Legend says that the rains in Ketchikan are the result of the tears of a she-bear shape shifter who has never gotten over the tragic death of her husband. The town is so often shrouded in mists and rains that even the street signs can bear a soft, mossy crown. If you arrive in town on a cloudy day, you may not realize that the mists hide forest draped mountains that rise steeply from the sea to heights of over 4,000 feet. There's a popular hike that explores one of the closest peaks to the town, and its not only a fantastic way to experience the temperate rainforests in all their glory, it's a definite leg burner!
Deer Mountain is a favorite hike for locals of the Ketchikan area, with a trailhead located less than a mile from the heart of downtown. The first mile is the even rather popular with folks just walking off the 3-4 cruise ships which land in Ketchikan daily - eager to stretch their legs and escape the crowds (as many as 9,000 people a day!). Cruise shippers will often get a taxi to drive them the 1.5 miles from the berth to the trailhead, to walk up to the first viewpoint. I suppose this is why there are 1/4 mile markers on the trail indicating how much you've climbed until you reach that first visa. However, even this first mile is not easy by any stretch. It climbs nearly 800' using tight switchbacks and tall steps (usually reinforced with logs). Because its almost always wet in Ketchikan, you're sure to be fighting a little mud, though the tread is reasonably well maintained. At the 1 mile marker, the trees open suffiently to allow views of the sound and the cruise ships at their berths - that is if the fog and mists haven't socked in.
After you leave the first view, though, you're back in the deep rainforest cover - surrounded by Sitka spruce, hemlock, alder and cedar. Wild blueberries and salmon berries line the trail and you're reminded that you're in bear country. This stretch of trail eases off a little, but remains consistently climbing. There are some areas where the ground is so consistently wet and miserable that they've constructed short stepped boardwalks.
At about 2 miles from the trailhead, the trail enters a clearing and a far superior vista point. If you get here and the clouds are obscuring your view, wait a few minutes - it may change very quickly and open up to the sparkling blue waters below. Don't miss the little muskeg pond just beyond this clearing, its reflective surface and ebony depths are a like a impressionist painting.
At 2.5 miles, the trail reaches a junction. Continue straight around to the northeast slope and the Deer Mountain Shelter. The trail system continues on to Blue Lake, Silvis Lake and several more peaks in the area. The Shelters up here are first-come-first-served, but are reportedly way better than trying to keep dry on the boggy ground. If you head right and uphill from the junction you start to climb very steeply up the southern ridge toward the summit of Deer Mountain. Much of the trail here is in the open or in short, snow-stunted trees. At the peak, you can walk a maze of short trails that take you to views off each side of the peak. Particularly striking are the Ketchikan Lakes below (the city's water supply) and the sparkling Tongass Narrows. Weather permitting this is a fantastic spot for lunch, far away from the crowds and shops.
This hike is so popular, that an annual event, the "Deer Mountain Challenge", is hosted each year by the local hiking club and includes a champagne toast to those who reach the peak. Next time, I'll bring my own and enjoy the peak like a local!