Famous for its totem poles, float planes and camera-ready beauty, Ketchikan is known as Alaska’s “first city” due to its location at the southern tip of Alaska’s Inside Passage.
A scenic town perched along the shores of southeast Alaska’s coastal mountains and surrounded by the protected waterways of the Inside Passage, Ketchikan is a popular cruise destination, as well as a wonderful spot for tourists who want to experience an Alaska vacation filled with wilderness and adventure. Such native cultural influences as the majestic totem poles can be seen on downtown streets, in local parks and museums. Ketchikan’s geographical location, in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, allows for almost 160 inches of rain each year. Rain, the locals will tell you, is why the fishing is unmatched, the trees are so green and the wildlife is abundant.
Surrounded by mountains, water and a 17 million acre forest, there is no shortage of adventure opportunities for a vacation in Ketchikan. The Tongass National Forest is managed for recreational and wilderness use. Day hikes are popular, especially up Deer Mountain (3,000 ft.), which serves as the backdrop of downtown Ketchikan, and backcountry exploration service is available from local floatplane operators and charter boats to more remote trailheads. Of the 150 U.S. Forest Services cabin sites available for public use in the Tongass, 80 are accessible from Ketchikan. The protected waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage encourage boating and kayaking amidst scenery that will take your breath away. Day trip options range from paddling along the downtown waterfront, to more remote locations.
Fishing lodges, hotels, bed & breakfast options and vacation rentals offer a wide variety of accommodation choices, along with Ketchikan’s private and public camping and RV facilities. The U.S. Forest Service’s Ward Cove Recreation area provides three camp grounds, while Alaska State Parks operates one at Settler’s Cove State Park, with water and public lavatories available at all locations. The U.S. Forest Service and Alaska State Parks recreational cabins are another option to consider for camping in the wilderness. Most publicly managed recreation lands around the Inside Passage allow tent camping but check restrictions before you go for regulations. In town services include groceries, gas, diesel and propane, shower and laundry facilities, automotive parts and repair services, a dump station and local outfitters to purchase or rent camping and fishing equipment.
Ketchikan’s historic and cultural attributes can be summed up in two words: cedar and salmon. The abundance of both attracted Ketchikan’s earliest inhabitants—the people of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian nations. Massive salmon returns piqued the interest of white settlers who established fish salteries and canneries, while gold rush hopefuls purchased goods from Ketchikan merchants, helping to grow the settlement into a modern city at the time of its founding in 1900. The influence of Alaska Natives is prevalent throughout the area’s totem parks, an Alaskan tourism favorite, boasting the largest collection of totems in the world.
Contemporary art flourishes here, as evidenced by local art galleries and art exhibitions, all of which contribute to Ketchikan being selected as one of the “Top 100 Small Arts Communities in the United States.”
The Misty Fiords National Monument and wilderness area, about 40 miles east of Ketchikan along Alaska’s Inside Passage coast, is accessible only by floatplane or boat. This 2.3-million acre wilderness area is a stunning example of the power of glacial movement, with granite cliffs carved by glaciers soaring out of the water and up to 3,000 feet into the air. From sea level, visitors frequently see wildlife, view pictographs (Native rock art) and waterfalls along the steep cliff walls. From the air, experience a bird’s eye view of the monument and its clifftop lakes, alpine valleys, glaciers and even mountain goats making their way across rocky cliffs. A cruise-fly option is available to vacationers who want to experience the fjords from both perspectives.
Ketchikan is fully equipped with grocers, pharmacists, liquor stores and hardware stores to fulfill needs from picnic supplies to fishing gear. A host of gift, jewelry, curio shops, bookstores and art galleries give plenty of options for the perfect Alaskan souvenirs as well.
Ketchikan features a variety of restaurants and eateries, most of which serve locally-sourced Alaska seafood. Favorites include: creamy seafood chowders; crab and shrimp folded into omelets, salads or sandwiches; salmon, cod or halibut, that is smoked, sautéed, broiled, battered or baked in an elegant sauce—or traditional fish and chips. Casual or formal dining options are available, or plan a picnic by grabbing bites from a deli for a savory meal to go during your Ketchikan adventure.
Ketchikan’s is known for being the “Salmon Capital of the World,” comes from its heyday as a salmon-canning center. That abundance of salmon continues to provide outstanding sportfishing opportunities for residents and Alaska vacationers alike.
Five species of salmon en route to their spawning streams head from the open ocean into waters surrounding Ketchikan and nearby Prince of Wales Island, and fishing for other species such as halibut, a variety of rock fish and cod rank high on the list for an Alaska fishing vacation. Freshwater anglers will find Dolly Varden, cutthroat and rainbow trout, as well as grayling and wily steelhead. Deciding what to fish for is perhaps the hardest part about a fishing trip in Ketchikan.
Ketchikan offers ample opportunities to view the fascinating wild and marine life populating the forests and seas of the Inside Passage. Bald eagles and ravens can be spotted by looking for them perched everywhere from tree tops to church steeples. Flightseeing and day boat excursions increase the chances of spotting migratory whales and birds, deer, bear and marine life such as sea lions. The annual Rufous Hummingbird celebration in April welcomes the start of spring migration with a three-day lineup of speakers, bird walks and other birding activities. Salmon return by the thousands to area streams and creeks to spawn and are commonly seen leaping completely out of the water. More remote streams are also likely spots for viewing bears and eagles, as returning salmon are the major food source during summer months.