Local Hiking Ketchikan
Hello From Out The Road
Hello, I’m Teague Whalen, a local resident of Ketchikan, Alaska, and I am here to guide you through your trail research during your stay in Ketchikan. I’ve assembled a couple handfuls of trail write-ups for your reading pleasure that synthesize personal stories from my trail experiences with some practical information about what to expect on each of these trails. If you are an experienced hiker, feel free to skip ahead, read what our trails have to offer, and choose your next adventure. However, if you are a less experienced hiker, or this is your first time to Southeast Alaska, or you are someone who likes to learn as much as you can about a place before you get there, this introduction to hiking in Ketchikan will sketch in what to expect for weather, suggested gear to bring, what not to worry about concerning bears, and some safety tips concerning hiking in Southeast Alaska.Read More
Ensuring that you have a successful adventure starts with being smart about your planning, and I can tell that you already are because here you are doing your research in order to get a glimpse of what you may be getting yourself into. However, I hope to leave some magical mystery for you to discover about each trail’s charm on your own, given enough to get started and to help you choose wisely which path may be next for you. If there is one thing I know about, it’s hiking and how to do it safely in Southeast Alaska. I’ve started a summer hiking tour here in Ketchikan: Mindfulness Rainforest Treks, LLC, which is a guided hike on the Coast Guard Beach trail. I am passionate about healthy living and connecting to nature and people and have found hiking Ketchikan’s trails to be a wonderful way to accomplish these things. To learn more about me, please click here: A Little About Your Trail Guru.
If anyone would like to supplement the information provided in this hiking website with a copy of the National Forest Service’s Ketchikan Area Trails Guide, photocopies can be picked up at The Alaska Fish House or online at the National Forest Service website Ketchikan Area Trails Guide. Before you read on, please understand that I and/or the owners of Explore Ketchikan website are not liable for any of the subjective information presented in this introduction and in each of the trail vignettes. Each person who ventures out on any of the trails in and around Ketchikan does so at their own risk and will be responsible for his/her own safety, choices, consequences, and of course enjoyment. To learn more about how to be safe, click here: Top Ten Ways To Avoid A Bad Ending. Now that we’ve got that out the way . . .
In The Land of Ferries, Float Planes, & Mountain Goats
I’ve never lived so close to such amazing backcountry hiking. As we really only have one forty-mile road that stretches along the edge of Revillagigedo Island, all the trails on our road system are usually just minutes away. As soon as you step foot on the trails here, you are walking into a dense rainforest canopy of Sitka spruce, western red cedar, hemlock, and alders, and a trail brushed with devil’s club, skunk cabbage, ferns, and a plethora of berry bushes—salmonberries, blueberries, huckleberries, and thimbleberries to name a few. Many species of mushroom and moss grow abundantly here as well. As you hike into the higher elevations on the mountain trails, you may find yourself walking through much more open muskeg meadows, with thinner and smaller mountain hemlock, yellow cedar, and the tough, knee-sized krummholz. In order to help better identify the flora here in Southeast Alaska, I highly recommend Jim Pojar’s and Andy MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. You may also want to pick up books on edible berries and mushrooms as well. A good place for information, brochures, and maps is our Discovery Center, run by the U.S. Forest Service, just a block over from the cruise ship berths and right next door to the Alaska Fish House. The U.S. Forest Service’s website offers information here on Alaskan poisonous plants and information on mushrooms here: Mushrooms of the National Forests of Alaska. A good rule of thumb is: if you don’t know what it is for sure, don’t eat it.
As soon as you are walking away from town, nothing but wilderness stretches ahead of you for hundreds of miles. Much of the wilderness is very difficult to access; often the only ways to get into the backcountry is by foot, boat, float plane, or any combination of these. Hiking off trail is very difficult here and not at all recommended for newcomers solo hiking. When leaving the trail, people do get lost in these woods and sometimes do not return. But most of the trails we do have are well-marked and easy to follow. The difficulty can be if the trails are covered in snow, then it’s not so easy. Our mountains hover around 3000-feet tall and often with a base starting right at or near sea-level, so that’s an entire 3000 feet of vertical from base to peak. Some of the higher elevations, such as hiking up toward Minerva Mountain from Carlanna Lake, you have to keep an eye out for the cairns to direct your path because there are not tall trees upon which to place markers, only a steep, vegetation-spotted rock slope. Even though our mountains are on the small side, we still have tree-lines on some of the mountains because of our northern latitude and extreme climate. Once you are in the alpine country, you may be above the tree-line and will only have the path below your feet to follow. Often, the direction to go can be pretty clear once you are up on the mountain ridges and tops because there are very limited choices of where to go due to precipice drop-offs. Usually during clear sunny days, visually orienting one’s self can be easier if you are familiar with the landmarks, such as other mountains, the ocean, and where north, west, east, and south are. However, if the high country is socked in with clouds, rain, or snow, navigating can become extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous, so a GPS and map are highly recommended to have along in case of such an event.
