WHITEHORSE is the likeable capital of the Yukon and home to more than 24,000 of the region’s 34,000 inhabitants. It’s also the centre of the Yukon’s mining and forestry industries and a busy, welcoming stop for thousands of summer visitors. Although greater Whitehorse spills along the Alaska Hwy for several kilometres, the old downtown core is a forty-block grid centred on Main Street and mostly sandwiched between 2nd and 4th avenues. Though now graced only with a handful of pioneer buildings, the place still retains the dour integrity and appealing energy of a frontier town, and at night the baying of timber wolves and coyotes are a reminder of the wilderness immediately beyond the city limits. Nonetheless, the tourist influx provides a fair amount of action in the bars and cafés, and the streets are more appealing and lively than in many northern towns. One can easily spend a day or two here, stopping at some of the excellent cafés, restaurants and pubs or taking one of the many short trips into the surrounding hinterland – either way, Whitehorse is an ideal place to recoup after a lengthy road journey.
The town owes its existence to the Yukon River, a 3000km artery that rises in BC’s Coast Mountains and flows through the heart of the Yukon and Alaska to the Bering Sea. The river’s flood plain and strange escarpment above town were long a resting point for Dene peoples, but the spot became a full-blown city when thousands of gold prospectors arrived in the spring of 1898, en route to Dawson City. Having braved the Chilkoot Pass to meet the river’s upper reaches, men and supplies then had to pause on the shores of Lineman or Bennett lakes before navigating the Miles Canyon and White Horse rapids (for which the city is named) southeast of the current town. After the first boats attempting this were destroyed, the Mounties allowed only experienced boatmen to pilot craft through. The prospectors eventually constructed an 8km wooden tramway around the rapids and raised a shantytown at the canyon and tramway’s northern head, allowing them to catch their breath before continuing to Dawson City.
The completion of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad (WP&YR) to Whitehorse put this tentative settlement on a firmer footing almost at the same time as the gold rush petered out. In the early 1900s the town’s population dwindled to four hundred, down from ten thousand. A second boom came in 1942 when thousands of US Army personnel arrived to build the Alaska Hwy, swelling the town’s population almost overnight
No image better conjures the human drama of the 1898 gold rush than the lines of prospectors struggling over the Chilkoot Trail, a 53km path over the Coast Mountains between Dyea, Alaska, and Bennett Lake on the BC border south of Whitehorse. Before the rush, Dyea was a small village of Chilkat Tlingit, who made annual trips over the trail to trade with the interior Dene peoples. The Chilkat jealously guarded access to the Chilkoot Pass (1122m) – the key to the trail and one of only three glacier-free routes through the Coast Mountains west of Juneau. Sheer numbers and a show of force from a US gunboat opened the trail to stampeders, who used it as a link between the Pacific Coast ferry ports and the Yukon River, which then took them to Dawson City’s goldfields.
For much of 1897, the US and Canada disputed the pass and border until the Mounties established a shack at the summit and enforced the fateful “tonne of goods” rule. Introduced because of chronic shortages in the goldfields, this obliged every man entering the Yukon to carry a tonne of provisions. Though it probably saved many lives in the long run, the rule caused enormous hardship: weather conditions and the trail’s fifty-degree slopes proved too severe for pack animals, so men carried supplies for as many as fifty journeys. Many died in avalanches or lost everything during a winter where temperatures dropped to -51°C and 25m of snow fell. Still, the lure of gold was enough to drag 22,000 men over the pass.
Today, most people make the fantastic journey across the mountains by train, car or bus from Skagway to Whitehorse. This route runs parallel to that taken by the restored White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad (mid-May to mid-Sept daily; train from Skagway to Carcross or Fraser BC, then bus to Whitehorse; US$129 Fraser, US$189 Carcross; t 1 800 343 7373, w wpyr.com). Alaska is an hour behind the Yukon and venturing into the US requires a valid passport.
More and more people are hiking the old trail, which Parks Canada has laid out and preserved. Its great appeal lies in the scenery, natural habitats (coastal rainforest, tundra and subalpine woodland) and the numerous artefacts (old huts, rotting boots, mugs and broken bottles) still scattered about. The trail is well marked, regularly patrolled and generally fit to walk between June and September (expect snow throughout June); most hike it in three or four days, heading south to north. Dangers include bears, avalanches, drastic changes in weather and exhaustion – there’s a 12km stretch for which you should allow twelve hours. There are three warming huts en route but these aren’t for sleeping in, so you have to camp at the nine sites along the trail: no backcountry camping is allowed. Pick up the Chilkoot Trail map ($6) from Skagway’s Trail Center or Whitehorse’s Parks Canada office.
The number of hikers crossing the Chilkoot Pass into Canada is limited to fifty per day, of which 42 places can be booked in advance (8.30am–4pm; t 867 667 3910, t 1 800 661 0486). The remaining eight places are offered on a first-come, first-served basis after 1pm on the day before you start out. Outside July to mid-August a reservation may not be needed. Order an advance information pack (same number, w pc.gc.ca/chilkoot; or from the government offices, 300 Main St, Suite 205, Whitehorse; Mon–Fri 8am–noon & 1–4.30pm).
You don’t need a permit for day-hikes on the US side, but you do for day-hikes on the Canadian side, if you’re hiking the full length of the trail or spending a night. Hikers need to go to the Chilkoot Trail Center in Skagway on Broadway at 2nd Ave (late May to early Sept daily 8am–5pm; t 907 983 9234) to pick up or buy a permit and sign a register, and note that permits that are reserved and not picked up by noon on the day the trip is to start will be cancelled. Bring identification (a passport or enhanced driver’s licence for North Americans; a passport for everyone else); you may be required to deal with Canadian customs at the Chilkoot Pass ranger station, but you’re more likely to do so at the Alaska–Canada border post at Fraser or in Whitehorse.
Dyea-Chilkoot Trail Transport (t 907 617 7551) offers shuttle bus service from Skagway to the trailhead at Dyea, 14km northwest of Skagway. Normal hours are 9am to 6pm, but transfers as early as 4.30am can be reserved with advance notice. Fares per person are US$20 one way or US$30 for a return journey.
The trail finishes at Bennett, where you have a number of options. You can walk the 12km to the highway at Log Cabin; there’s a marked short cut off the trail which avoids Bennett but there is no signage once you reach the railway tracks; further, the tracks are off-limits and Parks Canada is enforcing this regulation, so note there is no transport available from here. Alternatively, you can catch the daily service run by the WP&YPR railroad from Bennett to Whitehorse, Fraser or Skagway; or return to Skagway from Carcross.
Besides the usual hiking equipment, also bring 9m of rope to help sling your food and any scented items over the bear poles at each campsite.
A good self-guided walk is the route from downtown to Schwatka Lake and back, the trail for which begins from the bridge by the SS Klondike, and the 5km paved, river-hugging Millennium Trail is also pleasant. Both trails take you past the Whitehorse Fishway (daily: June 9am–5pm; July 9am–7pm; Aug 9am–9pm; donation; t 867 633 5965), the world’s longest wooden fish ladder, complete with interpretive displays and three underwater windows where you can watch chinook salmon bypass a hydroelectric dam as they swim upstream. Another popular 2km trail goes from the Robert Lowe Bridge (straddling the Miles Canyon, 9km south of Whitehorse) to Canyon City, a ghost town from the gold rush era.