How to Make the Most of One Day in Ketchikan, Alaska’s “First City”
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Alaska’s First City. Salmon Capital of the World. Rain Capital of Alaska. Ketchikan has many names – and all are true in their own way. (Ketchikan was not the first city in Alaska by date, but instead, the first city that prospectors reached when heading to the Klondike gold fields.) As you might guess from the variety of monikers the city has earned, Ketchikan is a special place even by Alaska standards.
I’ve been to Ketchikan several times in the past few years, always as part of an Alaska Cruise – which is how most people visit. Most recently, I was in Ketchikan in June 2022 on a cruise with Windstar Cruises, and had a full day to explore the city – and a bit beyond.
If you’re planning an Alaska itinerary and have decided to make a trip to Southeast Alaska, Ketchikan is a must-visit spot. Many cruise companies include Ketchikan on their itineraries because it has so much to offer, even if you only have a short time to visit.
In this post, I’ll share my best advice on how to spend one day in Ketchikan, to help you plan if you want to visit this unique Alaskan town but don’t have a ton of time to do so. As you’ll see, even with just one day, you can see a lot of Ketchikan’s top attractions, explore its history and culture, and even strike off the beaten tourist path with a sense of adventure. Ready to make the most of your short time in Ketchikan?
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the Lingít Aaní (traditional lands) of the Tlingit people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Ketchikan Travel Tips
Before jumping into the details of how to spend your day in Ketchikan, here are a few travel tips to ensure you’re prepared to have a great time.
Getting to Ketchikan
Like many Southeast Alaskan communities, Ketchikan is not accessible by car from any other part of the state – or even by driving from Canada, like Skagway and Haines. This means you’ll need to reach Ketchikan by boat or plane.
Most visitors arrive in Ketchikan by boat on a cruise ship; you can also reach Ketchikan as it is on the Alaska Marine Highway System (the “Alaska Ferry”). If you’re arriving by boat, you might be in town for only a few hours or one day – which is why I wrote this post for you!
The other way to reach Ketchikan is by plane. Alaska Airlines is the primary airline that flies into Ketchikan regularly, with nonstop flights from Seattle, Juneau, Sitka, and Wrangell. This is a great option if you want to explore Ketchikan for a few days. (Though this post is written for spending one day in Ketchikan, I do provide suggestions for what to do if you have more time, at the end.)
Getting Oriented in Ketchikan
Ketchikan is a small community; for the most part, you don’t need a car to explore everything I recommend for one day in Ketchikan. There’s a downtown core, and then more residential areas spread out along the coastline north and south of town. Most visitors won’t go to those residential areas, so I’ve just focused on the walkable downtown area.
When to Visit Ketchikan
Ketchikan is a tourist-driven town; it comes to life during the summer months when the cruise ships make port basically every single day between Memorial Day and Labor Day. This is a double-edged sword when it comes to choosing when to visit Ketchikan.
The best time to visit Ketchikan is during the summer months; June through August are the warmest and driest months of the year. That said, it still rains one out of every three days during the summer!
If you want to avoid crowds and don’t mind if some attractions are closed, look at the first few weeks of May or the last few weeks of September to take advantage of the shoulder season.
What to Pack for Ketchikan
It rains an average of 140-160 inches and 300 days per year in Ketchikan – it’s literally the opposite of Denver, which gets 300 days of sun per year! As I mentioned, even the driest months see rain about 35% of the time, so it’s best to assume it will rain and then be pleasantly surprised if it’s not raining.
I have a packing list for Alaska, including if you’re taking an Alaska cruise; here’s a short list of tips:
- Wet feet are the worst; bring waterproof shoes or boots. I have several suggestions here.
- Bring appropriate outer layers and jackets. Here‘s the list of the jackets I reach for whenever packing my bags for Alaska.
- Layers, layers, layers. The secret to staying comfortable in Alaska is to dress in layers everyday, so you can add or remove to meet the conditions as they change.
As I said, your absolute best rule of thumb in terms of packing for Ketchikan is to prepare for rain, and be pleasantly surprised if it’s dry.
What to Do in Ketchikan (When You Only Have One Day!)
One day is not nearly enough to see all of Ketchikan and the surrounding region, but if you only have one day, we’ve gotta work with what you’ve got! Here’s what I recommend for how to spend a day in Ketchikan, in order from morning to afternoon.
Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
If it’s your first trip to Ketchikan, you’ve gotta do this super touristy attraction just so that you have a better sense of the town’s history – and enjoy a little ridiculous entertainment in the process.
The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is an Alaskan institution; it’s been around for decades and draws crowds all day long – they do 5-6 shows per day during the summer months! At the beginning of the show, there is a bit of education about Ketchikan history, which helps explain why the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is here, instead of some other Alaskan town.
The entire experience takes about 90 minutes from start to finish, and it’s really one of those “do it once” experiences.
Whether you choose to attend or skip the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, a visit to Creek Street is absolutely necessary. You might recognize this series of colorful, stilted houses from postcards about Ketchikan, and it’s a photo-worthy spot too.
Creek Street is another historic part of Ketchikan. When the city was experiencing earlier boom periods, it was the red light district; the green Dolly’s House Museum dates back to 1919 and still displays relics from that era on the windows (including a fascinating) job application for women seeking employment there.
Other buildings on the block are now more above-board – you’ll find vacation rentals and a variety of local gift shops along the stretch.
