The town of Ketchikan is often the first or last port for most Alaska cruises. Situated as the southernmost city on the Inside Passage, this town of about 13,000 people started life as a fishing and logging community that morphed into a tourist destination. It occupies a 10-mile stretch of waterfront along the Tongass Narrows. This port offers numerous activities that are perfect for families, including the Alaska Lumberjack Show to walking tours and even fishing as well as whale watching expeditions.
One thing that makes a cruise stop in Ketchikan a bit confusing is that there are actually two different harbors that cruise lines will stop at here. The first and primary location is directly downtown and provides easy access by foot to all of the major attractions in town. The second is a newer dock developed by Norwegian Cruise Line that opened officially in August of 2021. From here, you will be able to access Ketchikan via a complimentary shuttle bus that runs every 20-minutes. If you select a cruise with Ward Cove on the itinerary, make sure to check the current shuttle schedule as well as confirm details at the port so that you don't get stuck at one of the various stops while your boat sails away without you.
At this point, Ward Cove is in very early development and so you should plan to select an excursion that departs from this location if that is the port that your cruise ship will be docking at.
Ketchikan itself though offers a host of options for families. The more adventurous can kayak, fish, or hike at several locations around the town. There are gateways to exploring the Tongass National Forest and the Misty Fjords National Monument as well. Tours, shuttles, and small boats are plentiful as options for getting to these destinations. For the more well heeled families, flightseeing from float planes and helicopters is also a great option but can add up quickly depending on the size of your family.
There’s also shopping. Lots of shopping. It’s almost all local and definitely fun to wander the streets of this town and find the crafts and unique gifts and souvenirs here. Lots of things made from sea glass, carved wood, and more abound in the local shops. Including items from native culture and made by the Tlingits that populate the area. We recommend making sure you see Creek Street and visit Dolly’s House Museum for a bit of local flair. But be aware that it may not be entirely kid-friendly. Dolly was a “madam.”
Another option, and our favorite, is to find a whale watching charter. We always recomend that you select an off-site excursion connected to your cruise ship since mechanical issues can often result in you being stranded. This is especially true if you dock in Ward Cove but find a charter out of Ketchikan itself.
There are many private and cruise-ship-official excursions here in Ketchikan though. They’ll often be right on the dock as you leave the ship and easily to book through vendors with stalls on the dock if you opt to do your own excursion planning. For other excursions though, shuttles from the port to the smaller docks where the whale watching vessels wait are included and the experiences vary from exclusive charters to larger groups. For families, the latter is far more affordable. Most of these excursions guarantee whale sightings. We were lucky enough on our most recent trip to see a baby whale frolicking on the water while his mother dove to feed and returned to check on him before diving again.
One thing that cannot be missed if you visit Ketchikan is to go to the Totem Heritage Center near the city park. It’s a short walk or quick Uber from the port and wonderful to see. There, totems from the native culture are displayed along with artisans making new ones. The process of building and designing a totem, including what they are often designed for and why they are important, is explained during the tour. Totems include recent designs and makes and preserved, unrestored totems from the Tlingit and Haida cultures dating hundreds of years back.
For those interested in more immersion into the Tlingit culture, there are tour buses going to the Saxman Village where an impressive collection of totems and a cedar community house awat. Visits will hear songs, see dances, and listen to stories all while totem carvers ply their expertise. You can purchase and take home native art as well. Another, similar option with a more DIY approach is to visit Totem Bight State Park north of Ketchikan and take a walking tour of totems with interpretive signs.
Finally, if you are looking for a fun free thing to do in Ketchikan as a family, you'll find numerous shops around town offering samples of different salmon products. If you have self control and can avoid buying souvineers then this can be a fun and free way to move around town exploring the local sights, smells, and tastes.
There are a lot of things to do in Ketchikan and all of them are worth trying out. Which will mean multiple cruises to Alaska. Like you needed an excuse for that.