Sometimes you find yourself with only a little bit of time to experience a place, whether you have a lengthier layover or maybe a day in port. Whatever the reason for being in town, do not let it slip away just because it’s not the ideal amount of time to fully enjoy the destination! Here is a taste of Sitka, Alaska, that you can enjoy in one day – assuming you aren’t looking for a full itinerary at 2 a.m. on Christmas Eve! It’s possible to see the highlights and still make the next flight or ferry out of town feeling accomplished and enlightened. Rural as this town may be, there is much to see and do on the island!
We all know there just isn’t enough time in a day to get everything that we want to done. It applies to household chores and it applies to time while on vacation as well. There is always more to do. Without making the commitment to a permanent move to Sitka, you can still see some of the city with whatever time you have in town. Here are some ideas (with time estimates, tips, and important need-to-know info) for you to glean something out of a short turnaround trip to Sitka, Alaska.
A Single Day in Sitka
There are a few things that you simply MUST experience in Sitka, Alaska, even if you have but one day or so to cram it all in. Here are some highlights that I would consider the sights, eats, and experiences you’d want to prioritize when deciding what makes the cut in an abbreviated or impromptu visit. Never let a day slip by without intentionally adventuring! Not even if it’s an adventures within an adventure!
What to Do
Sitka National Historic Park
This park has free admission and if you’ve been stuck for a long time on either a ship or a plane (which you would have been to get to the island) then this is the place to stretch those seized up muscles. The trails are flat, wide, and well-groomed and though they’re around, we didn’t have any bear trouble. Gorgeous scenery in the temperate rainforest — probably our top pick for things to do in Sitka on a short schedule. Perks? There is no show schedule to adhere to – simply arrive in town and enjoy the park. There is also a museum with demonstrations and helpful rangers. [This can be done in a few minutes with the rapid run through OR it can be your entire visit with a slow-paced, thorough self-guided tour.]
Fortress of the Bears
Normally, from my background in wildlife biology, I find animals in captivity sad and a little depressing, with a few exceptions. Fortress of the Bears turned that around for me when we visited while in Sitka. Don’t let the outside fool you: it feels a little industrial but once inside it’s much more natural. The bears are food-conditioned to be adorable. One has a little “begging” routine that he gladly performs when apples are in his view. The amount of information and dedication that the caretakers of this place exude is truly admirable. The bears would have met grim fates if they had not been rescued by the facility. This is a real winner with kids — watching giant bears roll huge plastic drums in the ponds on a summer afternoon is like an Alaska-style Disney show! Fortress of the Bears is several miles outside of town but if you do not have a car you can hook up with a tour service in town or hail a cab for the five mile journey (there are many options.) We found the visit very educational and were pleasantly surprised when it exceeded our expectations. [The talk is about a half-hour in length and then there is time for your own bear viewing, photos, and gift shop browsing. Make sure to ask the tour company if you take one how long the total trip is.]
New Archangel Dancers
The tale of this troupe is quite enchanting and was one of the reasons I wanted to visit Sitka in the first place. I was already addicted to the Tlingit culture after living in Alaska for a few years; once I found out about all of the Russian influence in Sitka, I wanted to see how the two cultures collided and meshed (if they did). These talented ladies — yes, they are ALL ladies — put on a scheduled traditional dance arrangement that is a not-to-miss experience if you happen to be in town when they are performing. It’s a very intimate setting, almost like watching a high school drama performance — a small auditorium with a big show! Each performance is about 30 minutes, but in that time through the interpretation of the song/dance routine, you gain an understanding of a little piece of history, acted out for you by very inspiring women of the community. Our three year old son was amazed at the fast-paced talents of the entire group. We were happy he was entertained so that my husband and I could fully enjoy the show too! It’s a win for families and couples alike! [The performance is 30 minutes. Get there a tad early for good seats, tickets are $10 and sold at the door. Waterfront near the Library.]
Sitka Tribe Dance Performances
We were really bummed to miss this one. It’s STILL on my bucket list for our next visit with friends in Alaska! One of our Traveling Moms got to experience the thrills and the connection to the history rich in Tlingit customs when she docked in Sitka. She says she will forever remember the experience. The Naa Kahidi Dance Show can be experienced in a traditional-style Tlingit clan house in Sitka and the performances are about 30 minutes. In full regalia, the dancers can be heard along with the drum resonating outside the building, echoing stories of the past and passing tradition on to the present performers. It’s something that will be a visceral experience and will leave you touched by the glimpse into the culture that shaped the region and continues to thrive and cultivate tradition in new generations of Tlingit people today. (We heard the last performance of the day, bellowing from the walls of the building as we walked up mid-performance, sadly!) Make sure to try to get to this performance as soon as you get to town — places like the Historical Park don’t have arranged schedules, so you’ll be able to pick it up when you have a spare moment. [Performances are 30 minutes. Arrive a tad early for good seats. No reservations are accepted.]
