Ketchikan was the first stop on my Alaska cruise aboard the Celebrity Millennium, and I completely fell in love with this charming town. Boasting stunning natural beauty, rich native heritage, and a unique history, there are many options for things to do in Ketchikan.
I honestly didn’t know much about Ketchikan before I departed on my cruise, but once I arrived I wish I had more time to explore! Ketchikan is a small city, but there is no shortage of activity options. Spending one day in Ketchikan will give you enough time to experience the best of what the city has to offer, but there is plenty more to do for an extended stay.
There are plenty of options for things to do in Ketchikan to suit any kind of traveler, whether you are looking for delicious seafood, outdoor recreation opportunities, or cultural activities. Ketchikan is Alaska’s first city, the salmon capital of the world, and one of Alaska’s most unique cities.
It may also be the rainiest city in America, but there’s just something magical about it (and the locals refer to the rain as “liquid sunshine”).
If you are visiting Ketchikan, whether on a cruise or on your own, you are in for a treat! Keep reading for all the best things to do in town, as well as the best Ketchikan shore excursions.
About Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska’s first incorporated city, sits at the southern end of Alaska’s famed Inside Passage. It is often the first stop on northbound Alaska cruises and an introduction to the rugged Last Frontier.
Ketchikan was originally inhabited by the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes, and the area has a rich Native American history and heritage. The name “Ketchikan” comes from the Tlingit phrase that means “eagle with spread-out wings,” which refers to the creek in town.
It is also known as the “salmon capital of the world,” referring to its past when the city had a large salmon canning operation.
Throughout the years, Norwegian halibut farmers and boat builders, Asian merchants and cannery workers, English entrepreneurs, among other pioneers have also called Ketchikan home.
The area is also famed for its stunning natural beauty, with temperate rainforests, creeks, and rugged coastline, creating ample outdoor recreation opportunities (which are some of the best things to do in Ketchikan).
Ketchikan is relatively small in both area and population, but with 13,000 inhabitants, it is the fifth most populous city in Alaska (or 10th when including census designated places).
Location and getting to Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan is located on Revillagigedo Island, at the southernmost entrance to Alaska’s Inside Passage. Its location has earned the city the nickname of “Alaska’s First City,” since it is often the first community travelers visit when traveling north.
The only way to reach Ketchikan is by air or sea (technically, it is only by sea, since you need to take a ferry from the airport). Many visitors come to Ketchickan via cruise ship (chances are you found this post because you were looking for things to do in Ketchikan during your port stop) as part of an Inside Passage cruise.
When you visit Ketchikan depends on which direction your cruise is sailing in – it is usually the first Alaska stop on a northbound cruise, and the last stop on a southbound cruise.
If you want to skip the cruise ship and prefer to make your own arrangements to get to Ketchikan, you have a few options.
Getting to Ketchikan via plane: Alaska Airlines offers daily nonstop flights to the international airports of Seattle and Juneau, as well as the Alaskan towns of Sitka and Wrangell. In addition, air taxi flights on smaller seaplanes also connect Ketchikan to nearby communities.
Do note that the Ketchikan International Airport is not located on the same island as the city Ketchikan itself – it is located on neighboring Gravina Island. From here, it is a 5 minute ferry ride into town. Ferry service is offered every 30 minutes and costs $6, and $7 for a standard vehicle.
Getting to Ketchikan via ferry: The Alaska Marine Highway system connects Ketchikan with the lower 48, as well as other destinations in the state. Ferries range from day boats, to full-service vessels including staterooms, food and beverage service, and more. Ferries connect Ketchikan to other communities in Southeast Alaska, including Wrangell, Sitka, Petersburg, Juneau, Skagway, and more.
In addition, a ferry route is available to and from Bellingham, Washington – the trip takes about 38 hours. Service is also available to and from Prince Rupert, British Columbia – the trip takes roughly 6 hours.
An inter-island ferry also operates between Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island, which offers connections to surrounding communities.
How to get around in Ketchikan
Ketchikan is a relatively small city that measures about 5 square miles in area. Downtown Ketchikan is fairly small and compact, and very easy to explore on foot. There is also a downtown shuttle that runs from May through September. You’ll find plenty to do just within this area.
Some of the things to do in Ketchikan are a bit outside of downtown. Keep in mind that if you book tours and cruise excursions, many companies already provide transportation from the downtown area. However, for those that don’t or if you choose to navigate on your own, there are a few options.
