Photo Credit: South Tongass Waterfall

Ketchikan Parks & Trails

Ketchikan is a busy fishing and tourism port, especially during the height of the summer season. This is also a beautiful time to explore area hiking trails, where you can admire the variety of local flora, find inspiring views of mountains and the ocean, and challenge yourself with vertical climbs above tree-line. Local hiking guide Teague Whalen wrote this introduction to hiking in Ketchikan. It gives you an overview of what to expect on the trails – the weather, the plants, the cell-phone coverage – and links to additional resources you can consult before your visit. If you decide to explore the area on a guided hike, Teague offers Mindfulness Rainforest Treks.

Navigating the Trails of Ketchikan

There’s really only one forty-mile road that stretches along the edge of Revillagigedo Island, so all the trails on the road system are usually just minutes away. Most are well-marked and easy to follow, though the trails that climb into the alpine and higher elevations may be covered in snow from mid-October to mid-May. Mountains hover around 3000-feet tall, often with a base starting right at or near sea-level, so that’s an entire 3000 feet of vertical from base to peak. At some of the higher elevations, such as hiking up toward

Minerva Mountain from Carlanna Lake, you have to keep an eye out for the cairns to direct your path because there are no tall trees upon which to place markers, only a steep, vegetation-spotted rock slope. Even though the mountains are on the small side, there are tree-lines on some of the mountains because of the northern latitude and extreme climate. Once you are in alpine country, you may be above tree-line and will only have the path below your feet to follow. Often, the direction to go can be pretty clear once you are up on the mountain ridges and tops because there are very limited choices of where to go due to precipice drop-offs. On clear sunny days, orienting visually is easy if you have a sense of north, west, east, and south and are familiar with landmarks around you (mountains, ocean). It’s highly recommended to bring a GPS and map, in case the high country is socked in with clouds, rain, or snow. In these conditions, navigating can become extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous. For the most part, if there is a distinct trail under your feet, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. You can get more detailed trail information in the National Forest Service’s Ketchikan Area Trails Guide.

Plant life on Revillagigedo Island: Step foot on the trails and enter a dense rainforest canopy of Sitka spruce, western red cedar, hemlock, and alders, and a trail brushed with devil’s club, skunk cabbage, ferns, and a plethora of berry bushes—salmonberries, blueberries, huckleberries, and thimbleberries, to name a few. Many species of mushroom and moss grow abundantly here as well. Hiking further into the higher elevations on the mountain trails, you may find yourself walking through much more open muskeg meadows, with thinner and smaller mountain hemlock, yellow cedar, and the tough, knee-sized krummholz. A favorite resource for identifying the flora in Southeast Alaska is Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. You can find additional guides, brochures and maps at the U.S. Forest Service Discovery Center, a block over from the cruise ship berths. You may also want research edible berries and mushrooms. The U.S. Forest Service offers information on Alaskan poisonous plants and information on mushrooms. A good rule of thumb: if you don’t know what it is for sure, don’t eat it.

Challenging Hikes

Two mountain traverses offer more challenging hiking for people who are in great shape, are very good at sniffing out a faint alpine trail, know how to read the weather, and are proficient with using topographical maps with a compass or GPS. The Deer Mountain to Silvis Lakes traverse is a fourteen-mile, one-way trek across some remote alpine country and climbs over Deer Mountain and Northbird Peak, skirts just below John Mountain and Mahoney Mountain, and ends up at the south end of the Tongass Highway. The Carlanna Lake to Perseverance Lake traverse is roughly ten miles, one way, and climbs over Juno and Ward Mountains. These traverses can be done in a day, or you can camp along the way if you want to carry in equipment. Note: Do not underestimate the rigors of a traverse that crosses multiple mountains. Several people have gotten into trouble on these traverses, especially the more popular Deer Mountain to Silvis Lake traverse.

Cell-Phone Coverage

Cell-phone coverage can be very spotty. They can generally be used on Deer Mountain, Ward Lake, Ward Creek, Rainbird, Carlanna, and Coast Guard Beach trails. There is no service at both ends of the Tongass Highway, which affects The Silvis Lakes Trail and Mahoney Mountain in the south and Lunch Creek Trail at the north end. Also, there is no cell service driving up Brown Mountain Road, off of Revilla Road, which takes you to Dude Mountain trailhead. As a result, the Dude Mountain trail does not have cell service either, except sometimes at the top of the mountain. Perseverance Trail offers spotty cell service. If you are in a dead zone, it is often helpful to power down your phone so power isn’t drained from trying to continually search for service. Then you can still use it for photos, time-checks, or emergencies. Do remember to enjoy the Alaskan wilderness around you, which is typically more inspiring than emails or Facebook!

