Ketchikan, Alaska, is the southeasternmost city in the 49th state and is located at the entrance to the inside passage. It’s often referred to as Alaska’s first city since it sits furthest south, and the first city reached by large cruise ships.
The mountainous Tongass National Forest surrounds the town, and due to the rugged terrain, the layout runs lengthwise along the waterfront.
Like many towns in Alaska, its population is small at under 10,000 regular citizens. Yet, in the summer months, it hosts approximately one million cruise ship passengers on their ultimate Alaska cruise. Will you be one of them?
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This quaint fishing town is famous for having the largest collection of standing totem poles in the world. During my Hubbard Glacier inside passage cruise, I was surprised to see the Ketchikan cruise ship dock in downtown Ketchikan.
I didn’t need a vehicle to get around. Instead, I took a walking tour of Ketchikan.
If you prefer to take a shore excursion, Ketchikan offers many. Consider a floatplane excursion to the Misty Fjords National Monument, a Bering Sea tour on the Aleutian Ballad, or a Wilderness Cruise and Crab Feast. These tours offer a chance to see wildlife and bald eagles along the coast.
However, if you prefer to explore Ketchikan on foot, I’ve got the perfect walking tour for you. Walking this tour will take a couple of hours. But it could take longer depending on how long you stop or take detours.
It’s a great way to see the town’s highlights and admire its historic buildings.
Ketchikan Visitors Bureau
Cruise passengers can find the Ketchikan visitors bureau was right on the dock. A short distance away is a Ketchikan rain gauge. The liquid sunshine gauge gave me quite a chuckle.
The record for rain was set in 1949 when Ketchikan received a staggering 202.5 inches of rain. Make sure you’ve packed a waterproof jacket and shoes with all that rain.
Nearby, “The Rock,” a bronze sculpture by Dave Rubin, memorializes seven important residents from Ketchikan’s past.
Ketchikan Welcome Arch
Downtown Ketchikan is relatively small, so sightseeing is best done on foot. Near the cruise port and over Mission Street, Ketchikan’s brightly colored welcome arch greets visitors to the town.
The first arch was erected in the 1930s, but the fourth and current arch was built in 1996.
As the sign states, Ketchikan is the “Salmon Capital of the World,” with its abundance of salmon. Fishing and canning are primary industries in this southeastern coastal town.
Ketchikan thrives on tourism in the summer as cruise ship passengers add to their economic growth. If your mouth waters at the thought of salmon, you’re in the correct Alaskan city.
Enhance those taste buds by sampling the many seafood delights at local restaurants like Annabelle’s, Alaska Fish House, The Ketchikan Crab and Grille, or Ketchikan’s Crab & Go.
Ketchikan Crab & Go is the town’s newest restaurant, serving up king crab and other seafood delights.
Southeast Alaska Discovery Center
Just one block from the Ketchikan port on the corner of Main and Mill Streets, the center allows visitors on a budget (only USD 5 for entry) to discover Ketchikan’s history and culture.
This small but interesting museum is a great place to learn about the coastal rainforest, watch one of several movies, and the kids will enjoy the scavenger hunt.
While the museum is not large, the photos and displays do an excellent job of teaching the customs and culture of the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian, who used to reside there.
The Discovery Center is a great place to shelter from the raindrops, learn some Ketchikan history, and enjoy the complimentary WiFi if it’s wet outside.
Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is one of the most popular activities near the port of Ketchikan. If you’re looking for some fun and laughs, then the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is the perfect event.
It’s a bit corny, but you might find it pleasantly amusing for those who haven’t seen a lumberjack show.
The show reflects on Alaska’s rich logging history by showcasing friendly competitions based on strength and agility. Events include:
- Climbing a tree the fastest.
- Running on rolling logs in the water.
- Sawing a slice off a large tree trunk.
At one end of Creek Street, an antique red trestle bridge called Stedman Bridge leads out to the ocean. During my many visits to Ketchikan, plenty of fishermen are always trying their luck at catching some salmon.
If you want to have a go at fishing too, shops nearby rent fishing gear and sell fishing licenses. Good luck catching the big one!
Some places will freeze and ship your fish home if you hook any fish. If the salmon are running, look out for hungry harbor seals feasting on the school of fish in the waters below.
On hot days, local children jump from the bridge into the creek below to stay cool. Circle back to Creek Street from the bridge to continue the Ketchikan walking tour.
Historic Ketchikan’s most famous tourist attraction is the Creek Street boardwalk. It’s one of the most popular places for cruise ship passengers to visit. The infamous Creek Street, or boardwalk, meanders on wooden pilings over Ketchikan Creek.
The raised walkway was constructed on stilts due to the rugged terrain. Since it was impossible to blast out the mountainside, the solution was to build around it.
A walk along Creek Street is an excellent alternative to an expensive port excursion if you’re cruising on a budget. Looking up the boardwalk, the colorful buildings and charming nooks make for fabulous photos.
The infamous street was once a “red-light district” visited by fishermen and bootleggers smuggling whiskey. The brothels operated between the early 1900s to the mid-1950s. Today, it’s a quaint area filled with boutiques, cafes, and unique arts and craft shops.
Down on Creek Street, the path is narrow and can get congested with multiple ships in port. Plan this stop at the beginning of your walking tour to avoid the crowds.
During salmon season, it’s not unusual to see bald eagles, otters, and harbor seals in the creek below. If you’re hoping to bee black bears, you’ll need to take a tour to Herring Cove, Neets Cover, or Traitor’s Cove.
Dolly’s House Museum
At the start of the infamous street is Ketchikan’s infamous Dolly’s House. At Number 24 Creek Street, with its lime green dollhouse appearance, it’s impossible to miss.
Step inside and learn the history of Dolly Arthur, one of the area’s longest “working” residents. Dolly Arthur lived in one of Creek Street’s colorful houses from 1919 to the 1940s, and it’s here she operated her brothel.
Dolly, whose given name was Thelma Copeland, had already practiced her trade in Vancouver, Petersburg. Dolly’s House has some interesting memorabilia from Dolly’s life.
The exhibit includes her clothing and jewelry, and don’t miss the condoms on the shower curtain.
Tongass Historical Museum
Close to Creek Street, the Tongass Historical Museum showcases Ketchikan history in two museums. The displays document the importance of logging, fishing, and gold mining for the early settlers.
I especially enjoyed the artifacts of early crafts and quilting.
The informative displays are constantly changing and evolving. If you intend to visit the Totem Heritage Center, you can purchase a discounted ticket to cover both entrance fees.
During the height of the salmon season, Ketchikan Creek will see different salmon species swim up the creek. You can see Ketchikan Creek Falls and a fish ladder along the route.
It’s a fantastic Alaskan experience to watch the fish propel themselves up the ladder to spawn. For the best views, stand on one of the bridges that cross the creek.
Deer Mountain Fish Hatchery
From the salmon ladder, there are two routes for walking. The first follows Park Ave Road. It provides the most direct route to the hatchery.
Alternatively, a trail follows the northern side of Ketchikan Creek and crosses the creek several times. The trail offers a more scenic route.
Visitors can visit the fish hatchery near the city park. The Ketchikan hatchery produces chinook salmon, coho salmon, and rainbow trout. At the non-profit facility, you’ll learn the life cycle of salmon, tour the hatchery, and see the fry being fed.
Totem Heritage Center
Ketchikan is the perfect place to explore the rich cultures of the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida Alaskan people.
At the Totem Heritage Center, I enjoyed viewing the intricately carved totem poles that date back to the 19th-century and contemporary Northwest Coast art.
Displays include baskets, carvings, masks, and other spectacular native works of art. The center is a 15-minute walk from the cruise terminal. Alternatively, take the free downtown shuttle bus that runs every 20 minutes.
Cape Fox Hill
From the Totem Heritage Center, continue onto Cape Fox Lodge, a fantastic option for a stay if you’re visiting Ketchikan for more than a day. The interior of the Lodge has a spectacular post and beam design, perfect for the Alaskan area.
The Lodge houses a nice collection of Native Indian artifacts, including tools, knives, jewelry, hand-woven baskets, and pictures of totem poles.
If you need a break from your Ketchikan walking tour, the Lodge has a lovely restaurant to enjoy lunch or a snack. There are some of the best examples of Native American totem poles to view outside the Lodge.
Outside the Lodge, the Council of the Clans Totem Pole Circle comprises six unique totem poles in rich colors. These totem poles are not on “the map” of totem pole locations, so there are no crowds……and it’s also FREE!
So if you want some fantastic pictures of totem poles, this is the best place to visit. From the Cape Fox Lodge, you can walk the Married Man’s Trail.
Married Man’s Trail
The “Married Man’s Trail” consists of a staircase and pathway leading up to the woods.
The trail was the hidden path that married men used to sneak discreetly into the brothels so they wouldn’t get caught walking in the front door. Since it leads through the woods, the path is often muddy.
Located at Front Street, Eagle Park featured a giant carved eagle, perfect for a photo opportunity. Carved in 1927 by Nathan Jackson, his “Thundering Wings” depicts a majestic bald eagle taking flight.
Next to Eagle Park, Ketchikan’s claim to fame is its tunnel. The short tunnel is the only one in the world that can be driven through, over, and around. From here, it’s a short walk back to where you started.
The following map shows the walking tour and stops along the way.
Saxman Native Village
Are you big on native history and want to soak up more Tlingit culture? Then, pay a visit to the Saxman totem park, 3 miles south of town. So either book an excursion through your cruise line or take the 10-minute local bus ride.
While you cannot do this on a walking tour of Ketchikan, it’s still worthy of a short bus ride.
Saxman Village has an extensive collection of gorgeous totem poles spread out on either side of the main street and in front of the Clan House. The Clan House features magnificent carving panels and carved house posts.
There is also a carving shed where visitors can watch the local carvers hard at work. The native carvers are carving totem poles commissioned from all over the world.
Did you know that all figures carved on a totem pole must represent living beings? Living creatures include people and animal spirits, mythical creatures, and monsters. Popular wildlife symbols are the whale, eagle, frog, and bear.
Being in the heart of a Tongass rainforest, Ketchikan is one of the wettest places in the world. Remember that liquid sunshine gauge in the middle of town? With 300 days of rain per year, it’s best to prepare for the damp weather with the proper Alaska clothing.
After seven cruises to Alaska, Ketchikan has turned into my favorite port. Its colorful buildings over the creek always add a ray of sunshine, even on a rainy day. On my last cruise, I missed my port day in Ketchikan on Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas due to getting COVID on my cruise.
It’s a good thing I always have another one booked, so I can experience its charm again.