Ketchikan is Alaska’s last frontier, located at the southern tip of the state, sandwiched between forested mountains and the Tongass Narrows, one of the many waterways of the island-strewn Inside Passage. The pristine Tongass National Forest, some 17 million acres of cedar, hemlock and Sitka spruce stretches for miles around the town.
There’s no shortage of activities in and around Ketchikan. You might be here in search of wildlife, in which case you could be rewarded with sightings of bears, sea otters, whales, sea lions and more than 100 species of bird. Or the fishing; with a history of commercial salmon fishing spanning more than a century, Ketchikan justifiably earns its title of Salmon Capital of the World. Anglers arrive from far and wide during the summer months to try their luck.
This colorful, creative town has a rich culture, too, in the largest collection of totem poles still in existence anywhere in the world. Some of the oldest poles are listed on the National Historic Register and are carefully preserved at the Totem Heritage Center.
Ready to explore? Here are 20 things to do in Ketchikan.
1: Wander Along Creek Street
You haven’t visited Ketchikan until you strolled this historic boardwalk, perched on spindly pilings over the bubbling waters of Ketchikan Creek. During the 1920s, when the salmon canning business was at its peak, this was the town’s red light district.
Today, Creek Street is bustling in a different way, the colorful wooden buildings housing arty, locally-owned shops and galleries. Be sure to take a tour of Dolly’s House Museum and hear about frontier life and tales of life in Ketchikan before the red light district was shut down in 1953.
While walking along the boardwalk, be sure to look down into the creek, where you may spot otters and the occasional seal.
2: Hike Deer Mountain
Keen hikers could tackle the well-maintained but steep Deer Mountain Trail, a five mile out-and-back walk to the summit of forested Deer Mountain, which looms behind the town. You’ll ascend a series of switchbacks, crossing rushing streams on wooden bridges, with magnificent views down over the town, the Tongass Narrows and the surrounding mountains.
Rainbird Trail is less challenging, the trailhead just 20 minutes from downtown. You’ll be out and back in a couple of hours, with dazzling views as your reward, as well as a sense of being alone in this pristine wilderness.
Read: Best Hikes in Alaska
3: Feast on Salmon
Sample local Alaskan food in Ketchikan’s many restaurants, where salmon is king and is prepared in many ways. Smoked, grilled over wood, creamy in a chowder, baked into cornbread – and if you want to take some home, it can easily be shipped. Halibut and freshly caught crab are local favorites, too. Try the Alaska Fish House, or Annabelle’s Famous Keg And Chowder House, both local institutions.
4: See Black Bears at Herring Cove
Spotting bears is one of the highlights of any visit to Alaska, and one of the best Ketchikan activities. Herring Cove, near Ketchikan, is the perfect spot for observing black bears who come to feast as the salmon are running in summer, between June and September.
Viewing areas provide a prime lookout over the marshland around the creek, through which bears approach, and you should also spot harbor seals and overhead, bald eagles wheeling, searching for food.
5: Encounter History at Totem Bight State Park
One of the best ways to get a sense of Ketchikan’s Haida and Tlingit history is to stroll among the 14 colorful totems that stand near the reconstruction of a Tlingit clan house at Totem Bight State Historical Park.
The clan house, like the totems, would have been carved by hand using an adze, a tool made of stone, and would have housed up to 50 people. The totem poles you see are replicas, carefully modeled on the originals that were left behind when the native peoples abandoned their villages in the early 1900s in search of work. Each one tells a story.
6: Learn About Raptors
Located less than 10 miles from town, the Alaska Raptor Center is a seasonal outpost of the much bigger facility in Sitka, to the north. This educational exhibit teaches you about the habitat and behavior of an array of raptor species including bald eagles, owls, falcons, and hawks.
The center is located in a 40-acre rainforest reserve, with walking trails and boardwalks to explore, including a view of Eagle Creek, where you may see black bears, seals, otters and bald eagles gathering to hunt salmon. A visit here is a great day out with kids, as you can see the birds up close.
7: Hike in Tongass National Forest
Avid walkers will want to explore a scenic three-mile trail in the emerald-green Tongass National Forest. This is the country’s largest national forest and the hike is a great chance to see the wilds of Alaska up close, strolling through what feels like an enchanted world, light filtering through the canopy of towering evergreens, giant ferns lining the trail, and birdsong on the air.
