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When you arrive in Skagway on an Alaska cruise, one of your shore excursion options is to ride the train along the old White Pass and Yukon railway route. While it sounded like a fun experience, we wanted to explore the same area on our own. So instead of taking the train, we decided to rent a car and spend the day driving the historic Klondike Highway.
The Klondike Highway runs pretty much parallel to the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, as well as the Chilkoot trail prospectors used during the Klondike Gold Rush (1896–1899). Along the way you’ll see unique landscapes, beautiful lakes, even some old mining structures still standing as a reminder of the area’s exciting past.
The Klondike Highway passes through three different provinces/states (Alaska, British Columbia, the Yukon) and is divided into two sections. The South Klondike Highway is the portion we drove. It leads from Skagway to Whitehorse, passing through the The White Pass mountain summit area and the Southern Lakes region of the Yukon. The North Klondike Highway connects Whitehorse to Dawson City.
If you ever find yourself in Skagway or the Yukon, we highly recommend you drive the Klondike Highway. The stunning scenery and rich history are sure to make it a memorable experience!
Points of Interest Along the South Klondike Highway
There are many stops you could potentially make along the South Klondike Highway. The road is lined with craggy mountains, tranquil lakes, rushing waterfalls and spectacular vistas. Here are just a few points of interest, listed in order as if travelling north from Skagway.
From Skagway, your journey along the Klondike Highway will begin by travelling through the White Pass. This area stretches from Skagway to the Fraser (Canadian) Customs.
The White Pass was the preferred route of prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush because it was easier than the nearby Chilkoot Trail. It may have been less challenging, but by no means was it a walk in the park.
The harsh climate and lengthy journey soon took it’s toll, with many men suffering from starvation. The prospector’s horses suffered as well. So many died along the trail that soon the White Pass was nicknamed “Dead Horse Trail”.
The White Pass Summit is located near the Canada/US border. Pull over at the “Welcome to Alaska” sign for a great photo opportunity of the valley. There’s also a Klondike Gold Rush Monument.
The “Tormented” Valley
After you cross into Canada, the landscape drastically changes into something truly unique.
The Tormented Valley consists of wind-battered rocks, a sparse forest of 300 year old trees, and sparkling blue lakes. This sub-arctic alpine tundra is one of the most unique eco-systems in North America and will have you pulling over multiple times to take pictures of this exceptional landscape.
Yukon Suspension Bridge
Crossing over the Tutshi (TOO-shy) River, is the Yukon Suspension Bridge. It spans 65 feet above the white-water rapids below.
There is an admission fee to view/cross the bridge and the facility includes a cafe, restaurant, gift shop and interpretive exhibits.
After the suspension bridge, you will be driving along Tutshi Lake enroute to the Yukon border. There are numerous parking areas along the road so be sure to stop and take some pictures!
BC-Yukon Border Pullout
The Yukon border is a perfect place to stop for a stretch. Don’t forget to take a fun picture in front of the giant Yukon sign!
Windy Arm, Tagish Lake
Once you’re in the Yukon, you’ll be travelling along Windy Arm. This narrow, windy body of water is an arm of Tagish Lake.
Bove Island Viewpoint
Another great stopping point for photos is Bove Island Viewpoint. From here you get a great view of Tagish Lake, Windy Arm and of course, Bove Island.
You’ll now be following alongside Nares Lake until you reach the small town of Carcross, which is situated at the north end of Bennett Lake.
Carcross is the first town you’ll reach after leaving Skagway (it’s 106 km away). It was originally named Caribou Crossing because the junction point between Bennett and Nares Lakes was a natural crossing for caribou herds during their seasonal migrations.
Beyond Carcross, there’s not many places to get a bite to eat along the south portion of the Klondike Highway, so make sure you stop here if you’re hungry. There’s a small retail village called Carcross Commons that includes an art gallery, bakery/coffee shop and restaurant.
Apart from being a great place to enjoy a meal, Carcross has some notable historical attractions. The Yukon’s oldest operating store, Matthew Watson’s General Store, is here in Carcross. The old train station, once an important stop along the White Pass Yukon Route, is now being used as an information centre. It’s not the original station though, that burned down in 1910.
A great picnic area in Carcross is on the beach of glacier-fed Lake Bennett. There’s also a viewing platform from which you can enjoy views of the lake with Montana Mountain in the background.
Bennett Lake was where prospectors, having just crossed the mountains via the Chilkoot or White Pass, would start the second leg of their journey- heading to Dawson City by raft or boat.
The Carcross Desert was an unexpected surprise along the Klondike Highway. It’s affectionately called ‘The World’s Smallest Desert”, even though it’s not a real desert.
These 260 hectares of sand once formed the bottom of a glacial lake. The sand and silt was deposited into the ancient Lake Watson 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age.
Once the glaciers disappeared, so did Lake Watson, leaving behind huge amounts of finely ground sand. Since then, the Watson River has been bringing a constant supply of sand with it as it flows into Bennett Lake. The strong winds off Bennett Lake blow the sand ashore and cause it to constantly shift, forming this dynamic dune system.
The Carcross Desert and Dunes are a unique and fragile ecosystem. It is home to many rare plants and animals that are not found many other places in the world.
118 kilometers into your journey from Skagway, you’ll come to Emerald Lake, the “Jewel of the Yukon”. Its turquoise waters are the result of light reflecting off layers of marl (a mixture of calcium carbonate and clay) at the bottom of the lake.
There is a parking area on the left side of the highway that offers an aerial view of the lake and is a nice spot for taking a few photos. A lot of people and tours turn around here and head back to Skagway, but we decided to continue on to the Alaska Highway Junction.
Our last stop before reaching the Alaska Highway Junction was Robinson Roadhouse, at kilometre 142. Robinson is now abandoned, but it served as a flag station on the White Pass and Yukon Route railway until operations shut down in 1983.
The roadhouse still stands and there are some billboards providing some information and stories about this historic site.
Alaska Highway Junction
If you decide to continue north from Robinson Roadhouse, you’ll reach the Alaska Highway Junction (Hwy 1). There’s a gas station and cafe here if you wish to stop.
Turning left at the junction will take you along the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse, the capital city of the Yukon. Whitehorse is 180 km from Skagway.
We decided to turn right on the Alaska Highway and drove along Marsh Lake until we reached Jake’s Corner. I was hoping to get a snack here, but the restaurant and gas station looked like it went out of business a while ago.
From Jake’s Corner, we headed south on Highway 8 (Tagish Road) which took us back to Carcross. From there we rejoined the South Klondike Highway and headed back to Skagway.
Tips for Driving the Klondike Highway
- The Klondike Highway is Hwy 2.
- Since the Klondike Highway crosses over into Canada, you will need your passport. Don’t forget it on the cruise ship!
- From Skagway, the United States Customs Checkpoint is 11 km away and Canadian Customs is 32 km. You must have your passport once you cross the border into Canada, even though the checkpoint is still a few kilometers away.
- We rented our car at Avis in Skagway (on 3rd avenue, between Broadway and Spring Street). We went there first thing in the morning and were able to get a car without a reservation. The lady at the desk said it must be our lucky day because they usually don’t have cars available last minute when the cruise ships are in port. Try and book in advance, just to be safe!
- If you prefer not to drive yourself, here is where you can book a full-day guided tour of the Klondike Highway.