Great Debate

Sitka vs Skagway: How to Choose for Your Alaska Trip

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Planning your Alaska trip is a series of seemingly impossible decisions. How long to visit, and when. How much to spend. Where to go, what to do, where to stay. Oh my! You might find yourself stuck between two different destinations, uncertain which will be the right one for you and the kinds of memories you want to make during your bucket list trip to The Last Frontier.

This is why I’ve started a new series of posts I call the “Great Debate;” in each post, I compare two Alaskan communities to help you choose between the two. If you have time to visit both, awesome – but if you (like most visitors) are time-constrained, these posts will help.

Sitka vs Skagway Hero

In this post, I’m comparing Sitka and Skagway. I had the chance to visit both Skagway and Sitka during my Windstar Cruise in Alaska in June 2022. I’ve also been to Sitka a few times before that (most recently in September 2021), and will be returning to Skagway on a cruise in September 2024.

So if you’re stuck on the great debate of Sitka versus Skagway, read on. This guide covers the similarities and differences between the two, as well as the unique aspects each one has to offer travelers. Then I end with a recommendation for which to visit, to wrap everything up nicely for you. Ready to dig in and settle this great debate for your own Alaska trip?

(Short on time? Use the Table of Contents to quickly navigate this post!)

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the Lingít Aaní (traditional lands) of the Tlingit people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Sitka vs Skagway: What are the Differences?

Sitka and Skagway are two picturesque towns in Southeast Alaska, each with its own unique charm and attractions. While they share similarities, such as their stunning natural surroundings, there also are a few differences worth considering. Here’s a comparison of Sitka versus Skagway:

🏝️ Sitka is located on Baranof Island and is part of the Alexander Archipelago. It is uniquely situated with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the vast Tongass National Forest on the other. Having said this, it’s no surprise that Sitka is known for its scenic views of island-studded waters and forested mountain peaks. 

  • The main difference for Sitka with Skagway is the tourist influx. While Sitka’s cruise tourism has exploded over the last few years – they now get more than half a million cruise ship passengers each year – it’s nowhere near as many passengers as Skagway.
  • Sitka still remains a diverse town with more than cruise tourism and has a more traditional vibe.

🌄 Skagway, on the other hand, is located in the northern part of Southeast Alaska, near the head of the Taiya Inlet. It is surrounded by steep mountains and is the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

  • Skagway has become a popular tourist location as almost all cruise companies visit it for its historical significance, colorful buildings, and oddball Alaskan charm.
  • Very few people live there year-round and many stores are only open during tourist season, which contributes to its touristy feel.
  • Another difference worth considering with Skagway is that you’re attached to the road system so, when it feels very suffocating with the amount of tourists, you just have to grab your car keys and get on the road.

Skagway: Gold Rush Bonanza

As you can see, both towns are historical destinations. That’s why when pondering between Skagway vs Sitka, it’s best to know what are the differences between the history they teach.

Skagway’s history is closely tied to the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s. This charming town served as the primary gateway for thousands of gold seekers heading to the Yukon. Naturally, the town retains much of its Gold Rush-era character, with preserved buildings and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, offering a glimpse into its historic past.

As I mentioned above, Skagway is well-known for the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. Beyond its historical value, this train journey is an unforgettable experience, offering panoramic views of mountains, glaciers, and waterfalls. 

Don’t despair, though. Not everything is about trains. Skagway also provides hiking trails, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, and various tours that explore its Gold Rush history.

More Skagway Resources I’ve Written:

Sitka: Tlingit & Russian Origins

Sitka’s story begins long before European settlers arrived, with the Tlingit people’s deep connection to the land. The Tlingit heritage is a living history, preserved through totem poles, dance, and art, offering visitors a glimpse into the rich cultural tapestry of Alaska’s indigenous peoples. Years after, Sitka became the site of the first Russian settlement in Alaska. The Russian footprint in Sitka is still unmistakable, from the onion domes of St. Michael’s Cathedral to the Russian Bishop’s House.

Beyond its historical significance, Sitka is home to Sitka National Historical Park, a sanctuary of natural beauty where you can wander among towering totem poles, learn about local history, and enjoy the serene landscapes.

Finally, Sitka is a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts. The waters around Sitka are prime spots for whale watching and wildlife viewing, offering the chance to see these majestic creatures up close, along with other wildlife like sea otters and bald eagles. You can also visit cool wildlife rehabilitation programs like the Fortress of the Bear and Alaska Raptor Center to get up close and personal with some of Alaska’s wildest animals.

More Sitka Resources I’ve Written:

Skagway or Sitka: How to Choose

Sitka vs Skagway - Heart Lake

Choosing between Skagway or Sitka for a visit depends on your interests, the type of experiences you seek, and what you value in a destination. 

If you’re fascinated by the Gold Rush era, Skagway is the clear choice. The town’s history as a gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush is evident in its preserved buildings and the stories that permeate the area. The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad is a must-do for history buffs.

For those interested in a broader historical narrative that includes Russian-American history, Tlingit culture, and early American colonialism, Sitka is the best bet. Sites like the Sitka National Historical Park provide insights into the area’s diverse past. Also, if the outdoors and wildlife are an interest of you, Sitka offers a coastal experience with opportunities for marine wildlife viewing, fishing, and kayaking. Its location amidst the Tongass National Forest also provides lush, forested areas ideal for hiking and bird watching.

Last but not least, crowds. Skagway sees a significant influx of tourists, especially during the cruise ship season, which can affect the overall experience depending on what you’re looking for. While also a cruise destination, Sitka may offer a somewhat less crowded experience due to the distribution of tourist activities across the area.

I have to end this on an honest note: while I’ve tried to be pretty neutral in this post, I personally have a preference. If you made me choose, 9 times out of 10, I’d recommend Sitka. It’s my favorite community in Southeast Alaska, and I love the huge diversity of experiences it has to offer, the natural beauty of the area, and the food scene (though Skagway also has some great spots!). I hope this helps!

Stuck still trying to decide between Sitka vs Skagway after reading this post? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll try to help you choose.

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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