In Sitka, families discover new ways to experience Alaska

SPONSORED: There’s summer adventure for all on Baranof Island, where kids can dive headfirst into nature, culture, wildlife experiences and more.

Part 3 of 3

Presented by Visit Sitka

Summer in Alaska is a magical time -- especially if you’re a kid. Particularly if you’re a kid who gets to explore the tide pools, beach trails, vivid rainforests and wide-open waters of Alaska’s Pacific coast.

With a COVID-19 vaccine not yet available to children under 12, many families are still forgoing theme parks and other Lower 48 vacation staples and looking for safe, kid-friendly adventure closer to home. And when it comes to unique family fun, few Alaska towns check more boxes than Sitka.

Adventures on land and sea

Situated on Baranof Island’s Pacific shore, Sitka’s temperate marine coastal environment is fairly unique among Alaska communities, and it provides numerous opportunities to get outside.

“A great trip for a family is to go out and do wildlife sightseeing,” said John Dunlap, general manager for Adventure Sitka and owner of Alaska Wild Coast, which offers custom private marine excursions. “Kids are just nuts about any kind of marine wildlife they can see, and they enjoy being part of the process of figuring out what they’re looking at.”

Sitka Sound is home to whales, sea lions, puffins, otters, and more, and while wildlife viewing is prime on both land and sea, Dunlap recommends that families visiting the area plan to spend a full day out on the water.

“Sitka Sound is just too good to be rushed,” Dunlap said. “Take some time and go ashore somewhere … and really get hands-on. Dig in the tide pools. Start a beach fire, have a picnic. If it’s a warm enough day, go wading or swimming.”

The secret to a successful outdoor excursion with kids (besides packing enough snacks)? An age-appropriate itinerary. That’s where it can be helpful to work with an experienced guide who knows the local coastline.

“You can have a great wilderness experience with any kid, but you really have to pick the right environment depending on age,” Dunlap said. With younger kids, you want a safe, remote area with high visibility and minimal hazards. “As the kids get older, you’re kind of picking out more rugged environments. That adds interest to it. Middle school plus, you’re maybe clambering ashore in some rocky little island that’s got a collapsed volcanic lava tube and it’s full of marine life.”

Museums, camps and more

Back on land, the Sitka Sound Science Center lets young visitors get up close and personal with the local aquatic life. Meet a sea star in the touch tanks, seek out Wanda the wolf eel in the deepwater aquarium, and step inside an interactive exhibit that lets you experience what it’s like to see through a salmon’s eyes. Summer camps get kids (and adults, too!) out on the water, into the lab, and knee-deep in immersive science, engineering and recreation programs.

“We’re kind of shoulder to shoulder with wildlife,” Dunlap said. “It’s all around you, and it doesn’t take a lot of work to find yourself having a great wilderness experience.”

For animal lovers, Sitka offers two more must-see attractions. The Alaska Raptor Center, which treats and rehabilitates about 200 wild birds each year, visitors can meet 24 “raptors in residence,” including owls, hawks, and adult eagles living in their natural habitat. And Fortress of the Bear offers one of Alaska’s most intimate (safe) bear encounters. The sanctuary is home to eight brown and black bears who were orphaned as cubs and who now live in the “fortress” where visitors can interact with them and learn about them from wildlife biologists.

For those who’d rather spend their summer onstage than on the trails, Sitka Fine Arts Camp has been attracting young artists, musicians and performers to its summer programs for nearly five decades. And the town’s museums, historical sites and other cultural offerings provide infinite opportunities for young explorers to learn more about how Alaskans have lived and expressed themselves throughout the years.

As a bonus for parents and grandparents, all of the family fun happens in an exceptional setting (even by Alaska’s high standards).

