Photography by Teague Whalen
2.75-mile climb (2.5-5 hours) • 5.5 miles round-trip (5-8 hours) • 2600 feet elevation gain
Directions: 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 for the trailhead.
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. I left my sister's apartment at the end of Married Man's Trail and 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 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 the islands Pennock, Gravina, and Annett. 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 mountainside a few years 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 ship’s 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.
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 thin out and become less dense. 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. 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 telemark skiing. 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. 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.
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 just below the top to the right 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 of 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 champagne is offered. Something else you may not expect to happen up here too is that sometime in January or February a group of fireman 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.
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 then 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 darkened and 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.
Teague Whalen, Owner & Operator