Sightseeing in Sitka, Alaska

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Photo © Allen Cox

by Nancy Mueller

Few port communities rival Sitka’s scenic location on Baranof Island along the western edge of Southeast Alaska. From a distance, 3,201-foot Mt. Edgecumbe dominates a panoramic vista of snowcapped mountains and a vast forested wilderness. Against this backdrop, Sitka provides the perfect launch for an authentic Alaskan adventure.

Whether you cruise or fly in for the day—the only way to access “Beautiful Sitka by the Sea”—you will find plenty of sights and activities to enrich your short stay in Alaska’s oldest and fourth-largest city. Beyond its tranquil beauty in sheltered waters, Sitka tells a deeper story of three interwoven cultures. Historically, Tlingit tribes settled here, but after several fierce battles, ceded control to Russian fur traders in the early 19th century. The site is preserved in Sitka National Historical Park, a lush rainforest of towering spruce and hemlocks along a coastal trail. Later, Russia transferred ownership to the United States, a move critics panned as “Seward’s Folly” until gold was discovered in the 1890s.

Today, you can experience the blending of Sitka’s past and present in several locations, such as the Sheldon Jackson Museum, which holds 6,000 native Alaskan artifacts. But first, stroll along the waterfront, a working harbor of commercial fishing and recreational boats, for a flavor of what drives the local economy. Then take in the stunning view from Castle Hill, site of the official land transfer from Russia to the United States.

Many of Sitka’s cultural and historic attractions lie within easy walking distance from here. Wander downtown to browse galleries featuring Alaskan artwork. Stop in at Old Harbor Books for books about Alaska. Or have an Alaskan Amber ale at Ernie’s Old Time Saloon. Just don’t ring the bell, because, “If you ring the bell in jest, you buy a drink for all the rest.” And a short cab ride to Baranof Island Brewery is worthwhile for a pint of their distinctive Spruce Tip Ale, flavored with new growth from Alaska’s state tree, the Sitka spruce.

In the heart of town, St. Michael’s Cathedral with its green onion domes and golden crosses, rises over all. The structure is a replica of the original Russian Orthodox Church destroyed by fire in the 1960s. Fortunately, townspeople were able to save many of its precious Russian icons that predate 1800.

For educational wildlife adventures, visit the Alaska Raptor Center, whose mission is to rehabilitate and release injured birds of prey after recovery, and Fortress of the Bear, a rescue center for orphaned bears. For more information, visit sitka.org.