New riches along the White Pass and Yukon Route
Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, this narrow gauge railroad is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. (Lee Foster/LPI)
When the 110-mile White Pass and Yukon railroad opened in 1900, it carried thousands of people from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse in Yukon, Canada on their way to seek their fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush.
Eventually these miners were replaced by cruise ship passengers as the White Pass and Yukon Route became one of the most popular day tours in southeast Alaska.
Passengers now board the historic, narrow-gauge train with cameras, not gold pans, and marvel how it climbs 3,000 feet in just 20 miles with steep grades of almost 4%, cliff-hanging turns of 16 degrees, two tunnels and numerous cantilever bridges and trestles. But these days, a growing number of outdoor adventurers are booking passage after discovering the railroad also provides easy access to a pristine mountainous wilderness.
Here are three great adventures made possible with a ticket on the White Pass and Yukon Route:
At Mile 6 of the railroad is this bright red caboose which hikers can reserve through the US Forest Service and spend a night or two. Inside there are five bunks, a table and a stove. Outside are commanding views of the surrounding Sawtooth Mountains and a 4.5-mile trail that leads to Denver Glacier and Upper Elway Falls.
Glacier Station at Mile 14 of the White Pass and Yukon Route is little more than a sweeping curve in the tracks and a trail sign. But through the trees is a trail that leads to another US Forest Service cabin and then into the Laughton Glacier amphitheatre. This is as dramatic a place as any in Alaska, a powerful blend of craggy Sawtooth Range peaks and the fingers of ice that spill out of them to form the glacier at the bottom. Combining the train ride with the 1.5-mile hike to stay at the remote cabin makes this slice of Alaskan wilderness accessible to almost anybody.
This is the most famous trail in Alaska and one of the most popular, with more than 3,000 hikers following the historic route every summer. It was the same route used by the Klondike gold miners in the 1898 gold rush, and walking it is not so much a wilderness adventure as it is a history lesson. The 33-mile trek includes the Chilkoot Pass, a steep climb up to 3,525ft, where hikers scramble on all fours over loose rocks and boulders. Scattered along the entire route are reminders of the gold rush, a huge steam boiler, rusty tin cans, tools and a lone boot.
The completion of the White Pass and Yukon Route put the Chilkoot out of business, and for many the highlight of the hike is reaching the railroad’s historic Lake Bennett Depot at the end. Here travellers feast on beef stew and apple pie and then board the trail for a ride back to Skagway. Experiencing the Chilkoot and returning on the White Pass and Yukon Route is probably the ultimate Alaska trek, combining great scenery, a historical site and an incredible sense of adventure.
Jim DuFresne is co-author of Lonely Planet’s Alaska guide