For more challenging hiking, we have two mountain traverses here. The Deer Mountain to Silvis Lakes traverse is a fourteen-mile, one-way trek across some remote alpine country and climbs over Deer Mountain and Northbird Peak, skirts just below John Mountain and Mahoney Mountain, and ends up at the south end of the Tongass Highway. The Carlanna Lake to Perseverance Lake traverse is roughly ten miles, one way, and climbs over Juno and Ward Mountains. These traverses can be done in a day or broken up if one is willing to bring camping equipment along. People should only attempt these traverses if they are in great shape, are very good at sniffing out a faint alpine trail, know how to read the weather, and are proficient with using topographical maps with a compass or GPS. Several people have gotten into trouble on these traverses, especially the more popular Deer Mountain to Silvis Lake traverse. Do not underestimate the rigors of a traverse that crosses multiple mountains.
Cell-phone coverage can be very spotty on many of these trails. Without getting into each trail specifically, here’s a good way of thinking about how cell reception may work here. Out north and out south at the end of the Tongass Highway, there generally isn’t any cell service, nor for the trails there. Trails that can be accessed right out of town are generally a safe bet for cell service, all the way up to the peaks as long as you are on the town-side of the mountains. The Ward Lake area trails generally have cell service, except for the further you go into the backcountry out Revilla Road or out one of the longer trails like Perseverance Lake or Connell Lake. This area happens to be on the other side of the mountain ridges from town. Reaching ridges and summits again makes for a better chance of connecting with cell-phone towers from town. If you are in a cell-phone dead zone, it is often helpful to power down your phone so that the device doesn’t quickly drain from trying to continually search for service, thus preserving power for when you may need to use your phone for photos, time-checks, or emergencies. Otherwise, remember that you really aren’t out here to stare at your phone and check emails or Facebook because once you do, the Alaskan wilderness is already lost on you.
Transportation to the trails can be one of a few different options. If you already live in Alaska, you may consider putting your car on a state ferry so that you have your own vehicle for exploring the Ketchikan area. For those of you who are arriving by plane or boat, we have a rental car service that is offered both at the Ketchikan International Airport, which is on Gravina Island, and also here on Tongass Highway roughly two miles north from downtown. At this time, Ketchikan does not offer an Uber service, but we do have taxicabs whose drivers are willing to drive and pick you up from anywhere you’d like to go. We also have public bus transportation that goes out north as far as North Point Higgins Road, which is roughly near the fourteen-mile marker and goes out south as far as Franklin Roosevelt Road, about 6.5 miles. For any hiking off the road system, several float-plane businesses are available for hire as well as Baranof Excursions, a popular local charter fishing company with boats that can transport people to remote cabins and trails in the surrounding area. Of course, sometimes aviation and marine transportation can be canceled due to unnavigable weather.Close
- 2 miles round-trip (1-2 hours)
- 170 feet elevation loss to sea-level
From downtown Ketchikan, 14 miles north on Tongass Hwy. Turn left onto North Point Higgins Road. Take 1 mile until the road swings a hard left and then dead-ends at the North Point Higgins Elementary School parking lot. Trailhead is located at the far end of the parking lot, closest to the playground.
Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve had a Sunday late-afternoon or early-evening walk that has helped me to work out those upcoming Monday returning-to-work blues. Sunday evenings growing up, my father and I, and sometimes my younger sisters and my mother (and a dog), would often hike at our closest wooded state park in Southeast Michigan—Highland Recreation Area. It was a time for us to talk about anything we wanted or to walk together in quiet peace. The place that has become that spot for me, and much more, in the Ketchikan area, is the Coast Guard Beach trail.
The trail is roughly equidistant from my house and my girlfriend’s house, which makes it a convenient rendezvous point for us. Our first weekend spent together found us hiking down this trail to enjoy time on the beach. When the sun is out, this beach just can’t be beat. The beach is literally nearly in my backyard, as the south end of the beach begins at the north end of my neighborhood, and sometimes I walk to the beach from my house. But often I prefer making the quick drive to the elementary school in order to access the beautiful trail that takes me to the north end of the beach.
