Great Debate

Skagway vs Ketchikan: How to Choose for Your Alaska Trip

My blog posts likely contain affiliate links, including for the Amazon Associates program.
If you click, book, or buy from one of these links, I may earn a commission. Read more in my Privacy Policy.

Planning your Alaska trip is a series of seemingly impossible decisions. How long to visit, and when. How much to spend. Where to go, what to do, where to stay. Oh my! You might find yourself stuck between two different destinations, uncertain which will be the right one for you and the kinds of memories you want to make during your bucket list trip to The Last Frontier.

This is why I’ve started a new series of posts I call the “Great Debate;” in each post, I compare two Alaskan communities to help you choose between the two. If you have time to visit both, awesome – but if you (like most visitors) are time-constrained, these posts will help.

Skagway or Ketchikan Hero

In this post, I’m comparing Ketchikan and Skagway. I had the chance to visit both communities during my Windstar Cruise in Alaska in June 2022, and I’ve explored each separately on other trips too.

So if you’re stuck on the great debate of Skagway vs Ketchikan, read on. This guide covers the similarities and differences between the two, as well as the unique aspects each one has to offer travelers. Then I end with a recommendation for which to visit, to wrap everything up nicely for you. Ready to dig in and settle this great debate for your own Alaska trip?

(Short on time? Use the Table of Contents to quickly navigate this post!)

Skagway vs Ketchikan: What are the Differences?

Choosing between visiting Skagway or Ketchikan isn’t easy for most travelers, even if you’ve already been to Alaska! So, I’ll first dive into the characteristics that distinguish Skagway from Ketchikan to help you decide which destination fits your Alaskan experience.

  • Skagway: Located in the northern part of Southeast Alaska, Skagway is near the border with Canada. Why mention this? Because, if you have a car, this is the main difference with Ketchikan. Skagway is accessible by road via the South Klondike Highway, which connects to the Alaska Highway. In terms of activities, Skagway is great for tours and exploring the scenery.
  • Ketchikan: Situated in the southern part of Southeast Alaska, Ketchikan is more accessible from the continental United States than Skagway and is the first major port for many northbound cruise ships. Ketchikan can be reached by air and sea, with direct flights from Seattle. As for the activities, Ketchikan has a lot more to offer when it comes to food, shopping, and hotels. 

Besides the differences, I always like pointing out what makes each place special. Knowing the main attractions of each city will help you decide if Ketchikan or Skagway is a better fit for your trip; let me dive into each community in greater detail so you can (hopefully!) choose one for your trip… or determine you just need to visit both.

Ketchikan: Gateway to Southeast Alaska

Nestled at the southern tip of Alaska’s Inside Passage, Ketchikan is a town of many nicknames: “Gateway to Southeast Alaska,” “Alaska’s First City” (on the route north to the Gold Fields), and “Salmon Capital of the World” are the main ones. As you can tell, there’s a diversity of experiences to be had here.

Culturally, Ketchikan boasts a proud Alaska Native cultural heritage – this is easy to see through its totem poles, which are scattered throughout the city and its outskirts. The Totem Heritage Center and Saxman Native Village offer insights into the art and traditions of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people who still call this part of the world home.

There’s also nature and wildlife. As a gateway to Misty Fjords National Monument, Ketchikan offers spectacular scenery of fjords and cliffs. Wildlife excursions give visitors a chance to see bald eagles, bears, whales, and more in their natural habitat. (If you’re visiting on a cruise, you can learn more about these kinds of experiences in my guide to the best Ketchikan cruise excursions.)

Being THE salmon capital, Ketchikan is also a dream destination for fishing enthusiasts. You can start in Ketchikan to fly out to several fishing resorts, and the city’s docks often offer fresh seafood and the chance to book and head out on a fishing charter in search of salmon, halibut, and other fish.

More Ketchikan Resources I’ve Written:

Skagway: Gold Rush Bonanza

Skagway, on the other hand, is a haven for history and non-Native culture lovers. This small, historic town is nestled at the northern tip of the Inside Passage and serves as a gateway to the Yukon Territory and the Klondike gold fields. (You can still see active mining operations near Dawson City, should your travels take you there.)

Skagway’s charm lies in its preserved Gold Rush-era buildings, now part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Walking through Skagway is like stepping back in time, with its well-preserved buildings and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which offers a historic journey through the mountains. There are also sights and attractions like the Red Onion Saloon and Days of 98 Show that immerse you in history through live-action experiences.

Beyond its history, Skagway is also a good base for outdoor enthusiasts. Hiking trails abound, all leading to stunning views and unspoiled wilderness; the Chilkoot Trai is famous among hikers and follows the path of the gold-seekers. There are also biking trails and ziplining courses.

More Skagway Resources I’ve Written:

Ketchikan or Skagway: How to Choose

Things to Do in Ketchikan Hero

Okay given all that, we’re now at the moment of truth: which should you choose, Ketchikan or Skagway?

As you can probably guess (and I hate this answer), but it depends… most importantly on your interests when visiting Alaska. If you’re drawn to rich cultural experiences and the art of the Native peoples of Southeast Alaska, Ketchikan’s totem poles and cultural centers will captivate you. If you’re a European-settler-influenced history buff, Skagway is a must-visit for those fascinated by the tales of the Gold Rush era and who enjoy historic sites and museums.

Nature lover? Both destinations offer incredible natural beauty, but Ketchikan’s proximity to Misty Fjords and its abundant wildlife might have a slight edge for those seeking encounters with nature. If hiking and outdoor adventures top your list, Skagway’s access to trails and its adventurous history make it a great choice.

Ultimately, both Southeast communities have their unique charms and stories. Your decision might just come down to which aspect of Alaska you wish to explore first. Whether it’s the cultural depth and natural beauty of Ketchikan or the historical significance and adventure that Skagway offers, you’re sure to have an unforgettable experience in either Skagway or Ketchikan.

Stuck still trying to decide between Skagway vs Ketchikan after reading this post? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll try to help you choose.


Keep Planning Your Cruise!

My Alaska Cruise Guide ebook will help you plan the basics of your cruise and wade through all the excursions in each port to make the best choice for each stop on your Alaska cruise itinerary.

Get your copy for just $12.99!

Help others discover this post too!

I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *