By Patricia Doherty
Updated February 25, 2020
Advertisement
Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

Nearly everyone loves a sunny day at the beach, but there’s also something appealing about small towns, historic houses, boat-filled harbors, a chill in the air, and a backdrop of pine forests and towering hills. Fluffy clouds among patches of blue, or even gray skies and raindrops, create an atmosphere that’s cozier than a beach blanket on warm sand. If you’re in doubt, we have a few examples of small coastal towns in Alaska that will have you ready to trade your swimsuit for a puffy coat, even if just for a week or two.

Ketchikan

This town is on the southern tip of Alaska’s Inside Passage, a network of waterways, coves, and more than 1,000 small islands created by glaciers during the last ice age. Mountains, forests, and wildlife on both sea and land make the area a favorite cruise destination.

Visitors approaching from the sea will be struck by the scene of colorfully painted wooden houses set on stilts, their hues reflected in the water of the town’s harbor. Forested hills slope upward, and behind the lush green of the trees, rugged mountains creased with snow appear. Water flows through the town, and Creek Street’s boardwalk is built over Ketchikan Creek in the town’s historic district. There’s a waterfront promenade, hiking trails, and millions of acres of Tongass Rainforest.

On the subject of rain, locals celebrate their “liquid sunshine” and even post details of record rainfall. Abundant wildlife thrives in the area, including killer whales, sea lions, bears, deer, and bald eagles. Ketchikan is also known for totems, carved wooden poles made by Native Americans, which are displayed throughout downtown and in totem parks. Naturally, fresh seafood is on the menu. Look for smoked salmon, halibut, red snapper, and king crab. Clean air, delicious food, gorgeous scenery, and outdoor activities make Ketchikan one of Alaska’s most beloved seaside towns.

Sitka

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Located in a temperate rainforest, Sitka’s annual precipitation is around 95 inches, and weather is relatively mild and cool, with lows in December and January around 30 degrees. Sitka is accessible only by air or sea, set on the Pacific coast of Baranof Island in the waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage. The Alaska Marine Highway ferry connects the island with the mainland, providing transport for passengers and vehicles.

As Alaska’s first capital city, Sitka is rich in history and culture that includes native Tlingit as well as Russian influences from its time as a Russian settlement. Churches, including the rebuilt St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, house collections of art and religious treasures. Sitka National Historical Park displays native Tlingit and Haida totem poles along the park’s coastal trail along with a restored Russian Bishop’s house. Sitka hosts a Summer Music Festival each June, held over four weeks in various locations around town.

Sitka’s walkable downtown is a great place for shopping, with creations like Tlingit silver work, carvings, masks, and woven baskets. Traditional Russian lacquer boxes, nesting dolls, and icons are available as well. Shoppers can also find practical items like waterproof boots, fishing poles, and warm clothing. At Artist Cove Gallery, visitors shop for authentic basketry, sculpture, dolls, and jewelry from native and local Alaskan artists. Perfect for a stop after shopping, Harry’s Soda Fountain serves old fashioned treats like sundaes, malts, and banana splits.

Seward

The city is named for William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Mount Marathon towers over Seward, and each year the city hosts a challenging 3.1 mile run to the mountain’s 3,022 foot peak, attracting runners from all over the world to the event and to Seward’s Fourth of July celebration.

Set on Resurrection Bay, Seward is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, location of the massive Harding Ice Field and tidewater glaciers that calve into the sea among seals, sea lions, and whales. Day trips take visitors to see the wildlife and close up views of the glaciers. Alaska SeaLife Center is another popular attraction, a public aquarium and the state’s only permanent marine mammal rehabilitation facility. The Alaska Native Heritage Center features storytelling, song and dance, and art collections to share the history of Alaska’s cultural groups.

Art continues in downtown Seward with murals depicting historical characters, events, and nature. Live music is another regular feature of downtown Seward, especially in summer when local bars, cafes, and coffee shops host concerts. Seward’s galleries offer local creations like paintings, jewelry, ceramics, baskets, dolls, drums, and masks. A stroll among the shops and galleries along the scenic boat harbor is one way to spend a perfect afternoon in Seward.

Skagway

Stephen Dorey/Getty Images

Located at the northernmost point of the Inside Passage, Skagway is set in a narrow valley. The city is connected to Klondike Highway allowing road access, and it’s also a port-of-call for Alaska’s ferry system, the Alaska Marine Highway. Its northern location provides 18 hours of daylight in summer, when the weather is warm and dry.

Skagway’s quaint downtown looks much as it did a hundred years ago with wooden storefronts and period-style buildings. Gold Rush era architecture is preserved as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, commemorating the events of 1897-98, when gold was discovered and stampeders were drawn to the harsh terrain of the area in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to find riches. There’s a Visitor Center in a restored 1898 railroad depot offering various programs and exhibits during the summer months. Vintage locomotives of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad run past the steep Chilkoot Trail.

Several events each year bring many visitors to Skagway. The annual Buckwheat Ski Classic, an international cross country ski race, takes place in March. In summer, hiking and outdoor activities continue, and the Summer Solstice and Independence Day celebrations feature food, games, live music, parades, and beer gardens. In September, the Klondike Road Relay is run throughout the night and into the next day under starry skies and sometimes with displays of the northern lights.

Gustavus

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Truly a small city with a population of around 450, Gustavus is surrounded by Glacier Bay National Park and snow-capped mountains, about a four-hour ferry ride east of Juneau. With about half the rainfall of Juneau, the relatively moderate climate is ideal for outdoor activities and wildlife sightings. In summer the population of Gustavus swells by thousands as the city is the gateway to the National Park.

Gustavus has a small town, friendly feel, with cafes, restaurants, and a variety of lodging from campgrounds to guesthouses and B&Bs. Writers, artists, gardeners, and lovers of quiet environments have settled in Gustavus, and the town’s homesteader history lives on in its old-style atmosphere. Galleries, studios, and shops display and sell the art, sculpture, pottery, wood carvings, and jewelry of local artisans. The Salmon River runs through town, and Icy Strait is home to salmon, halibut, seals, humpback whales, orcas, and sea otters. Whale watching, fishing, kayaking, and wildlife tours are popular with visitors.

The Glacier Bay National Park Visitors Center is nine miles from Gustavus in Bartlett Cove. Spectacular glaciers, icebergs, marine life, and mountains make Glacier Bay a memorable sight for cruise ship passengers. Travelers who take time to visit Gustavus along with Glacier Bay National Park can experience both a uniquely charming town and the park’s natural beauty.