Visiting Ketchikan, Alaska: The Last Frontier

Photo Credit: Ketchikan Visitors Bureau/Eric Lindberg

Ketchikan, Alaska, was once a doorway between civilization and the unlimited promise of the Great North. The frontier spirit and unparalleled natural beauty remain.

By Brandon Lomenzo Black

“Loggers came and harvested the trees, the miners mined the gold, the fishermen dared the sea for the salmon and the halibut, and the pilots braved the sky, carrying people out beyond the reach of any ship or road.”

The inscription engraved on The Rock, a monument dedicated to Ketchikan’s first peoples and its early pioneers, illustrates the towns’ heritage, which complements its jaw-dropping natural beauty and abundance of wildlife. A trip to Ketchikan captures the essence and imagination of the last frontier.

Photo Credit: Ketchikan Visitors Bureau/Eric Lindberg

Thick fog creeps in between the rugged, camouflage-colored Tongass National Forest whose landscape is dominated by Western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and red cedar. Its peaks are snow-capped to form a most picturesque backdrop surrounding the frontier town that is Ketchikan. Hike any number of trails above the tree line and you will be rewarded with breathtaking views of the activity below and islands nearby.

Bald eagles are easily found perched high on treetops, if not flying around in a display that captures their magnificence, endeared as a national symbol. While out on the water, humpback whales routinely make their presence known as they rise from the water’s depth to the surface to breathe, gracefully swimming through the congested waterway, where floatplanes transporting passengers and cargo to and from throughout Southeast Alaska land and take off inside the Tongass Narrows.

As the first port of call for many passenger cruise ships plying the Inside Passage, the summertime in Ketchikan, especially, teems with seafaring explorers enchanted by this untamed land. The area’s storied culture remains true to its pioneering roots.

Photo Credit: Ketchikan Visitors Bureau/ATIA/Frank Flavin

Creek Street, the once notorious red-light district during the first half of the 20th century, was built above Ketchikan Creek on cedar planks and pilings, and was known for its plethora of brothels run by “sporting women” of the day, including Dolly Arthur and Black Mary. Speakeasies, likewise, catered to the sizable population of single men in search of a good time.

The now photogenic and colorful boardwalk, designated a National Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places, meanders around the creek and is home to distinguished art galleries featuring work from notable local artists including Ray Troll. First Nations artists representing the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian (including Ken Decker, who runs Crazy Wolf Studio) can also be found nearby.

Ketchikan was inhabited by three different native tribal groups well before western settlers began to arrive in the 1800s. The name Ketchikan is alleged to have come from the Tlingit word kitschk-hin, meaning “thundering wings of an eagle.” Home to the largest collection of totem poles in the nation, the culture and iconography of Ketchikan’s earliest peoples are ever-present.

Photo Credit: Ketchikan Visitors Bureau/SOS Photography

The Totem Heritage Center exhibits and preserves 19th-century totem poles along with displays of hand tools and art objects. Outside of town, Totem Bight State Historical Park re-creates a native community, including a clan house, in an immersive, ocean-facing environment where totem poles have either been refurbished or replicated.

Ketchikan is surrounded by rich waters that throughout its history have been a tremendous source and seasonal habitat for catching wild Pacific salmon (and halibut). The city is aptly named the “Salmon Capital of the World.” Restaurant menus are never short of featuring the delectable fish, which have long supported a cornerstone of the economy, although tourism remains the bedrock.

Cuisine aside, a trip to Ketchikan is not complete without a visit to one of North America’s most majestic spectacles: Misty Fjords National Monument. Located inside the Tongass National Forest, it spans more than 2 million acres of pristine bays, lakes, and coves, with sea cliffs and waterfalls that tower thousands of feet above the water. The fjords were formed more than 10,000 years ago by a combination of geological forces including volcanic activity and glaciation. On land, in the water, or in the air, the diversity of Southeast Alaska wildlife is all around, complementing the remarkable views of the fjord’s untouched beauty.

Ketchikan’s storied history and cultural riches combine with unrivaled geographic wonder that has long captivated visitors. The allure and romantic qualities of the last frontier are found in abundance, which makes the experience of exploring Ketchikan like no other.

Waterfall Resort Alaska

Waterfall Resort, located on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island in Southeastern Alaska, is one of many fishing lodges that beckons both seasoned and novice anglers during the summer months, when wild king and silver salmon—in addition to halibut, lingcod, and varieties of rockfish—are found in the steel-blue Gulf of Alaska and surrounding bodies of water.

The picturesque 52-acre resort is accessed by floatplane from Ketchikan and was once home to a thriving salmon cannery dating back to 1912. Plush guest rooms face the ocean, set back against the Tongass National Forest. After a day of world-class fishing, enjoy a buffet featuring hearty, Alaskan-style fare before heading over to the lively lagoon saloon to swap stories from the day’s action. A scenic walk through the moss-covered forest along the rocky coastline to the namesake waterfall is a must.

Spanning 500 miles, the Tongass National Forest is the largest temperate rain forest in the United States. It’s home to abundant populations of black bears and bald eagles. The surrounding bays and coves offer ample opportunities to see humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, and sea lions.

The natural environment that permeates this remote corner of the famed Inside Passage rejuvenates the soul and inspires the spirit.

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