The gravel trail was built by a local group of volunteers and winds through Ketchikan Gateway Borough land and then crosses into Alaska Mental Health Trust Land. The first stretch of trail walks along the edge of a large muskeg flat overlooking a background of mountains when you can see them over the treetops. Here, silvered and charred pines stand naked due to a 4th of July fireworks mishap one very dry summer. This muskeg reminds me of the flat, jack-pine-riddled wetlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I used to live, a place that sees its fair share of forest fires. After the muskeg, the trail bears right and begins stepping down into the rain forest, where huckleberries and blueberries can be found in season. Mostly the trail descends to the beach; however, a few hills do rise along the way. Some large western red cedars can be seen beside the trail. One had fallen across the trail just before my girlfriend and I ventured down during our first weekend together. The large trunk can’t be missed now as it berms the north side of the trail. Here you can begin to see glimpses of the how close you are to the ocean through the thinning branches. Just around the corner is a steep, rocky descent to a smaller stone-cobbled beach on the right. I recommend only sure-footed hikers or those who are confident in their use of trekking poles to navigate this unmaintained part of the trail. Depending on the tide, this can be a very nice beach for some limited privacy, that is until the next hikers decide to join you or the next fishing boat floats by. At this beach, you get a nice view of the Cleveland Peninsula, which is the main land jutting into the Tongass Narrows, and a limited view of Prince of Wales Island across the way. Once when taking a group of friends down this trail, one friend’s rock-chewing dog was in heaven on this beach and couldn’t get enough of chomping on cantaloupe-sized rocks and prancing around with each one.
Moving on from here, soon a longer hill rises with some steep slopes falling off the side of the trail, so watch your footing. On the backside of this hill are some shorter but steep descents that may be best navigated with a trekking pole for those who are not sure-footed or very balanced. Once while hiking along quietly here, I heard a whale exhale out her blow spout; she was that close! Soon you will cross a wooden bridge over a small creek, where you should be able to see and hear the ocean meeting the wave-polished stone beach. The trail will dump you right between two outcroppings of jagged rocks, where if the tide is low, you can walk on out onto the beach, which opens up wide to the left. If the tide is higher, I like to sit on one of these outcroppings and just watch the ocean, sky, and the distant mountains of Prince of Wales and Cleveland Peninsula. Once while sitting here, a rookery of seals dove beneath the surface and swam toward me, pushing the herring toward shore where the seals could trap and eat them right in front of where I was perched. Then they’d swim back out from shore, regroup, and do it again. I watched them do this for about forty-five minutes until they moved on.
If the tide is high and you want to access the rest of the beach, you will need to cut through the forest on the left and hop across a creek, where there’s a half buried, rusted out, army-truck chassis. It seems without fail, many different waterfowl can be seen coming through or floating out on the ocean here. Besides seals, sea lions sometimes make an appearance, and occasionally orcas and humpback whales. One sunny fall afternoon, my girlfriend and I watched humpbacks’ blow spouts occur in multiple directions. Only accessible by boat or foot, this rocky pine shore reminds me quite a lot of Canada’s north shore of Lake Superior, my old stomping grounds. And one of the things that I miss the most about the Great Lake State of Michigan, I can sometimes hear at Coast Guard Beach—the simple, rhythmic sound of waves crashing on the shore. Takes me right home. And because of this, this beach is one of my favorite places to do tai chi for about forty minutes.
This beach is a good place for walking, sunbathing, beachcombing, photography, writing, meditation, tai-chi, just sitting, marine-life viewing, and dog swimming. And often in the summertime, all of a sudden a cruise ship floats out of the woods on the south-end of the beach and fills your view on its way to points north. Another time, my girlfriend and I saw a cruise ship heading toward the Behm Canal that goes around our island, Revillagigedo, instead of heading north towards Wrangell and Juneau. I said, “Something’s not right. Are they lost?” And then the ship turned around and was heading for Prince of Wales, still the wrong direction. Next it was heading back our direction. We watched this silly back and forth a bit and then hiked out. The next day my girlfriend heard that the ship’s steering had broken and they had limped back into Ketchikan and waited until someone could fix what was broken.
On a quieter day, I saw two men further down the beach, standing bare chested and waste deep in the ocean, their forearms reaching out as they faced the north and chanted in a language I didn’t understand. They looked cold, but tough and determined. After they slowly backed out of the ocean, they built a small fire, dried off, and dressed. My girlfriend knew that I really wanted to go over and talk with them in order to find out what spiritual activity they may have been engaged in. But I respected whatever their ritual was and gave them their space. They did make me think of something that I had read by the late Alaskan marine biologist and writer, Eva Saulitis, who states in her book Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist: “According to traditional stories of Old Chenega, humans turn into killer whales when they die. When killer whales come close to a village, the people believe they are calling someone” (183). While attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual conference in Seattle in the spring of 2014, I had the luxury of seeing Ms. Saulitis share the stage in Seattle with former Alaska Writer Laureate, Peggy Shumaker, and former Pulitzer-Prize winning poets, Robert Haas and Gary Snyder. Sadly, in January of 2016, Eva died from breast cancer, but I take heart that she has returned to the ocean in the form she may have loved most, that of a killer whale, the very thing she dedicated much of her life to studying. And with a little patience and luck, you might just be graced with a pod of orcas that sometimes passes through these waters just off of Coast Guard Beach, on their way to who knows whose village they may visit next as bits of poetry trail behind in their wake.
