Things to Do in Sitka
The story of St. Michael's Orthodox Cathedral is really the story of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska. Since the Russians settled in North America starting in 1741, sporadic attempts were made to Christianize the Natives, and in 1848 the capital of the Russian Orthodox Church moved to Sitka and St. Michael’s Cathedral was erected. Though partially destroyed in a fire in January of 1966, the rebuilt Cathedral stands as an outstanding example of Russian Orthodox architecture and was the major religious office in the area until Russia ceded Alaska to the United States in 1867. Today, St. Michael’s Cathedral houses an impressive collection of Russian Orthodox art and various church relics. Set against a sub-arctic skyline, it is a memorable sight for any photographer.
Situated on Baranof Island in Alaska’s Inside Passage, Old Sitka Cruise Port serves as a gateway to a destination that’s only accessible by air and sea. Old Sitka Dock, one of two in the formerly Russian ruled city, welcomes cruise ships, yachts, and commercial vessels, while Crescent Harbor serves as a tender port.
More commonly referred to as Castle Hill, the Baranof Castle State Historic Site is one of the most significant sites in Alaska. Today a winding path leads guests to the top of the hill and provides an outstanding view of the waterfront and downtown Sitka, as well as a wealth of information on the site's origins. Originally a Tlingit Native fortification site, and later used by the Russians as a military outpost, this is the actual site where, in 1867, the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag was raised, marking the transfer of Alaska to the United States.
The last bastion of Russian Colonialism in America, the Bishop’s House is a legacy of Imperial Russia’s 125 year reign over the North Pacific. Built in 1842, the Bishop’s House and St. Michael’s Cathedral were the center of Russian Orthodox Church authority in a diocese that spanned from California to Siberian Kamchatka. The house itself was acquired from the Russians by the National Park Service in 1969, which restored the house to its former (1853) appearance. The house now stands in the Sitka National Historical Park, giving visitors the opportunity to take a step back in time and see what life was like during the Russian-American period and learn the history of the colonization of Sitka.
Aside from being a scenic town that’s rich in culture and heritage, Sitka is also uniquely situated between the mountains and sea. Since the Sitka coastline was originally settled, the ocean has always provided a bounty of food, tools, and lore, and here at the Sitka Sound Science Center, visitors can literally feel the creatures that swim in the Sitka Sound. In the saltwater touch tanks, feel a squishy sea cucumber or a spiny starfish skeleton, and be amazed at how soft a sea anemone feels when it gently falls on your hand. Crane your neck upward for a full skeleton of a 15-foot killer whale, or stare at the mounted, in-wall aquariums for a look at life beneath Sitka’s waters and the green, plankton-filled sound.
And, while the touch tanks are great for visitors with young children, everyone can equally appreciate the sight of dozens of leaping salmon. Outside the aquarium in the Sheldon Jackson Hatchery, species of salmon are often found leaping from the waters of the center’s fish ladder. Most of the work at this non-profit, however, takes place behind the scenes, and staff are always happy to discuss the projects, news, and education that Sitka researchers are completing each year from this small center on the coast.
The Sitka History Museum, also known as the Sitka Historical Society and Museum, is a historical museum located along Sitka’s beautiful waterfront that prides itself on hosting the entire history of the native Tlingit people and the Russian colonization period. From Tlingit totem poles, to Russian Orthodox Church artifacts, to over 10,000 historic photographs and a scale model of Sitka circa 1867, the staff at the Isabel Miller Museum are ready to speak on any and every object that comprises Sitka’s history and are happy to share them. This makes the Isabel Miller Museum an excellent stop for all who wish to orient themselves in Sitka, the oldest city in the Northwest, and her history.
Sitka National Historical Park is Alaska's oldest national park. Established in 1890 to commemorate the 1804 Battle of Sitka, as well as to preserve Native totemic art, the park strives to combine beautiful temperate rainforest with history. Northwest Coast totem poles line much of the coastal trail here, and the Russian Bishop’s house stands as one of the last existing examples of Russian Colonial architecture in North America. Visitors can also attend ethnographic exhibits and the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, where guests are allowed to watch native artists at work. In addition, you can still visit the site of the Tlingit Fort and battlefield near the heart of this 113-acre (45-hectare) national park, and though not much remains of the last major battle between Europeans and the Alaskan Natives, it remains an interesting glimpse into the past, surrounded by towering spruce and western hemlock.
Situated just beyond the outskirts of Sitka on a 17-acre (7-hectare) reserve bordering the Tongass National Forest, lies the famous Alaska Raptor Center. This raptor rehabilitation center is world famous for its public education efforts and for its development and care for injured owls, eagles, hawks, falcons and other birds of prey.
Their permanent residents include twenty-four raptors which have come to the center through various means, though all are in need of some sort of rehabilitation. The center prides itself on returning all of the raptors it can to the wild, but every once-in-a-while, a raptor appears that will become one of these permanent residents. Volta, an American Bald Eagle, is one such resident. Over half of the existing 100,000 or so Bald Eagles live in Alaska, and Volta helps to make sure that through public awareness, they stay adequately protected. Thus, he travels a bit, but can typically be seen at the center.
Black and brown bears are the main attraction at this wildlife rescue site. Here, animals that are unable to return to the wild have free access to playgrounds and open space to roam. It’s one of the best places in Alaska to safely see a black bear or grizzly from a short distance away.
Situated in downtown Sitka, overlooking a magnificent fjord, Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson Museum is a warm and friendly storehouse of knowledge and artificats, where long-term curators give a hands-on approach to telling the history of life in the Chilkat Valley.
Numerous Native artifacts help to illuminate the life and times of the local Athapaskan, Eskimo, Aleut, and Northwest Coast Natives here. Upon walls hang masks, within drawers lay keys, sewing kits, toys, and other knick-knacks that reveal glimpses into fascinating pasts.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum is well-known for being small but complete museum, with a hands-on approach to education. Live demonstrations such as basket weaving and wood carving routinely occur here and are available to the public.