Wildlife is plentiful here, and your experienced guide will tell you all about black and brown bears, wolves, mountain goats, and moose, with frequent stops for photographs, observing wildlife, and simply breathing in the serenity of this beautiful spot.
8: Canoe a Rainforest Lake
Take to the serene waters of Lake Harriet Hunt, high in the Tongass National Forest, old-growth spruce and hemlock towering over the rocky shores. You’ll paddle for a couple of hours in a 37-foot Native American-style canoe, an experienced guide pointing out wildlife and telling you about the history of the area.
There’s a chance to take a stroll through the forest, too, at a remote wilderness camp where your efforts are rewarded with snacks of smoked salmon and clam chowder.
9: Snorkel Over Kelp Forests
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can don a state-of-the-art seven-millimeter wetsuit, complete with hood, boots, and gloves to keep you warm, and explore Ketchikan’s underwater world.
The best snorkeling is at Mountain Point, an area of tide pools and drop-offs, where you’ll drift over the kelp forests, looking out for colorful sea stars, salmon, crabs, sea urchins, and stingless jellyfish.
10: Cruise Misty Fjords
Legendary naturalist John Muir called this area the Yosemite of the North and it’s no surprise that people come from all over the world to see Alaska’s Misty Fjords National Monument. A cruise through this region reveals 3,000-foot-high granite cliffs carved out by glaciers, plunging straight into the glassy water.
A local guide will tell you all about the history, geology, and wildlife of this serene spot, keeping an eye out all the time for humpbacks or orca cruising the narrow waterways.
11: Fly High on a Floatplane
The memories of soaring over the endless expanse of the Tongass National Forest, or swooping low over the serene waters of Misty Fjords on a floatplane excursion will last a lifetime. Keep an eye out for whale blows in the sea and take in the homesteads that dot the landscape and the blue waters that snake around the rocky islands of Inside Passage.
12: Fish for Crab
Crab lovers will enjoy this adventure aboard the Aleutian Ballad, a Bering Sea crab boat. On this voyage, you’ll navigate serene waters and watch as the expert crew shares the secrets to successful crabbing and long line fishing.
13: Catch Your Own Salmon
Here’s a chance to try your hand at salmon fishing, at Knudson Cove. Get tips from your seasoned boat captain and then try your luck by dropping in your own line. As well as the thrill of landing your own catch, you’ll learn about Ketchikan’s rich fishing heritage. There’s a strong chance of spotting other wildlife, too, from whales to sea otters, seals, and bald eagles.
14: Marvel at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
This daring lumberjack show is consistently ranked as one of the best things to do in Ketchikan. Think rugged men competing in 12 different competitions that focus on logging and pioneer history, each event designed to show off their skills.
The axe-throwing contest is one of the highlights of the show. This one-hour program is full of energy and excitement as the lumberjacks clamber tall trees, run atop spinning logs floating in the water, and perform dazzling feats with chainsaws.
15: Spot Bears in Neets Bay
For the chance of a close-up view of bears hunting for salmon, take this high-speed adventure tour to Neets Bay, a favorite feeding ground, with easy pickings for bears as salmon enter the spawning streams.
You’ll stop near a salmon hatchery where you could see several bears at once, feasting on the fish. You’ll also get a chance to admire Ketchikan from the water, including views of Totem Bight State Park and Guard Island Lighthouse.
16: Mountain Bike Through the Rainforest
You’ll feel at one with nature on a guided mountain bike excursion through the Tongass National Forest. Led by an experienced Alaskan trail guide, you’ll be fitted for a bike, rain gear, and helmet before taking off to explore the forest.
The gently undulating three-mile trail weaves under the cover of towering, old-growth spruce and hemlock. After biking through the forest, you can refuel by a campfire with tasty clam chowder soup and smoked salmon before setting out on a guided nature walk.
17: Zoom Along the Coast by Zodiac
Adventure and speed enthusiasts can get their thrills on an exhilarating back-country RIB ride, an entirely different way of exploring the rugged coastline and islands around Ketchikan. You’ll speed through Nichols Passage on the lookout for whales and seals, keeping a respectful distance from any wildlife.
Next, head deep into George Inlet, slowing down to look for wildlife in tiny coves and uninhabited inlets. All along the way, your guide will explain the ecology of this pristine area.
