After the 36-hour ferry ride up from Bellingham, WA, Ketchikan is many first-timers’ introduction to Alaska. Along the way they’ve heard tales from sourdoughs (and those who claim to be), talked to Forest Service naturalists, and watched the logging towns and lush green islands of British Columbia float past. As the ferry pulls into busy Tongass Narrows, an air of expectancy grows among the newcomers, who are about to take their first steps in Alaska.
The state’s fourth-largest city (pop. 8,000, plus another 5,000 in nearby areas), Ketchikan bills itself as “Alaska’s First City,” and even its zip code, 99901, seems to bear this out. Quite a few ferry passengers don’t bother to stop here, instead hurrying on toward Juneau and points north. Because downtown is two miles away, they only have time for a superficial bus tour or a walk to the grocery store for provisions.
Located 90 miles north of Prince Rupert, B.C., Ketchikan clings to a steep slope along Tongass Narrows, on Revillagigedo (ruh-VEE-ya-he-HAY-do) Island; locals shorten the name to “Revilla.” Much of Ketchikan is built on fill, on pilings over the water, or on hillsides with steep winding ramps for streets.
Fishing boats jam the three boat harbors (there are almost as many boats as cars in Ketchikan), and the canneries and cold-storage plants run at full throttle during the summer. Floatplanes are constantly taking off from the narrows, cruise ships crowd the docks, and tourists explore the downtown shops and attractions.
Ketchikan is one of the rainiest places in Alaska, getting upward of 13 feet per year, or an average of half an inch per day. Luckily, May–August are the driest months, but expect to get wet nevertheless. Locals adapt with “Ketchikan sneakers” (red rubber boots) and Helly Hansen rain gear; umbrellas are the mark of a tourist.
The downtown visitors bureau houses booths from companies promoting two-hour city tours ($40–50). Most of these—including an embarrassing “Duck Tour”—are for cruise ship travelers. Also popular are two-hour waterfront paddle-wheel boat cruises offered by Alaska Travel Adventures (907/247-5295 or 800/791-2673, www.bestofalaskatravel.com, $59 adults, $39 children) and visits to Saxman village from Cape Fox Tours (907/225-4846, www.capefoxtours.com, $45).
Getting to Ketchikan
By Ferry: Ketchikan’s ferry terminal is two miles northwest of downtown and is open Monday–Friday 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. and when ships are in port. Call 907/225-6182 or 907/225-6181 for recorded arrival and departure times. During the summer, ferries provide almost-daily runs to Prince Rupert, Metlakatla, Wrangell, and points north. Ferry service to Bellingham, WA is once per week. Contact the Alaska Marine Highway (907/465-3941 or 800/642-0066, www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs) for the current schedule and prices.
By Air: Ketchikan Airport is on Gravina Island, directly across Tongass Narrows from the ferry terminal. The airport has a café, cocktails, and Wi-Fi ($6 per hour). In 2005, Ketchikan became a national laughingstock when Alaska’s congressional delegation rammed through a bill that included funding for a pair of bridges to the otherwise-uninhabited island. The notorious “bridge to nowhere” became a national symbol of pork barrel politics before the funding was hurriedly cut off.
There really isn’t a need for bridges since an airport ferry (907/225-6800, $5 one-way plus $6 for vehicles) operates every 30 minutes daily 6:15 a.m.–9:30 p.m. The ferry leaves the airport side on the hour and half-hour, and leaves the Ketchikan side of the channel at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour.
If you’re heading downtown and don’t have a rental car, Rich Schuerger of Tongass Water Taxi (907/225-8294) takes you directly from the airport to Thomas Basin in the heart of Ketchikan for $19 s or $27 d. He meets most flights and can be found next to the baggage claim.
Alaska Airlines (800/426-0333, www.alaskaair.com) has flights from Ketchikan to Juneau, Petersburg, Sitka, Wrangell, and other cities in Alaska and the Lower 48. Three air-taxi operators, ProMech Air (907/225-3845 or 800/860-3845, www.promechair.com), Pacific Airways (907/225-3500 or 877/360-3500, www.flypacificairways.com), and Taquan Air (907/225-8800 or 800/770-8800, www.taquanair.com), have daily service to Prince of Wales Island and Metlakatla.
ProMech, Pacific Airways, and Taquan also do flightseeing trips around Ketchikan. Other air-taxi operators include:
- Carlin Air
- 907/225-3036 or 888/594-3036, www.carlinair.com
- Family Air Tours
- 907/247-1305 or 800/380-1305, www.familyairtours.com
- Island Wings Air Service
- 907/225-2444 or 888/854-2444, www.islandwings.com
- Misty Fjords Air and Outfitting
- 907/225-5155 or 877/228-4656, www.mistyfjordsair.com
- Alaska Seaplane Tours
- 907/225-1974 or 866/858-2327, www.alaskaseaplanetours.com
- Seawind Aviation
- 907/225-1206 or 877/225-1203, www.seawindaviation.com
- Southeast Aviation
- 907/225-2900 or 888/359-6478, www.southeastaviation.com
Especially popular is a two-hour flightseeing trip to Misty Fiords National Monument that includes a landing on a lake for around $230. Some of these companies include a half-hour on land as part of the tour, providing a good chance to stretch your legs and take in the wild country.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition