Surrounded by the Tongass National Forest and the rich fishing waters of the Alaska Panhandle, Ketchikan is brimming with Alaskan culture and native heritage.
Ketchikan is surrounded by the outstanding natural scenery travellers have come to expect from Alaska. The Tongass National Forest stretches across most of Southeast Alaska and is the perfect place to experience the state’s vast and overwhelming wilderness. Tongass National Forest is home to Alaska’s most famed wildlife, eagles, wolves, bears and icy rivers filled with spawning salmon.
Salmon fishing is a major part of Ketchikan’s rich history, and it remains a large part of everyday life in the city. Salmon migrate to the rich waters around Revillagigedo Island, where Ketchikan sits, and are fished by the locals today as they have been throughout the city’s history. When you disembark in Ketchikan you can head out on a local fishing boat and try your hand at salmon fishing, alternatively watch the professionals at work catching king and snow crabs or octopus, whilst you enjoy your time on the water with a hot drink in hand.
The native heritage to be found in Ketchikan is one of the main draws for travellers. The city is teeming with traditional totem poles, some of which are over 100 years old. Take a walk down the historic Creek Street and feel as though you have been transported back in time, surrounded by wood clad buildings and raised above the cold waters below on stilts.
We spoke to Jenni from Just Chasing Rabbits, who told us about her Alaskan cruise: “Our 2016 cruise to Alaska stopped at the port of Ketchikan. We were so eager to see Alaska but had no idea that each port would offer such different experiences! Cruising is one of our favourite ways to travel because, with stops at various ports on each cruise, passengers can experience more than one area, island, or even country, to get an overview of the area. We have loved seeing Alaska, the islands of Hawaii, and the Caribbean in this way.”
In this article, we take a look at some of the ways you can spend an afternoon in Ketchikan during your cruise stopover.
Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour
As one of the most popular things to do in Ketchikan, Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour is a great way to spend your time. The tour takes three hours and is wheelchair and scooter accessible. Get on a traditional Alaskan fishing ship and take to the Inside Passage in search of sea crab. Watch the professional fishermen at work as they teach you more about the history of the boat you’re on and the history of working as a crab fisherman in the Bering Sea. If you are a fan of TVs The Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel then you will be very familiar with this ship, and some of the crew who will take you out to sea.
As well as sea crabs this tour also runs closely to a lot of the outlying islands and can give you a good glimpse into the Tongass National Forest and its residents. The eagle-eyed crew will keep their eyes on the shore and make sure if something is there, you will see it. The boat will head towards the nesting place of golden eagles and most tours are lucky enough to get a really good sighting of these glorious beasts.
Once you get out to sea the crew will start pulling up their catches. Some of the animals brought to the surface will be placed in a live tank for you to see them up close. You can even touch some of the animals before they are carefully released back in to the ocean.
We spoke to the team behind the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour who told us a bit more: “The Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour is an award-winning excursion and the top-rated tour in Ketchikan. Guests board an authentic Bering Sea crab boat, which was featured on season 2 of the Discovery Channel program, The Deadliest Catch. Spend 3 hours with true Alaskan fishermen and see a variety of sea life up close and personal. The eagle encounter on this tour is world-renowned also!”
Totem Heritage Center
If you want to experience one of Alaska’s most important parts of history, then the Totem Heritage Center is for you. The centre was established in 1976 in order to preserve endangered totem poles which were retrieved from uninhabited village sites near Ketchikan.
Alaska has a strong native past and totem poles are a large part of that culture. Totem poles were created to represent stories and events, the figures that make up the totem pole are there to embody stories, traits and characteristics. Ketchikan itself is an embrace of the past and the future, and as you walk down the streets you’ll feel the old meet the new but the Totem Heritage Center is the best place to experience that in the city.
The centre houses 33 authentic totem poles, along with historic images and native artworks. Learn about the history of Ketchikan and Alaska amongst this forest of traditional artwork.
Misty Fjords National Monument
The Misty Fjords National Monument is one of the most popular excursions for Ketchikan. Tours are usually taken by boat or by plane, and you’ll glide through the fjords and experience some of Alaska’s perfect scenery. The Misty Fjords are named that way because they are just that, misty. Often the tops of the fjords are covered in thick layers of mist, making them even more scenic than they already are.
Wildlife is abundant in the Misty Fjords, which extend 2.3 million acres across Tongass National Forest. The weaving canals bring life with them and are part of the reason Tongass National Forest is so popular with Alaska’s wildlife.