There is a public bus that runs once per hour, connecting downtown Ketchikan with areas south and north of the city. Buses run daily, about once an hour and costs $2 per ride, or $5 for a day pass ($1 for youths 12-17 and 50 cents for children 11 and younger). This can be an ideal option if you want to explore some of the nearby totem poles just outside of the city center. Route and schedule information is available here.
You can also choose to rent a vehicle to freely move around the area. Car rentals are available both at the airport and in downtown Ketchikan. See more information about renting a car in Ketchikan here.
Taxi service is available in Ketchikan as well – you can often hail one near the cruise terminal, the airport ferry landing, or the ferry terminal. In addition, ride-sharing services are also said to be available (although I’m not really sure how many cars are actually available since it is a pretty remote area).
Weather and when to visit Ketchikan
Let’s get one thing out of the way – rain is common in Ketchikan.. It is the rainiest place in the United States, and rains so much that locals measure the precipitation in feet (13 feet, or 141 inches) and refer to it as “liquid sunshine.”
So you can say it rains in Ketchikan. Like, A LOT. No matter when you are planning to visit Ketchikan – be prepared for the rain!
That said, the climate here tends to be pretty temperate year-round compared with the rest of Alaska. The summer months (June-August) tend to be the driest and warmest months of the year, with highs hitting the low 60s Fahrenheit. July tends to be the driest month, with about 4 inches of rain. These months also coincide with the most popular (and arguably best) times to go on an Alaska cruise.
April, May, and September are also ideal times to visit, with highs hovering in the 50s Fahrenheit. Do note that these months also see a bit more precipitation than in the summer. If you are visiting on a cruise, these months are considered shoulder season and the rates tend to be cheaper and ships less crowded.
October to March can be an ideal time to go if you are looking for peace and quiet. These months are when the Alaska cruise season has ended, so you won’t find very many other visitors around town and you’ll feel like you have it to yourself. However, do note that these are the rainiest months (with October seeing the most rain at over 15 inches) and that many tour operators and businesses close for the offseason.
If visiting in the winter, do note that it can snow in Ketchikan, although there is usually not a large accumulation of snow and is considerably less than in many other parts of Alaska.
What to Pack for Ketchikan
- Lightweight rain jacket: This is definitely a MUST! Not only does it add a waterproof layer to keep you dry from the rain, it also blocks the wind. It’s also lightweight, so you can throw it on top of all your other layers.
- Fleece zip-up: This was the perfect layer to add a bit of warmth when visiting Ketchikan in July (it totally kept me warm during the rest of my Alaska cruise as well).
- Packable puffer: If visiting outside of the summer, this might be a better option as a warm layer.
- Flannel button up: Adds a soft, warm, lightweight layer. It also looks cute in photos (especially against the landscape of Alaska!)
- Beanie, scarf, gloves
- Sweaters:This one and this one and ended up getting lots of compliments while in Alaska.
- Camera: You’ll want to take tons of photos of the gorgeous scenery in Ketchikan! The Sony a6000 is my go-to travel camera that I bring on all my trips.
- Battery pack: I don’t leave home without this one – one full charge lasts about 5 charges for your devices.
- Comfortable, waterproof shoes: These boots have been with me to Munich, Prague, and now Ketchikan. They’re warm, comfortable, and waterproof and can withstand both rain and snow.
- Binoculars: A must for spotting all the abundant wildlife in the area!
Things to Do in Ketchikan, Alaska
Take a walking tour of Downtown Ketchikan
Downtown Ketchikan is dotted with historically significant buildings, shops, galleries, restaurants, totem poles, parks, and more. It was also named a National Historic District, and many sites are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wandering through the charming streets downtown was one of my favorite things to do in Ketchikan! One of the best ways to see and experience the best things that downtown Ketchikan has to offer is to take a free self-guided walking tour of the area, created by the Ketchikan Historical Society.
The tour lists 64 significant historic sites, wildlife, nature spots, and more in the downtown area. You can pick up a free map at the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau (on Front Street, down the waterfront from the cruise ship docks), check out the spots here, or download the app.
Explore the Tongass National Forest
Comprising almost 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest is the largest coastal rainforest in North America and covers much of Southeast Alaska. It is home to many glaciers, as diverse species of wildlife, including orca and humpback whales, and the densest concentration of brown bears and bald eagles in the world.
