For a city that’s been described as “three miles long and three blocks wide”, Ketchikan offers an unforgettable introduction to Alaska. You’ll find a multitude of things to do in Ketchikan Alaska. Stunningly beautiful natural surroundings and abundant wildlife; fascinating insights into the history and art of the area; a wide range of activities including water and land adventures of discovery; fun shopping, and excellent dining: these all contribute to a memorable visit.
Overview Of Ketchikan Alaska
Most of this beautiful little city is situated on Revillagigedo Island, in the middle of the Tongass National Forest, a 17 million-acre temperate rainforest – the world’s largest – full of cedar, Sitka spruce, waterfalls, and wildlife. The population of approximately 14,000 residents expands dramatically during the cruise season: the influx is handled with great charm and efficiency.
For centuries the abundant runs of salmon attracted the Tongass and Tlingit Peoples to a creek they named Kitschk-hin, where they established fish camps. In the 1880s, a cannery was built where downtown Ketchikan is today. Commercial fishing and fish processing are still a mainstay of Ketchikan’s economy.
With the dream of finding gold in the 1880s, pioneering settlers, fortune-seekers, and those who catered to them flocked to Southeast Alaska, and in 1900, Ketchikan was established as the gateway to the rest of Alaska.
The vicinity near the mouth of Ketchikan Creek earned the city some infamy during the first half of the 20th century for an area known as “Creek St”, with at least 21 “bawdy houses” on either side of the creek. No longer a red-light district, Creek St is one of the most popular attractions in Ketchikan and forms part of this city’s colorful past.
The Ketchikan Pulp Company pulp mill in Ward Cove was the center of economic life for the better part of the last half of the 20th century. The mill closed in 1997, but the lumberjack show in the city is evidence that logging and lumbering skills are alive and well, and great fun to watch.
What Is Ketchikan Alaska Known For?
Dubbed “The Salmon Capital of the World,” the residents of Ketchikan are proud of their fishing culture and what they believe to be the best seafood on the planet. Charter fishing tours abound. There are many sites to observe salmon, one of the most interesting and accessible being the “Salmon Ladder” in Creek St, where in summer, the fish are literally jumping as they push upstream for spawning.
The rich First Nations heritage can be explored in several museum collections and totem parks (Ketchikan has the most totem poles in Alaska). There is a very active local arts community of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian artists and dancers whose work can be viewed in many areas.
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Can You Explore Ketchikan On Your Own?
Yes, you can. Cruise ships dock downtown near the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, where you can collect a map or download it ahead of time. With so many attractions close to the waterfront, it’s easy to go directly to various interesting sights.
In downtown Ketchikan, tour and shuttle buses, taxis, and other forms of transportation are readily available for passenger excursions. The hourly bus service provides access to the city and the rural areas.
The Ketchikan Historical Society has created an excellent Ketchikan Walking Tour Map, in which you’ll find 64 points of interest. It’s also available at the Visitor’s Bureau and can be downloaded.
Top Things To Do In Ketchikan Alaska
So much to see and not much time! Fortunately, many tours combine some of the top attractions highlighted below. You can arrange many different independent excursions for Ketchikan that appeal to a wide range of interests.
Tongass National Park
You can experience the beauty of the Tongass National Forest by land, water, and air.
There are numerous guided hiking tours through the rainforest. For a leisurely outing, take a stroll on the Rainbird Trail, just 2.6 miles long. You’ll get a sense of the Alaskan Wilderness and some excellent views of Ketchikan.
There are zipline adventures for a thrilling bird’s eye view of the forest.
You can also explore the Tongass region from the many water inlets. Travel Alaska asserts that “Ketchikan serves as the base for some of the best kayaking in the Inside Passage.” You can rent kayaks for a solo or family outing or join a guided tour.
Then there’s the option of navigating the water inlets via scenic boat rides. Famous sights are Ward Cove, Danger Island, and Guard Island Lighthouse.
Creek Street and Dolly’s House
A stroll down Creek St with its interesting shops, galleries, and museums is a delight. “Dolly’s House Museum,” once the home of a well-known Ketchikan madam called Dolly Arthur, has vintage photographs, furniture, and memorabilia that will show you what life was like in Ketchikan from 1900-the 1950s.
Alaska’s Indigenous Culture
The totem poles in Ketchikan are an integral part of the culture of Alaska’s First Nations peoples. The history of the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian people is found among the many sites, and the communities have created an inviting environment to help guests learn more about their culture.
According to the Totem Heritage Center, totem poles honor important individuals or significant events, and they may also proclaim one’s ancestral lineage and social standing. While they have great cultural importance, they have never been worshipped as religious objects.
The Totem Heritage Center is close to downtown Ketchikan. You’ll find original poles with detailed descriptions of their history and the meaning of the images and symbols.
You can also find additional totem parks a short drive outside of town. The 11-acre Totem Bight State Historical Park, with totems and a colorful community house, is ten miles north of Ketchikan. South of Ketchikan is the Saxman Native Village & Totem Park, where you’ll find a clan house and a carving center in addition to the extensive collection of replica totems.
Misty Fjords National Monument
Misty Fjords National Monument, a jewel in the Tongass National Forest, is a 30-minute flight from Ketchikan. The granite has been sculpted by glaciers that carved deep fjords: the walls of these glacial valleys rise almost vertically, reaching heights of 2,000 to 3,000 feet (600 to 900 m) above sea level.
You can book float plane or seaplane tours that depart from Ketchikan and provide passengers aerial views of the stunning landscape. Some include a lake landing so passengers can get up-close views on a short hike through the prolific rainforest vegetation, and some tours combine flying with a boat cruise.
You can also book private boat tours from Ketchikan that explore Misty Fjords’ magnificent scenery and wildlife (seabirds, whales, mountain goats, bears, and deer) from the comfort of a private vessel. These are the type of Alaska excursions that really warrant good binoculars!
Best Activities For Families
The whole family will enjoy what Ketchikan has to offer.
The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
The one-hour-long lumberjack show, located a block from the cruise ship docks, reflects the area’s rich logging history. It’s exciting to watch two teams of Alaskan Lumberjacks display strength and agility as they compete in 12 events, including chopping, sawing, tree climbing, and log rolling. The audience cheers them on as axes fly through the air, men free-fall from tall trees, and then run on top of spinning logs floating in the water. A visit to the lumberjack show can be combined with a crab feast for a truly immersive experience.
Southeast Alaska Discovery Centre
The Southeast Alaska Discovery Center is an ideal land excursion for budget-savvy families: the aquarium has salmon observation exhibits, while other features include interactive exhibits related to the people of Southeast Alaska, a life-size smokehouse, and a hand-carved canoe. You’ll also find various authentic Totem Poles and the opportunity to learn more about them.
You will find excursions to two zipline adventure parks where families can experience outdoor excitement and thrills while enjoying views of the tree-tops and waters below. Note: minimum height: 4 feet 6 inches (121 centimeters) and minimum weight: 70 pounds (30 kilograms).
Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour
Learn about life aboard a commercial fishing vessel on a popular excursion on a boat previously featured on the Discovery Channel’s popular show Deadliest Catch. Observe demonstrations of how crabs and other sea creatures are caught, with entertaining commentary from the crew. You can observe the sea creatures in tanks on the deck before the catch is released back into the sea. As you sail through the Inside Passage, you can enjoy the views from the open-air upper deck as bald eagles circle overhead, or get comfortable in the heated, enclosed amphitheater on the lower deck. Please note that due to Coast Guard regulations, all guests must be at least 5 years old.
Saxman Native Village & Totem Park
The two-hour tour of the Saxman Native Village includes a traditional drum-and-dance performance in full regalia, which children love; a narrator explains the meaning of the totems, and there’s a visit to a carving shed.
There are a diverse number of things to do in Ketchikan Alaska – from immersing yourself in the traditions of Alaska’s Indigenous peoples, to learning about local history and exploring the region’s stunning scenery and wildlife. If you’re an avid kayaker or looking to learn, Ketchikan will be the perfect backdrop to your adventure. Don’t miss exploring the rich history and culture of this picturesque region on your cruise.