Ketchikan is known as Alaska’s “first city” due to its location at the southern tip of the Inside Passage – it is the first city you reach as you cruise north, and for many visitors, their first introduction to the beauty and majesty of Alaska.
About Ketchikan (Tlingit: Kichx̱áan)
Just 90 miles north of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Ketchikan hugs the bluffs that form the shoreline along the southwest corner of Revillagigedo Island. Stretching 31 miles long but never more than 10 blocks wide, Ketchikan is centered on Tongass Avenue. On one side of the avenue, many businesses and homes are built on stilts out over the water, while on the other side they cling to the steep slopes and often have winding wooden staircases leading to their doors.
Things to do
The downtown area is the main commercial district and contains two large harbors, several cruise ship docks, and many of Ketchikan’s main attractions, including historic Creek Street, a picturesque boardwalk path built over Ketchikan Creek on stilts. Creek Street was Ketchikan's famed red-light district until 1954. Today, the street is home to art galleries, gift shops, bookstores, restaurants, and is a photographer's delight.
The most popular house in the 1930s on Creek Street was Dolly's House, the parlor of the city's most famous madam, Dolly Arthur. Today, it's a museum dedicated to this notorious era. Inside you’re guided through the brothel, hear about Dolly’s intriguing life in Alaska, and see, among other things, its bar, which was placed over a trapdoor to the creek for quick disposal of bootleg whiskey.
The city center is best viewed from Ketchikan’s Waterfront Promenade that skirts the busy shoreline and is equipped with historical markers and whale-tail benches for visitors to rest and take in the maritime scenery. Ketchikan’s newest boardwalk, the Promenade begins near Berth 4, passes Harbor View Park, follows the cruise ship docks, and then wraps around Thomas Basin Harbor.
Hiking, Camping, & Wildlife Viewing
The Ketchikan road system extends both north and south of the city and leads to more parks, attractions, and accommodations. RVers often depart the Alaska Marine Highway and head north to a handful of campgrounds including Settlers Cove State Recreation Site at the end of the road, 18 miles north of Ketchikan. The 38-acre state recreation site features 14 campsites nestled among a lush rainforest and overlooking a scenic coastal area, plus a quarter-mile trail to a waterfall and observation deck. To the south, South Tongass Avenue leads to totems and hiking trails.
Ketchikan also serves as the departure point for side trips to Prince of Wales Island, Annette Island, numerous bear viewing sites, and one of the area’s most impressive attractions: Misty Fiords National Monument. This 3,570-square-mile wilderness is a natural mosaic of sea cliffs, steep fjords, and rock walls jutting 3,000 feet straight out of the ocean. Trips into the monument, whether by tour boat, small airplane, or kayak, provide wildlife sighting opportunities for seals, otters, bald eagles, and whales.
Alaska Native Culture
A short walk from downtown Ketchikan is Totem Heritage Center, established in 1976 to preserve 19th century totem poles retrieved from uninhabited Tlingit and Haida village sites nearby. Those magnificent, original poles are displayed at the center along with detailed descriptions of their history and iconography and other Alaska Native art. Inside the center, 17 totems are on display in an almost spiritual setting that shows their significance to Alaska Native culture. More totems are displayed outside, and the entire center is shrouded by Sitka spruce with Ketchikan Creek gurgling nearby.
Ten miles north of Ketchikan is Totem Bight State Historical Park, an 11-acre park that is packed with restored and re-carved totems as well as a colorful community house. Just as impressive as the totems are the park's lush rainforest setting and the rocky coastline along Tongass Narrows.
South of Ketchikan is Saxman Native Village & Totem Park. At the heart of the park is Saxman Totem Park, home to an extensive collection of replica totems as well as a replica clan house and a carving center. Scattered throughout the park are 24 totem poles moved from abandoned villages around the Inside Passage during the 1930s and restored or re-carved. Among the collection is a replica of the Lincoln Pole (the original is in the Alaska State Museum in Juneau), which was carved in 1883, using a picture of Abraham Lincoln. Many visitors take an Alaska Native-led two-hour village tour that includes a Tlingit language lesson, traditional drum-and-dance performance, narrated tour of the totems, and a visit to the carving shed.
