If you make it out to Unalaska, you’ve already had half the adventure as traveling to this destination isn’t the easiest. While the Aleutians are an incredible place, transportation is limited to small airlines and summer sailings on the Alaska Marine Highway System. That said, the effort to get here is worth it! There really is something for all visitors in Unalaska: fishing, hiking, World War II history and remnants, rich cultural history, geotourism, unique birds and plants and wonderful whale watching – it’s all pretty amazing! The Aleutians are rugged, raw, and unforgettable. It’s an often-overlooked destination by Alaska visitors. It’s even rare that local Alaskans venture out southwest!
The “Trusty Tusty’s” chain sailing
If you’re fortunate enough to come to Unalaska via the Alaska Marine Highway System on the M/V Tustumena’s chain sailing, you’ll get to see the Aleutians in a completely different way than flying in from Anchorage. On the sailing out to Dutch Harbor, you get to port at several small communities (like Chignik, False Pass and Akutan) that give you a taste of Southwest Alaska living. All the communities love when the “Trusty Tusty” comes through and you are always greeted with welcoming faces often bringing coffee, tea, and treats for the travelers.
Visit the Museum of the Aleutians
Undoubtably a must-see when you arrive in Unalaska. The Museum of the Aleutians (MOTA) is filled with tangible history of the region from records of early inhabitants dating back nearly 10,000 years ago up to the forced evacuation of the Indigenous Unangax people during World War II. The staff at the museum is wonderful and you can often arrange for one-on-one time in the exhibit or a back-of-the-house tour. The MOTA gift shop is also a fantastic spot pick up your Unalaska souvenirs!
I really value being able to drive a short distance and be completely void of major infrastructure and commotion. Overland Drive is a wonderful escape that gives you some of the most spectacular views that you can drive to on the island. At the peak of the drive, you are situated between Ugadaga Bay of Beaver Inlet (an ancient trade route and well-traveled hiking trail) and the valley of Summer Bay. The vista towards both sides is breathtaking and dramatic. It looks like a scene right out of Lord of The Rings; very majestic!
A quick and popular hike up an old gravel military road takes you to a World War II bunker and a 360-degree view of Unalaska Bay, Dutch Harbor and Captain’s Bay. You can find locals here on nice evenings as it is a great spot to catch the stunning summer sunsets. At the base of the hill are a couple of beaches known as “Little South America” and “Glass Beach,” both of which are great for beachcombing and catching sights of sea critters.
Holy Ascension Cathedral
A well-known icon of the community, the Russian Orthodox church as it stands now was completed in 1896. It is the oldest cruciform-style Orthodox church in North America and is filled with unique and rare icons. The parish occasionally hosts open houses on ferry and cruise ship arrival days. Otherwise, the local reverend father of the church is often accommodating to tour requests. There are many weekly services, and anyone is welcome to attend.
5:00 p.m. with the locals
While the wild heydays of the notorious Elbow Room are long gone, you can still meet some characters at any of the local bars after the workday. The Norwegian Rat Saloon, Airport Restaurant, Cape Cheerful Lounge, and Harbor View Sports Bar all offer great hospitality, food, and beverages. Stories of long timers and days of the past fill the room. If you want to hear some interesting accounts of Unalaska living and Dutch Harbor’s wilder days, or just want to grab a bite after a day of exploration, I recommend stopping by one of these spots!
From the Tom Madsen Airport, you can venture to other Aleutian and Pribilof communities via Grant Aviation. Regular flights to Akun, St. Paul, St. George, Nikolski and Atka service these outlying communities. You will have to spend some extra effort in arranging accommodations at any of these destinations, but a visit is well worth it and would deliver some unforgettable experiences. All of these locations have deep cultural history and are significant to the people of the Aleutians.