The Tongass National Forest offers ample opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, including hiking, kayaking, fishing, bird watching, and more. There are also 13 cabins that you can stay in for an unforgettable overnight stay in the remote wilderness.
If you plan to hike, be sure to know where you are going – the forest is massive so you do not want to get lost! Consult a ranger or go on a guided hike – this 3-hour rainforest hike comes highly recommended, and also includes a stop at totem park (another one of the best things to do in Ketchikan).
You can also explore the forest in a Hummer – some people in our group did this and it sounded like one of the coolest Ketchikan shore excursions! The tour is also customizable, so they will take you around to see what you most want to see in the area – you can see everything from the rainforest, salmon, and even bears.
Another option is to take a 4WD Jeep tour, which takes you on a rainforest adventure, followed by paddling on a Lake Harriet Hunt in a Native American-style canoe.
Adventurous types may also consider ziplining, which is also one of the most unique ways to see the forest! This tour takes you on a half-day adventure with seven zip lines, and eight canopy ropes. I would’ve loved to do this (since I loved ziplining on Catalina Island and in Costa Rica).
You can also combine ziplining with a skybridge and rappelling for an extra exciting excursion.
Explore the Misty Fjords National Monument
Seeing the Misty Fjords National Monument was a highlight for me – it truly is one of the most magical things to do in Ketchikan!
The Misty Fjords National Monument comprises two million acres of the Tongass National Forest and is full of steep fjords and sea cliffs, carved out by the melting of glacial ice. You’ll see them covered in lush green vegetation and towering waterfalls that directly fall into the water.
Like Ketchikan itself, there are no roads leading in and out of the Misty Fjords National Monument – the only ways to see them are via boat or seaplane.
We took the Misty Fjords and Wilderness Explorer excursion (one of the most popular Ketchikan shore excursions), which took us through the fjords and the Behm canal. Along the way, we saw unique rock formations and plenty of the local wildlife, including a bald eagle nest, and salmon flipping in the water.
The scenery gets more and more breathtaking the further you sail into the fjords, each view more postcard-worthy than the last. The foggy weather completely added to the mystical vibe, and was absolutely magical – there’s a reason these are called the “Misty Fjords.”
For an unforgettable experience, you can opt to see them on a private boat tour as well. Adventurous types may also consider renting a kayak to get to the fjords.
Another way to experience the Misty Fjords National Monument is to see them from above on a floatplane. This tour takes you on a scenic seaplane flight above the majestic fjords – you’ll get a spectacular birds-eye view of the towering fjords, cliffs, waterfalls, and water. I’ve seen photos from it and I must say it looks pretty epic!
Do be advised that because it is often overcast and rainy, this may cause low visibility and cancellations may occur.
See why Ketchikan is the “salmon capital of the world”
Ketchikan calls itself the “salmon capital of the world,” referring to its past when fishing was established as one of the area’s major industries. Ketchikan also had a large salmon cannon industry, and at one point there were 13 operational canneries in town.
Today, Ketchikan has three operational canneries and one cold-storage factory. However, salmon is everywhere in the city – you can see the fish jumping out of the water and swimming in the stream, and being sold in all the local restaurants and shops.
One way to observe the area’s salmon is to see them climb up the ladder at Ketchikan Creek, just a short walk from downtown. During the height of the salmon season (July-September), there are sometimes so many salmon that the creek looks black! (Sadly, we didn’t see any salmon when we went over, though).
Sport fishing is also a popular activity in Ketchikan, as there are opportunities to hook all five species of Pacific salmon, as well as halibut, red snapper, lingcod, and rock cod. There are many fishing charters offered (here is one that comes highly recommended), and the trip can be customized based on your preferences.
Ketchikan’s salmon is also known as the freshest in the world, and there are many places in town to consume it! You’ll find plenty of restaurants offering an abundance of salmon dishes, in any way you want it prepared – smoked, filleted, even on a bagel.
Unfortunately, we had limited time and didn’t have a chance to sit down for a proper meal in town. However, I’ve heard that the salmon at the Alaska Fish House (they have a smoked salmon cornbread!) and the Crab Cracker are excellent!
At the least, I recommend stopping into one of the shops in town to pick up some canned salmon to take home. We stopped in at the Salmon Market and Salmon Etc. and brought home several cans and they made the best souvenirs (I kept a few for myself as well and they were delicious)!
