Shore Excursion Review: Ultimate Yukon and White Pass Adventure
August 16, 2008
By Lisa Plotnick
Ask for advice on shore excursions out of Skagway, Alaska and you will invariably
receive a strong recommendation for a ride on the famed White Pass & Yukon Route
railway. From what I can tell from reading and moderating cruising message boards,
many passengers opt for a round-trip journey on this narrow gauge railroad, making
their way north to the spectacular White Pass Summit on the Alaska/British Columbia
border and then reversing direction along the rails back to Skagway. We decided to
do a bit more, and booked an excursion that combined a one-way train journey with
a bus tour into the Yukon. The idea of venturing into a Canadian territory that relatively
few people have the pleasure to visit was the key selling point for us. This 8-hour
tour, called “Ultimate Yukon and White Pass Adventure,” turned out to be a highlight
of our cruise, and I recommend it for its scenic beauty, history, culture, and opportunity
to go off the beaten path.
Skagway was our second of three ports on our Holland America Line Ryndam cruise to
the Inside Passage, falling on Day 5 of the 7 day round-trip. The tour was presented
exactly as advertised. We began with a bus trip along the Klondike Highway to Caribou
Crossing (Carcross), where we had lunch and learned about the history and culture
of the Yukon. Then, we drove south to Fraser, British Columbia, where we boarded
the White Pass & Yukon Route railway for the 90-minute trip back to Skagway.
The portion of the Klondike Highway on which we drove was magnificent. During our
two-hour drive, we marveled at the beauty of the lakes and mountains that unfolded
before us. We made several stops at important monuments and scenic overlooks, including
the Captain William Moore Bridge, a cable-stayed structure built in 1976.
When reaching the Alaska/Yukon border, our guide took a photo of us in front of the
sign noting our entrance into the Yukon. (As we would not be returning via the same
road, we had taken the complementary sign welcoming us to Alaska roughly one hour
prior, at the Alaska/British Columbia border.)
Upon arriving in Carcross, we stopped briefly at the Carcross Desert, a roughly 1-square
mile area of sand dunes on the remains of an ancient glacial lake. It is not barren—a
variety of plants and trees dot the area. Our next stop was a completely different
kind of vista—the beautiful Emerald Lake, just north of Carcross. The lake lived
up to its name, with a stunning blue-green color due to the effect of the sun reflecting
off of the calcium carbonate clay in the shallow waters.
Carcross Desert Emerald
It was then mid-day, and we stopped at the Caribou Crossing Trading Post, where we
enjoyed a great lunch of barbeque chicken, coleslaw, potato, and amazing donuts.
We were given plenty of time to explore this tourist site, which included a Wildlife
Museum (featuring mounted and preserved animals such as the woolly mammoth, mountain
caribou, and black bear). Our niece and nephew-in-law went on a dog cart ride in
the adjacent park, where we also met a few beautiful huskies and their puppies.
From there, we returned to the bus and rode to downtown Carcross, a small area of
several wooden structures, some in the midst of renovation, along two main streets.
The town’s claim to fame is its role in the completion of the White Pass & Yukon
Railroad Route in 1900—a commemorative stone and plaque now stands at the site at
which, in 1900, the final spike was driven. The terminal building of 1910 still stands,
and is used today as a gift shop and visitor center. We enjoyed walking around and
viewing the monuments to the town’s history and taking in the beautiful mountain
From Carcross, we boarded the bus for the hour-long drive south to Fraser, British
Columbia, where the White Pass railroad awaited us. We made one final stop in the
Yukon along the way—the beautiful Bove Island Overlook by Tagish Lake, nestled before
an incredible mountain range that seemed to go on forever.
All of the above would have been missed had we taken the round-trip railroad only.
Not that this would have been a bad decision—I just feel we got a lot more out of
our visit by venturing further north.
Of course, our trip was not yet over, as we still had to return to Skagway. After
arriving in Fraser, we boarded the historic White Pass & Yukon Route railway. Many
of the message board posts I had read indicated that when traveling south, sit on
the right side of the train. Most of the passengers did so. A fear of heights kept
me and my niece on the left side of the train—yet, I moved over a bit into the trip
and was fine if I looked toward the horizon rather than down. Regardless, you get
decent views on both sides, although the side that overlooks the mountain is preferable
for taking in the breathtaking scenery. Braver souls can stand on the platform between
cars, taking photos and video, as our husbands did.
A view to the right (southbound) A view to the left (southbound)
I loved the train cars. This is not surprising as many liner fans seem to share an
appreciation of train travel. Although our car, Lake Annie, was built in 1985, it
had a vintage feel, as seen in the photograph below. Adding to this charm was the
clackity-clack the train made as it rode along the rails.
Yet, the best show was outside the windows. The scenery was magnificent—snow capped
mountains, waterfalls, greenery and more. As we descended down the mountain and rounded
many hairpin turns, we were rewarded with views so beautiful that even this professional
writer cannot find the words to properly convey them. I will let the pictures do
Once returning to Skagway, we had sufficient time to walk around the small town (population
900 in the winter), and shop while our husbands had a beer in the Red Onion Saloon.
Whether you are a first-time visitor to Skagway, or a returning traveler, I recommend
the Ultimate Yukon and White Pass Adventure quite highly. In fact, I would even repeat
it next time. It was such an amazing overview of the scenery of southeast Alaska
and parts of southwest Canada that I wrote in my journal that night that “even if
the cruise ended now, I’d feel fulfilled.” Although this was a long and expensive
excursion (8 hours, $184 per adult at the time of our sailing, purchased through
the cruise line), we learned a great deal about the history of Alaska and Yukon,
and got to see beautiful sites, much more than what we could have seen from the train
alone. So—if your cruise makes a stop in Skagway, be sure to have your passport so
that you, too, can make this magnificent journey.