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How To Spend A Day In Sitka: Exploring Nature And Cultural Sites

Sitka, Alaska, faces the Pacific Ocean on the west side of Baranof Island, which is part of the Alexander Archipelago. It has a population of over 8,500 residents and was once the capital of Alaska before Juneau took the honors in 1906. 

Sitka is known for its stunning natural scenery, diverse culture, and rich history, which dates back several hundred years. Most who visit come by cruise ship. With only a day, expect a busy schedule if you want to hit all of Sitka’s cultural highlights and landmarks.

Initially, Sitka was put on the map as a trading port, trading otter pelts, which were valued for their waterproofing abilities. Sea otters were almost hunted to extinction, and the fur trade collapsed in the late 1870s.

Cannon at Castle Hill, Sitka

Today, Sitka is a popular destination for tourists interested in exploring Alaska’s natural wonders and learning about its fascinating history. 

Getting To Sitka

There are several options for traveling to Sitka, Alaska. The city can be accessed by air or sea. Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport serves as the main airport, offering flights from various locations. 

Alaska Airlines provides flights as well as small sea plane companies to reach Baranof Island.

Additionally, visitors can arrive by ferry, which provides a scenic and memorable journey. The Alaska Marine Highway System connects Sitka to Bellingham, Prince Rupert, Haines, and Skagway.

HAL Westerdam docked in Sitka
A ship docked in Sitka Sound Cruise Port

Cruising is by far the most popular way visitors access Baranof Island. Cruises operate from mid-April to mid-October, which provides the ideal time to explore Sitka.

Travelers often compare Sitka to Ketchikan as a destination; one focuses on Russian history and outdoor adventures, and the other is the “salmon capital of the world.”

The Sitka Sound Cruise Port can dock two large vessels simultaneously. Complimentary shuttles allow guests to reach downtown, six miles away. 

Navigating The City

Once in Sitka, getting around the city is relatively straightforward. The downtown area is very walkable, and its popular tourist attractions are easily accessible.

While the city has few taxis and no ride share, other transportation options include the city bus or renting an electric bike from Kings E-Bike Rentals at Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal.

E-bike rental at the cruise port
E-bike rental at the cruise port

If you prefer not to explore the charming atmosphere of Sitka at your own pace, there are plenty of group tours.

Historical Sites

The Tlingit people have lived in the Sitka area for thousands of years, and the city has a solid Native Alaskan presence.

In 1799, the Russian Empire established a settlement in Sitka, and the town was under Russian rule until 1867 when the United States purchased Alaska and established it as the 49th state.

The Russian influence is still visible in Sitka’s architecture, and the city has a unique blend of Tlingit, Russian, and American cultures.

There are many historical sites where you can immerse yourself in its rich history, some even offering complimentary tours.

Here are some of the most notable sites:

Sitka National Historical Park

Sitka National Historical Park totem pole
Totem pole at the Sitka National Historical Park

Sitka National Historical Park protects the battle site between the invading Russian traders and the indigenous Kiks.ádi Tlingit.

The walk from Harrigan Centennial Hall along Lincoln Street takes 15 minutes. Mount Edgecumbe, which became an “active” volcano in 2022, is visible on a clear day.

The park has a small visitor center with native exhibits and totem poles, but it’s the Totem Trail, which circumnavigates the park, that has become Sitka’s landmark. The park’s scenic coastal trail is lined with totem poles from the Tlingit and Haida areas.

While some have been replaced with replicas, it doesn’t detract from the history or significance of this area. What surprised me the most was that none of the poles originated in Sitka.

Baranof Castle Historic Site

Castle Hill cannon
Castle Hill cannon

Castle Hill, or Baranof Castle Historic Site, is a Russian fort built in 1799. In 1867, it was the site of the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States.

While no actual fort remains today, visitors can see the remnants of the castle on the hill and learn about the region’s history.

This hill represents three people—Russians, Tlingits, and Americans. During the Tlingit rule, the mount was named Noow Tlein.

Later, the Russians built a fort there and renamed it Novoarkhangel’sk. After Alaska became the 49th state, it was known as Castle Hill.

Russian Bishop’s House

Russian Bishop's House
Russian Bishop’s House

The Russian Bishop’s House is a historic building built in 1842. It was the residence of the Russian Orthodox Bishop of Alaska and is one of North America’s few surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture.

The lower floor has a museum, which visitors can enjoy at their own pace, but the upper floor requires a guided walk-through. The tour is complimentary and documents the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska.

Tours run every 30 minutes, so you can join a ranger-led group immediately or after a short wait.

The still-active chapel is the highlight, and learning about the Russian Orthodox bishops’ everyday lives is an excellent extension to seeing the cathedral a few blocks away.

St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral

St. Michael's Cathedral
St. Michael’s Cathedral

Built in 1848, St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral is the oldest Orthodox church in the United States. While this important Sitka landmark lacks exterior exquisiteness, step inside to experience its glory.

Although its interior space is small, there’s a lot packed into it. Historical artifacts and sacred artwork fill the walls, shelves, and cabinets, and there is an abundance of gold everywhere.

The gold and silver doors and the ancient bishops’ crowns were the highlights for me. It’s complimentary to visit the cathedral museum, but it suggests a donation of USD 5.

