Outdoors/Adventure

Pedestrian-powered Sitka makes it easy for families to get outdoors

The new Sitka Community Park is convenient to downtown and is suited for kids of diverse ages and abilities. (Photo by Erin Kirkland)

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 a designated Walk Friendly Community, recognized by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center in North Carolina, an organization that encourages communities 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 about 9,000.

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 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, Castle Hill is one of the most historically significant places in Alaska. Not only did the Tlingit people inhabit and create a fortification on this knob of earth and rock, but in 1867, Russia officially handed over ownership of Alaska to the United States here.

A National Historic Landmark, Castle Hill is right downtown and is an excellent place to take in sweeping views of Sitka Sound and the surrounding mountains.

Sitka Sea Walk

This 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, so allow enough time to look at boats in the harbor, play on the kid-friendly sculptures in a grassy parkland and visit the Sitka Community Playground that opened in July.

Sitka National Historical Park

Commonly referred to as Totem Park by locals, the park is home to enormous trees, totem poles, rocky beaches and a flowing river that plays host to hundreds of migrating salmon each summer.

Walking through Sitka National Historic Park means exploring the many stories in the totems displayed there. (Photo by Erin Kirkland)

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 (open daily from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. through Sept. 30; call for winter hours) or check out a free backpack full of fun items to learn about the forest and beach areas.

Kids (and their parents) will enjoy the innovative "Dial-a-Totem," an easy way to use a cellphone to learn about the stories of the totem poles. Even though I'm not necessarily a proponent of devices in the outdoors, I loved this idea.

Alaska Raptor Center

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 a premier site for bird education and conservation. Each year the center aids 100 to 200 raptors.

Open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily through September, the center offers a comprehensive tour (no tours are provided after Oct. 1 but visitors can self-guide around the facility on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.)

Exploring downtown

The U.S. Forest Service 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 less-visited areas of the city, including a Russian cemetery and the Gavan Hill trailhead.

Just can't walk anymore? Try the Ride, which offers cheap  weekday bus rides ($2 adults, $1 kids) around the greater downtown area.

What to know if you go

You can fly to Sitka, or you can take the ferry. If you opt for the ferry, be aware that arrival and departure times can be very early or late in the day depending upon the schedule. For a fee, you can take a  shuttle into town.

The visitors bureau provides a listing of options ranging from hotels to vacation rentals. It also has a calendar of fall events.

Don't forget that fall in Sitka means cooler weather and frequent rain. Dress appropriately with boots, warm layers and rain gear.

Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel.