If you know one thing about Ketchikan, Alaska, it’s probably that the town—founded as a fishing and logging community—ranks as the salmon capital of the world. While prolific fishing is still the number one reason people tend to visit, it’s certainly not the last. Bordered by Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the country, this small city named for the Ketchikan creek boasts the type of wide-open spaces that draw folks to Alaska from the contiguous United States. A peaceful retreat for nature-lovers, visitors come to soak in the fresh mountain air on lush hiking paths, explore Misty Fjords National Monument, and even snorkel or kayak the waters of the Inside Passage.
But “Alaska’s first city,” as it’s known, has more to offer than outdoor adventure. It’s also an important center of Alaskan native culture. Because of its abundant natural resources and fish population, Ketchikan has served as the longtime home to three tribes. Originally a summer fish camp for Tlingit natives, Haida and Tsimshian people from Canada also settled here much later. With more totem poles than anywhere else in the world (including some of the oldest in existence) a visit here presents a rare opportunity to immerse yourself in rich, meaningful traditions like carving, dancing, and weaving.
The best part? Despite its far-flung location and distance from the mainland, Ketchikan is surprisingly easy to get to; travelers from the East Coast can jump on a flight in the morning and arrive in time for dinner. Here, discover how to make the most of your trip to one of Alaska’s most accessible hidden gems.
How to get to Ketchikan
In Ketchikan, all the Alaska-sized adventure you’ve been craving is closer than you might think. To reach the island, just hop on a 90-minute flight from Seattle (Alaska Airlines offers daily flights while Delta’s schedule is seasonal).
It’s also possible to cruise here like a true local on the Alaska Ferry. Each Friday, the boat leaves Bellingham, Washington and sails through the stunning Inside Passage to its first stop, Ketchikan. The journey takes 36 hours, but with private state rooms and a solarium on the top deck where you can pitch a tent and soak in the night sky, it’s well worth the leisurely trip.
Where to stay in Ketchikan
From extended stay hotels and spacious vacation rentals to quaint inns and fishing lodges, Ketchikan has a wide array of properties that are sure to please every type of traveler. Note that many tend to fill up during the height of the fishing season (mid-July to August) so book ahead if you’re traveling during the summer.
In Town. You’ll find a host of convenient options in downtown Ketchikan, including The Landing, right across the street from the ferry on Ketchikan’s working waterfront. Tucked away into a nearby hillside, the newly renovated Cape Fox Lodge is a seven-minute stroll away from the main stretch of restaurants and shops (a complimentary shuttle is also available). Built by Alaska natives, the lodge showcases Tlingit culture through its design and artifacts exhibited in the lobby.
Nearby. For a place that’s all your own, turn to Alaska Travelers Accommodations. With over 70 properties in the Ketchikan area, you’re sure to find the right lodging for you, whether you’re looking for a serene waterfront rental or a luxuriously cozy treehouse.
Further Afield. For those looking to completely unplug from the real world, Waterfall Resort provides an unforgettable adventure on the western shore of Prince of Wales Island that’s accessible only by seaplane. Here, assigned fishing guides take you on daily excursions in wide open water to catch salmon, watch for whales, and witness some of Alaska’s most beautiful scenery.
Where to eat
As the salmon capital of the world, there’s no doubt that dining in Ketchikan is a seafood lover’s dream. Local restaurants cook fish, Dungeness and king crab, oysters, and prawns straight from the surrounding ocean. But it’s not all about seafood—if you’re craving something a little different, this small community serves up lots of big flavors in spite of its size.
For never-frozen seafood. Run by Baranof Fishing Excursions, Alaska Fish House isn’t kidding when they say that all their seafood comes right off the boat. Take your pick of cod, salmon, or halibut that’s been dipped in seasoned panko and fried hot. If you like, the kitchen will even cook your own catch.
For craft brewing fans. The only microbrewery in downtown Ketchikan, Bawden St. Brewing specializes in ales, saisons, and sours. Check out what’s on tap or look for their beer at nearby restaurants.
For a night out. At Annabelle’s Famous Keg & Chowder House, you can eat in a low-key bar or more formal dining room. Located in the Gilmore Hotel, a historic landmark of 1920s Ketchikan, their extensive menu is a crowd-pleasing mix of seafood, steaks, and of course, three different kinds of hearty chowder.
For international flavor. 108 Tap House & Burger Bar isn’t your typical pub. Stop by and indulge in a delicious fusion of recipes from around the world like a bahn mi burger with lemongrass aioli, house-made fry bread, and a charcuterie board with cured Alaskan game, salmon roe, and kelp pickles.
In Alaska, you don’t have to travel far for some of the state’s most spectacular scenery and thrilling outdoor adventures.
Take a hike. Surrounded by Tongass National Forest, one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests, Ketchikan offers hundreds of miles of pristine trails. Venture along a scenic stream on Ward Lake Trail and take in amazing vistas of downtown and the Tongass narrows on Rainbird Trail. At the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, you can begin your visit by learning more about the forest’s ecosystems and resources or meet up with a ranger for a guided walk.
Go flightseeing. For an aerial view of Ketchikan and the nearby wilderness, charter a helicopter or floatplane and enjoy a magical journey by massive granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and clear blue lakes. One highlight is Misty Fjords National Monument. Covered by ice 17,000 years ago, these dramatic rock formations now jut 3,000 feet straight out of the ocean.
Hit the water. You might not traditionally think of Alaska as a watersports destination, but in Ketchikan—set at the southernmost entrance of the Inside Passage—the water is warm enough for an incredibly unique snorkeling experience. Catch a glimpse of Alaska’s intertidal marine world, including shallow tide pools with delicate sea stars, forests of bull kelp, and steep underwater rock walls for freediving. If you prefer to stay somewhat dry, kayaking is another relaxing way to see the waterways in and around Ketchikan.
Go on safari. The animals outnumber the people in Ketchikan, making it an ideal place for wildlife viewing. Black (and sometimes brown) bears thrive here due to the massive salmon population. Book a tour with Kawanti Adventures to observe them in their natural habitat at Herring Creek in the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary. There, you’re also likely to spot bald eagles and other birds of prey as they hunt for fish. If sea lions and humpback whales are what you’re after, join Out to Sea Expedition Company on one of their low-impact zodiac boats for a cruise around rocky coast lines, verdant islands, and black sandy beaches.
Catch your own dinner. With all five salmon species in the water, it’s always fishing season in Ketchikan. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned pro, take advantage of these superb conditions and cast a rod with one of Ketchikan’s many fishing charters or resorts.
In addition to its wild beauty, Ketchikan provides the rare opportunity to immerse yourself in native culture and visit a tight-knit Alaskan community with a rich, local history.
Learn about Alaskan heritage. Home to the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, Ketchikan boasts more totem poles than anywhere else in the world. You can see them on display in museums—like the Totem Heritage Center, which has a collection of over 30 unrestored, 19th-century totems from Tlingit and Haida villages—as well as parks, such as Totem Bight State Historical Park. To see how these remarkable monuments are made, head to Potlatch Totem Park. Equipped with a carving center, five tribal homes, and a fully recreated native Alaskan village, you’ll leave with new insight into how indigenous people actually lived in the 1800s.
Gallery hop. With more than 350 registered artists, Ketchikan has become a hotspot for all types of creatives, from native weavers to contemporary photographers. Visit Crazy Wolf Studio for handcrafted native art and Scanlon Gallery for an exciting collection of original paintings and sculptures, many of which are inspired by the area’s flora and fauna.
Explore Ketchikan’s past. Built across the shore of Ketchikan Creek, Creek Street is a quaint boardwalk that once served as the town’s red-light district until prostitution became illegal in 1953. Today, its historic wood-frame houses contain restaurants, shops, and Dolly’s House Museum, the home of Ketchikan’s most famous madam. Stroll along the water, do some browsing, and if it’s summer, pause right next to the library at the end of the street to watch hundreds of thousands of salmon swimming on their way to spawn.