This Small Town in Alaska Is the Perfect Place for a Father-daughter Trip
Ketchikan is a beloved fishing destination, but the outdoor adventures it offers don't end there.
Many a traveler has been to Ketchikan — a city of just over 8,000 people on the southern tip of Alaska's Inside Passage — as the first stop on a cruise itinerary. In September of 2019, I was one of them. Our ship seemed to dwarf the quaint little downtown as we pulled in, but although it was small, it was unforgettable: its historic houses on stilts overlooking the creek, a pine tree skyline behind them, looked exactly like the coastal Alaska I'd seen in movies.
Of course, about six months later, the COVID-19 pandemic would halt the cruise industry — and so many towns whose tourism revolved around it.
Although Ketchikan has very much been impacted, it also found a silver lining. As more Americans started to explore travel options within U.S. borders, Alaska moved its way up bucket lists. And as more people started to look for COVID-safe activities, fishing did the same. In the process, many who saw Ketchikan as a cruise passenger's day trip took the time to get to know it for what it really is: an outdoor adventure destination in its own right.
When my dad and I chose it for our annual summer fishing trip this year (admittedly very much inspired by the Alaskan wilderness shows he loves to watch on TV at home in New York), I expected to catch some salmon, have a few drinks, and probably take a nature walk through Tongass National Forest.
What I didn't know was that the Ketchikan I had seen on my cruise was just the beginning, and there was so much more to explore. Here's why it's the perfect place for a father-daughter trip.
Accommodations are relaxed and friendly.
Business is better than ever at Salmon Falls Fishing Resort — our waterfront accommodations north of town — according to general manager Matt Herod. On a Thursday evening in July (also known as Burgers and Brews night), the outdoor patio is full of visitors winding down after a day of fishing and locals enjoying live music and fresh corn hole competition.
About 90% of the guests at Salmon Falls are there for the fishing, I'm told, and for that, it is the perfect home base: it comes with its own fleet of boats (captained and self-guided), seven captains, a dock with all the bells and whistles for fish processing, and a restaurant that will cook your catch for dinner — or teach you how to cook it at home. A simple buffet breakfast starts early so you can get out on the water, to-go lunches are prepared for the boat, and the bar is lively by late afternoon, with guests gathering to swap stories of the day.
The rooms are basic but comfortable, and the wooden decor is carved into Totem poles, salmon, and bears to create a real sense of place. But the jewel of the resort is its deck, where you can sit back in an Adirondack chair and watch bald eagles fly from tree to tree or, if you're lucky, spot whales bubble feeding below.
A Salmon Falls van will take you to and from the island airport via car ferry, or you can arrange to come and go by boat to make the most of every minute.
The fish are biting and the food is fresh.
We spent a full day out fishing with Salmon Falls captain Mike Kanicianich, and we were hooking salmon from the moment our lines hit the water. An experienced guide familiar with the local waters, Mike knew exactly where to take us to find each type of fish. We hit our pink salmon limit in (what felt like) record time — and my dad, to his delight, even caught a hefty king salmon, while I reeled in our halibut. We also caught coho (silver) salmon and a handful of sea bass, and put out shrimp pots, returning a few days later to retrieve our Alaskan spot prawns.
You could sample most of this seafood from the Salmon Falls menu, and then some. We tried family-run Hump Island oysters at the neighboring farm's own scenic oyster bar, but we also found them on the appetizer menu at the resort. Subtly sweet when eaten raw, we loved them even more when grilled with a sriracha-garlic sauce. The halibut was my fish of choice (I ordered it a few nights in a row), but executive chef Jordan Swiler hosted a salmon cooking demonstration, and even my dad — a fisherman who doesn't eat fish — seemed to enjoy it freshly filleted and smothered in beurre blanc.
After a call home to my mom to clear the freezer, we decided to have our fish packed for travel — a totally acceptable swap for checked luggage in Ketchikan, but perhaps less so at JFK, though no one called us out the way I imagined they would.
Outdoor adventures and animal sightings abound.
Just north of Salmon Falls is Settlers Cove, a stunning state recreation site with old-growth forest, a waterfall, streams full of salmon during spawning season, and a sandy beach on Clover Passage. Pathways make it easy to hike, but you can also camp, picnic, or kayak. To extend an active trip to the park, you can take an e-bike and hike tour up Tongass Highway to get there and back.
With the same company, Ketchikan Kayak Company, we paddled through Clover Pass and around a number of small islands, checking out starfish and bald eagle nests along the way — until we spotted the main event: a pod of humpback whales. We moved toward them (but not too close) and were in awe as the massive creatures swam by, lifting their powerful tails out of the water. It was one of two animal sightings on the trip that would completely take our breath away.
The next came from a Carlin Air floatplane over Misty Fjords National Monument, the largest wilderness area in the national forests of Alaska, and possibly the most beautiful. As if the scenery — green forests, remote lakes, dramatic sea cliffs, and snow-capped mountains — wasn't enough, a bear decided to put on a show for us, scaling an icy peak to stalk a mountain goat before our very eyes.
It was almost like the bear was aware of the TV programs that tempted us to travel there, and it wanted to let us know that to appreciate just how wild and thrilling Alaska really is, you have to go and see it for yourself. In many moments, but especially that one, we were so glad we did.
Nina Ruggiero is Travel + Leisure's deputy digital editor. A New Yorker living in Los Angeles, she's happiest on a beach, a cobblestone street, or in a hotel bathtub with a view. Find her on Instagram @ninamarienyc.