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Sitka Vs. Ketchikan: Comparing The Unique Charms Of Alaska

Sitka and Ketchikan are two popular coastal destinations located in Southeast Alaska. Both cities offer a unique experience and are often included in many Alaska cruise itineraries. While Ketchikan sees more ships than Sitka, some prefer the latter.

In this article, we will compare Sitka vs. Ketchikan in terms of their attractions, culture, and wildlife experiences. Ultimately, the decision will come down to personal choice and expectation priorities.

With one nicknamed the “Paris of the Pacific” and the other the “Salmon capital of the world,” some travelers might be quick to decide. But let’s delve into their history and see what each one offers on a day visit.

Brown bear in Sitka and eagle sculpture in Ketchikan

Geographical Overview

Neither Ketchikan and Sitka are accessible by road. Since it take a plane or boat to reach them, it’s not surprising they are popular ports on an Alaska cruise itinerary.

Sitka’s Location And Landscape

Sitka sits on the western coast of Baranof Island in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska. It is the only city in Southeast Alaska that lies on the Pacific Ocean.

With exposure to open seas, getting to Sitka by cruise ship may require navigating rough waters. I’ve cruised to Sitka multiple times, and experienced choppy seas each time. So, those sensitive to motion sickness might prefer Ketchikan instead.

During the tail end of the season (September and October), stormy weather may prevent a ship from docking in Sitka, missing a port day.

Holland America ship docked in Sitka
Holland America ship docked in Sitka

The city is surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States, and is home to many species of wildlife. Typical wildlife sightings may include Sitka black-tailed deer, bald eagles, and the elusive coastal brown bears.

Spending a day in Sitka usually focuses on the outdoors. Kayaking and zodiac excursions are plentiful, but visitors can immerse themselves in history and culture instead.

Ketchikan’s Position And Terrain

Ketchikan sits on Revillagigedo Island, facing the Tongass Narrows. This waterway divides it from Gravina Island. The city lies about 90 miles north of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and 235 miles south of Juneau.

Due to its proximity to British Columbia, many cruise itineraries schedule Ketchikan as its first port of call.

As the “Salmon capital of the world,” this city is known for fishing, mainly salmon, but halibut fishing is top-rated too.

Surrounded by the Tongass Rainforest, it’s also recognized for its rainfall, and lots of it. So much so, that a liquid sunshine gauge welcomes travelers at the visitors’ center, near the cruise port.

Where Do Cruise Ships Dock?

Both Sitka and Ketchikan have cruise ports, allowing ships to forego the tendering process. However, only one provides easy access to downtown on foot.

Transportation In Sitka

Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal
Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal

In Sitka, cruise ships dock at the Sitka Sound cruise terminal, which can accommodate two vessels simultaneously. It’s a 6-mile journey downtown.

The port includes a 40,000-square-foot wooden building with shops, restaurants, and an outdoor patio. Cruise guests can take complimentary shuttles to town and the trip takes 10 minutes.

The shuttles run frequently, so getting around is convenient and easy. However, when we were last in Sitka, there were two ships in port and around 6,000 passengers trying to catch a bus. Consequently, we waited about 45 minutes both ways.

Getting Around In Ketchikan

Ketchikan has the added benefit of having its cruise port downtown. Guests literally disembark and start exploring; no shuttle or transportation required.

Ketchikan has four docks, numbered berths 1 to 4, with the fourth being furthest from downtown. Although, regardless of which berth your ship docks at, getting around Ketchikan is easy.

The city is compact and walkable, and there are plenty of taxis, shuttles, buses, and a trolley available to take you where you need to go. However, we’ve always walked since the distances aren’t far.

Arriving in downtown Ketchikan
Arriving in downtown Ketchikan

Overall, Sitka exudes a small town feel, while Ketchikan might be considered more commercialized with its Creek Street, which is always bustling with energy.

Climate And Weather Patterns

The Tongass Rainforest blankets much of Alaska, bringing lots of rain, especially on the coastal areas. But, let’s see how the weather differs in each destination.

Sitka’s Climate

Sitka has a temperate rainforest climate with mild temperatures throughout the year. The average temperature in Sitka is around 46F, with the warmest month being August which averages 64F.

Like most Alaska rainforest cities, it sees its share of rain, even in summer. May and June provide the driest months for visitation with an average of 3.5 inches of precipitation.

Ketchikan’s Weather Conditions

Ketchikan, however, has the honor of being one of the wettest cities in the United States. While it’s sometimes touted as having the most rain, it’s outnumbered by Hilo, in Hawaii which often has over 210 days of rain annually.

Liquid sunshine gauge on a wet day in Ketchikan
Liquid sunshine gauge on a wet day in Ketchikan

Ketchikan’s laughable liquid sunshine gauge proudly proclaims that the city receives 12-1/2 feet of rain per year. In 2023, it set a record for having almost 9” of wet stuff in one day.

July brings the warmest temperatures in Ketchikan with average daytime highs of 65F. It’s also one of the driest months. Not surprisingly, September and October bring lots of rain, with averages of 9” to 13 “respectively.

If you’re like me and don’t like wet weather, stick to the early months, ideally May and June.

Tourist Attractions And Activities

Alaska is known for its bucket list adventures, but it’s also a destination to immerse yourself in history. Let’s take a closer look at some of the top options.

Historical Sites In Sitka

Sitka, once the capital of Alaska, is steeped in history, and there are plenty of opportunities to learn about the area’s past.

