What do Russian bishops, totem poles and rain forests have in common? They're all part of the story at a park in southeastern Alaska that shares its name with a terrific small town, and Sitka National Historical Park provides a fine combination of history and natural history in a setting that's hard to beat.
This is also a location where the cliché "getting there is half the fun" really does apply.
No roads lead to Sitka from the rest of the world, so you have two practical options for a trip to this park: the Alaska Marine Highway System (ferry), or an Alaska Airlines flight from Juneau, Seattle or Anchorage. Some cruise ships also include a stop in Sitka, but this is an area that really deserves more time than is allotted on most package tours.
For the scenic version of the journey, take the state ferry from Juneau to Sitka, or vice versa. If one of the "fast ferries" is making the run, it takes under five hours; the older boats may require 11 hours or more, but the scenery is outstanding, and the passage through Peril Strait and Sergius Narrows is worth the trip.
The ferry schedule varies due to the tide, so plan that passage for daylight hours. Since Sitka averages about 18 hours of daylight in July, that isn't a problem for a summer visit!
Sitka National Historical Park claims the title as "Alaska's oldest federally designated park, and traces its initial designation back to 1890. It became a national monument in 1910 and a national historical park in 1972.
The park and surrounding area offer a fine opportunity to enjoy great scenery, wildlife, a temperate rain forest, the native Tlingit ("Klink-it") culture, the story of Russia's efforts to colonize North America, and an outstanding collection of totem poles.
This is a historical park, but the story here is a different slice of history than you'll find in other NPS areas.
When we hear the term "Colonial North America," most of us are inclined to think of England or Spain, or perhaps even France. A park publication reminds us that "Imperial Russia was the dominant power in the North Pacific for over 125 years" in the 18th and 19th centuries. The park includes the site of the 1804 fort and battle that marked the last major Tlingit Indian resistance to Russian control of the area.
Sitka (known as New Archangel under Russian rule) was the Russian colonial capital. In 1867, the Russian flag was lowered on Castle Hill, home of Alaska's Russian governors, the American flag was raised, and a brief exchange of statements completed the transfer of Alaska to the United States.
During the summer (and by prior arrangement at other times of the year) you can take a tour of the Russian Bishop's House, "one of the few surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America." The Bishop's House was completed in 1842 and was the center of Russian Orthodox Church authority in a diocese that stretched from California to Siberia.
The structure was acquired by the NPS in 1973 and has been restored to its 1853 appearance. NPS rangers conduct tours to "offer visitors a chance to step back into history and feel and understand what it was like to live in Sitka during the Russian-American period."
The house is located near the center of town, and a stroll of about half a mile along the waterfront takes you to the main portion of the park, which offers a scenic view of the town, Sitka Sound and—if it's not too cloudy—the cone-shaped dormant volcano named Mt. Edgecumbe.
Two miles of well maintained, handicapped-accessible trails wind through the park’s 113 acres of tranquil rainforest environment, along the beach of Sitka Sound and the banks of the Indian River. Eagles, ravens, banana slugs, sea birds, ducks, and mink are common here, and spawning salmon are abundant in the river throughout August and September.
Part of the trail system also features another key part of the park story: 18 totem poles and some insight into the Tlingit culture.
Between 1901 and 1903, several Native leaders from villages in southeast Alaska agreed to donate poles to Alaska’s District Governor John G. Brady for the people of Alaska. After exhibiting the poles at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, Governor Brady sent them to Sitka where they were erected in the “government park.”
Many of the poles now standing along the park’s wooded trails are replicas of the originals collected by Governor Brady. The original totem poles that have survived are now conserved and exhibited in Totem Hall at the park visitor center.
You'll have a better understanding of the symbolism of the features carved and painted on the poles if you take a few minutes to view the short film and the exhibits in the visitor center. While you're in the building, visit the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center and chat with one of the Native artists at work.
The park has wisely avoided duplicating activities by other organizations in the community that complement the park story and resources. Two are worth seeing, if you're fortunate enough to visit on a day they're being offered.
The New Archangel Dancers take their name from Sitka’s former designation as the capital of Russian America. The troupe performs downtown at Centennial Hall several days a week during the summer months, "delivering spirited renditions that represent the cultures of Russia and surrounding areas."
The Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers includes Tlingit performers of all ages and "maintains the ancient art of storytelling through traditional dance." Their colorful performances are held most days during the summer in the Community House in downtown Sitka. Call 907-747-7290 on weekdays for a schedule.
If you're interested in birds, spend an hour or so at the Alaska Raptor Center, a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation facility that offers tours and a fine chance learn about and view eagles, hawks and other raptors. After our visit, we could easily recognize the call of a bald eagle, a valuable aid in locating the birds perched in treetops during our walk in the park.
Although getting around Sitka is easy without a car, a rental vehicle for at least one day will provide the option of driving the few miles to the ends of the road both north and south of town. The Starrigavan Recreation Area is seven miles north of town, and includes a campground, two easy trails and a wildlife viewing platform overlooking a marsh.
During my recent visit, the Estuary Life Trail at Starrigavan was closed due to frequent bear activity, but the viewing platform was open and provided a safe location to enjoy watching a large brown bear sow and two cubs who were feeding on the lush vegetation in the area.
If you'd like to do some longer hikes, a network of trails in the area covers about 40 miles of easy to challenging terrain. You can get a map during weekday office hours at the Sitka Ranger District Office in town or find basic information online on the Tongass National Forest website.
My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed three days in Sitka on a recent trip. The town has a population of just under 9,000 people, and we found the locals to be genuinely friendly and helpful. The Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau and Sitka.com both provide good information about a wide range of accommodations and activities in the area.
We found The Backdoor Cafe, behind Old Harbor Books on Lincoln Street, to be a good choice for lunch. They have a fine selection of freshly-prepared sandwiches, baked goods, soup, a variety of hot beverages... and very few tourists. Van Winkle and Sons (205 Harbor Drive) can provide a nicely prepared dinner, but the prize here is a dish of the best huckleberry ice cream I've had since we made our own, years ago in Montana. The Jamestown Bay B&B offered great value, a very comfortable stay and a superb view.
Don't forget your rain gear and a jacket if you visit this area. The park website notes,
Sitka experiences a temperate maritime climate characterized by heavy precipitation and a small temperature range between seasons. In the summer, temperatures range in the high 50's to high 60's F with frequent rain. Winter is rainy and snowy with temperatures from the high teens to mid 40's F.
Although the weather didn't hamper our activities, that advice does prompt some observations about this part of Alaska, known locally simply as "Southeast."
You know you're in Southeast when a sign in the local bookstore reads, "please don't drip on the books," the attire for a classical music concert favors rubber boots over high heels, and bald eagles are such a common sight the locals rarely bother to take a second look.
This park is definitely worth a visit, and if the Russians could have imagined that huckleberry ice cream, I predict they'd still own Alaska!