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Skagway, Alaska

Ultimate Yukon and White Pass Adventure




Shore Excursion Review: Ultimate Yukon and White Pass Adventure

Skagway, Alaska

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 Lake


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 backdrop.



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 the talking.


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.



Closing Thoughts

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.