One of the top attractions is the Sitka National Historical Park, which features a collection of totem poles and a small visitor center with exhibits about the Tlingit people who have lived in the area for thousands of years.

Sitka National Historical Park totem pole
Sitka National Historical Park totem pole

We thought the stroll to this park was easy, but since most the exhibits are outdoors, it’s best enjoyed on a dry day.

Another must-see historical site is the Russian Bishop’s House, a restored 19th-century building that offers a glimpse into the area’s Russian colonial past.

The St. Michael’s Cathedral may not attract visitors from its demure exterior, but it’s inside that makes it shine. It’s complimentary to visit, but a drop box welcomes donations.

Its interior, adorned with gold and vibrant colors, features ornate Russian Orthodox icons and religious artifacts, documenting its rich history.

Further down the street, the Baranof Castle Historic Site, also known as Castle Hill, holds a huge significance in Alaska’s history.

When the United States purchased Alaska from Russian, the signing agreement took place at Castle Hill and here the American flag was raised for the first time.

Cannon at Castle Hill, Sitka
Cannon at Castle Hill in Sitka

Outdoor Adventures In Ketchikan

While Ketchikan doesn’t have Sitka’s rich history, it is home to the world’s largest collection of totem poles and has a rich Native American culture.

Visitors can explore the Tongass Historical Museum and the Totem Heritage Center to learn about the city’s history and culture.

This city is best known as the “Salmon Capital of the World,” and fishing is a popular activity for visitors. There are plenty of fishing charters available in the area, or visitors can purchase a license and rent gear, and fish at Stedman Bridge.

If fishing isn’t your thing, there are opportunities for kayaking, hiking, and wildlife viewing. One of the top attractions in Ketchikan is Misty Fjords National Monument, which is accessible by boat or seaplane.

The Bering Crab Fisherman’s Tour, and Wilderness Exploration & Crab Feast allow guests to learn about crab fishing. However, only one, the latter, includes an all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab meal at George Inlet lodge.

Creek Street, Ketchikan
Creek Street, Ketchikan

Creek Street is an iconic over-the-water boardwalk that is fun to explore if visitors prefer to forego an excursion. The colorful houses on Creek Street showcase an interesting history as a former red-light district.

Sitka’s Wildlife

Otters play a crucial role in Sitka’s ecosystem, maintaining kelp forest health by controlling sea urchin populations. Sitka has one of the largest populations of otters, which were once almost hunted to extinction.

On a Sea Otter & Wildlife Quest, guests are guaranteed to see these creatures in Sitka Sound but may see whales and sea lions too.

While Sitka has coastal brown bears, the Fortress of the Bear sanctuary provides guaranteed viewings. The sanctuary rescues orphaned bears and educates the public on their breed.

The refuge currently has five brown and three black bears. We enjoyed our visit there, and loved watching the brown bears which are very active in their enclosures.

Brown bear enclosure
Fortress of the Bear coastal brown bears

Closer to town, the Alaska Raptor Center rescues injured birds of prey and returns them to the wild, when possible.

In the Bald Eagle Flight Training Center, we could watch eagles fly, but they couldn’t see or hear us. Outside, enclosures had several eagle species, and adorable owls. My favorite, the screech owl, screamed major cuteness!

Ketchikan’s Wildlife Options

Ketchikan contrasts greatly with Sitka when it comes to wildlife. It’s best known for its salmon runs, especially in Ketchikan Creek.

There are five types of salmon; with many opportunities to catch them on a fishing charter. In the river, the optimal time for sightings is late June or early July to late August. King (Chinook) and Silver (Coho) show up first, while Pink, Sockeye and Chum arrive later.

Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery, walking distance from downtown offers summer tours. It’s a chance to learn about the salmon’s life cycle.

Bears arrive with an abundance of fish, giving much needed fat reserves for the winter hibernation. Traitors, Herring, and Neets Cove provide the best spots for viewing them.

Float planes and boats provides access to many of Ketchikan’s bear viewing spots. Although Herring Cove, while not considered a prime viewing location, is accessible by vehicle. Mid-July to early September is considered the best time for this location.

Black bear I spotted in Misty Fjords
Black bear I spotted in Misty Fjords

Alternatively, a trip to Misty Fjords may provide sightings of multiple mammals. During our tour, we spotted mountain goats, bald eagles, and a black bear.

Wrap It Up

In conclusion, both cities have their own unique economic drivers. Are you into fishing, or is being outdoors more to your liking?

Both cities have unique shopping options. In Ketchikan, head to Creek Street to browse its eclectic boutiques.

Sitka also offers great shops, with the Russian American Co and the Alaska Pure Salt Sea Company providing great gifts. Barnacle Foods, based in Sitka, makes one-of-a-kind food products, such as Spruce Tip Jelly and Kelp Pickles.

When factoring in a Sitka itinerary, look at the time in port. Since Sitka requires a shuttle, travel to and from downtown will take away time from exploring, especially when there’s more than one vessel docked.

In Ketchikan, there’s always a high chance of rain. Sometimes, it lasts a short while, or could dampen any plans for spending a day there. I’ve experienced a downpour in both cities, and often comes down to luck of the weather gods.

Most tours are marketed as rain or shine, so prepare by wearing waterproof jackets and shoes.

Creek Street and an eagle sculpture in Ketchikan and a totem pole in Sitka