Take a stroll on historic Creek Street
Situated on a wooden boardwalk built over the creek, the historic Creek Street served as the area’s Red Light district until the 1950s. During its heyday, Creek Street was home to over 20 bordellos and you can still see signs of Ketchikan’s boisterous past.
During the Prohibition, Creek Street was also the place to go for a drink, as its location on the water made it ideal for smuggling whiskey into the saloons and brothels through hidden trapdoors.
Today, Creek Street is one of Ketchikan’s top tourist attractions, home to restaurants, galleries, souvenir shops, and antique stores. Taking a stroll down Creek Street was one of my favorite things to do in Ketchikan, and I loved being transported back in time here.
It is also one of the most picturesque areas in Ketchikan – the boardwalk is filled with beautifully preserved, colorful buildings, as well as beautiful views of the creek and water.
Visit Dolly’s House
Perhaps the most popular well-known bordello on Creek Street was Dolly’s House. Run by Dolly Arthur, the city’s most famous madam, the house is the only brothel still standing on the boardwalk, a sign of its past.
Today, Dolly’s House has been converted into a museum that gives visitors an insight into Ketchikan’s colorful history, and the intriguing lives of Dolly and the ladies who lived and worked here. The museum is filled with rather interesting memorabilia that makes it one of the most interesting fascinating places to visit in Ketchikan.
Admire the totem poles around town
Ketchiken is home to the largest concentration of totem poles in the world (and some of the oldest), a sign of its rich native culture. Local residents take pride in their heritage, and it would be a shame to not see at least a few while in town.
Checking out the totem poles in the area is one of the most popular things to do in Ketchikan, and you don’t even have to leave the downtown area to do so.
Southeast Alaska was originally inhabited by the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people who used totem poles to represent and commemorate ancestry, histories, notable people, or significant events in their cultures.
Taking a tour or excursion is an excellent way to see all the totem poles in the area, and to learn more about the original Native American inhabitants behind them.
These Ketchikan cruise excursions will take you to one or more of the totem parks in the area, each of which display a striking collection. Some tours also combine the totem park(s) with other notable attractions and activities in the area, such as a rainforest walk or a city tour.
You can also do a self-guided tour by taking the public bus, or renting a car. Be sure to check out the totem parks listed below:
- Saxman Native Village: Located 2.5 miles south of downtown, Saxman Native Village displays over two dozen poles, many of which are replicas or restored versions of totems found at abandoned villages in the area. You can also observe the carving house, and see native dance exhibitions.
- Totem Bight State Historical Park: Located 10 miles north of Ketchikan, this 14-acre open-air park features 14 different totems, all painstakingly reproduced from poles that were found in abandoned villages. There is also a replica of a Tlingit clan house here.
- Potlatch Totem Park: This small park is located right next to Totem Bight and features more totems, another clan house, several replicas of tribal houses, and even a museum of abandoned cars and firearms.
If you don’t have time to visit these parks, don’t worry – you can see totems without leaving the downtown area! There are 12 totem poles scattered all around downtown Ketchikan, and it’s guaranteed you will see at least a few while exploring the area.
Here are some of the notable totems in downtown Ketchikan:
- Chief Johnson Totem Pole: This towering pole stands 55 feet high and was carved from a single cedar log. Find it near the entrance of Creek Street, across from Whale Park.
- Totem Heritage Center: This museum features a number of preserved 19th century totems, collected and preserved with the permission of tribal elders.
- Cape Fox Lodge: The luxury hotel and lodge has a circle of six totem poles displayed in front of it, as well as a collection of Native American artifacts,
- Raven Stealing the Sun Totem Pole: This totem pole depicts a Native American legend and stands in front of the Ketchikan Public Library.
- Chief Kyan Totem Pole: This totem pole is a good example of a lineage pole, and features three figures – a crane, symbolizing Chief Kyan’s wife; a thunderbird to represent the wife’s clan; and a bear, which is Chief Kyan’s family crest. Find it at Whale Park.
Visit Ketchikan’s Museums
Learn something new during your visit to Ketchikan at one of the city’s museums. You can learn more about everything from Ketchikan’s rich history, native heritage, and wildlife at one of the city’s museums. (They’re also one of the best things to do in Ketchikan to escape the rain!)
