Sitka - Jewel of the Inside Passage

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June 30th 2015
Published: October 16th 2015
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Sitka, formerly a Russian outpost, where Alaska was ceremoniously transferred to the United States after the purchase promoted by Secretary of State William Seward in 1867, was the one city we continuously heard was the most beautiful in Alaska. My family, who lived in Alaska for decades, said it shouldn’t be missed. A ferry employee was wistfully talking to a co-worker about how she was saving up to retire in Sitka.

You often feel you’re going to be disappointed when expectations are set so high, but we fell in love with Sitka just like everyone else! The fact that we had perfectly clear, sunny days for nearly a week, unheard of in the Inside Passage, didn’t hurt. As one local stated, “It usually rains and it’s a good thing because if it didn’t, everyone would want to live here.”

As usual, we had only sketchy plans for camping. We had read about the Starrigavan (“STAR-ga-vin”) State Park Campground which was half a mile from the terminal but was listed as fully booked on-line. When we arrived, I suggested we investigate if there were any walk up vacancies since it was so close. Terry developed a great rapport with one of the ticket agents, who said he knew the campground host, Tom, and would be glad to drive him up there to check.

When they returned, Terry had reported that not only were there some vacancies, the campground wasn’t even half full! We hoisted our 40+ pound backpacks on our backs and walked up the road to the campground. At the registration cabin, we met Kathleen and Tom. They had been the hosts for over 10 years and lived in the cozy home at the end of the road. They recommended we stay on site #39, their favorite in the entire campground, one of three walk-in sites which cannot be reserved in advance. Sites 39, 40 and 41 are gloriously situated on a lovely quiet bay and each is very private. We were ecstatic and becoming enamored of Sitka.

Tom and Kathleen keep the camp in an immaculate fashion and couldn’t have been more accommodating. On the opposite side of the road were the RV sites and an artesian well meant for campers but frequented by many folks from Sitka. We enjoyed filling our water bottles there but were happy to be away from the many cars coming for the same.

Downtown Sitka

The local bus stopped at the ferry terminal 15 minutes after each hour during the day. It took approximately 13 minutes to walk there from our campsite. The last bus left downtown at 6:45pm during the week.

After getting situated, we grabbed the next town-bound bus ride and disembarked at Crescent Harbor and walked over to the main Visitor Center/Museum. Inside the huge building, we found an untended reception area and a sign to go around the corner. We popped our heads inside the first lit office where an extremely genial and laid back gentleman was sitting at a desk. He seemed to be a town employee with only general knowledge of things visitors might need but was very eager to be helpful.

We hit the post office next, and were greeted by an ex-Bostonian postal worker who extolled all the virtues of Sitka, a cultural hub in Alaska that hosted an annual world renowned classical music festival among many arts events.

On a question as to where we could catch the next game of the Women’s World Cup in Soccer, he recommended the Bayview Restaurant and Pub. Our timing was perfect as the US team scored the goal to move ahead shortly after our arrival at the eatery. The crowd, groups of men, women, mixed, young and old, erupted and stayed engaged until the victory. I was delighted to order sensational local rockfish fish tacos. One of the benefits of finding a place to watch live sports events is the departure from camp cuisine and not having to clean up!

For a small isolated city, Sitka has a deep-rooted focus on history and art, nowhere more evident than in the Sitka National Historical Park known for its exquisite totem poles. Among the traditional ones with their common themes of Tlingit (“Clink-it”) leaders with potlatch hats, bears, wolves, eagles, ravens and humpback whales, there are modern versions with arresting faces and ideas.


Sated and content, we took the last daily bus back to the ferry terminal and as we ambled through Old Sitka State Historical Park, an original Russian settlement, on the way back to camp, a camper van pulled up and the driver called out to us. It was a couple we had met on the top deck of the ferry to Sitka. During the crossing, they had engaged in the same side-to-side vigil from to capture photos of whales so we had struck up an ongoing conversation with them. They were respectively a school librarian and physical therapist from Kansas. We never exchanged names so we referred to them as “Kansas”.

Now they were on their way to the RV side of our campsite. They offered us a ride which we declined as we were enjoying the walk but we exchanged campsite numbers and info on Sitka. “Suit yourselves”, they smiled as they drove off.

They were scheduled to leave a day later but their ferry was cancelled. There is a distinct disadvantage to having an RV when the trip is cancelled as vehicle space on all subsequent ferries is fully booked. Every day that we thought Kansas had moved on to another port, we’d run into them. It became a running joke that they’d say goodbye then pop up the next day.

Salmonberries and Magic Hour

We strolled out towards the rocky beach on our quiet campsite bay and found fields of salmonberry bushes, their fruit at their peak. Salmonberries look like large raspberries in a wide range of saturated colors from deep yellow, orange, salmon pink to wine red. The berries are semi-sweet and each hue has a unique flavor. It became one of our favorite pastimes to enjoy handfuls of berries wherever we walked or hiked in Sitka. My husband, usually on a march to completion on trails, often wandered off the path enticed by a particularly abundant patch.

Following a wonderful dessert of fresh salmonberries, that evening was one of the prettiest of our entire journey. When the shafts of late sunlight broke through the mossy trees surrounding our site, the entire area became aglow in gold. It seemed that little fairies could come dancing out at any moment. We called it the Magic Hour and although it was nice every night we were there, it was never as perfect as that first sunset again. It didn’t hurt that we were the only campers in that area and enjoyed a private paradise.

Fourth of July Weekend

We arrived in Sitka for their buildup and celebration of the 4th of July. The holiday celebration included a hometown parade, free admission to the Bishop’s house with traditional 19th century childrens’ games played on the lawn, fire cannon soccer and an ice cream social.

Every day beginning Thursday, there was a local food and games festival in the main school playground. After experimentation, we settled on our favorite meal of green chile tamales and veggie taco bowl and couldn’t resist returning to that same combination 3 days in a row.

When we came back the 2nd day, three young entrepreneurs were selling home baked goods but only to support their snow cone and cotton candy habits! On learning it was the birthday of one of the boys, Terry added enough tip for him to get his own. That made his day and his smile was ear-to-ear as he ran back with his treats.

We returned down the hill to the main street and the Russian Bishop’s house and ran into Kansas who were just exiting the historic building. It is a national monument which offers a for-fee guided tour to the 2nd floor which includes a small altar and living quarters of the beloved religious leader who endeared himself to the local population during the time of Russia’s control of the sea otter hunting route along the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak and Sitka.

Sitka and Sanctuary

On the morning of the 4th, we attended the ceremonial liberation of several rehabilitated bald eagles at the Raptor Center. In addition to seeing those birds released back to the wild, we were able to observe the center veterinarian operate on one feathered patient under anesthesia through a window. Besides the ever popular eagles, there are many other types of birds of prey such as falcons. The most adorable were the baby barn owls with their outsized eyes and blank stares.

We also took the bus to Whale Park at the opposite of the coastal road and walked a mile around the beautiful point to the Fortress of the Bear rescue center for orphaned bears. In an old yard with high concrete walls, you can safely observe black and brown snooze, frolic in water or wrestle. Depending on how wild you insist on your wildlife viewing be, it is a fantastic opportunity to see bears fairly closely who would otherwise have to be killed.

Biking Sitka

Our happy little bus schedule worked perfectly for us with one small problem – it didn’t run on weekends or holidays. We solved the problem by renting bikes and it was wonderfully liberating to zip around beautiful sunny and enchanting Sitka.

In the end, it was sad to leave but we were consoled by the company of familiar kindred spirits who finally were able to get off the island, our buddies from Kansas.

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