Ketchikan, Alaska, is the site of an ancient Tlingit fish camp and was a supply town during the gold rush. Ketchikan is about 3 mi/5 km long but only a couple of blocks deep. Located on the southwest shore of Revillagigedo Island, it's the first port of call into Alaska, hence its nickname, The First City.
Ketchikan is considered an Alaska Native cultural center for the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes, as well as a sportfishing mecca. The town generally gets more than 150 in/388 cm of rain annually, but don't let the liquid sunshine (as residents prefer to call it) keep you inside—Ketchikan is worth exploring in any kind of weather.
Ketchikan is only accessible by air or water. It is located on Revillagigedo Island, in the heart of the 17-million-acre/6.9-million-hectare Tongass National Forest. The city sits at the base of Deer Mountain and its downtown in on the Tongass Narrows waterway. Behm Canal encircles most of the island.
Tongass Avenue is the main north-south highway, but its name changes as it progresses through town—it is Stedman Street at the base of Ketchikan Creek, Mill Street as it heads toward the docks, Front Street along the downtown docks, then Water Street north of Front Street.
A number of streets are really stairs or short passages. A few blocks from the dock is the once-rowdy Creek Street, now a tame boardwalk. It is really a walkway on pilings along Ketchikan Creek, featuring quaint shops that were once bordellos.
For generations, the proud and resourceful Tlingit and Haida tribes spent the summer months near where Ketchikan now stands. They caught salmon in the rivers and creeks, and hunted bear and deer. There is almost no evidence of the Tlingit and Haida being whalers.
Spanish and Russian explorers arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries; the first Russians arrived in 1741 searching for new travel routes, fur and opportunities for settlements and political expansion. Their arrival gave rise to clashes.
The U.S. purchased the Alaska territory from Russia in 1867, after Canada passed on the opportunity. Entrepreneurs Mike Martin and George Clark opened a salmon saltery in Ketchikan in 1886 along with a trading post and the city's first post office.
The gold rush of 1898 brought thousands of newcomers to the territory. Ketchikan became a major port of entry, supplying goods and passage to the Yukon. After the gold rush, commercial canning companies sprang up along the coast as the demand for salmon grew. Logging also became a major industry during World War II.
Today, Ketchikan relies on tourism as travelers flock to the area for its untamed beauty.
Stop by the visitors center on the dock to pick up the Historic Ketchikan walking-tour map and guide to area attractions. The 2-mi/3-km tour is an excellent way to see many of Ketchikan's sights. Even if you stray from the map, don't worry: The town isn't big enough to get lost in. The city has also put up signage to make it even easier for visitors to find sites of interest and then return to the docks.
The walking tour will take you past the turreted, Victorian-style Burkhardt House; the 1954 tunnel on Front Street, which claims to be the only tunnel that you can go over, around and through; and E.C. Phillips & Sons, one of the few remaining cold-storage and fish-processing plants in the city.
You might also want to drop by the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, one block inland from the cruise docks. It provides interpretive exhibits about the rain forest, wildlife and Alaska Native cultures, a film about the Tongass National Forest, and information on public lands, area hiking, kayaking and local ecosystems.
Along with the prosperity brought by salmon and mining came a red-light district built on the pilings above Ketchikan Creek. The community had as many as 30 bordellos before prostitution became illegal in 1953. Most of the women moved on; one who didn't was Dolly Arthur, whose bordello is now a museum, Dolly's House.
Strolling along the rest of Creek Street and checking out the various shops can be great fun. There are also a few cafes where you can eat outside if the weather is nice. Or just hang over the railings and watch the fish and kayakers go by. While you're on Creek Street, catch the tram up to Cape Fox Lodge. From there you'll be treated to one of the best views of Ketchikan.
Ketchikan once had more than a dozen bars in its downtown area alone. Most were kept going by the large numbers of fishermen and loggers in town during the summer. But with those industries in decline and tourism growing, economics have driven most of the bars out. There are still a few longtime bars left, such as the Arctic Bar in Newtown, but Ketchikan's days as the nightlife capital of Alaska are gone.
Nightlife in Ketchikan can include anything from pizza at My Office Sports Bar and Godfather's Pizza to dancing at First City Saloon. Nights are long in winter, and many bars are open late.
During the off-season, the Saxman Native Village Clan House hosts open-mike nights. Anyone in the community who wants to perform can do so. Admission is US$5, but if you bring a dessert to share, the tickets are free. https://www.experienceketchikan.com/native-american-totem-poles-5.html.
As would be expected, king crab, salmon and halibut are Ketchikan's seafood specialties, and they're always fresh. You can also find home-style chowders, cannery bread, wraps and great cheeseburgers. Most of the popular restaurants are within walking distance of downtown.
Coffee is big in Ketchikan. Kiosks along Tongass Avenue offer drive-through services. Favorite companies include Refiner's Roast (Phone 907-247-6278) and Raven's Brew (http://www.ravensbrew.com).
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.
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