View of Ketchikan, AK, and Deer Mountain.
Ketchikan is a scenic town of approximately 8,000 people, located along the Tongass Narrows, at the foot of Deer Mountain, on Revillagigedo Island in Southeast Alaska.
Over 800,000 visitors come through Ketchikan each year by cruise ship. Most spend only a few hours in town, limiting their tourism and recreation choices. Visitors who arrive by air, via the Alaska Marine Highway System, or by private vessel and who have more time to spend can choose from a wider array of activities.
Located in the vast coastal rainforest of Southeast Alaska, Ketchikan is one of the rainiest cities in North America with just over 150 inches of average annual precipitation. Visitors should therefore come prepared for rain, especially if they plan activities on the water or in the forest or otherwise away from town and easy access to shelter. During the summertime precipitation is generally light and sporadic and daytime temperatures average in the high sixties (F). Wintertime is marked by heavy, cold, wind-driven rain, for months at a time with barely any respite and temperatures in the high thirties.
Ketchikan is served by the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Most visitors, however, arrive and leave on the same day via the cruise ships which ply Alaska's famous Inside Passage from early May through late September. Several harbors offer transient moorage to private vessels cruising the Inside Passage.
The Alaska Marine Highway System ferries, as well as the ferries of the Inter-Island Ferry Authority (which serves Ketchikan, Metlakatla, and several communities on Prince of Wales Island) arrive at a ferry terminal approximately 1 mile north of downtown, is served by local bus service and has pay phones available to call for taxi or shuttle service. Walk-on ferry passengers who don't have a vehicle available in Ketchikan can find food and lodging directly across the street from the AMHS ferry terminal.
The town is served by daily jet service from Seattle and Juneau. Visitors who arrive by air at the Ketchikan Airport must take a short ferry ride or water taxi from the airport's location on nearby Gravina Island (2006 cost, $5.00) which will deliver them to a terminal about 1.5 miles north of downtown and approximately 0.5 miles from the nearest food and lodging. The Ketchikan side of the airport ferry service is connected by local bus service and there are payphones available on the airport side and the Ketchikan side to call for taxi or shuttle van pickup.
Ketchikan's historic downtown is small and easily accessible by foot from the most common tourist access point, the massive downtown dock where summer cruise ships moor, however the rest of the town stretches miles to the north and south along the waterfront.
Taxi services can provide visitors with access to outlying areas and to tourist destinations outside of town.
The town's bus service provides visitors with access to outlying areas and to tourist destinations outside of town.
Coming by cruise ship?
Don't immediately book trips and activities via your tour operator, you can save yourself a small fortune by arranging directly with the actual attraction. In some cases, as much as 50% of the price of a ticket bought through the cruise lines goes straight to their pocket...
- Totem Heritage Center, 601 Deermount Street, ☎ (907) 225-5900 (fax: (907) 225-5901), . May - Sep: open every day, 8AM - 5 PM; Oct - Apr: Mon - Fri 1 – 5 PM, Sat and Sun closed. $5 (May - Sep).
- Tongass Historical Museum, 629 Dock Street, Ketchikan, Alaska 99901, ☎ (907) 225-5600, . May - Sep: Open every day, 8 AM - 5 PM; Oct - Apr: Wed, Thu, Fri 1 PM– 5 PM, Sat 10AM - 4PM, Sun 1 – 4 PM, Mon & Tue closed. Visit the historical exhibits. $2 (May - Sep only), free for residents.
- Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, 50 Main Street, Ketchikan, Alaska 99901, ☎ (907) 228-6220 (r10_ketchikan_Alaska_Info@fs.fed.us, fax: (907) 228-6234), . See the rainforest interpretive exhibits.
- Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, Location varies, ☎ 907-225-9050 (firstname.lastname@example.org, fax: 907-247-9049), . Watch an exhibition of lumberjack skills. Adults: $34 + tax, Children 3 - 12: $17.50 + tax, Children 2 & Under: Free.
- Visit local totem-pole collections - Ketchikan is situated at the meeting place of three Alaska Native cultures, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. Evidence of the rich artistic and dance traditions of the native cultures is apparent throughout the town, most visibly in the totem poles scattered through the historic district and found in larger groupings in totem parks near town:
- Saxman Totem Park, (approximately 2.5 miles south of downtown).
- Totem Bight State Historical Park, (approximately ten miles north of downtown Ketchikan).
- Totem Heritage Center.
- Tribal Fish Hatchery, (located within Ketchikan, approximately 0.75 miles from the cruise ship docks).
The Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, located on the cruise ship dock, publishes a walking tour of downtown Ketchikan that takes visitors through several interesting neighborhoods.
Probably the most scenic downtown stretch is historic Creek Street, which is only a short distance (three to four blocks) away from the cruise ship docks. Once a raucous red-light district, and during prohibition a row of speakeasies, these days Creek Street is home to a quieter class of establishment but still retains its delightful historic charm. Visitors walking downtown should be sure to include it in their walking tour to see the picturesque wooden buildings that stand on stilts above Ketchikan Creek.
Summer visitors can look down from the bridges that cross the creek and expect to spot salmon gathering in the brackish waters near the creek mouth, preparing to make their final ascent upstream, where they will spawn and die. Depending on time, tide, and other conditions you might also see a hungry harbor seal or two cruising the creek mouth for easy prey.
Scenic Creek Street is popular with visitors to Ketchikan's historic downtown
- Explore the surrounding area - Set on the hillsides above the waterfront on a heavily forested, mostly wilderness island, the town of Ketchikan is worth visiting on its own merits. However, visitors with time for an extended stay should make an effort to explore the steep rainy forests, deep-water channels, secluded bays, and hundreds of small islands in the surrounding area. Travellers with access to a boat of some sort, whether single-person kayak or gargantuan luxury yacht, should devote some time to exploring the scenic passages and inlets of the nearby waterways where fish are bountiful, it's not uncommon to see whales and porpoises, and bears and eagles can frequently be seen on the shore.
- Charter a salmon- or halibut-fishing excursion.
- Rent a kayak from a local outfitter and explore the town waterfront.
- Take a zip-line tour through the forest canopy (available through several local operators.)
In recent years tourism development fueled by the cruise-ship industry has driven many local businesses out of the stores in the historic downtown area, replacing them with jewelry and souvenir shops. The transition from functional downtown towards a tourist-based economic monoculture has been unfortunate for locals but fortunately for visitors much of the architectural character of the old town remains and not all of the new stores sell the same jewelry and trinkets that can be found in any Southeast Alaska port -- several businesses still specialize in selling local artwork, carvings, and crafts.
Several galleries specialize in native-design art. Consider some of the strikingly executed carvings or baskets, or if you're on a more modest budget, a print.
- Crazy Wolf Studio, . This shop has a fine collection of masks by Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian carvers.
- Carver at the Creek, harbor end of Creek Street, . Fine carvings at premium prices.
- Eagle Spirit Gallery. Less focussed on Southeast Alaska - sells artifacts from throughout the state
- Marvin Oliver, . Sells native design prints and sculptures featuring bold colors and unusual materials.
Ketchikan's art scene isn't limited to native art, however. The town's scenic location and active participation-friendly art community have attracted artists working in a number of media. Local photographers offer some remarkable photos of the area's scenic wonders -- be sure to save some time to actually see the wonders, though and not just their photos. Other artists work in a variety of media; many are influenced by local scenery and/or wildlife. Excellent work can be found throughout a price range which can accommodate almost any budget.
- Soho Coho, (in the historic Star Building at the upper end of Creek Street), . A popular local gallery that sells modestly priced artwork by several local artists and does a brisk trade in whimsical fish-themed T-shirts designed by gallery owner Ray Troll.
- Parnassus Books, upstairs in the historic Star Building at the upper end of Creek Street, . Locally owned and well stocked with the works of Alaska authors and books on the history, flora, and fauna of Ketchikan and Southeast Alaska.
So you like the taste of the fish?
If you're looking for something with local flavor to bring home with you, the area's seafood is exceptional and can be packed and shipped frozen back to just about anywhere in the country. If you're leery about shipping frozen fish consider smoked salmon, which travels well. If unsure, ask the store owner to tell you what kind of salmon and where it was caught and packed. Of the five types of wild Pacific salmon, king (chinook), silver (coho), and sockeye (red) will usually be clearly labeled -- they're more highly sought after and command a price premium. Salmon that is unlabeled, or is labeled only as "wild Alaskan salmon" is usually either pink (humpback) or chum (dog) salmon.
Considering its huge number of summer visitors (expected soon to reach 1,000,000 per year) it will come as a surprise to some that Ketchikan isn't really a restaurant town. There are restaurants, of course, many of them quite decent, none truly exceptional. But the peculiarities of the local tourist trade mean that most of the 900,000+ visitors who come every year rarely patronize local restaurants -- the overwhelming majority arrive via cruise ships that offer all-inclusive meal plans and spend only a few hours in town. Consequently the restaurant economy in Ketchikan is supported mostly by locals and a small subset of visitors and the number and variety of restaurants is not as large as one might expect from the size of the local tourist economy.
- Fish is the local specialty. The fishing industry in Southeast Alaska is not what it once was but vast amounts of salmon are still landed every year and processed and shipped to all over the world. Wild Alaskan salmon is world famous, and rightly so. Ask a local fisherman, however, and many will express a preference for the lighter-flavored halibut. Either is a fine choice, as are several other species caught in local waters, including rockfish, ling cod, and dungeness crab. Don't be afraid to ask your server what's fresh.
- Crab A word on crab: many visitors, excited to be in Alaska, are eager to dine on the famous Alaskan king crab. What most don't realize is that king crab aren't commonly found anywhere close to Ketchikan and there is no commercial king crab fishery here -- the chief ports of the king crab fishery are Kodiak and Dutch Harbor far to the north and west of Ketchikan. In other words, if you order king crab, you're going to be served crab that has been frozen and flown in -- it won't be any fresher than if you'd ordered it at a restaurant back home. If you crave a crustacean sensation order local dungeness crab instead. Dungies aren't as large or as exotic as king crab and it takes a bit more work to eat them but their meat is pleasantly mild and sweet-tasting and you'll get a fresher meal at a cheaper price. Save the king crab order for when you've travelled much further north.
- Filipino cuisine Ketchikan has a substantial Filipino minority population and there are a number of local restaurants that serve Filipino cuisine, either on its own or in conjunction with a more traditional American menu as well.
- Ocean View Restaurant. Serves from a wide menu of mostly Mexican and Italian dishes, is probably the most popular restaurant in town. The food is flavorful and the atmosphere is welcoming and family-friendly. Vegetarian options abound, something that cannot often be said in Ketchikan.
- The Galley. An old local favorite. The Galley offers Asian food and diner fare, from pancit (a traditional Filipino noodle dish) to burgers. The addictive lumpia (a Filipino version of a spring roll), fried rice, and noodle dishes are the local favorites.
- Cape Fox Lodge, accessible from Creek Street via a bright red funicular lift. On the higher end of the price scale, overlooking downtown, is probably the best choice in town: they serve a good meal in a nice atmosphere. There is a respectable beer and wine list, and the views of the waterfront are very nice. Prices are a little on the high side for the quality of food and service received but are not out of line with Ketchikan norms.
- Chico's, downtown. Small family run Mexican restaurant. Friendly service and good food.
- Burger Queen. A popular local take-out opposite the water just past the downtown tunnel. Fast food with a local flavor.
Summertime visitors to Ketchikan should remember that summer is high tourist season and the town has a modest number of hotel rooms. There are other options available besides traditional hotel rooms, however. Quite a number of local bed and breakfasts host visitors. And many stay at remote lodges, some accessible by road from Ketchikan, others requiring travel via boat or float plane to reach them.
Campers can find pleasant accommodation for tent camping or RVs at campgrounds at Ward Lake, Last Chance, and Settler's Cove. However, facilities are primitive and electric and sewer hookups are not available. Tent campers can also generally camp at undeveloped sites in the Tongass National Forest. Check with the Ketchikan Area Ranger District for details and, where necessary, permits.
For the more adventurous, the US Forest Service maintains a network of backcountry cabins and camp shelters throughout the region. Reservations for cabins can be made on-line and a night at a forest service cabin usually costs $35 - 45. Camp shelters are usually free and usually are on a first-come, first-served basis. Check with the Ketchikan Ranger District for details or visit the web site for the Tongass National Forest. Cabins are primitive -- a spartan setup with a kitchen area, a stove (for heating, not too practical for cooking) and sleeping platforms for four (or in a real pinch six) but are generally isolated and located in sites of notable natural beauty. Transportation to and from the cabins poses the biggest challenge for most visitors, as none of the Ketchikan-area cabins are available via the road system. Most are located next to salt water and accessible by boat, some are on inland lakes and require a hike in or transport via float plane, which can be arranged through a number of local float plane services.
- Misty Fiords National Monument - About sixty miles from Ketchikan, on the eastern side of Revillagigedo Island and the mainland opposite, lies this 3,570 square mile National Monument, which straddles the 2,000-foot deep waters of narrow Behm Canal and spans rich marine, coastal and mountain forest ecosystems. The highlights of the monument are two spectacular fiords, Rudyerd Bay and Walker Cove, each of which winds miles into the mountainous coastal mainland. Thousand-foot waterfalls zigzag down spectacular cliffs, their flow augmented in the spring and early summer by melting snow, and fed throughout the year by the copious amounts of rain that define Southeast Alaska's coastal climate.
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