7 Things to Do in Sitka
Sitka is an island town tucked between the mountains and the sea, where robust heritage and natural wonder meet and make for magical experiences. Find ways to explore the community’s culture, history, unique landscape, and opportunities for adventure.
1. Learn About Alaska Native Culture
Long before Russian and American settlers came to Sitka, the area was home to the Tlingit people. Today, Sitka’s population is close to 13 percent Alaska Native. Visit the Sheet’ka Kwaán Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House, where you can meet local Tlingit people and learn their rich traditions through authentic storytelling, cultural events, songs, and dances. Don’t miss an opportunity to experience the mesmerizing Naa Kahidi Dance Performance that incorporates box drums and dancers in traditional regalia. The community house also includes a gift shop featuring stunning Alaska Native artwork.
For more Alaska Native culture, head over to Sitka National Historical Park, bursting with history and natural beauty. Located where the Battle of 1804 occurred, the park tells the story of the clash between the Russians and the Tlingit people. Daily ranger-guided walks share the history of the park.
The on-site Sitka Cultural Center provides studios for world-renowned Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian artists. Watch Alaska Native artists create wood carvings, beading, textiles, and engraved metals at working studios. The most popular exhibit is live-totem carving. Stroll the grounds to see 18 restored totem poles nestled along a trail in the Sitka spruce forest and learn the significance of eagles, ravens, and other hand-carved symbols. Meander down the coastal trails to further explore the park’s history and wildlife. Walk over the arched bridge for views of four salmon species and other fish.
2. Meet an Eagle
Even birds of prey need a little help getting back on their feet sometimes. The Alaska Raptor Center provides treatment to injured birds with the hopes of rehabilitation and successful re-entry to the wild. Each year, the Alaska Raptor Center helps more than 200 birds, and those unable to survive on their own join the “Raptors-in-Residence” team.
Visit the scenic 17-acre sanctuary along the Indian River to come face to face with the 20-plus resident birds, including bald and golden eagles as well as several species of hawks and owls. At the flight-training center, watch eagles and other birds regain their strength and develop the skills they’ll need to maneuver obstacles in the wild. Talk to the veterinarians and educational specialists at the center to learn fascinating facts like why owls can turn their heads 270 degrees and how an eagle can spot a rabbit from more than 3 miles away.
3. Revel in Sitka’s Festival Scene
Pulsing with culture, rooted in history, and filled with natural beauty, Sitka has many reasons to celebrate. The Sitka Music Festival gathers world-class chamber musicians who perform in the coastal community before embarking on a tours across Alaska. In winter, Sitka Jazz Festival brings New Orleans flare with a concert series, dance parties, and after-hours events.
At Sitka WhaleFest in November, world-renowned scientists share their expertise on whales and marine life through three days of lectures, and whale watching cruises take presenters and guests out to search for whales and other marine wildlife.
Don’t be fooled by the Alaska Day Festival’s name: The fete lasts a full week in October and is chock-full of events that honor Alaska’s history like a military parade, reenactments, a ball, and more.
4. Visit Local Museums
The Sheldon Jackson Museum features many artifacts and 19th-century works of art. See the carvings, tools, boats, and more of Iñupiat, Yup’ik, Alutiiq and other Alaska Native peoples that were collected by Dr. Jackson on his travels across Alaska and Siberia. Today, you can attend talks by Alaska Native artists in residence and marvel at their works, which range from dolls and baskets to paintings and carvings. Also bringing Sitka’s early history to life is the Sitka History Museum where you’ll find exhibits and artifacts that explore Sitka's Tlingit, Russian, and American history.
See Southeast Alaska’s unique marine ecosystem in action at the Sitka Sound Science Center’s aquarium and hatchery. Feel spiky urchins and bumpy sea stars in the tidal-pool touch tanks or step into the Salmon Bubble to see how fish view the oceans. Gaze into the 60 Feet Deep tank that’s home to rockfish, eels, and other Alaska animals that thrive in the ocean’s depths. From the salmon hatchery, learn about the special relationship between hatcheries, commercial fishing, and aquaculture specialists and conservationists.
5. Explore the City’s Russian Heritage
Sitka is known as the heart of the Russian influence in Alaska and once served as the capital of Russian America. In the 18th century, Russian missionaries erected St. Michael’s Cathedral, which became North America’s first Russian Orthodox church. Today, it’s a national historic landmark where hymns are sung in Tlingit, Alutiiq, Yu’pik, and Slavonic. Designed with onion-shaped domes and gold crosses, its old-world architecture transports travelers back in time.
Within a 5-minute walk from the church you’ll find the historical Sitka Pioneer Home and the grave of Princess Maksoutoff, wife to Alaska’s last Russian governor. Also within walking distance is the Russian Bishop’s House—a rare example of Russian colonial architecture in North America — and Baranof Castle State Historic Site, the ceremonial site of the Alaska land transfer from Russia to the U.S. The site hosts the annual Alaska Day transfer ceremony reenactment and offers jaw-dropping views of the Sitka Sound. .
6. Stroll Through the Tongass National Forest
Tongass National Forest is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. Pay this natural wonder a visit for an abundance of thriving flora, vibrant wildlife, hiking trails, and campgrounds. The 700 miles of trails are suitable for everything from leisurely walks to vigorous hiking and include many accessible boardwalks, like the Estuary Life Boardwalk Trail. Traveling along the Indian River Trail, you’ll stroll past waterfalls, creeks, and rivers filled with salmon. Along the relaxing 5-mile path lined with 150-year-old spruce trees, look for wildlife like birds and Sitka black-tailed deer.
To take in the sights of the Sitka Sound, travel along Halibut Point Road to the rocky shores of Sandy Beach, a day-use area that is easily accessible by car and rewards with vistas of Mt. Edgecumbe. Choose from the many traditional campsites located within Tongass National Forest or book a stay at one of cabins overlooking the Starrigavin Creek, including one fully-accessible cabin. Schedule a guided hike or fishing tour to explore the area’s many trails, beaches, and rivers.
7. Go Whale Watching
Summer is the best time for whale watching but the mammals can be seen any time of year. Grey whales, orcas, and minke whales travel through the Sitka Sound each summer. Humpback whales return to the Sitka area in March and April to feast on the annual herring fish runs, and feed on krill off the coastline into late fall.
Many migratory whales return to the same areas every year and local captains have learned their patterns. Take a chartered whale watching excursion to watch the magnificent giants breaching. To search for whales from shore, travel north on the highway along the 7 miles of Halibut Point Road, with multiple scenic pull off areas. Drive or bike south on Sawmill Creek Road to Whale Park, where you can relax under covered gazebos and watch children play on life-size humpback whale sculptures. Follow the road farther south to the beautiful area of Silver Bay, where whales can be seen feeding throughout the season.
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