Transportation

You can walk to some of the trails and take a city bus to others. Further out, you’ll need a car. Walking: Deer Mountain and Rainbird Trail trailheads are each about a 1.5 miles from downtown Ketchikan. Carlanna Lake Trail is about a three-mile walk from downtown, or a bus or taxi could drop you off at Carlanna Lake Road. Bus: You could also take the bus 7.5 miles north to Ward Lake Road and hike up to Frog Pond Trail, which leads down to Ward Lake Trail. This can connect you to the Perseverance and Ward Creek Trails and some others in the vicinity. The bus occasionally runs fifteen miles north to Clover Pass Church, where you could hike a mile down North Point Higgins Road to access the North Point Higgins Trail to Coast Guard Beach. You’ll need a car or taxi for the trails not easily accessible by bus. For any hiking that can’t be reached from Ketchikan’s road system, several float-plane businesses are available for hire. Baranof Excursions, a popular local charter fishing company, can transport people by boat to remote cabins and trails in the surrounding area. Be aware that sometimes aviation and marine transportation are canceled due to unnavigable weather.

Ketchikan Weather

Most people visit in the summers–roughly May through September–which have been very sunny and pleasant in recent years. Expect high 50s to 60s and sometimes 70s when the sun is out. When the sun is behind cloud cover, expect cool and wet weather in the 40s and 50s. For the most part, summer weather and longer days can be quite forgiving for visitors, except for the occasional nasty weather day. You will want to be prepared with some raingear and warmer layers. The weather usually can be colder and windier at the top of mountains, sometimes even raining, when you may have started hiking at a warmer and clearer forecast at sea level. Read Teague’s guide to the weather in Ketchikan if you plan on visiting outside of the summer season or you are curious to learn more about the specific weather patterns.

Teague Whalen’s Top Ten Best Ways To Avoid A Bad Ending

  1. Hike with a partner and tell someone where you are going
  2. Carry a spot locator
  3. Bring hard copies of maps and a compass
  4. Stay on the trail
  5. Pay attention to the changing weather
  6. Have a turn-around time
  7. Listen to the slowest member
  8. Trust your gut and voice your concerns
  9. Stay with the group (if you can)
  10. Leave no trace

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Ketchikan Hiking Trails

Difficulty: Moderate

Run­ning just above and par­al­lel to Ketchikan’s Third Avenue Bypass, Rain­bird Trail is per­fect if you only have a cou­ple hours but still want to expe­ri­ence a small piece of South­east Alaska’s rain­for­est. The trail­head is only 20 min­utes from down­town (a short dri­ve rel­a­tive to most oth­er trails), and the trail’s south­ern end — just beyond the top of the met­al stairs — offers great views of down­town Ketchikan, the Ton­gass Nar­rows, and the neighboring  ...more

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 5 miles Elevation Gain: 100 feet

Locat­ed in the Ton­gass Nation­al For­est, Ward Creek is wide enough to dri­ve a truck down, though no vehi­cles are per­mit­ted, and is pop­u­lar with the locals for walk­ing dogs. Across the road from the Ward Lake Recre­ation Area park­ing lot, trail­head 1 takes you north and fol­lows Ward Creek, which flows out of Con­nell Lake, by the Last Chance camp­ground, and through Ward Lake to even­tu­al­ly meet the ocean in Ward Cove. 

Refuge Cove State Recre­ation Site is a sliv­er of land lin­ing part of an edge of a neigh­bor­hood and is a pop­u­lar beach pic­nick­ing des­ti­na­tion with the locals. The site comes com­plete with pit toi­lets, shel­tered and unshel­tered pic­nic tables with fire grates, and a quar­ter-mile trail accom­pa­nied by inter­pre­tive signs that address the local nat­ur­al history.

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 2 miles Elevation Gain: 170 feet

The one-mile grav­el trail to Coast Guard Beach winds through Ketchikan Gate­way Bor­ough land and then cross­es into Alas­ka Men­tal Health Trust Land. Most­ly the trail descends to the beach; how­ev­er, a few hills do rise along the way. This beach is a good place for walk­ing, sun­bathing, beach­comb­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy, writ­ing, read­ing, med­i­ta­tion, tai-chi, just sit­ting, marine-life view­ing, and dog swimming. 

