Once the capital of Russian Alaska, Sitka is now a gorgeous town nestled among the islands of the Inside Passage. Surrounded by green hills, then larger mountains and icecaps to the east, and the ocean and smaller islands to the west, Sitka is usually listed among the prettiest towns in Alaska, and often among the prettiest in America. I was supposed to visit on my last trip to Alaska, but bad weather delayed our flights, and we had to skip the town altogether.
So I took advantage of a work trip to Anchorage to explore Sitka. We arrived a little after midday and, after some trouble finding a cab into town, we strolled along the waterfront into Sitka’s National Historic Park, a forest dotted with totem poles and lined with trails. Almost immediately we spotted a bald eagle in one of the spruce trees above the trail.
We kept walking through the park, enjoying the beautiful views and spotting more eagles soaring over the creek. Then we ambled over to the Alaska Raptor Center, a rescue center for eagles and other birds. We got great views of the birds that were healing and recovering at the sanctuary. Afterwards we headed to nearby Harbor Mountain Brewing Company for some tasty beers and delicious pizza.
The next morning we got some smoothies and pastries at Highliner Coffee, then went down to the harbor. Captain Rick of Coastal Tours Sitka took us out into Crescent Bay in his boat. We motored out towards Kruzof Island, pausing to watch a humpback whale mother and her calf cruise through Sitka Sound. We also stopped by an island graced by seals and seabirds and surrounded by sea otters. One of the otter moms held a pup on her stomach, even though the pup looked far too big. She tried repeatedly to push the pup off and into the water, but he didn’t want to go. Finally she shot us a look that seemed to say, “Humans, can you help me with this?”
We pushed futher west around Kruznof island, spotting puffins, bald eagles, cormorants, and more whales. Then we turned and steamed back to port.
Back on land, we explored Old Harbor Books, the town’s main bookseller, and its attached coffee shop, the Backdoor Cafe. We ate lunch at Ashmo’s, one of several excellent food trucks in town (this one offered fresh salmon and halibut).
After lunch we walked north of town to the Indian River Trailhead. We followed the trail through beautiful boreal forest about four and a half miles to the base of Indian River Falls, a beautiful waterfall still gushing from the winter snow melt.
We hiked back to town and had a fantastic dinner at Beak. Then we walked over to Ernie’s Old Time Saloon, a fun local dive.
We slept in the following day, intending to hike from Harbor Mountain Trailhead back into town. The best way to do this hike is to shuttle a car, or get a ride out to Harbor Mountain Trailhead, which is about 2,000 feet above sea level and ten miles out of town. The trail climbs a few hundred feet, then rolls gently through the hills above Sitka, before descending steeply back into town over the course of about 6 miles. Unfortunately we rediscovered the difficulty of finding transportation in Sitka. No one was available to drive us out to the trail, and we heard that even if we could find a taxi willing to take us out there, it would be really expensive.
So we did the hike the hard way, starting from town. We embarked from the Baranof Street Trailhead and walked over mostly flat ground to the base of Gavan Hill. At that point the trail begins ascending very steeply about 2,500 feet. There’s a viewpoint with a wooden platform after about a mile and 1,000 vertical feet, but the view is largely obstructed by trees.
The effort to keep hiking is well-rewarded. The trail continues climbing through the forest, then rolls over the ridge, with bald eagles soaring overhead, for a bit before ascending again to the Gavan Hill summit above Sitka. The view of the town and its surroundings is absolutely spectacular.
Early the next morning we boarded a flight to Juneau, where we stopped briefly before pushing on to Anchorage. Landing in Anchorage, we rented a car and drove southwest along the Kenai Peninsula. We stopped in Cooper Landing for lunch overlooking the beautiful ice-blue Kenai River. Then we drove along Skilak Lake Road, a gravel path that winds through the beautiful countryside. It’s slower than staying on the highway, but offers several great vistas and excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. I spotted a black bear crossing the road about a hundred yards ahead of us, but the bear disappeared into the woods as we drew closer.
Returning to Highway 1, we sampled some beer at Naptowne Brewing Company. We continued on to Kenai to see the old Russian Orthodox church (and grab warm drinks at Veronica’s Old Town Cafe). Driving further south along the peninsula, we caught sight of a moose grazing in the forest along a side road, and we had to turn around to take some pictures.
