In early June, I bought my plane ticket to Juneau and booked my room with Airbnb. I was excited for my big trip off the continental USA for the first time since I came here in July 2015. Still, when Sitka appeared as a stopover on my flight itinerary, I didn’t even bother to look it up. I had no intentions of leaving the airport to wander around. Yet, once I got there, that is exactly what I did.
Sitka is the largest city in the United States if you use land area as your benchmark. However, with a population of less than 9,000 one almost winces when using the word “city” to describe it. And even for its population size, the city itself is small. I have seen larger downtown areas in small towns with headcounts less than 2,000 in Georgia and Pennsylvania.
So, what changed my mind about exploring sleepy little Sitka? Well, it all started in Washington.
Surprise Meetup in Seattle
When Tristan and I first looked at our itineraries, we didn’t notice any similarities besides our arrival time in Juneau, Alaska. However, time zones can be a tricky thing and sure enough, shortly after I landed in Seattle and started scouting for breakfast, he texted me to let me know he had just landed, too.
Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting at a restaurant near our terminal, enjoying our good luck. I haven’t travelled on a plane with a family member or friend since I was a teenager or preteen, so the idea of us travelling to Sitka together, which was not on his itinerary, was too tempting a possibility to pass up.
Now, I’ve been travelling abroad since I was nine years old, and hopping on planes by myself since I was around twelve or thirteen. So, I have mastered the art of begging for things I shouldn’t have at the airport and getting it anyway. I have weasled my way into being put on earlier flights and used to be known by name in quarantine at the Atlanta airport.
So, on that fateful day, I weasled my way into a ticket to Sitka for Tristan. Smile, bat your eyelashes a few times, request and beg instead of demand, employ a little bit of flattery, and thank them ten million times while they’re still only trying to decide and you’re as good as gold.
However, I also think Alaska Airlines is just pretty darn awesome. Not counting Air Jamaica, which is now defunct, they are the absolute best airline I have ever flown with.
Flying Into Sitka
Not only did they give Tristan a free flight to Sitka with me, but we received an upgrade in seating so we could sit next to each other. It wasn’t first class, but it was the next best thing. We were ecstatic. We talked. We laughed. We listened to music. And before we knew it, mountain ranges and islands appeared out of nowhere.
I felt as though we were flying over the archipelago from How to Train Your Dragon, which I absolutely love to watch! It was mesmerizing. A European in the row behind us exclaimed, “It’s like flying over New Zealand!” I have never been to New Zealand, but from the pictures I’ve seen, I believe his comparison is a fair one. See for yourself.
Naturally, a view like that had to be corroborated from the ground! Once we landed, the first order of business was ditching our carry-ons. A waitress at the airport restaurant outside the security checkpoint (who turned out to be the owner’s niece) offered to watch our bags while we explored, solving our problem. We immediately accepted and received a “receipt” to take with us, as well as a number for a taxi.
You might be wondering why we didn’t just call Uber or Lyft. Well, there were two reasons for that. Alaska seems to be monopolized by AT&T, but I have ProjectFi and Tristan had Sprint (he now also has ProjectFi). Great for calling and texting, but no data. Also, Uber and Lyft don’t exist in Sitka. It’s too small and everything is too close.
The cab fare wasn’t too bad. It was $10 just to go a mile or two, but there wasn’t much in town to see anyway, so all our constant roaming about and calling and re-calling the driver only cost us about $50 or less. Here are some of the sights we saw during our six or seven hours of layover time.
Baranof Castle Hill
Now, even though the data gods were not on our side, we did manage to connect to fleeting bits of signal which showed us a few of the sights worth seeing. The first one that caught our eyes was Baranof Castle Hill. We were super excited to see castle ruins, but it turns out it really is just a small hill with a nice view and plenty of history.
Here’s the hill and the view.
Here’s the history. You may have to click on the pictures and zoom in to read them.
The Downtown Area
We then decided to see what lay beyond the hill further inland and found ourselves in the downtown area. By Atlanta standards, it wasn’t much of a “downtown”, but it was interesting to look at. It actually reminded me and Tristan of small towns in Jamaica.
The fact that the ocean was to our left as we walked up the street, further enhanced that. The harbour seemed to belong to the military, however, and there were plenty of warning signs up to keep away.
One of the most spectacular architectural features in or around the downtown area is the bridge that makes commute from the airport shorter and easier than it otherwise might be.
Close to this bridge was an area less intimidating than the military-watched harbour, where residents sat on picnic benches, smoked a cigarette, gossipped and walked their dogs, while a cruise ship hung out not too far away.
Sitka National Historical Park
Having seen about as much of the downtown area as there was to see, we decided to do a quick hike at the Sitka National Historical Park. We weren’t sure what to expect, but what we found far exceeded our expectations. If you like hiking trails with Native American art (like totem poles), beautiful rivers and an oceanside view, you should definitely visit this park.
We started our exploring in the visitors center, which has what appears to be either an art exhibit or a museum. We were more fascinated with the outdoors, however, so we didn’t linger long once we had a map. The primary features on the trails were the totem poles—none of which were made in Sitka, just in case you’re wondering!
The view of the ocean to our right was also especially welcome.
However, the highlight of the trail for me was definitely the Indian River. I almost didn’t get to see it, because I didn’t expect it to be worth seeing and suggested another trail, but Tristan was insistent. I’m glad I caved. It was absolutely beautiful and the water was nowhere near as cold as I thought it would be. It was warmer than swimming in California in the summer, for sure! In fact, Sitka was exceptionally warm (more on this in later posts!). I think we were in the 70s the day we visited.
After our hike, we went back to the airport to have dinner at the restaurant that had kept our bags. We ate and looked at the pictures we had taken, while assuring family and friends we had not been kidnapped. We then tipped the manager for keeping our bags and headed off to our 7PM flight to Juneau, Alaska.
That was four airports in just one day, with a hell of a view and a hiking trail to match. If you ever find yourself with a long stopover in Sitka like we did, by all means, make the absolute best of it!
Cost breakdown for this trip:
- Round trip from Atlanta to Alaska: $711.61
- Round trip from Las Vegas to Alaska: $579.80 (Tristan paid for his flight)
- Airbnb Booking: $317.99
- Turo Car Rental: ~$347.35 (Tristan paid for the car rental)
Thus, the entire trip cost me $1,029.60 and cost Tristan $927.15. Together, we shared a total cost of $1,956.75. This was our most expensive trip to date and worth every penny!