- 5.5 miles roundtrip (5-8 hours)
- Elevation Gain: 2,600 feet
From downtown Ketchikan, head south on Stedman St. and cross the bridge over Ketchikan Creek. In about a quarter of a mile, turn left on Deermount St. for about a quarter of a mile until it ends. Turn right on Ketchikan Lakes Road. At the top of the hill at the stop sign, go straight and then take a quick right into the gravel parking lot.
Deer Mountain, Ketchikan’s idyllic backdrop, holds a special place in my heart in that it was the first trail I ever hiked when I first came to visit my sister in Ketchikan in the late 90s. This trail is one of the most accessible trails from downtown Ketchikan, like where my sister lived at the end of Married Man’s Trail at the time. So the morning of New Year’s Day, I began walking up Fair Street along Ketchikan Creek and then up the steep pitch of Ketchikan Lakes Road that leads to the city dump. At the top of the winding hill there, I walked over to the trailhead where two neighborhood dogs—a golden retriever and a smaller mutt—joined me on my trek and stayed with me all the way up the mountain and right back to my sister’s apartment where I let them in and gave them water and food.
The path briefly threads between a couple of residential lots and soon turns to a rocky trail that quickly begins to ascend. Weary from circling the dump, ravens often caw and click to each other from their perches in the high branches of the dense Sitka spruce forest that the trail switchbacks through. The well-built trail is often stepped with logs buried into the rocky soil at points and a few wooden bridges with railings cross over small streams. The air breathes fresh and full of moisture here and white water tumbles over rock in the lower reaches of the mountain.
About a mile up the trail, a small rock outcrop and an opening in the trees creates what we refer to as the “first overlook,” which gazes upon the city edge of Revillagigedo Island and across the Tongass Narrows at Pennock Island, Gravina Island, and Annett Island. Out further lies the Dixon Entrance and the open Pacific Ocean, where the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island ends on the right and the Percy Islands dot the passage on the left—both places where I’ve fished for halibut. Moving on, the trail flattens out a little as it skirts around the edge of the mountain before it begins its winding journey up again. Not far along is what I refer to as the “one-and-a-half outlook,” which is a new clearing from a landslide that peeled off the mountain side a few year ago in heavy rains. Here one of my favorite trees can be found. About half way across the barren rock left behind where the trail cuts through is a sentinel Sitka spruce that stood its ground like an unforgiving pointed bow in stormy seas. The spruce’s battered trunk is torn and scraped and debarked by the onslaught of trees and soil that ripped away a couple hundred feet above it, and here the tree split the landslide into two braids down the rest of the mountainside, thereby saving a whole shallow ridge of younger spruces’ lives. I marvel at the symbolic strength and courage that spruce unassumingly stands for.
From here, the trail begins to wind up and around for the next mile as one begins to climb onto the shoulder of Deer Mountain, where the forest begins to open up more. Eventually, the trail leads you to the “second overlook,” where to the right one can see the face of the peak a little way off yet where the trail continues, and to the left, is a short jaunt to a scenic view that looks out over Ketchikan far below and the mountains stretching west and north with the Pacific. Back in the ‘30s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built this trail up Deer Mountain and then some enthusiasts decided to haul supplies up to this shoulder of the mountain in order to build a lodge for backcountry skiers, until it burned down in the early ‘40s. Some locals still hike this trail in the winter to snowboard or downhill ski, but the alpine area of Deer Mountain is not to be underestimated. A few years ago a man in his 30s, who grew up here in Ketchikan, died in an avalanche while snowboarding. On my first hike up the mountain with the two dogs on New Year’s Day, on my way back down, I ran into the city mayor and a high-school English teacher hiking up to go telemarking. I told them that when I got to the face, I lost the trail, and it seemed that a snowboarder had used the long edge of his snowboard like a giant pick axe to haul him straight up the frozen, snow-packed face. The teacher said when the face got that way, they had to cut steps into it, which made her nervous every time.
But generally, in the summer months and early fall, the Deer Mountain peak is free from snow and the trail easy to follow as it switchbacks up the face with an expansive view of Ketchikan Lake down below, catching the town’s water from the mountain’s snowmelt and rain runoff as well as the same from Dude and Diane Mountains on the other side of the valley. Following the path across the bottom of the face, one comes to a fork in the trail. Take the trail right and continue ascending through the switchbacks up the peak’s face until the trail skirts around the right of the top, through some low, scraggly pines, and then curves back around from the rear of the peak and dumps you on top for a splendid view from the northwest peaks and Pacific to the southeast mainland peaks all the way into British Columbia, Canada.
In mid-August every year, some hearty locals gather to race in the Deer Mountain Challenge, a nearly 3-mile run that begins at Tatsuda’s IGA parking lot at sea-level in town and finishes at the top of Deer Mountain, where Champaign is offered. Of course, one still needs to save some energy for the hike back down too. Something else you may not expect happens up here too. Sometime in January or February a group of people hike up into the deep snows of Deer Mountain on a clear day and are greeted by a helicopter dropping two crate loads of boxes. Eventually when the evening darkens, a massive fireworks display is launched from the summit or sometimes the saddle area for the whole town to enjoy. From that far away, the fireworks sometimes look like a fizzling candle atop a birthday cake. But again, just another thing that adds to Ketchikan’s unique charm.
Depending on how much time and energy you have to spend in the Deer Mountain alpine, plenty more of alpine hiking awaits. Returning back down the face to the fork in the trail, amble off to the right maybe a quarter of a mile, and you can find the Deer Mountain shelter, built and maintained by the Forest Service. About 2 miles further is Blue Lake, a high lake nestled in among the ridges, where another shelter used to squat until it blew over in a storm. One Sunday, my girlfriend and I hiked up Deer Mountain and to Blue Lake for the day, where we basked on the shore in the quiet beauty and sun and then hiked back to spend the night in the Deer Mountain shelter. The shelter is an A frame complete with a wooden table and benches, which can be slept on as well, and offers a loft upstairs for sleeping too. In one corner sits a stove for heating the shelter, but the Forest Service recommends bringing your own stove fuel. You also need to bring your own everything—food, sleeping bags, toilet paper, etc. An outhouse is tucked away just beyond the shelter and back toward the trail lie some small pools for gathering water, which can be treated for hydration and cooking purposes. Because this shelter is so close to town, it often is heavily used and mistreated. My girlfriend, who worked for the Forest Service at the time, packed out a whole garbage bag of trash and stuff left behind.
Once we cleaned up the place and gave it a good sweeping, we walked down the trail a little and watched the sun set, Ketchikan’s hustle and bustle freeze-framed far below where we left our work and bills, where tomorrow we’d get up early with the sunrise and find Ketchikan and the whole narrows choked with impenetrable clouds, only us and the mountain peaks still enjoying the sun and blue sky above until we descended into the usual rain below in order to make it to work on time. But until our departure that next Monday morning, it seemed like we were the only ones on the planet, and the peace of the mountain stillness descended with the chill of night. The sky deepened and darkened. The stars began to pop out. Hand-in-hand, she and I walked back to our private mountain home that night, pleasantly worn out from the day’s excursions, our thoughts quiet, our companionship warm.
Dude Mountain is one of my favorite hikes in Ketchikan and has actually become a traditional new-year hike for me. Now, my new-year is not the usual January 1st New Year’s Day. For much of my adult life, as an undergraduate and graduate student and as a professor, many of my major life changes have often occurred at the beginning of the academic calendar year, which usually corresponds with the start of the fall semester in August or September. So, Dude Mountain has become my reset for each academic year, a way to officially transition from summer break into teaching again, a time for me to internally reflect on the positives and negatives of the previous year and to set my intentions for the upcoming year, when sometimes I hike alone and sometimes friends join me. I didn’t set out for Dude Mountain to become my new-year hike; it just sort of evolved into that. Perhaps because September is my favorite month for hiking in the Ketchikan alpine—the least amount of snow and bugs. The weather is generally a little cooler and the days can often be sunny too.
The drive out to the trailhead is one of the most scenic drives that Ketchikan has to offer. Starting from downtown Ketchikan, the drive can take about forty to fifty minutes to the trailhead. The second part of the drive is a blacktop road that turns into a dirt backroad through a mountain-rimmed valley that leads toward the interior of the island, where one can continue on to George Inlet or spoke off to Harriet Hunt Lake or up Brown Mountain Road, where the trailhead to Dude is. Brown Mountain Road is our only true twisty mountain road that climbs up into the high country vistas that is popular with weekend sightseers, hunters, wood and berry gatherers, and hikers. Brown Mountain Road dead-ends at the National Forest Service’s Dude Mountain trailhead. Squarely placed within the Tongass National Forest, Dude Mountain is one of the quickest ways, on foot, to reach the alpine tundra. From the trailhead, it is a 1.5 mile climb up 1500 feet. Depending on one’s pace, the climb can take up to two hours or more, one way. There is generally no cell-phone service (until the top and even then not always a guarantee), so it’s important to bring warm clothes, rain gear, flashlight, and plenty of food and water as the weather can change quickly in Alaska and in the mountains.
The trail starts out gravel and winds its way up to boardwalk through the lush rainforest and the beginning muskeg meadows above and then turns back into gravel in the alpine. The last part of the hike is steep and can be muddy in wetter weather or covered in snow depending on whether one is hiking in spring or late fall, so a trekking pole or two can be useful both on the ascent and descent. Once the big snows fall, Brown Mountain Road is only accessible by snowmobile. Usually June into October offers a snow-free ascent. Just before the last part of the climb, the trail pops out onto a ridge between two valleys with clear views of John Mountain to the left and Brown Mountain on the right and the Tongass Narrows beyond if it isn’t cloudy. And of course one can see Dude Mountain’s summit right ahead. The ridge leads to the face of Dude Mountain, which is exposed and steep, but isn’t considered a rock climb. Generally, with careful, slow placement of feet, one can step up the rutted-out dirt path filled with rocky steps. Once atop the face, follow the trail to the right and cut up and into the krumholtz to the summit proper. On this brief last stretch, there can be knee-deep mud holes here and one can find a small camp-sized clearing that overlooks Brown and Diane Mountains and the Tongass Narrows to the north and west. However, I usually forgo the summit proper and instead find a perch in the alpine anywhere below and to the left of the krumholtz and enjoy the ridgeline of Diana Mountain to the right and the whole ridgeline to the left across the valley that houses Deer Mountain, Northbird Peak, and John Mountain. And of course the Dixon Entrance that floats beyond Annett Island and the Percy Islands into the great Pacific Ocean.
I’ve seen goats and ptarmigan on this hike. I’ve heard other hikers talk about The Lady of the Mountain, a supposed two-foot tall brass statue that hikers like to look for and continually move around for the next hikers to search for. But for me, I’m searching for silence and peace, so I like to choose a day when there aren’t any float planes buzzing around, like one year when coincidentally it was also Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. My girlfriend and I hiked to the top and she received a phone call from her mother who lives in Florida, wishing her happy new year. After the phone call my girlfriend was very chatty with me, but I had to tell her to please be quiet, something amazing was happening. And then I was struck, as if a toneless bell, by the deep and profound silence of the ocean and the mountains stretching all the way into Canada. The land was speaking to me, and I connected so deeply that I was moved to tears because the moment was so beautiful and unexpected. And then out of nowhere, on this very still day, a little tornado of a wind whipped up right by me and disturbed a very small tarn before me as if there were a salmon about to breach and then the disturbance was gone. I may not have seen her yet, but that day, I was blessed and felt the presence of The Lady of Dude Mountain.
My first date with my girlfriend was hiking the Lunch Creek Trail on Memorial Day. We had just met the Friday before at our mutual friends’ dinner party. Years later, looking back on that dinner, we wonder if they were trying to set us up, but they deny any intention of that. After the dinner, I felt I had to ask her out soon in order to better establish a connection because I was off to Boulder, Colorado for a week beginning the following weekend. The Lunch Creek Trail’s ten-mile round-trip to Lake Emery Tobin became my perfect excuse to spend a day together getting to know one another better.
What’s nice about the Lunch Creek Trail is that it is all the way out north where the road dead-ends and is absent of homes and motorized traffic, except for the quite turn-off of Settler’s Cove Campground, where Lunch Creek pours into the Tongass Narrows. The Lunch Creek trailhead swings to the right. If one goes left, the trail will lead them to a waterfall platform and down to the ocean and will join The Lunch Falls Trail, if taken to the right, which is approximately a 0.5-mile loop. But Lunch Creek Trail follows along Lunch Creek up a ladder of many beautiful waterfalls right away. Some of my favorite large trees stand guard on this trail—western red cedar, hemlock, and Sitka spruce so large that I often feel the need to bow to these surviving elders when I pass.
Once the stairs are climbed not far into the hike, the gravel trail levels out for a while as it traverses land owned by the Alaska State Parks. About a mile in, the trail turns to dirt, roots, and stones when entering the Tongass National Forest at a nice sandy river bend where a sign reminds us that we are in bear country. Others think there are more than bears to be aware of, especially out on Lunch Creek Trail. Once I hiked this trail with a man who tried communicating with Big Foot by whacking a large stick against a spruce in choppy patterns, and we listened for any knocking responses off in the distance. I didn’t hear any. But one time coming back from the long hike with another friend as the evening began to darken in late winter, when I thought the bears were hibernating, we heard a low, spooky moan of a very large animal echo through the river valley.
Continuing up the valley, the trail becomes boardwalk over a couple muskeg sections, where one can see the towering ridge on the other side of the river, then begins to climb into the forested hillside away from the river, crosses some small streams, and eventually comes back down to walk along the river side once again. Next the trail crosses a bridge to the other side of the river for the first time. Boardwalk steps begin the more serious elevation gain now, which soon leads you to an intimate perch beside a waterfall, where I’ve seen American dippers repeatedly dive into the rapids to feed and pop back out onto a rock. This is a nice place for lunch and rehydration and where one can refill a water bottle if equipped with a proper backcountry water filter or water-treatment system.
