The setting of Sitka, Alaska, in a tranquil bay on Baranof Island, is nothing short of spectacular. Tiny islands dense with evergreen trees dot the blue-green water, which is crisscrossed by dozens of fishing boats. Looming over the town and waterfront is Mount Edgecumbe, a Mount Fuji look-alike located on a nearby island.
Sitka also has a rich legacy of artifacts and traditions from the Alaska Native, Russian and early-U.S. eras. It is the ancestral home of the Kiksadi Tlingit people. In the 1800s, before Alaska was sold to the U.S., the town was a major Russian port, headquarters of the Russian-American Company, established to promote the fur trade, and the capital of Russian North America.
Sitka has 24 listings on the National Register of Historic Places, seven of which are National Historical Landmarks, and Sitka was named one of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
But don't spend all your time touring historic buildings—Sitka also has an abundance of wildlife. Humpback whales frolic in the bay; massive brown bears and Sitka black-tailed deer roam through nearby forests of Sitka spruce and hemlock; and thousands of seabirds, including the rare rhinoceros auklet and tufted puffin, flock to St. Lazaria National Wildlife Refuge at the mouth of Sitka Sound.
Sitka is one of southeast Alaska's most picturesque communities. Accessible only by air or sea (like most southeast Alaska communities), Sitka sits on the outer coast of Baranof Island in serene Sitka Sound, a body of water that protects the community from the pounding Pacific Ocean but not from the rain. The average annual precipitation measures 96 in/244 cm, including 39 in/99 cm of snow.
Hundreds of spruce- and hemlock-studded islands dot the sound, and snowcapped volcano Mount Edgecumbe rises majestically 3,200 ft/992 m in the background. (It last erupted 8,000 years ago.) Sitka has only 14 mi/23 km of paved roads.
The Russian-American Company's insatiable search for sea-otter fur lured the Russians to the Sitka region in 1799. The Kiksadi Clan of the Tlingit people living in the area refused to become slaves to the fur traders and attacked the Russian outpost in 1802, killing most of the Russians and their Aleut slaves. Two years later, company manager Alexander Baranof retaliated and drove out the Tlingits, founding New Archangel—which became Sitka—and built a stockade on what became known as Castle Hill.
In the 19th century, Sitka was the fur-trading capital of the world. It was the busiest port on the eastern side of the Pacific and the only shipyard north of Hawaii. By 1867, however, overhunting had diminished the sea-otter and fur-seal trade, so the Russians sold Alaska to the U.S. for US$7.2 million on 18 October. It was the equivalent of US$0.02 per acre in today's currency value. At the time, the sale was widely derided as wasteful by the majority of U.S. citizens—at least until the late 19th century, when gold was discovered in the area.
After 60 years as the capital of Russian North America, Sitka continued to function as the capital of the territory of Alaska until 1906, when the capital was moved to the gold-rich town of Juneau. Sitka's legacy is its blending of Tlingit, Russian and U.S. culture and history, evident in the landmarks, tours and museums around town.
Sightseeing in Sitka provides visitors with a glimpse of Russian, U.S. and Tlingit cultures and conflicts in the area. A must-see is the Sitka National Historical Park.
The major wildlife attractions in the area focus on bears, humpback whales, sea otters, seabirds and birds of prey.
Typical of a small town, Sitka isn't brimming with nightlife activities. What you will find, however, is a handful of classy and salty bars filled with colorful locals.
Sitka's restaurant options are limited, and most prominently feature seafood.
On occasion, a colorful tent, labeled "Crab Feast," is set up to sell freshly steamed Dungeness crabs. Find it behind Brenner's Fine Clothing and Gifts at 124 Lincoln St.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.
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