Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 13: Boots, Boats and Trains in Skagway

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

Skagway is bursting with wonderful outdoor opportunities and excursions. Part of what differentiates Skagway’s treasures from those found elsewhere in Alaska is the historical context which so thoroughly envelopes them.

One of the most rewarding reasons independent travelers make the journey to Skagway is to hike the legendary Chilkoot Trail.

The Chilkoot Trail played an important role when gold was discovered in Canada’s Yukon territory in 1896, and a rush of prospectors made their way by steamboat up to Skagway, the nearest deep water port, or to the nearby town of Dyea.

This initial foray was the easy part of their journey. From Dyea, prospectors then had to hike 33 miles along the Chilkoot Trail to the headwaters of the Yukon River where they would build boats and camp for the winter before tackling the remaining 550 miles to the gold fields. But that’s not all. Canadian law required that each person crossing the border into the Yukon had to have with them one ton of supplies–enough to keep the prospector alive for a year in the Yukon. To transport this much equipment, however, required that each prospector make the 33 mile journey over the steep pass 20-40 times.

Today, the first 17 miles of the trail–the portion falling on American soil–is part of the Klondike Gold Rush Historical National Park. “The world’s largest outdoor museum,” is a popular backpacking route peppered with ghost towns and littered with historical trash–mining gear and supplies dumped by prospectors unable to complete the journey. The trash is protected and increases in frequency as the trail gets tougher.

One day we joined Skagway Float Tours for a short day hike up the first two miles of the Chilkoot Trail. It was a pleasant, tree covered walk along a hillside overlooking the Taiya River. Bright green moss and hearty pine trees dominated the scenery for most of the way, blanketing the trail with an invigorating, peaceful ambiance.

The trail had some steep parts here and there but nothing too bad. Of course, I might have thought otherwise had I been hauling 200 pounds of mining equipment on my 14th trip. I was disappointed not to see any historical trash along the way but this did not come as a big surprise; anyone who gave up at this point would never have been tough enough to travel to Alaska in the first place.

Our hike was short and exhilarating and just far enough to get our hearts and legs pumping. I would love to come back one day and backpack the entire route, camping at old ghost towns and checking out the rusted remains of discarded mining gear–the dashed hopes of golden fortunes.

The prospectors of old would have been very disappointed with me and my freinds; we opted to take the easy way back by doing a little bit of river rafting. As part of their Hike and Float Tour ($85), Skagway Float Tours arranged to have a raft waiting for us at a point where the trail dropped down to the Taiya River.

The rafting was a mellow affair and was indeed a float; there weren’t any rapids to worry about, just a leisurely flowing river upon which we laid back and watched Alaska drift by. It was a very wonderful way to end a very nice hike.

The following day, we explored a secondary route to the gold fields of the Yukon.

The White Pass route, which departed from the deep-water port of Skagway itself, was 600 feet lower than the Chilkoot Pass (3,525 feet), but ten miles longer. Despite the additional length, this was the pass that soon grew more popular and helped build Skagway into a boomtown.

In May 1898, British investors started building a railroad to take advantage of the flow of prospectors heading north. By the time it was completed in July 1900, however, the gold rush was over.

Today, the White Pass Railroad exists only to serve tourists. Part of what makes riding this narrow gauge railroad such a pleasure is the rolling stock of passenger coaches that have been beautifully restored. Stepping into these brightly painted wooden carriages is like stepping back in time.

The locomotives are diesel-electric with the exception of No. 73 and No. 69–two amazing steam engines dating back to 1947 and 1907 respectively. Although the $98 Summit Excursion we boarded was not powered by one of these beauties, No. 73 blew past us at the Canadian border while we waited at a side track. I’ve never seen such a gorgeous, yet brutishly powerful piece of machinery before. Sitting in our antiquated carriage and watching it steam past was a transcendental moment, like something out of an old film noir movie.

Even more dramatic was the route itself. The White Pass Railroad begins at sea level and climbs 3,000 feet in just 20 miles. This engineering marvel required 450 tons of explosives to carve its way through the rugged, steep mountains and it shows. The tracks literally cling to the mountainside as the train climbs higher and higher into the pristine glory of Alaska, past amazing drop-off views, distant waterfalls, grazing mountain goats, and thick forests. Around every corner there was yet another tunnel or trestle bridge to cross.

I love train travel and this was one of the very best train journeys I’ve ever taken. I only wish that I had made plans to fly out of Canada. I would have taken the White Pass train to its very end, 76.5 miles away at the town of Carcross in the Yukon Territory and gone home from there. If you plan on enjoying Alaska without the Cruise Ship, I would highly recommend this route.

Yesterday: The Wonderful Wild West Town of Skagway
Tomorrow: Touring the Glaciers of Skagway by Helicopter