

Known as the “Paris of the Pacific” in the 19th century, Sitka got its claim to fame as a Russian trading outpost, followed by a territorial capital. Then, on March 30, 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for approximately two cents an acre, or 7.2 million dollars (a steal). Sitka was the site of the ceremony in which the Russian flag was lowered and the United States flag raised. (Note: The flag lowering and raising event is re-enacted in Sitka every October 18 on Alaska Day.) The United States purchased Alaska in the hopes of making the annexing of British Columbia easier. However, this never happened, and when the capital was moved to Juneau in 1906, Sitka was left to flourish on its own.

And Sitka did flourish, as the timber and canneries moved in. And during World War II, it became part of the last line of defense against a Japanese attack of the United States. As the timber industry disappeared and the fisheries dried up, Sitka again reinvented itself, becoming the host for vacation homes for the rich.

Today, Sitka is the largest town in the United States, with 4,000 square miles of land within its boundaries, with a population of 9,000, making it Alaska’s fifth largest city.

Things to See

  • Sitka National Historic Park and Totem Park: The park was created to commemorate the Tlingit and Russian experiences in Alaska. It features a temperate rain forest with traditional Tlingit totem poles that line the park’s coastal trail. It also features the Russian Bishop’s House, one of the last remaining buildings, recently restored, from the Russian colonial period in North America. A few of the small ship cruise lines offer this as an included tour/activity.
  • Alaska Raptor Center: This center is responsible for the rehabilitation of sick and injured eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, and other birds of prey which are brought in from all over Alaska. The center hosts two dozen resident raptors that could not be returned to the wild.
  • Sheldon Jackson Museum: Sheldon Jackson was a Presbyterian missionary who drove a movement to ensure the spiritual, educational, and economic well being of the people of Alaska. This meant Americanizing the culture, while discouraging indigenous languages and traditional culture. Understanding that these actions would wipe out their history, he began to collect artifacts from those cultures.
  • St. Michael’s Cathedral: A prominent icon of Sitka and a National Historic Landmark since 1962, its significance is as primary evidence of Russian influence in North America.
  • Sitka Tribe Dance Performances: The Naa Kahídi Dancers perform traditional songs and dances with visitors.
  • Sitka Historical Museum: Formerly named the Isabel Miller Museum, this little museum is a treasure–the only museum in Sitka featuring all of Sitka’s history.

Things to Do

  • Hiking: Trails of varying difficulty are a stones through away, several accessible from town. Check with the Forest Service Office for more information and maps.
  • Wildlife Watching: There are several options for wildlife watching, many from the water. Check with the Sitka Visitor Center for a list of tour operators.
  • Kayaking: Sitka is perfect for kayaking, due to its open, calm waters and hundreds of islands to explore. Operators offer half, full or multiple day tours, as well as rentals for individual exploration.
  • Charters: Several operators offer fishing and sightseeing charters.

Small Ship Cruise Itineraries that Include Sitka

A Little April Fool’s Story

Nearby Mt Edgecumbe on Kruzof Island resembles Mt. Fuji in Japan. The extinct volcano, with its snow covered, perfectly cone-like shape, soars 1300 feet into the sky, gracing the local scenery of Sitka.

Back in 1974, a resident took the opportunity to play a joke (April 1 – April Fools) on residents into thinking that Mt Edgecumbe had become active again. Read the story and prepare to chuckle over one of the best practical jokes ever.

Mt. Edgecumbe getting ready to, um, blow?


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