Here are some of the museums to check out while in Ketchikan:
- Southeast Alaska Discovery Center: Learn about the ecosystems, rainforests, natural resources, and native traditions of Southeast Alaska and the Tongass National Forest through interactive exhibits and displays. You can also see Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian totem poles. (temporarily closed)
- Tongass Historical Museum: Artifacts, photos, and texts give you an overview of the diverse and vibrant history of Alaska’s First City. Ever-changing exhibits tell the story of Ketchikan’s evolution as a Native fish camp, mining hub, salmon canning capital, fishing port, and timber town.
- Totem Heritage Center: Find the largest collection of 19th century totem poles, salvaged from abandoned villages, along with a collection of contemporary Tlingit art.
- Dolly’s House: The house and bordello of Ketchikan’s most famous madam, preserved much as she left it. You can learn more about the Creek Street and the city’s boisterous past.
Explore the area’s trails
Ketchikan’s breathtaking natural beauty and temperate rainforests create ample hiking opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts.
A number of short and well-maintained trails start from near the cruise ship terminal, making hiking one of the best things to do in Ketchikan on a day trip.
One of the most popular is the Rainbird trail, a 1.3 mile hike that climbs through the rainforest, with towering trees, shrubs, and ferns. At the end, you are rewarded with impressive views of the city and the Tongass Narrows and its cruise ships, ferries, fishing boats, and floatplanes.
The trailhead starts from the University of Alaska Southeast Campus, north of downtown and easily accessible by city bus or taxi.
Those looking for more of a challenge may consider the Deer Mountain trail, another one of the most popular day hikes in Ketchikan. The hike is only 2.5 miles (five miles roundtrip), but is classified as difficult – the elevation gain is 3000 feet. You’ll also encounter steep switchbacks, rocky terrain, and not always a clearly marked trail.
If you are up for the challenge, you will be rewarded with dramatic panoramic views of the city, and its surrounding islands and alpine lakes. You really can take in all of the area’s natural beauty from up here.
The Deer Mountain trail is located approximately 1.5 mile from the cruise ship docks – however, there is an extremely steep hill for half a mile, so taking a taxi is suggested.
Go Kayaking and explore the waters
Another way to explore Ketchikan’s natural beauty is to rent a kayak and explore its waters. You’ll find plenty of kayak rentals around town, as well as a number of Ketchikan shore excursions.
There are plenty of kayaking opportunities, whether you are looking for an easy paddle along the waterfront, or a multi-day adventure to the Misty Fjords. It is also an excellent opportunity to see some of the area’s sea life and wildlife, which you can see on this kayaking eco-tour.
See the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is one of the most family-friendly things to do in Ketchikan and is a unique way to experience the city’s rich logging history brought to life.
In this show, world-champion lumberjacks, wearing spiked boots and hard hats, compete in a number of traditional lumberjack games wielding axes, saws, gaffs, and chainsaws. It is a bit kitschy, but it is also a tremendous display of athletic feat and skill and is one of the most unique Ketchikan shore excursions.
View the area’s wildlife
There is a diverse array of wildlife that live in the rainforests and waters in the Ketchikan area, including bears, eagles, fish, whales, and more. While chances are you will see at least some of the area wildlife while out and about during your visit in Ketchikan, there are also many tours and excursions offered to help you get a closer look at it.
Many hope to see a bear during their stay in Alaska, and some of the area’s most popular wildlife excursions are bear viewing tours. One unique experience is this flightseeing tour, which includes bear viewing at Timber Cove. You’ll not only get to fly over the stunning scenery of the Ketchikan area, but will also spend a few hours trying to spot bears in their natural habitat!
If you are interested in whales and the sea life of the area, there are also whale watching tours offered. The waters surrounding Ketchikan are home to numerous species of whales, including humpbacks, orcas, grey whales, and more. In addition to whales, you may also spot seals, porpoises, and eagles in the area as well.
(Do note that while these tours offer wildlife viewing opportunities, none guarantee it).
Another way to see and learn more about wildlife in the Ketchikan area is to visit the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary. Located southeast of Ketchikan, the nature preserve offers walking tours, during which you may see various wildlife such as bald eagles and black bears.
It is a unique experience that will give you a deeper understanding of the diverse ecology of the area, as well as develop a passion for conservation.
Have you ever been to Ketchikan, Alaska? What are some of your favorite things to do in Ketchikan?
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