From the ship, you see nothing but green horizons and dark teal water for days. The sea, a rocky coastline, and hills thick with misty pines slip past as you head north on the way to Ketchikan. The first signs of civilization are a few cabins lifting their roofs out of the forest, float planes scurry overhead, and fishing boats chug quickly past; then just past an island, the city reveals itself. Excitement builds as the ship turns towards town and you find that in Ketchikan things to do start at the dock with shore excursions, tours, shopping, and eating. If you’re lucky you’ll find that there’s so much more.
For those on land, there’s another reality as the ferries and cruise ships dock. Each night and early morning during tourist season, shops polish their wares and stock shelves. Creekside gallery owners fold stacks of T-shirts and make sure there’s plenty in every size. Buses gas up, float planes check their engines and the Ketchikan duck boats inflate their tires. Those locals not involved in hospitality pull into their homes like turtles sheltering in shells. Plans to meet friends in town are set for after the boats leave and others head out the road. Things to do in Ketchikan are more private for them.
Ketchikan is home to about 8,500 people according to the 2017 census. On the busiest days of the season when up to four cruise ships dock in town or anchor in the channel, over 11,000 visitors spill across town. Those interested in getting off the tourist beat in Southeast Alaska can still find independent adventures outside of excursions and tourist prices.
I’ve returned to Ketchikan, my old stomping grounds, several times over the past few decades. (Here’s an interview with Mushroom Hunter, Adrienne Long from a camping trip in Misty Fjords.) Recent visits have been blessed with lots of sunshine although locals urge saving water during their ‘drought’ for very different reasons than we do during the Californian drought. Ketchikan depends on hydroelectric power and as the rains have diminished, so too has cheap electricity. It’s one more thing to share with scores of visitors.
The town has changed since I first fell in love with Alaska. My favorite hangouts have closed. Local architecture has improved. The brutalist blocks that shaped downtown have changed although some still house Federal Offices (Customs and the FBI are active here.) Gardens overflow with flowers and vegetables for a few short months. During hikes, their bright colors are a bright relief where unrelenting Skunk Cabbage, Fiddlehead ferns, and muskeg browns reign.
In the 1970s, I once ran out of the City Hall to watch a pod of Orcas swim north in the channel. The office emptied unapologetically. We stood on the dock as the family splashed and fished in the deep water. Today I doubt Orcas swim near. The City Hall building remains but the dock has been expanded to offer berth to towering cruise ships. A row of souvenir and jewelry shops line up to lure shoppers but finding locally made products takes some doing.
Things to do in Ketchikan Alaska
Shop at artist Ray Troll’s family business, the Soho Coho Art Gallery and the Outpost that’s filled with Alaskan made art. Meet Linda Mueter at the Chinook and Company shop where she shares stories about family-caught, wild salmon products, and local cookbooks. In the adjacent gallery the Salmon Sisters design clothing to celebrate the fishing culture they grew up in.
Get off the boat or fly in early
If you have a choice, get on one of the first lifeboats off the ship or down the ramp as early as possible. Take the local independent walking tour if the weather’s dry. Go as far as you can as early as possible and you just might find eagles soaring over the fishing docks or in salmon season, bears hunting in Herring Creek. Most cruise ship passengers head back to the boat late in the afternoon and downtown calms.
Arriving in Ketchikan
If you arrive by ferry you can walk into town. You’ll need transportation if it’s raining hard otherwise pull up your hood like a local and brave the elements. When you fly into Ketchikan from the Lower 48, you land on an island across from town. Follow the crowd down to the small ferry to into town the terminal. It costs $6 per person round trip (taken within 24 hours.) Taxis and shuttles wait for airport passengers. Between spring and into early fall, you’ll have plenty of sunlight until 9 pm or later. It makes the list of Ketchikan things to do very long.
Local brews and tunes
Check into your lodging and ask about where to eat or which bars have live music. Look into the lineup at the Creek Street Cabaret (Jazz oriented) and other spots like the New York Cafe for a meal and live music. The Bawden Street Brewery is set uphill from the main business center and it’s an easy walk. If the tasting room is closed their brews are available at other bars in town. The Asylum Bar on Water Street offers 22 Alaskan beers on tap, juicy burgers, and patio seating when the weather’s mild.
Check out this video about Ketchikan Things to Do Off the Beaten Path
Out the Road – South
There’s one main highway stretching north and south from downtown. Another route runs at the base of the mountain from 3rd Street going south. If the weather’s good, it’s a fine walk with spacious views of the channel to downtown. In your Ketchikan things to do list include visiting the new library with its gorgeous views and fireplace reading room. It’s a great spot to dry out and catch your breath in one of their cozy chairs. Continue past the Recreation Center with its huge pool complex. There are two pools – one with swimming lanes that’s a bit cool and a warmer, smaller pool with a swimming space adjacent to water slides and fountains for kids. Don’t miss the City Park and spend some time inside the Totem Heritage Center on your way back into town.
South of town is Herring Cove where bears make regular appearances during salmon season. You can get a guided tour or park on the other side of the creek near the Hatchery to watch the action as well. Further south you’ll see a favorite spot on sunny days, Rotary Beach. A bit further the Totem Poles of Saxman Village rise up from the forest. There’s a coffee shop at the entrance and a bit further south, look for the sign for the Dockside Cafe where they serve homemade pies and have a huge variety of hamburgers. Watch for waterfalls along the hillside.
Out the Road – North
North of town the shore of Ward Lake is laced with well-maintained trails and fishing shelters. Turn off at Totem Bight where, as part of the New Deal, the Conservation Corps. worked with three local tribes to carve and erect totem poles. They also built a replica long-house. If you walk out to the rock-strewn beach at low tide, carefully as there’s a lot of mossy seaweed, look back towards the house to appreciate the beauty of the location. It’s easy to imagine First Nation canoes turning into the sheltered beach to join families for ceremonies. It’s a ‘what-if’ site, created from research to commemorate the tribes. Their village thrives in Saxman.
There’s No One Alaska
That’s a smattering of Ketchikan things to do. There are all kinds of tours, a zip line near Herring Cove, Duckboat rides, commercial fishing, and trails galore. It’s a huge state, so there’s no one Alaska. People used to ask me if I lived in an igloo! South East Alaska is blessed with a maritime climate – wet and cold but nothing like the long, winter chill much further north. My heart jumps whenever there’s a chance to visit and explore more.
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