Exploring Sitka – 11 Things to Do

Sitka is located on Baranof Island and is nestled between the mountains and sea. The arts flourish and an ancient native culture still thrives. Surrounded by rainforest, they share their home with brown bears, bald eagles, otters and all five species of Pacific salmon.

Cruise ships dock at the island’s Old Dock at Halibut Point, about five miles north of Sitka town. A free shuttle bus service runs between the dock and downtown Sitka every 10-15 minutes. Some cruise lines drop anchor offshore instead of pulling into the port and use tenders.

Either way, the drop-off point will be in downtown Sitka near Harrigan Centennial Hall. This modern oceanfront building is the town’s visitor’s center and is the perfect starting point for your visit to Sitka. The hall features restrooms, WiFi and an information desk. Throughout the summer, there are also various cultural events to enjoy. If you’ve booked any tours or excursions with a local company, this is probably the starting point.

If your plan is to explore Sitka on your own, you’ll find Sitka to be very walkable. Most attractions are located within a few blocks of the harbor.

photo courtesy of Sitka Borough

Explore the Historic District

Even if you have tours planned, it’s worth the time to walk through the downtown historic area. Stroll down Lincoln Street and walk past some of Sitka’s most important landmarks, including the Russian Orthodox St. Michael’s Cathedral and Bishop’s House.

St. Michael’s Cathedral

 For over 100 years before it became a US territory, Sitka was  Russian settlement. St. Michael’s Cathedral ….one of the most popular Sitka attractions….is a perfect example. Built in 1848 by St. Innocent, it was the first Orthodox church ever built in North America. The golden crosses and green onion domes are an architectural wonder and it has a beautiful and spacious interior. A $5 entry fee allows you to explore the historic icons inside the church. There are also weekly services that are open to the public.

Russian Bishop’s House

From 1808 until 1867, New Archangel…as Sitka was known at that time….served as the capital of the Russian-American colony. The Bishop’s House was the administrative headquarters for their 19th-century missionary efforts. Now, the Bishop’s House is protected as a National Historic Landmark. There is a free guided tour you can take to learn about the home’s art, architecture, and historical artifacts.

Sheldon Jackson Museum

Located on Lincoln Street between Harrigan Centennial Hall and the nearby Sitka National Park, the museum has been collecting items of historical and cultural significance since 1885. Inside you will find masks, carvings, tools, toys, boats, and other artifacts from native Northwest Coast cultures.

Tlingit Clan House

Plan a visit here to learn more about the culture of the Tlingit Clan and how they lived off the land. The Tlingit clans thrived on these remote Alaskan islands long before the first Russian settlements. Also known as the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House, this “house” provides an intimate look into native Alaskan heritage. Watch a live performance by the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers while enjoying the fragrant scent of burning cedar. Everyone will love the energetic drum beats and the chance to join a native dance around the fire pit. You can also pose for pictures in front of the biggest hand-carved screen in Alaska.

Looking for nature activities? There are plenty of choices!

Baranof Castle State Historic Site (Castle Hill)

Commonly referred to as Castle Hill, this state park is one of the most historically significant sites in Alaska. Tlingit natives originally inhabited this area and built a strategic fortification at this site. Russians occupied this site between 1804-1867. Alaska was officially transferred from Russia to the United States in 1867 on top of Castle Hill. Today, Castle Hill is a state historic site and is also designated as a National Historic Landmark. A fully accessible walkway leads visitors to the top of the hill and provides outstanding views of downtown Sitka and waterfront. At the top. you will find interpretive panels that provide opportunities to learn more about the history of this site.

Sitka National Historical Park

This is the oldest national park in Alaska and covers 113 acres. The park is just outside the city of Sitka. It commemorates the 1804 Battle of Sitka that took place between the Russian settlers and the Tlingit tribespeople. There are 20 hand-carved totem poles scattered along the nature trails and a visitor center with more information about the battle, as well as guided tours that delve into the island’s flora and fauna. Take time to walk through the rainforest. You will have great views of Sitka sound also and opportunities to walk along the beach and explore the numerous tide pools.

Fortress of the Bear

One of the most popular excursions in Sitka is a visit to the Fortress of the Bear. If seeing bears is on your list of must-do Alaska activities, this is your opportunity! You will get within 25 feet of the distinctive Alaska brown bear in a naturalized setting. The three-quarter acre habitat is located about 5 miles from the town center in the Tongass National forest. You will enjoy 3 populations of bears and observe their unique personalities from a large covered viewing platform.  The naturalists are happy to share details about the bears, their behaviors and how they were rescued.

City busses run back and forth to the Fortress of the Bear. The rescue center is supported entirely by visitor donations and is open to family members of all ages. The rescue center receives no government funding and relies solely on support and donations from local businesses, visitors and merchandise sales. http://fortressofthebear.org

Alaska Raptor Center

The Alaska Raptor Center provides medical treatment to around 200 injured birds each year. They specialize in raptors, but will aid any wild bird in need. The goal is to heal, rehabilitate and release all the avian patients, however, some are too injured to fully recover and survive in the wild. These birds join the Raptors-in-Residence team to help teach the public about raptors and the habitats they live in. Currently, there are 24 Raptors-in-Residence, including bald and golden eagles, hawks, falcons and owls. http://alaskaraptor.org

Otters and whales

Sitka is known for the otter population. Book a tour through your ship or at the visitor’s center. Sitka Sound is home to the greatest variety of wildlife in Southeast Alaska – sea otters, whales, sea lions, porpoises, harbor seals, brown bears, puffins, bald eagles, and more! You won’t be disappointed.

Dining

You’re probably hungry after all this exploring and walking! You won’t be disappointed here. Sitka is home to fresh seafood, Pacific Northwest frontier cuisine and other delicious local favorites. You will find fine dining, casual meals and mobile food units….variety that will suit everyone’s style and budget. Not to be missed is a reindeer sausage from the street vendor. Truly an Alaska specialty!

All too soon, your visit to Sitka will be over. Grab a souvenir or two to remember this incredible visit to a unique Alaskan town….where the fish is fresh, culture is celebrated and wilderness beckons at their doorstep.

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