“It’s the natural beauty,” said Dale Lindstrom, manager of Sitka Tribal Tours. “It seems like the greens of the plant life are a different green. The blue in the water, it’s a different blue. When the sun’s out, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Free family fun

Some of the most kid-friendly experiences to be had in Sitka also come with the best possible price tag: $0. The area’s numerous hiking trails range from entry-level to expert, and the island’s forests, hills and beaches are begging to be explored. The area is also surprisingly accessible, with multiple trails that can be used by hikers who use adaptive devices like wheelchairs. Southeast Alaska Independent Living offers rental equipment for visitors who want to use a tandem bike, all-terrain wheelchair, handcycle or adult trike to get around during their stay.

Here are just a few more wallet-friendly ways for kids to experience Sitka:

Become a Junior Ranger Sitka National Historical Park (known locally as Totem Park) offers young visitors a fun way to learn about its history. Kids can pick up a free Junior Ranger activity book at the park visitor center. When they show a park ranger that they’ve completed the activities for their age group, they’ll be sworn in as Junior Rangers -- badge and all. Families can also borrow a “discovery pack” at the visitor center, filled with buckets, tools, guides and other gear for exploring on the nearby beach and in the tidepools.

Explore an island reached by a magical path Is there anything more exciting than a secret spot with a disappearing bridge? At Halibut Point State Recreation Site, low tide reveals a surprise: access to Magic Island. As you wander over to the island (a popular spot for scuba divers), stop and search for tidepool treasures like abalone, sea stars and sea urchins.

Take a hike with history Old Sitka State Historical Park is a great spot to learn about Russian and Tlingit history, but it’s also a fantastic spot to enjoy the outdoors, with two short, accessible trails that are perfect for families with children of any age. “It’s kind of like a little tiny national park, almost,” Lindstrom said. “Play down on the beach. See what is below the tideline.”

Climb, slide and swing by the sea A fairly recent addition to the waterfront, Sitka’s Crescent Harbor Playground was designed with the help of local schoolchildren. The result is a colorful, accessible one-of-a-kind playscape where kids can climb inside a lighthouse, wrestle an octopus and ride a salmon.

Families looking for affordable accommodations can look into renting one of the two dozen U.S. Forest Service cabins located in the Sitka area. These Tongass National Forest cabins are priced and appointed similarly to cabins in the Chugach National Forest; expect to pay between $45 and $75 per night.

Something for everyone

After more than a year of social distancing, many far-flung grandparents and grandchildren will be reuniting this summer.

“Sitka is just perfect for that,” Dunlap said. “It’s such a compact little town. Great things come in small packages -- for a town of maybe 9,000 people, there’s just so much variety here.”

Sitka has just 14 miles of road and a walkable downtown area, making it easy for multigenerational families to get around together or split up to pursue different interests, then reconvene for lunch or dinner.

“In that space, there’s such a range of activities,” Dunlap said. “The museums are outstanding. They’re really accessible places that have a lot of good information for older folks that are trying to sort out some of the history of the area, and then there’s stuff that’s really kid-relatable.”

If you are thinking of making a family trip to Sitka this year, Dunlap strongly recommends planning ahead for activities that require reservations.

“A lot of businesses are shorthanded, and they’re booking activities in advance,” he said. “If you’re planning a trip to a place like Sitka, as soon as you know you’re going, start planning those activities.”

That said, he added, don’t rush the trip itself. You’ll probably be surprised at just how many things your family will want to try once you arrive.

“I think a lot of people would look at a little town like Sitka and think ‘Yeah, that looks good for a couple of days, but is it worth flying down for that?’” Dunlap said. “But that’s really underestimating what Sitka has to offer. It’s very common to hear people say ‘I wish I had more time.’”

Read Part 1: For history and culture lovers, there’s no place like Sitka

Read Part 2: Alaska’s surprising dining destination? Sitka.

Presented by Visit Sitka, inviting Alaska families to explore our unique town, where the fish is fresh, culture is celebrated, and adventure awaits visitors of all ages.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Visit Sitka. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.