Riding in Ketchikan, Alaska: Totem Poles, Salmon, and a Rain Forest

Jan 31, 2017 View Comments by


You can’t ride your motorcycle directly to Ketchikan. Alaska’s southeasternmost city is on an island. Thankfully, you can ride in and around it once you get there. That is exactly what my wife and I did after our cruise ship docked in town.

“The Salmon Capital of the World” is a port of call for most Alaskan Inside Passage cruises and a magnetic destination for sport anglers and outdoor enthusiasts. It also happens to be one of the few Alaskan coastal communities in which one can rent a motorcycle. We made our reservation with Panhandle Motorcycle Adventures several months ahead of time. Panhandle, the only rental company in Ketchikan, has a small stable of Harleys, Gold Wings, and our bike of choice, a Suzuki Boulevard.

After being fitted with jackets, gloves, and helmets, we have a quick chat with the owner about some “don’t miss” destinations. We are also told, “Wherever you stop, just leave the keys in the bike. We know everyone who rides here, and there’s nowhere to take a stolen bike anyway.” Back in 1920, Ketchikan’s Front Street became the first paved street in the state. Today the main artery, the Tongass Highway, carves its way along 30 miles of Revillagigedo Island’s southern tip, and there are other interesting stretches of pavement in the area. No, that’s not a lot of tarmac, but what you get is beautiful riding dotted with intriguing places to visit in the Last Frontier.

Aboard the big Suzuki, our first destination is the Tongass’ northern terminus. We wind through the coast’s dense evergreens, with the deep blue waters of the Inside Passage to our left and rugged mountains to our right. After about 15 miles on this scenic, lightly traveled path we come to the end. The pavement just stops. We park the Boulevard and enter into a wonderland. The road becomes a foot trail into a rainforest. We walk in full riding gear along Lunch Creek’s riffles and waterfalls to where the brook empties into the ocean. After our short but beautiful hike into the lush Alaskan flora, we are back on the motorcycle and heading south.

KetchikanOur first stop on the way back is the Totem Bight State Historical Park. The park flanks the ocean and is a visual celebration of the art form. The walking tour winds through a variety of native totem poles and even a traditional clan house. Ketchikan is home to the world’s largest collection of totem poles and the state park is a great immersion into the tradition.

After Totem Bight, we trace our way beside various coves and marinas lined with crusty fishing vessels, private boats, and small coastal businesses. The unrefined outskirts of town are a welcome departure from the commercialized and polished nature of the immediate cruise ship port. We leave the Tongass Highway for an excursion to Ward Lake. The road is tree-lined, twisting, and simply beautiful. The lake is pristine. We stop to imbibe the Alaskan air and watch a lone fly fisherman display his casting artistry into the cold, deep waters. The wildflowers are vibrant and diverse, and the surrounding rainforest seems to be hued in every variant of green.

Ketchikan is a bustling hamlet of about 8,000 permanent residents. Of course it caters to the thousands of cruise ship and fly-in tourists that visit each summer. However, it also boasts a thriving fishing industry. The town is painted in a full palate of bright colors and does a nice job of retaining its quaint feel. The historic buildings, many of which were houses of ill repute at the turn of the last century, are still in good condition.

The Tongass Highway swoops its way spectacularly around the southern side of the island. Other than the tiny, commercialized native village of Saxman, this stretch is less developed than the northern portion. It offers amazing views of the passage on one side and rocky slopes on the other.

Ketchikan averages over 141 inches of precipitation per year. Yes, folks, that’s almost 12 feet of the wet stuff annually. Throughout our miles and hours on the road, we are only misted with rain for about five minutes. It’s better to be lucky than good. The heavy precipitation and traffic contribute to the city’s semi-rough road conditions and frequent potholes. However, the highway to the north and south is smooth and well maintained.

No, you can’t ride to Ketchikan, but the place is a great destination for a motorcycling excursion. Whether you get there on a boat or a plane, seeing the region on two wheels is a memorable and enjoyable experience.

Getting to the Island

Our Ketchikan motorcycle tour was a self-planned excursion on a cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage, a scenic and well-traveled coastal route that extends into British Columbia and Washington. However, there are other ways to get there.

By Ferry
The Alaska Marine Highway System operates most days of the year, featuring Inside Passage ferry routes between Bellingham, WA, or Prince Rupert, BC, and Ketchikan. Because it is substantially more expensive to leave from Bellingham—and much longer, at approximately 38 hours—many choose to catch the ferry in British Columbia. A one-way ride from Prince Rupert lasts six hours. To calculate pricing, visit bookamhs.alaska.gov/book/journey/journeySearch.

By Air
Ketchikan is 90 minutes by air from Seattle. Alaska Airlines also offers daily flights to and from Anchorage, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg, and Wrangell, AK. Ketchikan International Airport is located on nearby Gravina Island. After arriving, a short airport shuttle and ferry ride will take you to town. www.alaskaair.com

When to Visit Peak season is mid-June to mid-August. June 21, the longest day of the year, offers nearly 24 hours of daylight—but always be prepared for rain. Before and after these dates, many hotels and some day tours offer “shoulder season” discounts, but you’ll need to take decreasing sunlight hours and temperatures into consideration. Road conditions can change quickly; stay apprised at 511.alaska.gov.


Text: Tim Kessel
Photography: Tim and Cheryl Kessel


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