The trail continues to climb alternating between boardwalk steps, a rooty dirt trail, and sometimes muddy holes, which lead to a level boardwalk across a muskeg field. Eventually the boardwalk leaves off to just muddy footprints trammeled through forested muskeg lanes, climbing onward until one ends up at the headwaters of Lunch Creek—the shores of Lake Emery Tobin, which is surrounded by a rim of steep mountainsides often capped with snow ridges and peaks. When my girlfriend and I on our first date arrived at the lake, the last stretches of muskeg and the lakeshore were still covered in snow late in May. We spread out our rain pants to sit down, tugged on our fleece jackets and winter hats, and shared cups of green tea as we got deeper into our histories and past relationships, the lake all to ourselves. Soon we became more comfortable with the space between our words and stories, more comfortable with the ringing meditative silence that the snowy peaks and rainforest continually emanated until we felt we no longer had to say anything at that moment and could just be together, quietly sipping tea, watching our breath, happy to be alive and able to share in this beautiful and solemn place. Such an auspicious beginning to our budding friendship then, and now several years later, a significant marker of how far we’ve come on our continued path together, always making sure to revitalize with tall drinks of wilderness in order to cultivate healthy space and time for one another.
- 5 miles round-trip (2-3 hours)
- 100 feet elevation gain
From downtown Ketchikan, 6 miles north on Tongass Hwy to Ward Cove. Right on Revilla Rd. for just over 1 mile. Trailhead 1: Right on Ward Lake Road for 0.5 mile. Right into a parking lot. Cross the road, by the entrance to the parking lot, and pick up the trail here. Trailhead 2: ...
Continue on Revilla Rd. for a couple more miles until you come to a small parking lot on the right with an outhouse. Trailhead 3: About a half-mile past Trailhead 2 is Last Chance campground on the right. The trail can be found on the river towards the back of the loop. During the months of October through April, the entrance to the campground is gated and locked, but one can still park and walk from here.
From trailhead 1 at the Ward Lake parking lot, Ward Creek became my go-to trail to run after work in the spring and fall because it was on my way to and from work. Located in the Tongass National Forest, Ward Creek is wide enough to drive a truck down, though no vehicles are permitted. I would go so far as to say that this trail is wheel-chair accessible because there are no steps in this even, gravel pathway, though there are some hills. For the most part, the trail follows Ward Creek, which flows out of Connell Lake, by the Last Chance campground, and through Ward Lake and eventually into the ocean at Ward Cove.
Ward Creek is popular with the locals for walking dogs. My sister, her husband, and I sometimes would dig out our flashlights and walk here at night in the fall and wintertime with their two American bulldogs and a Tibetan mastiff. The trail winds through the lush rain-forest and climbs above the creek that flows steeply below, where you can hear and see the whitewater. Occasionally, you can glimpse Brown Mountain through the trees on the right. Along the way, three short spurs lead to decks perched on the creek. Here people can fish, or just watch the river, or sometimes watch black bears catching salmon in the late summer and early fall. The trail skirts besides a couple of muskeg fields on the left where one can see a mountain ridge. Just after crossing a bridge and ascending a small hill, a rock wall on the left of the trail would sometimes glimmer in the sun. Upon a closer look, someone had gently wedged in pennies, quarters, nickels, and dimes randomly throughout the face. It would seem that we had our own cliff version of a wishing well. Outhouses are available at the Ward Lake parking lot, the trailhead 2 parking lot, which is about two miles away from the Ward Lake parking lot, and at the Last Chance campground, which is just another half-mile from trailhead 2. Occasional backless, trail-side benches are available, where one can rest or just meditate on the river below. For extended walking, this trail connects to the Pipeline, Salvage, and Ward Lake trails. One winter storm, enough snow fell where I could actually cross-country ski the trail. Downy puffs of snow weighed down the pine boughs and whitened up the green landscape. Reminded me of skiing back home in northern Michigan, a rare treat here.
At the far end of the trail on my runs, I would circle through the Last-Chance campground loop before heading back down the trail. Here in the summer season, I would note the comings and goings of new campers and reminisce about my camping excursions. One season, one particular camp caught my eye because of the semi-permanent setup that sprawled across two camp sites with multiple two-man tents. A large canvas wall-tent opened up to two picnic table with a couple two-burner, propane stoves and coffee cans. I wondered if this wasn’t where the young and bronzed, chap-wearing, chainsaw-slinging, weed-whacking trail crew stayed with their overgrown 4x4 van. I had run into them earlier that season out on the Connell Lake trail and they worked in unison like a sharpened, well-oiled chain buzzing down the trail, away from the hive. So, if you ever run into these folks out on the trail, make sure to let them know how much you appreciate them keeping the trails maintained for our enjoyment. These are our unsung heroes and heroines carving the way into our backcountry bliss. And just like the rest of us, a little appreciation can certainly go a long way because working this gnarly country can kick your butt and the meager offerings of compliments can be too few and far between. Because of them, during most times of the year, this is a great trail for a weekend-afternoon walk with your loved one. Easy to walk side-by-side, hold hands, and talk, or to just walk in comfortable silence together and listen to the river’s ceaseless babbling about its short but lively journey from lake to ocean shore.
