The idyllic town of Sitka Alaska is nestled at the foot of glacial-carved mountains on Baranof Island. Located on the outer coast of Alaska’s Inside Passage, it is not only surrounded by the Pacific Ocean but lies in the largest temperate rainforest in the world. (Yes, there are rain forests in Sitka Alaska!) It is a small town of only around 9,000 residents, but it packs a big punch. It is often a port of call for Alaskan cruises. Accessible only by air or sea, Sitka Alaska offers a culturally-rich community, abundant wildlife, and incredible wilderness to explore.
The History and Culture of Sitka Alaska
The area that is present-day Sitka Alaska was once covered in ice. According to Tlingit legend, the original native Tlingit people were drawn to the area over 10,000 years ago by the smoking beacon of Mount Edgecumbe, a nearby 3,200-foot-tall dormant volcano. The Tlingit were (and still are) mariners, fishermen, hunters, gatherers, and traders. They used the water for transportation and traded extensively throughout the region and as far away as Mexico and Hawaii.
Sitka Alaska was settled by Russians in the late 1790s and considered a settlement of what was then called Russian America. The land was obtained from the Tlingit, the indigenous people of the area. Possession went back and forth (usually by force) between the Tlingit and the Russians for a number of years. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in the 1860s, the official transfer ceremony was held in Sitka, and Sitka Alaska became the capital of the Alaskan Territory until 1906.
Just as the Tlingit used the area as a port, the Russians were drawn to the area as a trading post. While the capital of Russian America and until the sea otter pelt trade died out, Sitka Alaska was the busiest seaport on the west coast of North America. Although the original Russians that settled in the area left after the purchase of Alaska by the United States, new Russian immigrants arrived over time and Russian heritage and culture became a fixture in Sitka Alaska.
Today, visitors can explore the rich culture and history of the Tlingit and Russian people during a visit to Sitka Alaska. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska operates tours focused on the history and culture of the Tlingit people. Visitors can also take a trip to the Sitka National Historical Park and stand in awe of the Tlingit and Haida (another local tribe) totem poles standing along the park’s scenic coastal trail. The park, which is part of the National Park Service, preserves the site of a battle between invading Russian traders and the Tlingit. It is also the site of the restored Russian Bishop’s House, which tells of Russia’s little-known colonial legacy in North America.
Visitors can also learn about both the indigenous tribes and the Russian settlement of Sitka Alaska at the Sitka Historical Society Museum. With both permanent and temporary exhibits, the museum’s collection comprises more than 8,000 artifacts, several hundred paintings and prints, nearly 25,000 historic photographs, and more than 100,000 archival documents, all ranging from the 1740s to the present day.
The Sitka Alaska Wilderness
In Sitka Alaska you can have it all, from mountains to ocean and volcanoes to glaciers. Sitka Alaska has amazing hiking with trails that begin in the lush rainforest that surrounds the city and end up high in the mountains. The rainforest here is part of Tongass National Forest, the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the United States. This temperate rainforest, which is cooler, though just as wet as a tropical rainforest, receives up to 200 inches of rain per year and is home to giant cedar, hemlock, and spruce trees. Waterfalls are prevalent as there is no shortage of melting snow and glacial runoff.
The forest is home to an amazing amount of wildlife, like black and brown bears, wolves, bald eagles, Sitka black-tailed deer, and moose to name a few. Orca, humpback whales, sea lions, seals, sea otters, river otters, and porpoises make their homes offshore. There are bear viewing areas and migratory bird stopover sites for hikers to stop and admire the amazing wildlife that surrounds you. The Tongass National Forest offices can provide information on camping and offer maps to area trails.
Sitka Alaska is also home to a number of wildlife-oriented destinations that will both amaze and educate visitors. The Alaska Raptor Center rehabilitates injured birds and releases them back into the wild. The birds that are unable to be re-released remain at the center and are viewable to guests. Visit and learn about the 24 eagles, hawks, and owls that call the center home. Fortress of the Bear features a three-quarter-acre habitat for orphaned brown bear cubs. The rescue center is currently home to eight bears that visitors can observe from a large covered viewing platform after a tour of the center.
Another must-do activity while visiting Sitka Alaska is whale watching. Whales are so celebrated in the community that there is an annual Sitka WhaleFest. Summer is the best time for whale watching, but they can be seen any time of year. Visitors can even regularly view whales from certain points along the shore. Grey, orca, minke, and humpback whales all travel through the Sitka Sound and along the coastline each year. Of course, there are plenty of charter whale-watching excursions available in the area.
Fishing and kayaking are among some of the other must-do activities when visiting Sitka Alaska. The water and scenery are beautiful. The fish are plentiful – Sitka is home to five species of salmon. Adventurers are sure to catch a glimpse of an otter or a seal while out and about on and around the sound. It is all-around a spectacular nature-loving experience.
While Sitka Alaska is often a destination people visit for a few hours during a port of call stop on their Alaskan cruise, this little town has so much to offer that visitors can easily spend a week or more here. It is a place steeped in history and culture. It is home to gorgeous wilderness and abundant wildlife. There is hiking, fishing, and kayaking to keep you busy for as long as want. Sitka is Alaska at its best.
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