There was a time when there were only three good reasons to travel to the Yukon: gold, gold and the opportunity to make money off of people crazy/stupid enough to travel to places like Whitehorse and Dawson City in search of gold.
At the height of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, some 100,000 people flocked to the Yukon. But the heartbreak-to-riches ratio was badly lopsided in favour of abject misery. Getting to Dawson City via Whitehorse was an arduous process, with many starry-eyed dreamers making their way over the legendary Chilkoot Trail, 53 kilometres of ice, stone and frozen tears rolling down wind-burned cheeks—only to face another 800 km by water, if they were pushing on to Dawson City. It didn’t help that the Canadian government required each prospector to carry more than a ton of goods, including 70 kilos of bacon, 35 kilos of dried fruit and one tin of mustard. (Worst. Recipe. Ever.)
Nowadays, travelling to Whitehorse is considerably less arduous. Despite a new-era gold rush—helicopters in place of pack mules; million-dollar earthmovers instead of guys with gold pans and bad breath—the shiny stuff is no longer the main reason to head north. Instead, Whitehorse has developed into a vibrant town with great attractions and some of the best outdoor recreation anywhere in North America. While most Klondike miners came into town in search of whiskey, brothels and clean long johns, modern Whitehorse is a vacationer’s paradise. Here, then, are three new ways to get the most out of your Yukon adventure.
The crux of the Chilkoot Trail is the Golden Staircase, a nearly vertical ankle-breaker. The area is still littered with castoff tools, tin cans and other detritus that was suddenly deemed superfluous in the face of such a torturous ascent. You can hike the staircase if you like, as well as an additional half-million square kilometres of gorgeous Yukon open space. But, if you’re looking for something slightly more manageable, your best bet is Miles Canyon.
It only takes seven kilometres to get from “downtown” Whitehorse to the rugged bush country. Pack a lunch, some sturdy boots and your sense of adventure. During the boom, miners floated their gear through the treacherous rapids of Miles Canyon, on the Yukon River just upriver from town. Famed explorer Frederick Schwatka wrote that, “through this narrow chute of corrugated rock the wild waters of the great river rush in a perfect mass of milk-like foam, with a reverberation that is audible for a considerable distance.”
Today, the suspension bridge over the canyon is the starting point of your day hike. Eight and a half million years ago, this area flowed not with whitewater, but with molten lava; the remnants are still visible today as a jumble of five- and six-sided basalt columns, just like something out of a science fiction movie. Only about 15 metres are visible above ground, but the volcanic rock extends down 100 metres. If only the gold had been so thick!
A solid day hike here is the 15-km Yukon River Loop Trail, which follows the riverbank through forests thick with spruce and aspen. A little spur trail takes you to Canyon City, where abandoned shacks give testament to the miners who once camped here. We have to be honest: the chances of you finding gold are pretty low, but the odds of getting a great introduction to the wild Yukon scenery are up around 100 per cent.
The town of Whitehorse got its name because the prospectors thought the wild rapids at Miles Canyon looked like the manes of bucking white stallions. But don’t let old miner’s tales deter you; there are few better ways to see the Yukon than by boat. And, since the Yukon River flows right past downtown, you’re never more than a few steps away from your next adventure.
If you’re up for a little upper-body workout, the best way to travel is by canoe or kayak. Despite its size, the Yukon is home to only 34,000 people, which means getting away from all the hubbub takes a good solid two minutes of paddling. The Yukon River flows north out of town, and you can ride it for five kilometres or make an expedition and go the full 3,200, depending on time constraints and your tolerance for your own body odour. No matter how far you go, you’ll be in wild country. Moose, bears, wolves, caribou and bald eagles can all be spotted—unless you’ve got your gaze firmly fixed on the end of your fishing line. The Yukon River is home to three prime species of salmon—King, Silver and Chum—and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as finishing a day on the water with a big meal you’ve hooked yourself.
The riverbank is littered with old miner’s cabins and it’s hard not to feel like a part of Yukon history when you take to the water. In a day, strong paddlers can make it all the way to that legendary spot memorialized by Robert Service, down on “the marge of Lake Lebarge” where they cremated Sam McGee. We don’t know what a marge is either, but, from the looks of this stunning place, it must be something pretty great.
If you’d been here 115 years ago, the main reasons to come into town would have been to stock up on baked beans and maybe have one of your rotten teeth extracted. But modern Whitehorse is a bustling, cosmopolitan city with a surprising number of things to do. The place to start is with a tour of the S.S. Klondike II, a historic 64-m sternwheeler replica that stands watch over the south end of town. With a capacity of 270 metric tonnes, the original Klondike used to ply the waterway between Whitehorse and the goldfields of Dawson City before the first roads were built. Now it’s a National Historic Site, full of artifacts from the glory days.
Perhaps atoning for bad memories of its Chilkoot Trail roots, Whitehorse is a wonderfully walkable city. You can stroll along the paved Millennium Trail and then kick off your shoes at LePage Park, where, in the shade next to the river, different live acts play music every weekday from May to September. The visual arts scene is big here as well, and there are more than 20 museums and galleries in town showing everything from intricate beadwork and antler carvings to moose hair tufting. (Trust us on that last one; it’s very cool.)
And then there is the food, glorious food. Not only can you tour the award-winning Yukon Brewery—go for the Ice Fog India Pale Ale—but there are numerous great restaurants that put salt pork and hardtack to shame. New hotspot Burnt Toast Café serves up perfectly cooked dishes like eggs Benedict with smoked salmon during the day, and then morphs into a cozy little wine bar and nightspot for when that midnight sun is burning just a little too brightly. Traditionalists will probably want to head for Klondike Rib and Salmon BBQ, located in the oldest building still in use in Whitehorse. Originally a bakery, the place has reinvented itself as a shipping business, a coffin-maker and now as the absolute best place to find Yukon-sized portions of reindeer stew and wild elk stroganoff.
After the great Klondike Gold Rush failed to pan out, there was every reason to believe Whitehorse would become one of those sad little towns with lots of past and absolutely no future. But then a funny thing happened. A lot of the people who failed to find gold decided to stay up north and make a life. Nowadays, the streets are paved with asphalt, just like anywhere else, but the town has become such a treasure, they may as well be paved with gold.