Ketchikan Visitors Bureau
The Ketchikan Visitors Bureau (131 Front St., 907/225-6166 or 800/770-3300, www.visit-ketchikan.com) is right on the downtown dock. It’s open whenever cruise ships are docked, which means daily 6:30 a.m.–6 p.m. most days May–September, and Monday–Friday 8 a.m.–5 p.m. the rest of the year. Pick up their free map, which includes a walking tour of local sites. The building also houses booths for local tour companies. A smaller visitors center is located along the promenade just north of the tunnel.
Southeast Alaska Discovery Center
A great place to start your exploration of Ketchikan is the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center (50 Main St., 907/228-6220, www.fs.fed.us/r10, Mon.–Sat. 8 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m.–4 p.m. May–Sept., Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Oct.–Apr., $5 adults, children under 15 free). Operated by the U.S. Forest Service, it’s filled with impressive exhibits—including a full-scale rain forest—that offer an educational portrait of the land and people of Southeast Alaska.
A variety of wildlife videos are available, along with nature programs. The staff will help you with information on the outdoors, and the big bookshop features books, trail guides, and maps.
The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
Located on Mill Street next to the cruise ship dock, the Spruce Mill Complex is the tourist shopping center for downtown Ketchikan, with retail stores, souvenir shops, galleries, and restaurants. Ketchikan’s old spruce mill stood on this site for many years, so it is perhaps fitting to find The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show (907/225-9050 or 888/320-9049, www.lumberjacksports.com, 3 shows daily—rain or shine—May–Sept., $34 adults, $17 children) here.
This cornball one-hour exhibition of old-time logging skills features ax throwing, bucksawing, springboard chopping, logrolling, and a speedy 50-foot tree climb. Covered grandstands protect the audience from the inevitable rain. If you’re looking for a cheesy Disneyfied imitation of old-time logging, this may be your ticket.
Tongass Historical Museum
The cramped Tongass Historical Museum (629 Dock St., 907/225-5600, www.city.ketchikan.ak.us, daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m. May–Sept., Wed.–Fri. 1–5 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Sun. 1–4 p.m. Oct.–Apr., $2) shares the library building. The museum contains local historical items with changing exhibits that include examples of Native Alaskan culture and commercial fishing. Look around for the model of a clan house, the 200-year-old Chilkat blanket, the dance paddle inlaid with abalone shell, the bentwood boxes, and the amusing totem pole with President Truman’s features.
Ketchikan’s best-known and most-photographed section features wooden houses on pilings along Ketchikan Creek. A boardwalk connects the buildings and affords views of salmon and steelhead in the creek. Now a collection of tourist shops, Creek Street once housed the red-light district; during Prohibition it was the only place to buy booze. Jokesters call it “the only place where both salmon and men came up from the sea to spawn.” By 1946 more than 30 “female boardinghouses” operated here.
Prostitution on Creek Street was stopped in 1954, and the house of Dolly Arthur was eventually turned into the Dolly’s House Museum (907/225-2279, daily May–Sept., $5). Inside are antiques, liquor caches, and risqué photos. Born in 1888, Dolly moved to Ketchikan in 1919 and worked at the world’s oldest profession for many decades. When she died in 1975 her obituary was featured in newspapers across the West.
Dolly’s is fun to tour with grandmothers who would never otherwise step foot in such a place, and the fascinating collection of memorabilia makes it well worth a visit. It’s open whenever large cruise ships are in port.
A funicular car ($2; free if you hike up and ride down) connects Creek Street with Cape Fox Lodge, where you’ll discover impressive vistas over Ketchikan and Tongass Narrows.
Other Downtown Sights
Outside the library and museum is Raven Stealing the Sun Totem, and not far away stands the Chief Johnson Pole (an older version is inside the Totem Heritage Center). Tiny Whale Park occupies the intersection across from the Forest Service office and is home to the Chief Kyan Totem, reputed to reward those who touch it by bringing money within a day. It’s worth a try, but don’t immediately head to Las Vegas on the basis of this claim.
Check out some of Ketchikan’s many long aerobic stairways up to hillside homes and outstanding vistas. The best ones start from the tunnel at Front and Grant Streets, and from the intersection of Main and Pine Streets. If you have a bike (or better yet, a skateboard), you may want to test your mettle on Schoenbar Road, the route blasted out of a steep hillside behind town.
By the way, the Front Street tunnel is said to be the only one in the world that you can drive through, around, and over—or so claims the Guinness Book of World Records. A pretty promenade follows the shore north from here, with cedar benches, stained glass pieces, and colorful flowers.
Picturesque Thomas Basin Boat Harbor is just across the bridge over Creek Street. Walk out on Thomas Street, past the Potlatch Bar (good for a game of pool or a beer with local fishers), and out along the jetty for a fine view back toward town.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition