Exploring Ketchikan, Alaska's 'First City'

By Erin Kirkland
Alaska Travel Expert,
Salmon, rain, and cruise ships; that's what most people think about when discussing Ketchikan, and indeed, all three are an important part of this Southeast Alaska community. Located on 700 miles north of Seattle and 235 miles south of Juneau, Ketchikan is the southernmost city in Alaska, and the first port cruise ships visit on their way up the Inside Passage, hence its nickname, "Alaska's First City." 

A former salmon cannery town, Ketchikan sits on enormous Revillagigedo Island, the 11th-largest in the United States, but only about 45 miles of actual roadway is available to residents or visitors. Most of the space is home to the Tongass National Forest, a 730,000-acre federal land that is larger than the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Hawai'i, combined.


Getting to Ketchikan is easy; one either flies or floats there. Alaska Airlines provides daily jet service year-round from Anchorage, Juneau, or Seattle. Delta Airlines offers a seasonal service between May and September to meet the high demand for flights.
It must be noted that the Ketchikan airport is located on Gravina Island, across the Tongass Narrows from town, and there is no bridge; passengers must take a tiny ferry across for a 5 minute tour of the waterfront.

The Alaska Marine Highway System (ferries) count Ketchikan as a critical stop along the Inside Passage route between Bellingham and Whittier. A vital link to other Southeast Alaska towns, the ferry is considered a link between smaller, less-populated towns and the larger communities that offer medical care, schooling, and shopping options.

Cruise ships make daily port calls to Ketchikan, and it's something to see the town's population swell from 14,000 to at least triple that on a busy summer day. Like any seaside community, the combination of activities, tours coupled with shouts of fish vendors, local kids, and shop owners makes for a vibrant atmosphere that is not to be missed.

The Ketchikan Convention and Visitors Bureau has a dockside kiosk for passengers disembarking from cruise ships, and it's a convenient place to pick up a city map. For those with a bit of time between scheduled shore excursions, or independent explorers, here are some recommended activities.

Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. You can't miss the hoots and hollers coming from the stadium near the docks, or the towering spar poles rising above the rooftops. A raucous good time, this one-hour show gives the best of a former industry that has since all but died in Southeast Alaska. Lumberjacking is a tough, dangerous profession, and the young men who "compete" for the title of Bull of the Woods do a masterful job of skillfully weaving stories into a longstanding tradition for Ketchikan. GoTip: Shows happen rain or shine, so come prepared with appropriate clothing.

Ketchikan Walking Tour. Pick up a walking tour map at the visitor center highlighting historical sights throughout the city. Creek Street is the most notable, a place where brothels once stood among the brightly-colored houses. Today's Creek Street is all for show, and often, a few sea lions wander up the creek in search of salmon. Climb the hills behind Creek Street and visit the fish hatchery, then hike back down to the Tongass Historical Museum and Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.

Potlatch Totem Park. Located 10 miles north of downtown Ketchikan and on the public bus line, Potlatch Park is worth a visit to immerse yourself in Tlingit Alaska Native traditions of the area. Featuring tribal houses, intricately carved totems, and some very interesting dioramas of early villages, the park also has lovely walking trails and guided tours. The Ketchikan Visitor Center can provide a bus schedule and more park information.

Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary. Interested in outdoor adventure? Take a zipline tour of a rainforest canopy, or a short hike through the mossy trees at the sanctuary. Appropriate for all ages, the property also offers a bit of local history through a trip to the Tlingit carving shed and a thriving salmon stream where bears are sometimes viewed doing a bit of fishing.

Alaska SeaCycle Tours. Part paddleboat, part bicycle, that's the Alaska SeaCycle difference between simply paddling around Ward Cove, or pedaling and floating, together. A beautiful estuary surrounds visitors in the four-hour tour that often brings out the bald eagles, bears, and salmon near totem Bight State Park.

GoTip: Any visit to Ketchikan should be accompanied by appropriate gear. Be sure to bring rain boots, a hat with a brim to shed water, and a rain coat and pants constructed of durable, waterproof material. 


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Travel Magazine: Exploring Ketchikan, Alaska's 'First City'
Exploring Ketchikan, Alaska's 'First City'
Travel Magazine
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