For the many tens of thousands of opportunists who flocked to join the Klondike Gold Rush migration at the end of the 19th century, their journey to the Yukon goldfields began after disembarking in the Alaskan port of Skagway. Located at the top of the beautiful Inside Passage, it isn’t eager prospectors Skagway welcomes these days, but camera-ready cruise ship passengers eager to capture the stunning scenery of the area.
The small town is a popular departure point for tours, with the favourite excursion being a trip aboard the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. Following the White Pass Trail used by the gold-rushers, the railroad was conceived during the height of the Gold Rush to link Skagway’s deep-water port with Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse. Although only completed as the Gold Rush ended, it is now a favourite tourist trip. The railroad extends for 67.5 miles from Skagway to Carcross, through breathtaking Coast Mountain scenery, tunnels and over trestle bridges.
Skagway itself looks very much as it would have done over a century ago. Its picturesque downtown Historic District - centred on the main street, Broadway -is full of many preserved or restored gold rush-era buildings, as well as others with sympathetic false fronts. Stroll the boardwalks and take in Skagway’s timeless feel; it isn’t hard to imagine the saloons (there were 80 of them in its heyday) and bordellos full of newly-rich miners and excited Klondike-bound newcomers fresh off the steamships. Don’t forget the good-time girls and villains like Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, killed in a shootout in 1898, who were only too happy to relieve them of their money!
Skagway has many museums and other fascinating places to visit as well as eclectic artisan shops to peruse in the town. For those staying a few days, there are sightseeing excursions to natural wonders and wildlife hotspots, adventure thrills from rafting, ziplining or dog mushing to off-road tours, and haunting reminders of the days when gold was king and Skagway was the gateway to fortune.
Things to do
Top tips for visiting Skagway
1. The White Pass & Yukon Route
• When taking the White Pass & Yukon Route rail trip up to the White Pass Summit, get a seat on the left-hand side for the best views. On busier trains, you may be asked to move to the other side for the return to let others enjoy the panoramic vistas.
• A combo trip taking the bus up to Carcross and the train back down, sitting on the right, will give you different experiences in each direction.
2. Self guided walking tours
• Explore Skagway’s downtown on a self-guided walking tour, starting from the White Pass & Yukon Railway Depot. A half-mile mini-tour will take 45-60 minutes and a regular, one-mile tour 60-90 minutes. Allow half a day for an extended, four-mile tour to also take in the Gold Rush Cemetery.
• Download a walking guide at http://skagway.com/skagwaywalkingtour.pdf or pick one up from the Visitor Information Centre.
3. Salmon season
• You don’t have to go on a tour to see natural marvels. In August, you can watch salmon spawn in the clear, shallow waters of Pullen Creek, which runs alongside the town.
4. Live shows
• Skagway comes alive at night with live music in saloon bars and restaurants, while live shows include the musical tale of Alaska’s most notorious outlaw - Days of ’98 Show with Soapy Smith. Offering ragtime piano song and can-can girls, the show is on at historic Eagles Hall several times a day.
5. The Soapy Smith Parlour
• New for 2016 after seven years’ restoration, the Soapy Smith Parlor brings the notorious villain to life and documents the history of Skagway through Gold Rush artefacts, memorabilia, folk art and dioramas at his former headquarters.
6. What to wear
• Dress in layers and pack a rain jacket, particularly if you take an excursion on water or into the wilderness. Alaska’s weather can be very fickle, even in summer.
• Bring something windproof; its position at the end of the Lynn Canal fjord makes it prone to strong winds.
7. The Klondike Highway
• The Klondike Highway opened up Skagway to northern British Columbia, the Yukon and the rest of Alaska by road just over 35 years ago.
• The road is open year-round and Whitehorse is a comfortable and scenic two-hour drive away, although allow extra time for Kodak moments such as at the Yukon Suspension Bridge, just across the US-Canada border in BC.
8. Events in Skagway
• From June to September, Skagway Farmers’ Market takes place every second Saturday at Eagles Hall with local fresh produce and preserves, live music and art.
• The International Folk Festival and Craft Brew Festival both take place in April, before the cruise ships arrive.
9. Cruises to Skagway
• The cruise ship season lasts from around the end of April to late September, during which time some 30 vessels make 400-plus calls and bring 800,000 passengers.
• If you are not visiting Skagway on a cruise, go outside of that period and have the town virtually to yourself. But expect some facilities and attractions to be closed.
10. Winter in Skagway
• Winter is a very beautiful and peaceful time to visit Skagway. The arrival of the first snow in October heralds skiing, snowmobiling and other winter activities on trails just outside town. The Northern Lights can be viewed from Skagway and the White Pass Summit on clear nights, and the annual Yuletide Festival brings fun and frolics each December.