This story originally appeared in the Anchorage Daily News. September and October are excellent months to visit this Southeast Alaska community with kids, AKontheGO publisher Erin Kirkland writes.
Sitka’s residents always seem to be on their way to an adventure. No matter how often I visit, I see people bustling around downtown, toting kids and gear for a day on the water, in the mountains, or along the expansive shoreline. Nearly everyone is smiling. And why wouldn’t they? Sitka, I’ve discovered, is dialed in to the secret sauce of meshing the outdoors with its citizens. For such a small place, It’s big on community and opportunity. The city is even designated as a Walk Friendly Community, recognized by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center in North Carolina, an organization encouraging communities and cities to commit to safer walking environments.
Located on the west coast of Baranof Island, Sitka is the largest United States city by land area (2,870 square miles), with a population of around 9,000 residents. But the city itself is concentrated into a fairly small area, and this provides easy access for families wanting to get outside. From centuries-old history to Tlingit culture with a dash of kid-centric science and art thrown in the mix, Sitka is not just a blip on the map of Southeast Alaska, it’s a destination not to be missed, no matter the season. And right now is a great season.
While the majority of Sitka visitors show up between May and August, September is a delightful time to take a long weekend with the family and take advantage of a less-crowded city. Below are some of my favorite haunts that maximize pedestrian-powered family fun.
Castle Hill (formally known as the Baranof Castle State Historic Site) is one of the most historically significant places in Alaska. Not only did the Tlingit people inhabit and create a fortification upon this knob of earth and rock, but in 1867, Russia officially handed over ownership of Alaska to the United States. Also a National Historic Landmark, Castle Hill is located right downtown and is an excellent place to take in sweeping views of Sitka Sound and the surrounding mountains.
The Sitka Sea Walk is my primary reason for ditching a vehicle and hoofing it around town. Recently upgraded, this wide, paved walkway stretches from Centennial Hall in downtown to Sitka National Historical Park, just over a mile in distance. There’s plenty to see along the way, though, so allow enough time to look at boats in the harbor, play on the kid-friendly sculptures in a grassy parkland, and visit the new Sitka Community Playground that opened in July. This accessible playground was designed for all ages and abilities, and is located within easy reach of downtown.
Sitka National Historical Park, commonly referred to as “Totem Park” by locals is home to enormous trees, unique totem poles, rocky beaches, and a flowing river that plays host to hundreds of migrating salmon each summer. Although Sitka National Historical Park is Alaska’s smallest national park, it is a big attraction for kids, says Angie Richman, Chief of Interpretation for the park.
“There are so many things to discover on a short walk through the visitor center, totem trail and tidelands,” she said. “And the Junior Ranger program is a great way to start.”
Pick up a Junior Ranger book at the visitor center, or check out a free backpack full of fun items to learn more about the forest and beach areas (the center is open daily through September 30 8 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., then hours and days change for winter, call for more information). Tech-savvy kids (and their parents) will enjoy the innovative “Dial-a-Totem,” an easy way to use a cell phone to learn about the amazing stories of the historic totem poles in the forest. Even though I’m not necessarily a proponent of devices in the outdoors, I did love this app.
If you’ve got the energy and time, walk through Totem Park and follow directions to the Alaska Raptor Center, located on the far side of Sawmill Creek Road. This 17-acre wooded facility is a hospital for injured or ill bald eagles and other raptors, and one of the premier sites for bird education and conservation. Each year the center aids 100-200 raptors, and helps some relearn the skills necessary to continue a wild life. Open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily through September, the center offers a comprehensive tour of the facility and birds (after October 1, no tours are provided but visitors can always self-guide around the facility on weekdays between 10 a.m.-3 p.m.). For more information and admission visit the center’s website.
The United States Forest Service also publishes an excellent map of the downtown Sitka area, featuring other connector trails that can expand your family’s adventure. I’ve used it to explore other, less-visited areas of the city, including a Russian cemetery and the Gavan Hill trailhead.
Just can’t walk anymore? Try Utilize The Ride, Sitka’s public transportation, offering cheap ($2/adults, $1/kids) weekday bus rides around the greater downtown area
Getting to Sitka: Alaska Airlines offers daily jet service from Anchorage and Seattle (Delta Airlines operates under a seasonal schedule). We use Alaska Air miles to get us there and back for a reasonable 5,000 miles each way, per person.
The Alaska Marine Highway System ferries are a staple of Southeast transportation to, and it’s a highlight of our travel aboard the “blue canoes” to stop in Sitka. Be aware that arrival and departure times can be very early or late in the day depending upon the schedule, but a for-fee shuttle meets the ferry to transport passengers into town. Check www.ferryalaska.com for the updated fall and winter schedules.
Where to stay: Sitka is becoming popular for shoulder-season travel, and as a result, more options are available for accommodations. The Sitka visitors bureau provides a nice listing of options ranging from hotels to vacation rentals. https://visitsitka.org/where-to-stay
Looking for special events that celebrate Sitka’s unique community culture? Visit Sitka has a fall lineup published on their website, with the astute mantra “The fun never hibernates.” http://visitsitka.org/things-to-do/events
Don’t forget that fall in Sitka means cooler weather and frequent rain. Dress appropriately with boots, warm layers, and rain gear for everyone in the family. Oh, and in October, Sitka celebrates Alaska Day in a big, big way, so consider a weekend trip before the snow falls.