The most striking sight in Ketchikan is its totem poles—some of them still painted in rich, contrasting colors, while others have surrendered some of that color to the weather. Contrary to one popular belief, they are not religious symbols and were never worshipped. Instead, totem poles were carved to honor important people, record noteworthy events, and proclaim the lineage and history of the people who owned them.
There are more than a dozen of these signposts of traditional Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian culture standing sentinel all over the city of Ketchikan, but you’ll find them particularly concentrated in three places. The first is Totem Bight State Historical Park (9883 N. Tongass Hwy., 10 miles north of Ketchikan), which is easily accessed on the city bus. This open-air park also contains a beautiful traditional clan house. Tucked behind Totem Bight park is tiny Potlach Totem Park, where you can see another clan house, several recreated tribal homes, more totem poles, and, surprisingly, a museum of antique cars and firearms.
The next collection of totem poles is in the downtown Totem Heritage Center (601 Deermount St., 907/225-3111, $5 (12 and under free); May-Sept. daily 8am-5pm, off-season Mon.-Fri. 1pm-5pm). The center is a museum where you can view a collection of precious 19th-century totem poles that were collected and preserved with the permission of Alaska Native elders.
Finally, you can see about two dozen totem poles in Saxman, a Native village of about 400 people located just 2.5 miles south of Ketchikan on the Tongass Highway. The town also includes a carving shop where you can see some of Alaska’s greatest carvers at work. Saxman is best experienced with a two-hour guided tour ($35, $18 kids 12 and under), which includes entrance to the clan house and a short demonstration of traditional dancing in full regalia. Tours are offered April-September, depending on the cruise ship schedule; call 907/224-4846 for a schedule of upcoming tours. You can also buy tickets in the gift shop or pay $5 to walk the town unaccompanied—but you’ll definitely get more out of the tour.
For an easy, guided, small-group introduction to the rainforest and totems near Ketchikan, book with the wildly popular Wild Wolf Tours (131 Front St., adults $59-79, children under 12 $39-59). This Native-owned family business conducts small-group two- and three-hour walking tours on easy nearby trails, where you can learn about native plants and their traditional uses, then visit a totem park and clan house. Sampling of a few traditional foods (salmon and seaweed) is included.