Hiking Deer Mountain: My Personal Journey
A morning mist caressed the silver-grey sky as the sun slowly peeked through the window of the dormitory-like cabin I called home during my six-month summer stay in Ketchikan, Alaska. Finally, a day without rain, a perfect day for a hike along one of Ketchikan's many scenic trails. While among the popular ports of Alaskan cruises, Ketchikan is still one of Alaska’s hidden gems. This is especially true when it comes to hiking trails.
Most visitors to the Southeast Corridor, like me—a busy employee in the tourism & cruise ship industry at the time—do not have the time (or desire) to take on a full day hike. And so, for those folks, some excellent shorter, well-maintained, and easy-to-follow trails can be found, not to mention conveniently located close to the cruise ship terminals.
A favorite of both locals and visitors alike is Deer Mountain. Conveniently located a short uphill distance from downtown Ketchikan, the Deer Mountain trail is arguably one of the best “day hike” hiking trails in Southeast Alaska. No other trail in this region offers such dramatic views of surrounding islands, the “First City” itself, and alpine lakes, as Deer Mountain. Plus, you will experience hiking among a lush, temperate rainforest-like canopy, muskeg, and alpine ridges—quite the alternative to traditional tours that most cruise ships offer.
Yet, don’t let this pristine beauty fool you as this is not an easy saunter through the rainforest hike. The Deer Mountain Trail is classified as “Difficult” and for good reason. This trail has steep switchbacks, meaning lots of steps—which can be hard on the knees if not in shape—rocky and uneven surfaces, wet and muddy or snowy and slippery conditions in places, and some areas may be difficult to navigate. Unpredictable weather can also provide a challenge, considering it can change dramatically within the 3,000-foot elevation change, going from sunny and clear to enveloping you in a thick fog or rain.
Overall, for the average hiker, though, the trail through Deer Mountain is not as intimidating as it sounds, and the beauty it beholds within is well worth the trip. The majority of the hike is under a dense forest canopy until about 2,600 feet above the treeline, where the scenery then changes to alpine vegetation. Around every twist and turn, as you ascend the summit, the views get more and more spectacular. Typical of hiking trails in Alaska, Deer Mountain has a varied terrain ranging from gravel to wooden stair steps and stone stairs to tree roots to small streams to muskeg and snowfields. Old forest growth covers the lower elevations as the trail passes beneath a canopy of Sitka Spruce, western hemlock, and red cedar trees. Above treeline, alpine vegetation is abundant in the form of dwarf blueberry, wild heather, and other high-altitude flowers.
If you creep quietly along the trail, Alaskan wildlife can often be spotted including black bear, mountain goats, Sitka black-tailed deer, red squirrels, and ptarmigans. While I did not meet up with any bears along my journey, I was lucky enough to spot a glimpse of some black-tailed deer grazing in a lush green meadow.
I also came across an A-frame shelter at the summit, which I later learned is a popular destination for both locals and visitors. The shelter is located in the saddle between the Deer Mountain summit and the next summit to the northeast. It was originally used in the 1930s as a ski hut, providing further access to the upper flank of the mountain. Overnight use of the shelter is allowed and requires a permit. Another point of interest to note, Deer Mountain was selected as a National Recreation Trail in 1978. Combine this tidbit of history, alongside the unique history of Ketchikan itself, with dramatic views of Annette, Pennock, Gravina, and even Prince of Whales islands, and this is what makes Deer Mountain one of the best day hikes in this region.
For the more die-hard, adventurous hikers, the “Deer Mountain Challenge” is put on by the local running club every August, which is an organized rigorous run up and down the mountain. Whether you are an average hiker looking for a short day hike in the hills of Southeast Alaska or an avid adventurer, Deer Mountain is highly recommended as offering the best of both worlds. Below are just a few trail options, details, and advice to make your hike a challenging, yet exciting and memorable one.
Hiking Deer Mountain: Tips & Tricks
Deer Mountain Trail Options & Details:
- Access & Distance: Trailhead can be accessed via car or by walking a ½ mile up Ketchikan Lakes Road to the junction at the landfill. If driving, turn left and the parking area is 100 feet northeast of the junction, towards the mountain. The hiking trail itself is 2.5 miles from trailhead to summit; trailhead is 1.5 miles from the cruise ship terminals.
- Difficulty: More Difficult—steep, uneven surfaces, rocky tread
- Trip Time: 2.5 hours to the summit (one way); 1 hour to the 1-mile lookout (one way)
- Options: A mid-way overlook with similarly spectacular views about a mile up the trail. A good option for those who do not wish to invest the full 4 – 5 hours it typically takes to reach the summit.
- Elevation Gain: 3,001 feet
- Season: June through September – any earlier and trail can be snow-packed
- Cautions: The weather can change dramatically in this area. Be prepared for all weather conditions including strong winds, snow, and low visibility due to fog and rain. Be sure to check the local weather forecast before you leave.
- Hiking Tips: Dress in layers including raingear
- Bring a foldable walking stick
- Gaiters are recommended for earlier season hiking
- For the full hike to the summit, it is highly recommended to bring the typical hiking necessities such as matches, knife, shelter, map and compass, first aid kit, extra food, signal mirror or flares, and a whistle.
- Resources: Don’t forget to check out the Ketchikan Visitor Center and/or Southeast Alaska Discovery Center and pick up a Ketchikan Hiking Guide.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.