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Exploring Sitka: An Alaskan adventure part four

Unless you really have your heart set on a prearranged and guided shore excursion in Sitka, Alaska, you’re better off exploring this quaint coastal town’s historical past on foot. With numerous sites of interest within easy walking distance, visitors have plenty of time to explore and shop.

The entrance to the Russian Bishop's House at Sitka National Historical Park.
The entrance to the Russian Bishop's House at Sitka National Historical Park.
Photo by Karen Sweeny-Justice
The park entrance sign in Sitka is nestled between two totem poles.
The park entrance sign in Sitka is nestled between two totem poles.
Photo by Karen Sweeny-Justice

Located on Baranof Island on the outer coast of Alaska's Inside Passage, Sitka can only be reached via air or sea. Between 1799 and 1867, the community, then known as New Archangel, was the capital of Russian America. Even before the Russians arrived, the Tlingit called the region home. Sitka National Historical Park was established in 1890 as a federal park commemorating the 1804 Battle of Sitka between the native Tlingits and the Russians.

Sitka National Historical Park has grown and expanded upon what it preserves and displays. Two units of the park – located just a few minutes walking distance from each other – give visitors a glimpse into what it was like living in Russian America and a glimpse into the culture of the Tlingit people.

Walking from the docks in downtown Sitka, visitors arrive at the Russian Bishop's House first. This building was owned by the Russian Orthodox Church through the 1960s; in 1972 the U.S. Congress purchased it to add to the national park. Restoration of the structure took 16 years, but returned the building to its 19th century appearance. One of the last surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture to be found in North America, this 1843 log structure tells of the legacy of Russian America through exhibits and refurbished living quarters. The architecture is solid, with tightly fitted logs that were both sturdy and waterproof. Insulated with gravel, sand and sawdust, the house kept Bishop Innocent (née Ivan Popov-Veniaminov) and his household warm.

There is no charge to view the rooms and exhibits on the first floor of the house, but during the summer there is a fee of $4 per person for ranger-led tours of the second floor. The second floor was where Bishop Innocent lived and had a private chapel. Today, the Chapel of the Annunciation is used for services twice a week.

Allow about 15 minutes to walk to the end of Lincoln Street from the Russian Bishop's House to the fort site unit where the park’s visitor center is located. Tlingit culture is the focus of exhibits and displays, and the center itself is filled with examples of traditional totem carvings and spruce root baskets created by native Tlingit and Haida weavers.

While totem carvings and poles can be seen inside, the vast number of poles outside has led to the park’s nickname: Totem Park. If time allows, journey through the temperate rainforest on the Totem Loop Trail past the shore of Sitka Sound to the Indian River. Along the 2-mile trail are 18 totem poles, some of which were displayed at 1904 exhibitions in Portland, Ore. and St. Louis, Mo.

The visitor center is built on the site of the 1804 fort that stood during a battle between colonial Russians and the native peoples of Southeastern Alaska. There is little to actually see of the battle – the last major conflict between Europeans and the natives of the Northwest Coast – except for a clearing at the site of a Kiks.ádi Fort.

The visitor center is shared by the park service with the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center. Alaskan artists demonstrating traditional carving, weaving and bead work may be on hand.

Sitka National Historical Park is open year-round. The visitor center is:

• Open daily May - September from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• From October - April, it is open Tuesday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
• The visitor center is closed during the winter season on federal holidays.

The Russian Bishop's House is:

• Open May - September: Daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• Tours of the second floor are offered every 30 minutes; fee charged.
• Open October - May with advance reservations. To arrange a winter season tour, phone (907) 747-0110.

Park Trails are open:

• May - September: Daily, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
• October - April: Daily, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.