Creek Street is built along the shores of Ketchikan, and the actual street is built over the water. This was an easier option than attempting to build into the rocky hills around the creek. This wooden attraction is lined with historical buildings and some of the best shopping in town.
The antique boardwalk is a lovely place to try some local food, shop and look down into the creek itself to see salmon making their way upstream. The history of Creek Street is much more sordid than it appears today. Originally Creek Street was Ketchikan red light district. In the mid-1920s there were over 20 brothels on Creek Street alone! Ketchikan was one of the places liquor was smuggled into the US from Alaska during the prohibition, so this street became a hotspot for debauchery. Most of the houses have a secret trap door underneath in order to receive those secret alcohol deliveries!
Journey along Married Man’s Trail if you go to Creek Street. Often used for men who were trying not to get caught visiting the working woman, this trail is an extension of Creek Street that finishes at Salmon Ladder. Salmon Ladder is a rushing waterfall and one of the best places to get a picture of salmon jumping upstream trying to fight the current.
Southeast Alaska Discovery Center
The Southeast Alaska Discovery Center is the best place to learn about the history of the Tongass National Forest. You can learn about the rainforest around you and learn how the people of Ketchikan used to live as one with their surroundings.
The Discovery Center also teaches about the culture of the early inhabitants of Southeast Alaska. They have a life-size display of a native fish camp, complete with smokehouse and a hand-carved canoe. There are even examples of traditional clothing, boxes and baskets. You can even listen to Native Elders who will share their culture and heritage with you.
Deer Mountain Trail
If you are looking to brush off your hiking boots and get a walk in then the Deer Mountain Trail is the most rewarding in Ketchikan. Hike through the Tongass National Forest, weave between towering evergreens and, once you summit, get rewarded with one of the best views of the city.
Look down over the bay and spot your luxury cruise ship waiting for you in the water. On a clear day you’ll be able to see right out to sea, and the beautiful mountains that are all around Ketchikan. Lucky hikers will encounter some majestic wildlife, including, as you may expect, deer!
George Inlet Crab Feast
If you want to experience some fresh Alaskan crab then go for the George Inlet Crab Feast. This restaurant is brilliant, and don’t worry about small portions, it is all you can eat! The fresh crab is sweet and warm and served with melted butter. Before you start, your hostess will show you how to best enjoy your meal, and then you are free to unleash on your dinner.
Enjoy a complimentary drink with your food and eat until you can’t eat any more. Finish off with a slice of smooth cheesecake, smothered in Alaskan blueberries.
If seafood isn’t for you then go and get yourself the best burger in town from Burger Queen. This understated fast food joint is easy to walk past but you’ll be grateful you didn’t once you get your mouth around one of these burgers.
Made in a traditional American style, treat yourself to something naughty and get some fries on the side! Burger Queen also makes a large range of delicious shakes, the perfect way to wash down your main course.
Alaska Fish House
If you are looking for portside grub, then head to the Alaska Fish House. The fish house boasts fresh seafood and overlooks the bay. Try some local halibut, silver salmon or Bearing sea cod. Then decide how you want it, maybe some warming chowder or some trendy fish tacos, some filling burgers or the most popular - fish and chips!
Bar Harbor Restaurant
If you didn’t have enough options for beautiful, fresh seafood already then you definitely do now with the Bar Harbor Restaurant. As well as the more traditional Ketchikan fare it is also well known for its prime rib, burgers, and pasta dishes. The perfect place to go for a group who all want different things.
If you are looking for a light bite rather than a large meal then try Sweet Mermaids cafe and party shop. Pick up a quick bagel to take with you, or one of the freshly made cakes. Or perhaps, if you need to warm up a little, stop in for a hot drink and a quick lunch. If you have a sweet tooth be sure to stop off here.
If you are looking for a little something to take home for gifts (to treat yourself to) then Ketchi Candies should be on your list. This small business churns out a whole range of sweet treats, with chocolate jelly beans and most importantly fudge, you can watch it being made right there in the store and choose to ship some home or take it with you there and then. Just make sure you get a little extra, because it’ll disappear very quickly! Ketchi Candies also has many sugar-free and diabetic-friendly options.
So whether you choose to don your hiking shoes and take to Deer Mountain, learn more about the native history of Ketchikan or gorge on some of the freshest seafood in the world, you are sure to have a great afternoon in Ketchikan on your luxury cruise.
Image Credits: Commercial Fish Adventures, Mark Byzewski, Roy Luck, Bernard Spragg, Amanda Graham.