18: Take a Trolley Tour
For a relaxing way to see Ketchikan, board a historic trolley and trundle around the local highlights. Stops include a visit to the Saxman Native Totem Village, where you’ll have time to photograph the stately totems and browse the local gift shop for Alaskan souvenirs.
You’ll see the infamous Married Man’s Trail, too, along which gentlemen of the town would escape to evade police raids of the illegal brothels. The tour ends at pretty Creek Street, where you’ll have time to browse the colorful shops and galleries.
19: Hunt for Halibut
Ketchikan may be known for its salmon but anglers also come here to fish for Pacific halibut. These elusive fish can be caught with the expert help of your guide who will teach you the secrets of working the tides. While the tastiest halibut is considered to be between 15 and 30 pounds, it’s not unheard of to catch a 100 pounder on your tour. You can have your catch shipped home if you’re successful.
20: Fly Over the Forest on a Zipline
There are few more exciting places to try zip lining than Ketchikan, where you can fly across the rainforest canopy, zipping through the treetops and over the cascading Eagle Creek Falls, 135 feet above the forest floor.
There are eight zip lines ranging from 100 to 800 feet, as well as three suspension bridges, making for an adrenaline-boosting Alaskan adventure. You may even spot eagles in the trees and bears foraging on the ground. At the end of the tour, you’ll rappel back down to earth, on a high.
21: Spot Humpbacks From the Whale Park
It’s no secret that Alaska is one of the best places on Earth for whale watching. Humpback whales migrate thousands of miles from the waters near Hawaii each summer to gorge on small fish and krill in preparation for their next long journey.
Each humpback has distinctive tail markings that allow experts to identify whole families and track their activity for years. Pods of orcas hunt with remarkable precision and efficiency in this area. Even minke and fin whales make rarer appearances.
Plenty of visitors to Ketchikan opt to take a day-long boat excursion into the icy waters off the coast to search for these highly intelligent mammals. Yet some lucky visitors manage to spot whales without ever leaving the shoreline.
Whale Park, located a short way from downtown Ketchikan, features an impressive totem pole and a set of immense humpback whale sculptures. Most importantly, humpbacks and other whales occasionally come close to land to feed here.
22: Go on a Pub Crawl
Since many of the best local bars here stay open throughout the day and into the wee hours, bar-hopping is an enjoyable way to spend a laid-back afternoon. It also happens to be one of the best ways to connect with locals or fellow travelers in Ketchikan.
For a real slice of the area’s history, head to Potlatch Bar, the oldest of its kind in town. This no-frills neighborhood joint excels in the kind of warm, fuss-free vibe that immediately makes everyone feel like a regular.
From there, proceed to Totem Bar, which is open daily from 8am to 2am, and maintains its welcoming energy throughout the day. At some point, when hunger strikes, virtually everyone on a pub crawl ends up at Fat Stan’s, a family-owned joint specializing in the basics: beer and pizza. At any given point, the bar features five rotating draft beers, a number of them brewed in Alaska.
While the menu might be simple at Fat Stan’s, it’s far from ordinary—the bar prides itself on making its pizza dough daily from scratch using wheat flour imported from Italy. Specials range from the Shroomer, a vegetarian number slathered in garlic cream sauce with mushrooms, to the Alaskan, which features reindeer salami, cream cheese, jalapenos, mozzarella, and red onions.
Finally, no pub crawl would be complete without a visit to Arctic Bar, a local institution situated directly on the waterfront. Here, the main draw is the phenomenal location. It’s the perfect place to relax with a beer at the end of an afternoon in Ketchikan.
23: Visit the Tongass Historical Museum
From the Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit, who had lived on these lands for centuries before the arrival of European colonists, to the boom in fish canning and then, the present, Ketchikan has had a particularly vibrant history. Although the city’s population may be less than 10,000, it has an astonishing number of stories to tell, many of which are depicted in this modestly sized, yet thoughtfully curated museum in Alaska.
The Tongass Historical Museum focuses on educating visitors about the past and present of both the Alaskan wilderness and Ketchikan itself. One of the most exciting elements for any visitor to see is the thousands of photographs of ordinary people from Ketchikan throughout history.
At any given point, many of these are kept in protective storage, but an impressive collection is perpetually on display to the public. The museum’s featured exhibits rotate regularly, meaning that there is always something new to see here. Although the museum is on the smaller side, it’s well worth leaving an hour or two to explore the current exhibitions.