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 3 miles Elevation Gain: 1500 feet

The dri­ve out to the Dude Moun­tain trail­head is one of the most scenic dri­ves that Ketchikan has to offer. The trail begins wind­ing through lush rain­for­est. The last part is steep and can be mud­dy in wet weath­er or cov­ered in snow in spring and fall. 

Difficulty: Easy Elevation Gain: 450 feet

This is a pop­u­lar week­end hike if you want to spend two-to-four hours in the Ton­gass Nation­al For­est and is only about 15 – 20 min­utes north of town. Though you gain ele­va­tion on the hike up to the lake, it is not unfor­giv­ing­ly steep. Per­se­ver­ance Lake is one of Ketchikan’s pic­turesque moun­tain-lake scenes. 

The Sal­vage Trail is an out-and-back trail that rolls up and down through the woods, par­al­lel­ing Revil­la Road. The trail is a wide grav­el path where two-to-three peo­ple can walk beside each other.

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 10 miles Elevation Gain: 1300 feet

If you want to get away and don’t have a boat or a plane, this is as far away north one can eas­i­ly get from Ketchikan. The trail ends at the head­wa­ters of Lunch Creek — the shores of Lake Emery Tobin, which is sur­round­ed by a rim of steep moun­tain­sides often capped with snow ridges and peaks. 

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 2 miles Elevation Gain: 200 feet

This hike offers a nice wide-open space expe­ri­ence and is not very long. Much like hik­ing the access road to Low­er Sil­vis Lake, the Whit­man Trail is anoth­er ser­vice road to two dams that gen­er­ate elec­tric­i­ty for Ketchikan res­i­dents and was recent­ly made avail­able for hik­ing and recre­ation; how­ev­er, no motor­ized vehi­cles are per­mit­ted. Infor­ma­tive signs are post­ed on a fence gate up the road and on both dams.

Difficulty: Easy Elevation Gain: 100 feet

Con­nell Lake is a good choice if you want a trail that is less pop­u­lar but just as close to town as the Per­se­ver­ance trail. The rocky, dirt path gen­tly climbs through the rain­for­est canopy and hugs the shore­line of the lake. On the oth­er side is a nice flat area that the creek bows around, cre­at­ing a small penin­su­la. A fire-pit indi­cates that this is a pre­ferred spot to spend some time or camp. 

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 1 mile

The most­ly-flat Ward Lake trail fol­lows the cir­cum­fer­ence of the lake’s shore in a swath of grav­el that is wide enough for two peo­ple to walk abreast. Ward Lake is tucked into the edge of the Ton­gass Nation­al For­est bound­ary. Its prox­im­i­ty to town makes the recre­ation area pop­u­lar with the locals. 

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 5 miles Elevation Gain: 2600 feet

Deer Moun­tain is Ketchikan’s icon­ic back­drop. The path briefly threads between res­i­den­tial lots, then turns to a rocky trail that quick­ly ascends. On the way up there are mul­ti­ple scenic overlooks. 

Elevation Gain: 2600 feet

If you are a lover of alpine, stun­ning views, and longer, more chal­leng­ing hikes, then this all-day, one-way moun­tain tra­verse between Car­lan­na Lake and Per­se­ver­ance Lake is the per­fect choice.

Leav­ing from the end of Ton­gass High­way, enter the Lunch Creek Trail and very soon take the trail to the left as this steps you quick­ly down to a water­fall view­ing plat­form and then the rest of the way down to where, to the right, you can also cross the Lunch Creek bridge, which pro­vides water­fall views as well as the ocean where the creek flows into.

Set­tlers Cove State Recre­ation Site offers two of the best sandy beach­es to be found in the Ketchikan area and pro­vides pit toi­lets and shel­tered and unshel­tered pic­nic tables with fire grates. A camp­ground with eight camp­sites is avail­able as well and one pub­lic-use cab­in on the water that can be rented.

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 3 miles Elevation Gain: 150 feet

If you are look­ing for a short­ish in-town” trail, this trail begins at the back of a neigh­bor­hood and walks up a ser­vice road to a dam that over­looks a moun­tain-lake scene. 

On one of the run-off creeks from Achilles Moun­tain or Twin Peaks Moun­tain above pours a 100-foot or more water­fall right beside Ton­gass High­way towards the end of the road

Hear shrieks and squeals of excite­ment as kids wade around in tide­pools with their buck­ets find­ing all man­ner of crit­ters – eels, bull­heads, snails, her­mit crabs, sea urchins, sea anemones, starfish, blim­mies (eel­type fish), small octo­pus, eel­grass, clams, mol­lusks, and kelps.

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