Ketchikan, Alaska is the salmon capital of the world and a port in many Alaska cruises but also great for land vacations. Chances are it may be raining during your visit since it averages over 160 inches of rain annually. This may be the only place with a liquid sunshine gauge. Ketchikan has plenty of activities from a lumberjack show, floatplane rides over Misty Fjords, zip lines and fishing charters. But, all of these aren’t cheap especially when traveling as a family. Wondering what to do during your visit? Here are 5 free things to do in Ketchikan Alaska with kids.
1. See the Totem Poles
Ketchikan is said to be home to the world’s largest collection of totem poles. There are a few places to see totem pole collections around Ketchikan. Many are near the cruise ship docks in downtown or accessible via a short bus or taxi ride away. Totem Poles were carved and built to tell the Alaska Native Indians’ stories and legends, to celebrate special events in their lives from birth to death or to display the family’s status or lineage. It is amazing that these beautiful works of art are all hand carved with intricate details. Totem Bight State Historical Park is 9.5 miles from town and preserves native totem poles that were abandoned. It has 14 totem poles and a clan house as well as a rainforest and scenic views of the water. Here is a totem pole guide and description for the park. The adjacent Potlatch Totem Park also has totem poles, 5 tribal homes with beautiful carvings, an antique car museum and a carving center.
While Totem Bight and Potlatch are free, the Totem Heritage Center in downtown charges admission from May to September during cruise season but kids 12 and under are Free and $5 for adults. It houses over 30 original totem poles which were rescued from abandoned Native American villages. The center offers free 15-minute guided tours during the summer.
We visited Saxman Native Village which was three miles from town and our admission was covered with the tour. Otherwise admission is also $5 but kids may be free. The park like setting had over 30 totem poles in different sizes scattered throughout for visitors to see up close. This is supposed to be the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles. We visited one of the carving centers to see the master carvers working hard on the stunning details of a totem pole. My kids loved seeing the totem poles around Ketchikan and trying to guess the stories or animal representations behind them.
2. Historic Walking Tour
We’ve visited Ketchikan twice. The first time we didn’t get to see much since it was raining hard and we sought shelter inside an Internet café and shops. We had the perfect, sunny weather during our visit in the summer of 2010 and did a tour. Ketchikan offers a historic district walking tour with 25 points of interest. The walking tour maps are available at the visitor center or from stores around the port and downtown area. The two mile walk allows plenty of time to get to know the city, see some totem poles, historic sculptures and doable for kids of various ages. This tour also includes passing through Creek Street. This historical area is a wooden boardwalk over Ketchikan Creek with shops, restaurants, museums and galleries. This used to be the town’s red light district. As far as my kids were concerned, this was a wonderful place to window shop and look over the creek.
3. Southeast Alaska Discovery Center
The Southeast Alaska Discovery Center may not be the first thing that comes to mind when visiting Ketchikan with kids but is a wonderful educational center. The center has “exhibits and interactive displays about the land, people, and culture of Southeast Alaska.” The exhibits include walking through a rainforest, seeing a life-size smokehouse and hand-carved canoe, watching salmon in an aquarium and searching for wildlife via a spotting scope. There’s also a theater and a decent size bookstore.
This would have been our first stop and a great alternative if it was raining when we docked there since it was located near downtown. It’s a great way for the family to learn about this part of Alaska. There are also totem poles in the lobby. Kids ages 15 and younger are free but adults pay $5. They only charge admission between May and September and since it’s operated by the Alaska Public Lands, they also honor the America the Beautiful Interagency National Park pass.
4. Hiking Trails
Like many Alaska coastal towns in the Inside Passage, Ketchikan is filled with beautiful scenery begging to be explored. I wish we had more time ashore to do these hikes. In hindsight, we should have rented a car to see a few off-the-beaten path places around Ketchikan. We would have loved to do some beach combing and short hikes along Rotary Beach, Refuge Cove State Park or Settler’s Cove State Park.
Locals recommend the Rainbow Trail which is located near the cruise ship terminals in downtown and is 1.3 miles long winding through rainforests with views of the water and city. The Forest Service maintains two other local favorites, Ward Lake and Perseverance Trails, a few miles from town. The one-mile Ward Lake Trail is considered to be the easiest along a nature trail and a lake. Perseverance Trail is three miles long through a forest and lake.
We did a very short hike along a small but beautiful waterfall near Herring Cove during our tour. You may even stumble across some thimbleberry or salmonberry bushes during your hike. Our tour guide pointed these out to us along the side of the road and they were actually quite tasty. My kids didn’t hesitate to sample them and liked it.
5. Eagle and Salmon Sightings
One of the reasons we love about Alaska is seeing wildlife we don’t easily see in our part of the country. We saw some eagles perched on trees, eagles’ nests and eagles on the ground. It was amazing to see these majestic creatures take flight. Eagles flying became a common occurrence during our cruise but the kids never got over the excitement of seeing them soar above the Alaskan skies. We also saw salmon leap out of a river which is an unforgettable sight to see. My kids could have sat for awhile just to catch a glimpse of those salmon. One of our unforgettable moments was seeing hundreds of salmon crowded together at Herring’s Cove a few miles from town. At the end of Creek Street is a great area to watch salmon swimming upstream from May to September guaranteed to entertain the whole family.
Honorable Mention Freebie
There is a free shuttle bus that runs through downtown from May through September. They run in a 20-30 minute loop starting at Berth 4 from 7AM – 7PM everyday.
*What other free attractions in Ketchikan can you add to the list?
This is a part of a series called Five Free Family Friday. I hope this will grow into a collective guide of free family-friendly attractions of places all over the world. If you’d like to contribute with the free attractions in your home city, I would love your guest posts