Cape Fox Lodge, Funicular & Married Man’s Trail
After strolling along Creek Street, you’ll find yourself where the sidewalk, er, the boardwalk ends. You’ll spot a funicular and a set of stairs leading up through the tree. Those stairs are called Married Man’s Trail as they lead from a former residential area atop the hill down to Creek Street; the funicular also connects to Cape Fox Lodge.
From here, it’s up to you. If you want an easier trip, ride the funicular up to Cape Fox Lodge and climb the stairs down. If you want to get your heart pumping, make the climb up Married Man’s Trail to the Lodge, then enjoy the view on your funicular ride down.
Speaking of Cape Fox Lodge, this is a great place to stay in Ketchikan – more on that below – but it’s also a nice spot for a morning coffee with a view overlooking the town, and there are some incredible Native Alaskan artifacts on display in the hotel lobby. (Cape Fox Lodge is operated by Cape Fox Corporation, a Saxman Village company; this is one of the Native Alaskan corporations.)
If you’re feeling peckish, Cape Fox Lodge also has a lounge and dining room open throughout different times of day depending on when you visit.
Southeast Alaska Discovery Center
Back at town/sea level, there’s one more stop to make before taking an afternoon adventure: the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.
Even though you’ve already gotten a bit of history from attending the lumberjack show, exploring along Creek Street, and climbing to Cape Fox Lodge, the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center will fill in the gaps with information about the area’s natural and cultural history. You can also watch informational videos and there are occasionally talks about various topics to give you even deeper knowledge on a subject.
The Southeast Alaska Discovery Center is a great spot to visit before/after lunch, depending on the timing of your day in Ketchikan.
Totem Bight State Park
As I mentioned, there’s an afternoon adventure in your agenda: taking the city bus out to Totem Bight State Park, which is about 30 minutes north of Ketchikan.
If you’re spending more than one day in Ketchikan, you could rent a car to give yourself more flexibility, which would make this part of the day easier. However, if you only have one day and don’t want to rent a car, The Bus runs all the way out past Totem Bight State Park and is an easy, affordable way to reach the park. (I actually did this exact trip by bus on my most recent visit, so I know it can be done!)
Take the bus from “Front & Dock St, Berth 2” and hop off at “D-1 Loop Road at Totem Bight” (you’ll need to pull the cord to notify the driver). Cross the road and walk up the opposing side to the state park. The return bus stop is right in the state park parking lot, making it super easy to catch the bus back! (The bus fare is $2 per person, per ride, or $5 for the day. We just paid per ride since it was cheaper.)
Once you’re at Totem Bight, take your time to explore the park and see the 14 totem poles and community house on display. This is one of the best displays of totem poles in Alaska, and well worth the extra effort to visit, especially on a nice day.
Have an Extra Day in Ketchikan? Here’s How to Fill It
If you’re sold on visiting Ketchikan but either already have planned to spend more than one day or are wondering if it’s worth extending your time, here are some other activities you can add to your itinerary if you do spend two or three days in Ketchikan.
Misty Fjords National Monument Flightseeing
If you have at least another half-day in the Ketchikan area – but ideally a whole second day – the best way to spend it is by splurging on a flightseeing tour of Misty Fjords National Monument. There are a number of operators who offer half-day and full-day trips to show you this beautiful region of Southeast Alaska that’s truly accessible only by plane and small ship/boat.
Here are three companies to start your research into this activity: Island Wings, Misty Fjords Air, and Seawind Aviation.
Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary
If part of your Alaska travel dreams includes seeing wildlife, then a visit to Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary is worth spending your extra time in Ketchikan. This facility is located on a nature reserve in Tongass National Forest, and offers guided tours to see wildlife including eagles and brown and black bears.
Saxman Native Village
Note: These totem photos are from elsewhere in Ketchikan.
If Totem Bight was not enough totems for you, there are two other places to see totem poles in Ketchikan. The first is Saxman Native Village, which is south of Ketchikan. (You can take the bus here as well if needed!) At Saxman Native Village, you can do a tour of the site to learn more about Tlingít history and present-day culture, as well as totem carving and the stories that totems tell.
Totem Heritage Center
The third and final place for seeing totems in Ketchikan is the Totem Heritage Center. In addition to totem poles, you’ll also see other Tlingít crafts and artworks. Exhibits include both traditional and modern art, which shows how present-day artists are keeping their culture alive.
Where to Stay in Ketchikan
Since you’re spending an entire day in Ketchikan, you’ll need somewhere to stay the night! (Unless you’re only spending part of a day, in which case you’re probably on a cruise ship and have this bit covered…) Here are my suggestions for accommodation in Ketchikan:
- Cape Fox Lodge – Overlooking the town of Ketchikan, Cape Fox Lodge is the place to stay in Ketchikan. You’re paying for the location and view, but it’s worth it. Rooms start from $250 per night; book directly or on Hotels.com.
- Inn at Creek Street – If you’re up for staying in the (former) red-light district, take a look at the Inn at Creek Street. This no-frills inn is cozy and very conveniently located. Rooms start from $169 per night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- Waterfall Resort – I didn’t mention it, but fly-in fishing is another popular activity from Ketchikan (though not ideal if you only have one day!). If you’re looking for a fly-in fishing resort to extend your time in the area, Waterfall Resort is a perfect place to stay. Rooms start from $2,775-$5,750 for a 3-day, 2-night stay; book directly or on Hotels.com.
Have any other questions about how to spend your one day in Ketchikan? Let me know in the comments!
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