An utterly fabulous train and car trip from Whitehorse to Skagway and back
THE YUKON TERRITORY - Best train ride of my life.
If you begin on the Canadian side on May 31, and if this year is typical, you’ll be surrounded by a moonscape of frozen rock, stunted trees, distant, towering mountains thick with snow and probably several feet of the white stuff on the ground. It felt a bit like Newfoundland or Sudbury or Georgian Bay with the bare rocks and small evergreens, but the snow and mountains were another story.
(I read later that the area around Fraser, B.C. gets more than seven meters of snow each winter, largely due to the elevation and the moist winds blowing off the Pacific).
The train is a delight, a slow-moving affair that goes past old cabins along the Chilkoot Trail and through the frozen tundra-like plains with pools of pale blue, melting water before rising up to about 2,800 feet in elevation and powering through giant tunnels of snow that towered over our heads as we stood on the back deck of the caboose car. Very cool.
You soon get down into the Skagway valley, I believe, with bald eagles and majestic waterfalls and overpowering, craggy mountains and tall, thick trees. The conductor is likely to offer up some good tips on where to take your pictures, but keep an eye out for awesome valley and mountain views.
We’d spotted a bear on the way down from Whitehorse to Fraser, but it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the one we saw on the train. Just as we came into a large clearing on the way down to Skagway, we looked over and saw a small black-brown bear resting at the top of a huge valley. He was sitting up on his haunches a little and, well, I guess I don’t know how else to say it, doing his business.
All of the media folks I was with snapped away and laughed like idiots.
It was too foggy at the time we went down, but there’s also a huge, towering trestle over one part of the valley.
You’ll get some pretty great commentary along the way about colourful miners and the history of the train. One story goes that Americans were building the train tracks but were stopped at the Canadian border by the Mounties, this being more than a century ago. The Americans really wanted to finish the route, so they apparently took up a couple boxes of cigars and several bottles of Scotch as a gift to the Mounties. Folks say by the time the Mounties had slept off their celebratory gifts the train tracks had been extended a mile or two into Canadian territory.
We wandered about and had a sandwich at a great smoothie/coffee shop, where a poster was advertising a band called Torrents of Labia and promising a night of Middle Eastern porno music. And how west coast is that? There are some decent restaurants and also a Starbucks that's inside a jewelry shop, plus plenty of interesting architecture and a million t-shirt shops. But it's the scenery that'll bring you back, I'd say.
The train ride is great. But if you can, hop on a bus or get a car to take you back to Fraser and on into Whitehorse, as you’ll see some of the majestic scenery of your life.
The road is a winding, windy affair and offers magnificent views of the valleys near Skagway and then the area around Fraser. You’ll also find the Yukon Suspension Bridge, a huge steel cable affair that’s strung over the top of a raucously violent stretch of the Yukon River. The visitor centre/gift shop/deli are made of magnificent pieces of local fir, with enormous glass panes looking out at the mountains and the rocky river valley. There’s a new restaurant where they serve bison chili and steaks and other meals.
It seems awfully remote but owner/manager Robert Bing told me he had more than 600 passengers from Skagway cruise ships on Wednesday of this week alone, and gets some 30,000 folks a year. At $18.50 for adults (more for cruise passengers), that’s probably a decent take.
The scenery around Tutshi Lake and Tagish Lake is magnificent; with sparkling waters fronting massive, snow-capped mountains and, at Tagish, a massive granite outcropping that looked to be 500 or 600 meters high.
Carcross, Yukon, makes a fun stop, with a huge lake and a massive, hard-packed sand beach in front of more mountains. There are a couple cute churches and small cabins and houses worth looking at, as well as another stop on the train route if you want to extend your trip beyond Fraser.
Outside of town on the Klondike Highway you’ll find a huge expanses of sand and trees called the Carcross Desert, a unique geographic phenomenon that looks like the Sahara meets Banff or something.
We counted four more bears along the side of the road on our way from Fraser to Whitehorse.
All in all, a completely wonderful way to finish off a too-brief tour of the southern Yukon. I can’t wait to come back.