9. Sitka, AK
On an island in the Alexander Archipelago with roads that give up when they meet forests of massive hemlock and spruce, Sitka is cupped in a bay and protected from the cold, forbidding Gulf of Alaska by rocky green islets. It’s this stunning frame that strikes visitors first, inspiring amateurs off Inside Passage cruise ships as well as professional photographers to remove their lens covers.
There are photo ops galore at Sitka National Historical Park, site of the last major battle between Europeans and Native Americans on the Pacific Coast. The park’s Totem Trail presents a haunting collection of Native American woodcarving art. “Sitka is the most historic community in Alaska, but for me it’s the thousands of years of occupation by the Tlingit people that add depth of culture,” said Teri Rofkar, a Native American weaving artist and Sitka resident.
The woodcarving comes as a revelation, compelling visitors to see it less as artifact and more as art. The same goes for the miraculous Tlingit spruce root baskets, potlatch hats and Raven rattles displayed at the Sheldon Jackson Museum on the campus of a small Presbyterian college, where James Michener lived while writing his epic novel Alaska.
The Sitka Historical Society and Museum boasts 25,000 vintage photographs portraying local ceremony and society. It shares waterfront Harrigan Centennial Hall with a performing arts center, headquarters for the Sitka Summer Music Festival and Russian New Archangel Dancers. The celebrated Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi native dance company performs in the Tlingit Community House.
No other town in the 49th state has Sitka’s charisma. To wander through its historic downtown is to appreciate how three cultures—Tlingit, Russian and American—were woven together. Built partly on bayfront pilings, the landmark Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall houses the first chapter of an organization founded in 1912 to fight discrimination against the state’s first people. The Lutheran Church, built in 1840 for Swedish and Finnish members of the Russian American Company, and onion-domed St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral, with its nearby Russian Bishop’s House, are reminders of Eastern influence.
Above all looms 3,200-foot Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano said to have attracted the Tlingit people to Sitka even before its last eruption around 2200 B.C. It looked about to explode again in 1974 when local prankster Porky Bickar set fire to 100 spare tires dropped by chopper in the mouth of the volcano—the whimsical side of Sitka’s character.