Ketchikan is often the first stop for Alaska cruise ship itineraries and if there is one place where you can get away without purchasing a shore excursion, this is it. There are plenty of things to do in Ketchikan on your own. As my husband and I stood on the deck of our cruise ship gazing at the sun glistening off the water, we couldn’t believe our luck. Ketchikan gets about 100 sunny days each year and we were fortunate to be visiting during one of them. It’s always more pleasant to walk around a city when the sun is shining.
Related: Check out our article about the White Pass Railroad Train Excursion from Skagway, Alaska.
Visitors Center – Get advice on the Best Things to do in Ketchikan
A stop at the visitors center should be one of your first things to do in Ketchikan. We were able to pick up a map and get directions to some of the key attractions. When you stop there, be aware – the front of the visitor center is manned with tour operators who wish to sell you tours. The back of the visitor center is where you’ll find the free information.
Ketchikan Totem Poles
The Ketchikan area is home to the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles and seeing these works of art is one of the best things to do in Ketchikan. Totem carving is a centuries old craft that hit its peak in Alaska during the mid-1800s. At that time, the availability of iron carving tools made totem carving much easier for artists and the increased wealth from the fur trade meant more artists were commissioned to create totems for celebrations and ceremonial events. There are totems in various locations around the city and they are marked on the tourist info map. You’ll find more at the Totem Heritage Center, just outside the downtown core. The center was built in 1976 to stabilize and preserve a collection of 19th century totem poles. It contains some magnificent totem poles and its native arts classes help promote and preserve traditional arts and crafts of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures.
Saxman Native Village and Totem Pole Park
Visiting Saxman was high on our list of things to do in Ketchikan. This native village is about 2.5 miles south of the city. You can catch a cab, take the bus or walk there. Since it was a sunny day when we visited, we decided to walk. The paved path along the waterfront is lovely and the trek took about an hour. The totem park was impressive and we loved wandering through it and photographing the totems. We also popped inside the lodge and did some shopping in the gift shop. The Tlingit village has about 475 residents. We caught the bus back, so we would have more time to explore Ketchikan.
Totem Bight State Historical Park
At this special site outside Ketchikan, you’ll find 14 totem poles with an interesting history. In 1938, the U.S. Forest Services began a program aimed at salvaging and reconstructing totem poles that had been left behind in abandoned native villages. They hired skilled native carvers to either repair or rebuild the totem poles. The program helped young artists learn the art of carving from seasoned experts and thereby preserved the art and culture. The park is a 20-minute drive north of the cruise port. It takes about 30-minutes by bus to get there and you need to be conscious of the bus schedule, so you make it back to the cruise port well before the departure time. Our time was limited, so we saved this item on our list of things to do in Ketchikan for a future visit.
Visiting this bustling historic district is one of the most popular things to do in Ketchikan. It is called Creek Street because the historic boardwalk is built directly over Ketchikan Creek. Besides great photo-ops you’ll find restaurants, gift shops, museums, interpretive signage and more. The salmon were running when we visited and we found it fascinating to watch them from the boardwalk. We also enjoyed watching the seals fishing for salmon in the river. Be sure to check out the salmon ladder and take the short walk up Married Man’s Trail to the scenic overlook.
Deer Mountain Fish Hatchery
We happened to come across the Deer Mountain Fish Hatchery while we were exploring the city. Exploring the fish hatchery is one of the more educational and interesting things we found to do in Ketchikan. It is one of the oldest hatchery sites in Alaska that is still in operation. This remarkable nonprofit center gives free hatchery tours that get you close up to the growing salmon. You can watch them being fed and learn about their life cycle. The hatchery produces king and silver salmon as well as steelhead trout.
No Shore Excursion and No Regrets
We were fortunate to have a beautiful sunny day for exploring Ketchikan, but it would be a fun place to explore in any weather. We found plenty of things to do on our own and didn’t feel at all like we missed out by not purchasing a shore excursion in this port. If you have any questions about touring the city on your own, please comment below.
Note: Since 265 days of the year are rainy here, we recommend you bring a good travel umbrella in your day bag.