With its untamed wilderness, gold rush past, and party-hardy reputation, Canada’s northern frontier offers a wild time—in every sense of the word.
The call of the wild emanates from just about everywhere in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Some locations are expected (evergreen forests, rugged mountain peaks, remote lakes) while others might surprise (a former brothel-now-bar, a wild-west-esque can-can show, a divey saloon). Looming large over this vast frontier north of the 60th parallel and east of Alaska are the stories and storied remains of the Klondike gold rush. Beginning in 1887, when word of gold in them thar (northern) hills reached southern cities, a stampede of 100,000 dreamers and schemers sailed north to Alaska, trudged over mountain passes into Canada, and sailed down the Yukon River to reach the gold fields. Take inspiration from their courage (or craziness) and find some wild times of your own.
Follow the Klondike Gold Rush Trail
WHERE: Miles Canyon, Whitehorse
Peer over the sheer, basaltic cliffs of Miles Canyon and imagine a flotilla of gold rush stampeders in makeshift boats navigating the swirling water below. Walk across a 1920s suspension bridge to the ghost town of Canyon City to see remnants of the wooden tramway built to safely shuttle supplies around the canyon after hundreds of boats and several lives were lost. History buffs and those who like to know the names of trees and plants will enjoy a free guided nature walk led by earnest members of the Yukon Conservation Society.
INSIDER TIPStories of the gold rush and other significant events in Yukon history are told to great effect at the MacBride Museum. Enjoy historical artifacts both large (a steam locomotive, a prospector’s cabin) and small (old-time food tins, gold rush photographs) as well as an impressive, slightly creepy collection of taxidermied wildlife.
Step Aboard a Sternwheeler
WHERE: Whitehorse and Dawson City
When rivers were the roads of the north, some 250 sternwheelers plied the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City. Step aboard the authentically restored behemoth of the fleet, S.S. Klondike, now a national historic site that sits high and dry beside the Yukon River in Whitehorse. Stroll her wide decks, peek in her small cabins, and marvel at the woodpile needed to power the ship. If you yearn to hear the splish-splash of a paddlewheel in action, book a 90-minute cruise on the Klondike Spirit in Dawson City. Although not exactly thrill-a-minute stuff, the tour is a pleasant way to get out on the historic river.
INSIDER TIPAsk Klondike Spirit staff to point out when you pass the old paddlewheel graveyard where the remains of once-mighty boats lie in a jumble of wood, wheels, and rusty bits
Pan for Gold
WHERE: Dawson City
There’s a whole lot of shaking (and swirling) going on when panning for gold. Learn the proper technique at touristy Claim 33 Goldpanning where the grounds are filled with antique mining equipment and vehicles—a reminder that one man’s junk is another man’s museum. Pan in the troughs here (gold guaranteed!) or rent a pan and head to Free Claim #6 where, yes, prospecting is free. Bring low expectations as innumerable prospectors have been here before you. After all, the claim is located a half-mile upstream from Discovery Claim where the gold that ignited the Klondike gold rush was first found.
INSIDER TIPTo get in a gold-mining mood, read Jack London’s novel Call of the Wild, set during the Klondike gold rush. Or search online for poems by Robert Service, “The Bard of the Yukon.” One of his most famous, The Cremation of Sam McGee, begins with these oft-quoted lines: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold…”
Ride an Old-Timey Train Over White Pass
WHERE: Skagway, Alaska to Carcross, Yukon
Why hike over a mountain pass when you can sit back and let the Little Engine That Could do the work? The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway transports cruise ship passengers and curious travelers in vintage rail cars on a 40-mile roundtrip from Skagway, Alaska to the summit of White Pass (elevation 2,865 feet). The narrow-gauge track parallels the mountain trail First Nations traders blazed and Klondike stampeders followed on their journey to the goldfields. The railway offers longer excursions to Carcross (where First Nations artisans carve, weave, paint, sculpt, and sell their wares) and Bennett Lake (where modern-day masochists stumble in after a multi-day hike up, up, up the historic Chilkoot Trail).
INSIDER TIPIf riding the rails is not your thing, drive the spectacular highway from Whitehorse to Skagway, with a stop at Carcross. Whether by road or rail, be sure to take your passport—this trip crosses the international border.
Indulge in Frontier Frolicking
WHERE: Dawson City
The gold rush stampeders, brothels and bootlegging are gone, but an intoxicating wild-west vibe still lingers in Dawson City. Walk the town’s dirt streets and wooden sidewalks and peek through the windows of well-preserved gold rush-era buildings (to get inside, join a walking tour with Parks Canada). Stop by Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall to watch the Klondike cancan dancing show and to try your luck at the gaming tables. Take your winnings (or the last of your money) to the bar at Bombay Peggy’s, a former brothel, and order a Spank My Naughty Ass martini. Or, if you’re ready for a full dose of frontier reality, seek out the notorious tavern locals call “The Pit” in the Westminster Hotel.
Sip a Sourtoe (Yes, a Real Human Toe) Cocktail
WHERE: Dawson City
Although the making of a sourtoe cocktail is a straightforward affair—pour a generous jigger of booze (typically Yukon Jack whiskey liqueur) into a glass and garnish with a dehydrated human toe—the drinking is anything but. Since the 1970s, tens of thousands of travelers have moseyed into the saloon in the Downtown Hotel to join the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. There’s an oath to recite and a single rule to follow: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly toe.” Down the drink properly and receive a personalized certificate, as well as eternal boasting rights.
Drive on the Top of the World
WHERE: West Dawson to the Canada/U.S. border
True to its name, the Top of the World highway winds its way along mountaintops and ridges and serves up killer views uninterrupted by pesky trees (driving above the tree line has its advantages). Although only 66 miles from West Dawson to the international border, it’s a slow, twisty-turny ride on rough surfaces. Drivers with an abundance of time and curiosity continue on to Chicken, Alaska (a former mining town that’s as quirky as the name suggests) and, further on still, the Alaska Highway junction. From here there are three options: head back to Dawson City, continue west to Alaska, or drive (and drive and drive) a scenic loop to Whitehorse. Fortunately, there are plenty of hours of daytime driving in the land of the midnight sun.
INSIDER TIPWhen the vistas cause your jaw to drop—and they will— pull over to the side of the road to gawk. It’s much safer that way.
Take a Wet and Wild Ride
WHERE: Dalton Post, Yukon to Dry Bay, Alaska
Follow the canoe strokes of 19th-century European explorer Edward Glave (and countless First Nations people before him) on the mighty Tatshenshini-Alsek River. More than a century ago, at the end of his journey past snow-capped peaks and glaciers that are now part of the largest parcel of protected parkland in the world, Glave sniffed that the river offered “such an incessant display of grandeur that it became tiresome.” Judge that grandeur for yourself on an 11-day Canadian River Expeditions’ journey from Dalton Post, a former First Nations and gold rush-era trading post, to Dry Bay, just a hop-and-a-skip from Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Expect to be gobsmacked by the wildness of the place, including grizzly bear tracks, some as big as frypans, that tattoo the riverbanks.
INSIDER TIPSave room on your camera’s memory card for day nine and a once-in-a-lifetime experience paddling beside blue-white icebergs in Alsek Lake. Listen for the crack and rumble—and watch for waves—as ginormous chunks of ice fall from the Grand Plateau and Alsek glaciers into the lake.
Experience First Nations Culture up Close
WHERE: Haines Junction
The activities may seem simple— walking through a recreated traditional First Nations village, foraging for medicinal plants, making a batch of the indigenous flatbread called bannock—but the experience at Kwäday Dän Kenji, Long Ago Peoples Place, can be profound. Your hosts are members of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation and Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, two of Yukon’s 14 First Nations that have lived on the land for thousands of years. Dive deeper into this connection to the land at Shakat Tun Wilderness Camp where a former First Nations chief and his family welcome overnight guests to experience their culture, hospitality and a blazing evening campfire.
INSIDER TIPStop at the Da Ku Cultural Centre in Haines Junction to view indigenous art and artisans in action (don’t miss the exquisite beadwork display) and to talk adventure options with staff at the Yukon Visitor and Kluane National Park and Reserve information centers.
Go Where the Wild Things Are
Expect to see a black bear in the Yukon. In fact, expect to see lots of wildlife—elk, moose, falcons, mountain goats, swans, maybe even a grizzly bear—depending on where you venture. For a controlled viewing experience with near-guaranteed sightings visit the Yukon Wildlife Preserve near Whitehorse. Here a three-mile trail winds through natural habitats containing 11 different species of northern mammals including woodland caribou, bison, mule deer, arctic fox, and lynx.
INSIDER TIPThe standard advice for staying safe in bear country is to stay away from bears. But like the United States’ 1980s “just say no” campaign that preached drug avoidance, a “just avoid bears” strategy in the Yukon is pretty lame. Read up on how to avoid getting eaten by a bear before you venture out.