Ketchikan calls itself the “Salmon Capital of the World” and for this reason anglers flock to the city. Charter fishing captains abound and offer the opportunity to hook into all five species of Pacific salmon. Other species available include halibut, red snapper, lingcod, and rock cod. Numerous lodges and resorts are located along Tongass Narrows and cater to visiting anglers. Guides lead chartered ocean fishing trips for saltwater fishing or will fly visitors out to remote locations for freshwater and saltwater fishing.
Ketchikan serves as the base for some of the best kayaking in the Inside Passage. Kayaks can be rented in town, and options include everything from an easy paddle around the waterfront to a weeklong trip in Misty Fjords National Monument. Betton Island and several smaller islands nearby are excellent day paddles.
Ketchikan has everything needed to be the zip line capital of Alaska: lush rainforests and elevation. There are two zip line operations with one of them letting you zip 4,600 feet down the side of a mountain via eight lines and three suspension bridges.
Sharing a building with the Ketchikan Public Library, the Tongass Historical Museum houses a permanent collection Alaska Native art and local historical artifacts, many from Ketchikan's fishing and mining industry. The museum also hosts traveling exhibitions from other institutions and temporary exhibits of local artists. Non-historians will enjoy the impressive Raven Stealing the Sun totem just outside and an observation platform overlooking Ketchikan Creek, where in July and August, salmon can be seen trying to leap over Ketchikan Creek falls.
Step inside the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center and three large totems greet you in the lobby while a school of silver salmon, suspended from the ceiling, beckons you into a re-created rainforest. Upstairs, the exhibit hall features sections on the Inside Passage's ecosystems and Alaska Native traditions. You can even view wildlife here. There's a spotting scope trained on Deer Mountain for mountain goats while underwater cameras in Ketchikan Creek let you watch thousands of salmon swimming upstream to spawn.
If you spend enough time in Ketchikan, chances are good it will rain at least once. The average annual rainfall is 162 inches, but it has been known top 200 inches. Local residents call it ”liquid sunshine” and umbrellas are rarely used. Rain or shine, the beauty of Ketchikan's setting is immediately apparent. Bring warm, waterproof layers and be prepared for quickly-changing weather conditions.
Staying & Eating in Ketchikan
No matter what type of accommodation you’re looking for, Ketchikan has you covered, from hotels located in the heart of downtown to rustic lodges off the beaten track overlooking the water. You’ll also find an array of inns, B&Bs, hostels, guest houses, and vacation rentals. There are also several campgrounds and RV parks just outside of town. Ketchikan is home to several restaurants, many featuring the area’s fresh seafood, plus coffee shops, bars, and two local breweries.
Getting to Ketchikan
Ketchikan is not on the road system as is therefore only accessible by sea and air. Most visitors arrive on large and small cruise ships, with Ketchikan being the first port of call in Alaska on most northbound itineraries. Independent travelers can reach Ketchikan on the Alaska Marine Highway, the state ferry system that starts in Bellingham, WA and travels out to the Aleutian Islands. Ferry passengers can walk on or board with their car or RV. The trip from Bellingham, WA to Ketchikan takes 36 hours, and connections can easily be made to other top destinations including Juneau, Wrangell, Petersburg, Haines, Sitka, and Whittier.
For a quicker journey, Ketchikan is also accessible by air with daily scheduled flight service. Nonstop flights on Alaska Airlines connect the Ketchikan International Airport to Seattle, Juneau, Sitka, and Wrangell, with easy connections to the rest of Alaska and the Lower 48.
The Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people have lived in southeastern Alaska for over 10,000 years, and their arts, culture, and history can be seen throughout Ketchikan. The town of Ketchikan was founded as a salmon cannery site in 1885, and for years the city was known as the “Canned Salmon Capital of the World.” Logging became an important industry as well, and when cruise ships started exploring the waters of the Inside Passage, Ketchikan naturally became a popular port of call.