Old bishops' crowns at the St. Michael's Cathedral, Sitka
Old bishops’ crowns

Sitka Historical Society & Museum

Located inside the Harrigan Centennial Hall, the Sitka Historical Society & Museum focuses on the eras from the Tlingit Native community to the Russian period and the American transfer.

The entry fee is USD 5, and it is well worth it to see the photographs, artifacts, and stories that reflect Sitka’s cultural heritage. If you’re traveling with children, they might enjoy the diorama model of Sitka as it looked in 1867.

Attractions And Activities

If you plan to spend a day in Sitka, there are many attractions and activities beyond the historical sites. Here are some of our favorites:

Fortress Of The Bear

Another great destination for animal lovers is Fortress of the Bear, which requires a journey further outside town. Located on Sawmill Creek Road, this sanctuary is home to rescued orphaned brown bears and black bears.

This is my favorite place in Sitka and has allowed me to learn more about these magnificent creatures and their habitats. The eight bears, who are now adults, are housed in three enclosures.

A brown bear eating salmon
Fortress of the Bear coastal brown bear

During my visit, I watched them play, eat, interact with their caregivers, and learn about their rescue stories.

Sea Otter Quest

Sitka has a large population of sea otters, which were once hunted for their pelts. Now protected and their numbers recovering, travelers can observe them on a Sea Otter Quest excursion.

The tour is a unique opportunity to see these adorable creatures up close and watch them play and interact in their natural habitat. You’ll also learn about the importance of sea otters to the local ecosystem.

Fin Island Lodge

Fin Island Lodge is an excellent destination for those wanting to escape downtown. Excursions here combine a wildlife viewing cruise with an authentic Alaskan feast. Be sure to arrive hungry.

The wildlife quest searches for otters, whales, bald eagles, Sitka deer, coastal brown bears, and harbor seals. Once the salty sea air has conjured up an appetite, indulge in a delicious meal, Alaska-style.

Pick from salmon smoked over an alder fire, snow crab, or prime rib, served with many sides. Leave room for strawberry shortcake.

Alaska Raptor Center

While some tours include the Alaska Raptor Center, it can be visited without an excursion. The refuge is a one mile walk from Harrigan Centennial Hall and costs USD 15.

Alaska Raptor Center bald eagle
Alaska Raptor Center bald eagle

The center rescues and rehabilitates injured birds of prey and returns them to the wild when possible. There are a variety of species, including bald eagles, golden eagles, snowy owls, screech owls, and hawks.

The flight training center allows visitors to see bald eagles testing their wings in a controlled environment. Mesh shields the windows so the birds can’t see or hear people who observe them.

Kayak Eco Tour

The Kayak Eco Tour is a great way to explore the waters around Sitka, but it does require some physical strength. You can take a guided tour to paddle through the beautiful scenery and wildlife.

The excursion includes learning about the local ecosystem and the importance of preserving it. Since the route follows the shoreline, kayakers may spot sea otters.

Sitka Sound Science Center

The Sitka Sound Science Center is an excellent destination for families and can easily be reached on foot from downtown. This small aquarium has touch tanks that kids will enjoy.

There are interactive exhibits and educational programs about the local marine life and ecology. Visitors can see the fish navigate up the fish ladder outside the center during the salmon run.

Visiting Sitka Sound Science Center
Visiting Sitka Sound Science Center

Adjacent to the Sitka Sound Science Center, a community kids’ playground was built on the theme “Where the Forest meets the Sea.”

Sitka Hiking Trails

Hiking trails provide the best opportunity to enjoy Sitka’s breathtaking wilderness. Some of the most popular trails for a one-day itinerary include the Herring Cove Trail, Mosquito Cove Trail, and Sitka National Historical Park.

These trails offer a great way to explore the local flora and fauna while enjoying the beautiful scenery. They don’t require a huge time commitment, leaving additional hours to enjoy other activities.

Food And Shopping

When it comes to food and shopping, Sitka offers some unique places to browse and eat. The Russian America Company and Alaska Pure Sea Salts Company are two retail stores to hit first. One sells unique Russian gifts and the other sells flavored salts.

If you’re a foodie looking for a unique souvenir to take home, be sure to try the Sitka Spruce Tip Salt or my favorite, the Alder Smoked.

For those with a sweet tooth, Moose Chocolates and Gifts is the place to go. This charming shop offers a variety of handmade chocolates, fudge, and specialty coffees. We recommend their famous Moose Droppings, made from chocolate-covered almonds and caramel.

King crab at Halibut Point Crab & Chowder
King crab at Halibut Point Crab & Chowder

No day visit to Sitka is complete without trying some of the local seafood. Halibut Point Crab & Chowder is a great place to start or finish your day.

This family-owned restaurant at the cruise port offers a variety of seafood dishes, fish and chips, crab cakes, and, of course, crab. We tried their Dungeness crab and Alaska king crab and preferred the latter.

Ludvig’s Chowder Cart at the Sitka Sound Science Center offers, you guessed it, chowder. It’s creamy, delicious, and the perfect snack on a busy day.

For a unique taste of Alaska, check out Reindeer Redhots. This food cart near Harrigan Hall specializes in reindeer sausage, a traditional Alaskan food.

We recommend trying their classic Redhot, made from reindeer meat and spices. It’s the perfect fuel-up snack food for a day of exploring Sitka, Alaska.

Castle Hill cannon, cathedral and totem pole in Sitka, Alaska