24: Order a Reindeer Sausage
One distinctly Alaskan specialty seldom seen in the lower 48 states is the reindeer dog, a sausage casing stuffed with caribou meat. Reindeer and caribou are the same species; it’s just that reindeer are sometimes domesticated. These reindeer dogs are usually piled high with Coca-Cola glazed onions, plus a swipe of mustard.
At Pioneer Café, reindeer sausages are on the regular breakfast menu, accompanied by three eggs, cooked to your liking. They also make appearances on specials. Even if reindeer isn’t quite your cup of tea, there are plenty of other comfort food specials, including fluffy biscuits and gravy, and fat stacks of pancakes stuffed with blueberries, strawberries, or chocolate chips.
More than anything, it’s worth coming to this quintessentially all-American diner to soak in the time-warp ambiance. This institution has barely changed over the decades—and locals might revolt if it did. The vibe remains both rustic and friendly.
25: Marvel at Nature at the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary
While the Tongass National Forest may be far too vast to explore in a day, the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary offers a phenomenal introduction to this biodiverse landscape.
This special nature reserve sprawls over 40 acres of lush, temperate rainforest and is home to an astonishing array of Alaskan wildlife. Travelers looking to make the most of their time in Ketchikan will also appreciate the fact that it is located a mere eight miles from downtown.
Once inside, visitors are immediately immersed in the Alaskan wilderness. A mostly flat, half-mile hiking trail into the Tongass National Forest is suitable for hikers of all experience levels.
Meanwhile, the Alaska Raptor Center is a remarkable place to learn about all of this region’s avian wildlife. Alaska has far more bald eagles than any other state in the U.S. and this is the ideal place to learn about these imposing predators.
Bold visitors may want to embark on the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary’s guided expedition into bear country, which takes a little over three hours. Black bears and occasionally the larger brown bears are regularly spotted in this area.
Knowledgeable guides ensure that visitors can safely have the opportunity to see these highly intelligent creatures in their natural habitat.
26: Feast on Seafood by the Waterfront
Don’t let the Alaska Fish House’s humble exterior fool you—this modest eatery by Ketchikan’s coastline takes its Alaskan seafood seriously. The menu excels at top-notch renditions of unpretentious classics.
The specialties of the house are the fish burgers, which come piled either with crispy Bering Sea cod, or fat filets of grilled, blackened, or crispy wild Alaskan salmon or halibut. The fish and chips here is made with either silver salmon, halibut, or Pacific cod. Each is elevated by the unimpeachable freshness of the fish, along with the accompanying mound of mesquite fries.
While just about everything on the menu errs on the unfussy side, there is one real splurge here: the Dungeness crab legs, which come served with a side of drawn butter. It’s a rare pleasure to eat this prized crustacean so close to the source and one well worth indulging in.
27: Sip Beers at a Craft Brewery
Despite its relatively small population, Alaska has a surprisingly robust local craft brewing scene. Something about the DIY ethos of a microbrewery resonates deeply with the fiercely independent local spirit. Unlike larger cities such as Anchorage or Fairbanks, Ketchikan’s downtown only has one craft brewery to call its own.
Perhaps as a result, locals are especially proud of Bawden Street Brewing Company, which happens to be a veteran-owned operation. As an integral part of the community, the brewery hosts talks with local authors, participates in art events, and generally provides a congenial sort of watering hole.
It also happens to make terrific saisons and sours, like a refreshing Cucumber Sea Salt Gose or the Red Headed Siren, a bright, flavorful sour made with 86 pounds of raspberries. Since just about everything here is small-batch, the brewers have a relatively free rein to get creative with local produce.
28: Check Out the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center
As is the case with most cities and towns in Alaska, both visitors and locals tend to view Ketchikan as a jumping-off point to grander adventures in the great outdoors. This is, after all, a state that lives up to its nickname as the Last Frontier.
In short, the call of the wild is never far from anyone’s mind. And Ketchikan is effectively the gateway to the Tongass National Forest, which is both the nation’s largest temperate rainforest and largest protected national forest.
Nevertheless, before setting out for the ample wilderness that surrounds this small city facing the Inside Passage, it pays to pay a visit to the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center to get your bearings.
This thoughtfully organized visitors’ center right in the heart of downtown has all of the information you need. It also has a number of small but informative exhibits on the remarkable flora and fauna that make up this biodiverse patch of Earth.
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