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17 Million Reasons to Visit Ketchikan

When you draw a mental picture of the largest national forest in the U.S., don’t stop at mountains and trees. Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska encompasses more than 1,000 islands and a magnificent variety of shorelines. Recreation options in this forest are uniquely diverse — from hiking in alpine heights to kayaking along untouched coast. Sightings of wildlife on land, in the air and in the ocean are guaranteed.

Ketchikan is the transportation and commercial hub for the southern end of Tongass Forest. The so-called Gateway City is only a 90-minute flight from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). Many travelers board Alaska Marine Highway ferries in Bellingham, Washington, for a scenic 36-hour trip along the Inside Passage. Ketchikan is the portal to one of the nation’s most impressive wilderness areas.

Tongass National Forest takes in 17 million acres of islands and mainland stretching about 500 miles, part of the Pacific temperate rainforest ecoregion — the last intact coastal rainforest on the planet. Compare that to national parks like Mount Hood at just over 1 million acres, or the Olympics at just under. The Nature Conservancy calls this vast, ecologically critical expanse of carbon dioxide-eating forest “the emerald edge.”

Today’s Tongass Forest visitors and users can thank President Teddy Roosevelt for creating in 1902 the forest reserve that became a national forest a few years later. More than a century of multiple-use forest management provided for the present mix of recreation sites, wilderness, and commercial opportunity.

Ketchikan is a modern Pacific port city just miles from wild landscapes and untamed tidelines. Clear salmon streams flow down slopes of cedar, spruce and hemlock trees. Bald eagles and ravens command the air. Black bears and Sitka black-tailed deer move quietly through lush undergrowth. Sea otters and seals inhabit the interface of sea and land. Offshore, humpback whales and orcas feed in bountiful waters.

Opportunities to experience the natural world are diverse. Visitors can park at the end of a mountain road, hike a maintained Tongass Forest trail to alpine heights, while picking blueberries on the way, and at the summit look out on 50 miles of islands and blue sea. It’s possible to enjoy a deluxe hotel breakfast, drive 10 minutes and join a snorkeling group for a close-up gaze at colorful sea critters. The next saltwater excursion might be a small-boat tour to see eagles, whales, and a historic lighthouse. Sport fishers who have done their research will know that Ketchikan is famed for salmon and halibut fishing.

Whales breaching in Ketchikan
Snorkelers and a breaching whale. Photo is provided by Snorkel Alaska Tours.

For the most spectacular sights in the southern region of Tongass National Forest, visitors take in Misty Fiords National Monument. The monument’s tall granite walls, cascading waterfalls, and forested mountain tops lead some to call it “Yosemite of the North.” But unlike its California cousin, Misty Fiords is remote, roadless and largely in wilderness status. Flightseeing trips out of Ketchikan run about two hours and provide awesome aerial views of deep fjords scalloped out by glaciers in long-ago ice ages and now half-filled by the sea. Some floatplane excursions to so-called “Misty” include a water landing on inlets—offering first-time visitors a look up at weathered granite escarpments reaching from the ocean to elevations as great as 2,000 feet.

That water-borne perspective is integral in boat trips into Misty Fiords. Half-day group tours depart Ketchikan’s docks in fast boats, passing famed New Eddystone Rock near the water boundary of the monument. This volcanic spire in the middle of Behm Canal surrounding Revilla Island was named by Capt. George Vancouver in 1793 during his explorations in the North Pacific. Boat-tour routes proceed slowly into deep, quiet fjords such as Rudyerd Bay and visitors admire the magnificent scale of nature’s work—millions of years in the making.

Some Ketchikan outfitters provide longer and more intimate visits to Misty Fjords, such as all-inclusive trips featuring a night’s stay on the excursion boat and hours of serene kayaking at the feet of skyscraping mountains.

Sites nearer to Ketchikan offer a range of recreational options. The Ketchikan Area Trails Guide published by the U.S. Forest Service outlines dozens of federal, state, and local trails. Many trails start close to roads take well-maintained routes through various terrains—from climax old-growth to muskeg, from historic timber-industry tracks to routes hand-built by local folks for forest outings. The trails guide and other sources help hikers to find longer, high-elevation trails along Revilla Island’s ridgelines and valleys. Backcountry hikers intending long treks are urged to borrow free Spot beacons to use in emergencies. They’re available from Ketchikan Visitors Bureau and provided by Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad.

A number of remote Forest Service cabins are available by reservation at Some are reached by boat, others only by chartered floatplane — but all provide unforgettable experiences of Tongass National Forest.

– Top image is provided by Visit Ketchikan.

Advertising Disclosure: This content is provided by Visit Ketchikan, an advertiser of AAA Washington. The content doesn’t necessarily represent the views of AAA Washington.

Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.

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