South of Whitehorse, massive ranges of glacier-chewed peaks rise up to ring the Gulf of Alaska; stormy waters reach far inland as fjords and enormous glaciers spill into the sea (the famed Glacier Bay is here). This spectacularly scenic region is also the site of the Chilkoot Trail, which in 1898 saw 100,000 Gold Rush stampeders struggle up its steep slopes. Another high mountain pass was transcribed in 1900 by the White Pass and Yukon Railroad on its way to the goldfields; excursion trains now run on these rails, considered a marvel of engineering.
To see these sites, most people embark on long-distance hiking trails, rail excursions, or cruise boats. Happily, two highways edge through this spectacular landscape; if you use the Alaska Marine Highway ferries (tel. 800/642-0066; www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs), this trip can be made as a loop from either Whitehorse or Haines Junction. Because the ferries keep an irregular schedule, you'll need to call or check the website to find out what the sailing times are on the day you plan to make the trip.
The Chilkoot Trail
In 1896, word of the great gold strikes on the Klondike reached the outside world, and nearly 100,000 people set out for the Yukon to seek their fortunes. There was no organized transportation into the Yukon, so the stampeders resorted to the most expedient methods. The Chilkoot Trail, long an Indian trail through one of the few glacier-free passes in the Gulf of Alaska, became the primary overland route to the Yukon River, Whitehorse, and the gold fields near Dawson City.
The ascent of the Chilkoot became the stuff of legend, and pictures of men and women clambering up the steep snowfields to Chilkoot Summit are one of the enduring images of the stampeder spirit. The Northwest Mounted Police demanded that anyone entering the Yukon carry a ton of provisions (literally); there were no supplies in the newly born gold camps on the Klondike, and malnutrition and lack of proper shelter were major problems. People were forced to make up to 30 trips up the trail in order to transport all their goods into Canada. Once past the RCMP station at Chilkoot Summit, the stampeders then had to build some sort of boat or barge to ferry their belongings across Bennett Lake and down the Yukon River.
Today, the Chilkoot Trail is a national historic park jointly administered by the Canadian and U.S. parks departments. The original trail is open year-round to hikers who wish to experience the route of the stampeders. The route also passes through marvelous glacier-carved valleys, coastal rainforest, boreal forest, and alpine tundra.
However, the Chilkoot Trail is as challenging today as it was 100 years ago. Though the trail is only a total of 53km (33 miles) in length, the vertical elevation gain is nearly 1,128m (3,700 ft.), and much of the path is very rocky. Weather, even in high summer, can be extremely changeable, making this always-formidable trail sometimes a dangerous one.
Most people make the trip from Dyea, 15km (9 1/4 miles) north of Skagway in Alaska over the Chilkoot Summit (the U.S.-Canadian border) to Bennett in northwest British Columbia, in 4 days. Many shuttles and taxis run from Skagway to the trail head at Dyea. The third day of the hike is the hardest, with a steep ascent to the pass and a 12km (7.5-mile) distance between campsites. At Bennett, there's no road or boat access; from the end of the trail, you'll need to make another 6km (3.7-mile) hike out along the rail tracks to Highway 2 near Fraser, British Columbia (the least expensive option), or you can ride the White Pass and Yukon Railway (tel. 800/343-7373; www.whitepassrailroad.com) from Bennett out to Fraser for C$50 or down to Skagway for C$90. There's an C$18 surcharge for tickets purchased in Bennett, so plan ahead. Remember to take a passport with you on this hike -- you're crossing an international border.
The Chilkoot Trail isn't a casual hike; you'll need to plan and provision for your trip carefully. And it isn't a wilderness hike because between 75 and 100 people start the trail daily. Remember that the trail is preserved as an historic park; leave artifacts of the Gold Rush days -- the trail is strewn with boots, stoves, and other effluvia of the stampeders -- as you found them.
Permits are also required to make the hike. The U.S. and Canadian parks authorities cooperate to administer these permits, and they can be obtained on either side of the border. Only 50 hikers are allowed per day from each side of the pass, and 42 of the permits may be reserved for $12 each -- the other eight are held for last-minute hikers. The permits cost $53 adults, $26 children 6 to 17; the fees are the same in U.S. and Canadian dollars.
For details on the Chilkoot Trail, contact the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park (tel. 907/983-2921; www.nps.gov/klgo/index.htm) or the Canadian Parks Service (tel. 800/661-0486; www.nationalparks.org/discover-parks).
White Pass & the Yukon Route
In 1898, engineers began the task of excavating a railway line up to White Pass. Considered a marvel of engineering, the track edged around sheer cliffs on long trestles and tunneled through banks of granite. The train effectively ended traffic on the Chilkoot Trail, just to the north.
The White Pass and Yukon Route railroad now operates between Skagway, Alaska, and Bennett, British Columbia. Several trips are available on the historic line. Trains travel twice daily from Skagway to the summit of White Pass; the 3-hour return journey costs US$98 for adults. As this trip does not cross the U.S./Canadian border, U.S. citizens do not require a passport for passage. Late May through early September from Sunday to Friday, trains make a 6-hour one-way trip from Skagway to Lake Bennett, the end of the Chilkoot Trail, costing US$165 adults for diesel-powered engines; it's US$125 for a 4-hour round-trip journey (offered Sat and Sun) on a steam-powered engine from Skagway to Fraser Meadows. As these trips cross an international border, passports are required. Connections between Fraser and Whitehorse via motor coach are available daily. Prices for children 3 to 12 on all rides are half the adult fare, and infants ride free.
The White Pass and Yukon excursion trains operate mid-May to the last weekend of September. Advance reservations are required; for details, contact the White Pass and Yukon Route (tel. 800/343-7373; www.whitepassrailroad.com).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.