Wherever I have lived, I’ve always had a stock, go-to walk that was a no-brainer for just getting me out of the house for some quick, maintenance exercise in the woods for some peace-of-mind. That walk for me in Ketchikan has become Ward Lake. I decided to establish a morning routine to walk Ward Lake on my way to teach at the university, no matter the weather, instead of just rushing off to work first thing. Not only did this help to set a relaxing tone for the day, but I was able to connect with and observe the small nuances as well as the big changes in the seasonal weather and wildlife habits. One late February, I was tipped off to an early spring when a pair of swans with two cygnets foraged along the shore of Ward Lake, and the honks of geese returned as they landed in the lake for a needed rest during their migration back north. But one of my favorite returning sounds of the wild is the solemn call of the loon. I always know I am in a good place when I hear loons. Reminds me of my times canoe camping in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area and in upstate Maine.
Managed by the National Forest Service, Ward Lake is just tucked into the edge of the Tongass National Forest boundary. This area used to once be a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the 1930s and also housed relocated Aleuts during World War II. Informational signs are posted about this history at the Ward Lake beach and the nearby Three C’s Campground, and remnants of stone foundations from these camps can still be found. Because of Ward Lake’s close proximity to town, the area is a popular place with the locals. Three shelters, complete with fire places, picnic tables, grills, and horse-shoe pits, dot the beach area right beside the parking lot where an outhouse is available. There are a handful of other picnic sites along the lake that pull-off from the road. In the summer season, a water pump offers fresh drinking water. The mostly flat trail follows the circumference of the lake’s shore in a swath of gravel that is wide enough for two people to walk abreast. The trail crosses two bridges over Ward Creek, which runs into the east end of Ward Lake and out the west end. The lake and creek are scenically placed in a valley of mountains. Most dominant are Brown Mountain and the Diane Mountain ridge. In the winter, if the lake freezes, one can find many people sliding and skating on the ice. Within walking distance are also three other trailheads: the Ward Creek trail can be picked up on the other side of the Ward Lake parking lot and road; the Perseverance Lake trail lies further down the road just over the Ward Creek bridge, and the Frog Pond trail can be accessed where the road dead-ends at Signal Creek Campground.
Early spring or late fall mornings, sometimes the air is colder than the water and a mist glides across Ward Lake to rise and form a small cloud. Eagles, seagulls, herons, mergansers, mallards, and kingfishers frequent these waters. It’s not uncommon to see large piles of back-bear scat plopped right in the middle of the trail. I’ve seen a family of otters playing and eating among the shoreline reeds. Along the trail, one can also find informative signs about the flora and fauna in that area. In the spring, fly-fisherman wade off the east banks of where Ward Creek flows into the lake and where in the fall, I like to watch the salmon migration swimming up river to spawn and die. And I’ve just discovered a well-hidden beaver home, which I’ve walked by hundreds of times, because I was tipped off by the fresh beaver shavings littered around stumps of missing alders this time.
What’s fun about Ward Lake is that because it is fed by rivers that capture all the rain and snowmelt from the surrounding mountains, the lake level can rise and fall dramatically, sometimes flooding the south-side of the trail. In this case, the road can be walked. I like to check the water levels under the west-end bridge where the creek flows back out of the lake and a large boulder in the river shows where the water is on its back, which is completely exposed in low water and completely submerged in high water. This part of the river can have two- to three-foot standing waves in extreme high water.
At the west-end of the lake, the trail meanders through Signal Creek Camp-ground, where Signal Creek enters the lake. Rural campsites perch on the lake and along the creek, offering picnic tables, fire rings, and bear boxes to store food. This was my first home in Ketchikan for about a week when I first arrived with my father several years ago, having driven across the country from Michigan. My sister who’d already been living in Ketchikan for many years, her husband, and a friend came out that first night with firewood and beer to welcome us to town. We laughed, told stories, and enjoyed being reunited as we lit up the giant trunks of Sitka spruce with sparks of our warmth dancing with our fairylike shadows. For all of these reasons, I like to continue returning to walk Ward Lake in order to remind me of the never-ending cycle of change, of birth and death, and that I am a part of it, which helps me to practice being present in the moment because each step of the way is a precious gift of time we should not waste.