Homer is a small town of about 8,000 people at the end of the Kenai Peninsula. It’s known as “the end of the road” because Alaska’s Highway 1 terminates in the Homer Spit, a long, low stretch of land jutting into Kachemak Bay. We grabbed a beer at the Homer Brewing Company, then some excellent fresh fish for dinner at The Kannery.
In the morning we drove out to Homer’s small airport and boarded a Cessna 206—a small six-seat propeller plane. Our pilot flew us west into Katmai National Park, giving us beautiful views of the icecaps and glaciers before landing on a gravel beach.
Stepping out of the aircraft, we immediately noticed large bear footprints in the sand. Gathered in a tight group, we hiked to the end of the beach and into a verdant meadow. Suddenly there were bears everywhere.
These were coastal brown bears, also known as peninsular grizzly bears, the same species (Ursus arctos) as interior grizzlies, but quite a bit larger. We walked slowly through the meadow, then sat down together to watch these incredible creatures.
The bears were aware of our presence. They sniffed to get our scent, sometimes gulping extra air with their mouths. Some were disquieted and moved further away; others seemed curious and came closer. After a while, though, most of them accepted our presence and ignored us, returning to grazing on the sedges, napping, and wrestling.
We watched the bears for hours. It’s not an exaggeration to say it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Then we stood and walked back towards the beach, to a spot where a stream ran into the ocean. We saw a female bear running through the water, hunting for flounder. She splashed around loudly to get the fish moving, then stalked them until she could pin one with her claw. We saw her catch three or four fish, all of which she ate immediately.
Returning to the plane, we kept pausing to watch the bears in the river. Just as we were about to board for the return flight, a fox trotted across the beach. She had a vole in her mouth, and she was bringing the food back to her den for her kits.
We finally returned to Homer, images of the bears sticking firmly in our minds. We visited Sweetgale Meadworks & Cider House for some really interesting and tasty meads. Then we had an excellent dinner at AJ’s Old Town Steakhouse and Tavern, rightfully well-known for its steaks and seafood.
Not quite ready for the day to end, we drove out East End Road. It was still light even though it was after 10 PM. We grabbed a nightcap at The Homestead, a cozy restaurant and bar with a deck overlooking the bay.
Getting a late start in the morning, we explored the Homer Spit. Then we hired a boat to take us across the water to Kachemak Bay State Park, home to most of the good hiking in the area around Homer. The water taxi dropped us off near the Glacier Spit trailhead, and we hiked inland before taking a detour up the Grewingk Tram Spur Trail. The tram is a basket hanging from ropes suspended above a braided river, powered by hand, that allows hikers to cross to the trails on the far side. We pulled ourselves out into the middle of the river to take in the views, but we didn’t have time to explore the more distant trails.
We returned to the Glacier Lake Trail, reaching the lake after a few more miles. The lake offers beautiful views of the eponymous glacier, though a cold wind blows constantly down from the ice. Then we hiked out the Saddle Trail into Halibut Cove to catch the taxi back to Homer for a delicious pizza dinner at Twisted Goat.
In the morning we began the drive back up the Kenai Peninsula. We stopped for lunch at the Kenai River Brewing Company and tasted beers at the St. Elias Brewing Company. Then we hiked out Russian River Falls Trail, a beautiful jaunt through green forest. The falls themselves are unspectacular, but June and July they’re the site of an incredible salmon run. We caught the falls between the major salmon runs, though we did catch glimpses of a few fish trying to ascend the falls.
We stopped for dinner at Cooper Landing Brewing Company for some delicious food served by Blue Yeti. Unfortunately, as we continued north towards Anchorage, traffic came to a halt. There had been a fatal head-on collision between two motorhomes, and Highway 1, the only artery connecting Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula, had been completely closed for hours. The traffic added more than three hours to our drive, so we didn’t reach Anchorage until after midnight and even the Alaskan summer sun had finally set.
I had to work in Anchorage during the week. But we spent our lunch breaks and evenings enjoying the local restaurants and attractions. On Wednesday, our last night in town, we had a beautiful view of the mountains of Lake Clark National Park across the water from the city, a fitting end to fantastic journey.