Sitka, Alaska, sitting on the westward side of beautiful Baranof Island, captures the quintessential essence of wild Alaska. This is a town steeped in history. Originally settled by the Tinglit people over 10,000 years ago, Sitka became Alaska’s first capital city following the signing of the Alaska Purchase in 1867.
While downtown Sitka is a small cluster of quaint buildings set the backdrop of towering mountains, the town of Sitka spans over 4,800 square miles. This makes it the largest incorporated city in America.
Though the city limits are expansive, less than 10,000 residents reside in the city year-round. Tourists flock to the historical enigma, swelling the population by thousands throughout the summer. This town is only accessible by plane or boat and is a perfect stop when voyaging through Southeastern Alaska. Here, visitors can enjoy all the incredible sights of an Alaskan journey in one-stop – bears, mountains, glaciers, whales, and endless Alaskan beauty.
While there are plenty of things to do to fill your hours in port, this guide will give you some of our top local favorites. So, prepare to go along back roads and the forgotten paths on your Alaska cruise.
Enjoy a quiet walk through an old Russian cemetery
Prior to the United States’ purchase of the Alaskan territory, Russian fur traders and fishermen were the principal foreign inhabitants of coastal Alaska (then called Russian America). Reminders of these past adventurers remain embedded throughout Alaskan communities, and if you talk to a local, the chances are high that they have a Russian relative in their bloodline.
As the once capital of Russian America, Sitka maintains strong ties and cultural undertones to this period of Russian heritage. Visitors can see this history firsthand at the old Russian Orthodox cemetery located in the heart of downtown Sitka. This 200-year cemetery contains beautiful tombstones marking the graves of Russian Orthodox parishioners. Each tombstone is remarkably unique, with some falling to the test of time and nearly completely covered in moss. Placed in the moss-covered forest, a walk in this cemetery will make you feel miles away from town.
While walking a cemetery may not seem like an exciting affair, this walk allows visitors to see a lasting mark of history today. When visiting, remember to be respectful, as this cemetery is still in use today by local families.
You can access the cemetery off Seward Street, near the Sitka Lutheran Cemetery. The cemetery was vandalized in January 2022, but local organizations continue restoring the area and returning it to its former beauty.
Take a hike along Beaver Lake Trail and look for wildlife
If you’re up for a little more adventure, head over to Beaver Lake Trail to enjoy a 3-mile hike through old-growth forests and along a pristine mountain lake. You will need to rent a car or pay for a taxi to access this route. The trailhead is outside of town at Blue Lake Campground. However, there are plenty of sights to enjoy in the area, making the trek worth it. If you have a more extended stay in the area, you can hike to the trailhead from downtown Sitka via the Herring Cove Trail. This trail departs from Sitka road and is about a one-hour trip.
Beaver Lake Trail is a 3-mile trail with a steep elevation gain in the first quarter of a mile. The trail rises sharply up 200 feet with a series of switchbacks before leveling off to its ascent to Beaver Lake. The huffing and puffing is worth it once hikers reach the lake and behold the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. This trail is short enough to be combined with other sightseeing stops throughout the day. Wildlife is common along this path, so keep your eyes out for bears, eagles, deer, and ermine.
Local tip: Pack rain gear, bear spray, and bug spray for this outing. While the Alaskan wilderness is beautiful, it is also incredibly buggy in the summer months. Bears can be frequent visitors along this route, so take extra precautions and always be Bear Aware.
Grab lunch at the Fresh Fish
While you should visit Sitka for the scenery, you will want to stay for the food. Sitka is not short on delicious restaurants and cafes, and you could spend weeks experiencing all the wonderful flavors found in this city. However, if you’re only in town for a short bit, make a stop at the Fresh Fish food truck for one of the best meals in town. After all, you can’t visit Alaska without trying the local seafood!
Fresh Fish offers a bare menu of locally-caught poke, chowder, and ceviche. The menu changes often, so it is always fun to swing by and see what they are offering. Meals are made quickly, so you can grab a delicious treat quickly before heading out on your next adventure.
Local tip: Fresh Fish is typically open Friday-Wednesday from 11:30-3:00. Depending on the day, the cart does move around in town. Check out their Facebook page or Instagram @thefreshfish.ak for the latest updates.
Take a boat ride to Goddard Hot Springs
Even in the summer, Sitka can experience chilly temperatures and gloomy days. One of the best ways to still enjoy the outdoors, even on a cloudy day, is to catch a boat to Goddard Hot Springs. The boat ride from Sitka is about an hour and offers splendid views of Baranof Island from the water.
Keep your eyes on the lookout for whales and other marine mammals on your journey. Located to the south of Sitka, visitors can plan to spend at least half of a day exploring these natural wonders and enjoying a dip in the warm waters.
The city of Sitka owns the Goddard Hot Springs, and the springs are free to the public. Each spring is protected within wooden huts, keeping out the worse of the Alaskan weather. Pack plenty of layers for the return trip, as temperatures can dramatically vary on the water.
Look for Puffins at St. Lazaria Island
Sitka sits on the outside of the Interior Passage, making it an excellent destination for bird viewing during the short summer months. Thousands of sea birds flock to the Sitka area between May and September to breed and nest along the sea cliffs and islands. One of the best places to see this natural phenomenon is St. Lazaria Island.
St. Lazaria is the summer home of dozens of bird species, including puffins, petrels, auklets, and oystercatchers. These birds nest along volcanic cliffs and feed upon the abundant Fish and marine life that congregates in the waters around the island. St. Lazaria is one of 2,500 Alaskan islands that comprise the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. It is estimated that over half a million birds return to this location each year to raise their young.
St. Lazaria Island is located to the north of Sitka and is only accessible by boat. Numerous charters and water taxis depart from Sitka every day to take eager birdwatchers, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts on a cruise along the edges of this protected island. Otters, seals, and humpback whales are also a common sight on this journey.
Local tip: This may not be the best choice for visitors prone to seasickness. Pack a pair of binoculars for this journey, as there will be much to see! While much of the water around Sitka is protected from weather, the ride out to St. Lazaria can be rough if the weather turns.
Regardless of how you choose to spend your day in Sitka, Alaska, you are guaranteed to enjoy it. This makes it one of the top stops to enjoy your Great Alaskan Journey! Fair winds and smooth sailing!