Where to Eat
If you want an amazing burger and a very casual atmosphere that is shore-side, Bayview Pub is your place. We enjoyed Leo burgers (Pretzel Buns with pulled meat on top of burger patties if my tastebuds are recalling the Special of the Day correctly!). They have a kids menu and the view (as the name indicates) will stick with you forever. The harbor is a nice place to take a stroll post-meal and you might even find some starfish and soft coral hanging out on the sides of the docks near the water. [Waterfront. Typical sit-down restaurant wait times. Easily done in an hour.]
Where to Stay
If you are in town overnight (or better yet, a few nights) Vonnie’s is a great Bed & Breakfast where you’ll have access to local knowledge, delicious food, comfortable accommodations, and great hosts! (There’s also an adorable dog last we checked!) The owners are fishing guides, so if you want to hook some Alaskan seafood, these are the folks to see! Your catch is processed and vacuum-packed to make the journey back to your home and be almost as good as fresh from the sea when you get there! The B&B is walking distance from some of the parks in Sitka proper and a grocery store. It’s also surrounded by a fantastic patch of Salmonberries! [With lodging, reservations are needed. July is a very busy time in Sitka and lodging options will fill fast. Especially the good ones! Reserve months in advance.]
If There’s Time
Sitka Sound Science Center
For just a few dollars you can go inside this smallish center and see and learn about the creatures of the ocean and in particular, those that inhabit the surrounding waters. There is an orca skeleton dangling from the ceiling above as you make your way through the building that is pretty amazing since it is very complete. The touch pools are beneath it and ready for curious kids to learn about the textures of the sea, giving them lasting hands-on memories. One of my all time favorites, Ray Troll’s art can be seen in a few places around the center, including the Plinko board game. It’s a nice place to visit, especially for small kids and if you’re near the water in town, but there is not a lot there, so do not go in expecting the Smithsonian. The amazing part about this site that goes BEYOND the TouchTank experience is the research and science as well as community outreach and scholarships that they contribute. It’s a wonderful place with a big picture mission. The small admission is well worth supporting the efforts in science they are forging for the future! This is easy access for cruisers that are in port for a short time. [Easy walk-in visits. $5 for admission – worth it with kids especially.]
We preferred this facility housing birds of prey to the one in Haines because of the property, trails, and grounds that are found here in Sitka. The trails though short are wide and well-maintained and we always love the more adventurous feel of getting to walk among rainforest plants and creatures (Banana slugs will steal the show from the raptors when children spot them!) The expert talks are interesting for adults but hard for small children to sit still and listen. We especially loved the rehab and hospital area, where they’ve helped birds as small as hummingbirds! It’s great to see birds that are working toward release back to the wild as they heal. [Walkable but it’s a bit of a hike. Nice, large park-like property for strolling; block off at least an hour for this.]
Starrigavan Recreation Area
For some reason, the cabins of this public recreation area are the crown jewel of the Tongass National Forest — if you ask us, the cabins are over-rated. Opt to camp out and get the experience of a million-star hotel as you gaze up at night through your tent vent! This campground has a healthy bear population adjacent and there are many sightings throughout the season. Be smart and responsible if you camp (or eat) in the area so that these creatures do not need to be dispatched needlessly. (When we visited, Fortress of the Bears was at capacity, so problem bears likely wouldn’t get the happy ending that tourists think is an option.) The tidal area of the picnic grounds (smartly separated from the campground) is a fantastic place to while away an afternoon if you have your own wheels and want to get a more back-to-nature experience during your time in port. It’s a haul from the city center but is on the way to the ferry terminal, so it may or may not work for your time in town. [This could be a few hours to half of a day or more. It’s a ten minute drive to the end of the island. If you want to stay in the cabin, reserve it months in advance.]
Find an adventure and get after it! No matter how long you have to see what Sitka has to share with you, you can take in something! Don’t waste a single moment gazing out from the rails of the ship, wishing you had more time to see all that beckons. Just experience something!