This circular route begins and ends at Watson Lake, and includes a less-traveled gravel road called the Campbell Highway.
By Mary E. Trimble
The Yukon Territory is still as wild as it sounds. Look at this region on a map, and you’ll find precious few roads. However, the main highways — some paved, some still gravel — are well maintained. You can expect to arrive at your destination each night.
When we made this loop tour, my husband and I often traveled for more than a hundred miles before encountering another vehicle. And this was in August — the peak of the Yukon Territory’s tourist season. If you like privacy, you will enjoy an abundance of it in the Yukon, where it’s said that caribou outnumber people five to one.
Much of the Yukon doesn’t have telephone service, let alone cell phone capabilities. The citizens converse using two-way radios. We finally phoned home from Whitehorse, the territorial capital, to let the family know that, regrettably, we hadn’t been swallowed up in the Yukon’s expansive beauty.
We were thrilled to see an abundance of birds and waterfowl; a variety of squirrels; a pair of red foxes; a cow moose and her calf; and, in limited numbers, deer, bears, caribou, and stone sheep.
The number of lakes in the Yukon Territory is astounding. These sparkling jewels often are surrounded by shimmering aspen trees. We saw forests full of white spruce, sometimes interspersed with the more scraggly black spruce. The trees are generally smaller than in the United States, because of the much shorter growing season. But during our summer visit, the sun did not set until around 10:00 p.m.
Yukon Territory’s colorful history is reflected today in a blend of many stories. Evidence of ancient people is interspersed with tales of more recent arrivals. Explorer Robert Campbell, for whom the Campbell Highway is named, was the first white man to explore what is now called the Yukon Territory. He opened numerous Hudson’s Bay Co. fur trading posts. Later, Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries settled in the area, and still later, some 30,000 to 40,000 Klondike Gold Rush prospectors flooded the region.
In 1942 the Alaska Highway, which begins in the Yukon Territory at Watson Lake and traverses the southwest part of the territory, opened up the land to folks who traveled other than by dogsled or foot. Evidence of the Yukon’s history is prominently displayed throughout the territory. We found the Yukon people to be friendly, self-sufficient, wilderness-smart, and fiercely proud of their magnificent country.
The Yukon tourism people are working hard to make this a friendly place. Attractions worthy of a visitor’s attention are frequently marked by a tourism sign that says, “On Yukon Time” — a suggestion to slow down, explore and enjoy. We regretted we could not stay longer.
This article describes a 750-mile loop tour of the Yukon Territory that begins at Watson Lake and travels northwest on the Campbell Highway to Carmacks. From there, it heads south on the Klondike Highway through Whitehorse, the territorial capital, and then travels southeast on the Alaska Highway from Whitehorse back to Watson Lake.
This highway is designated Provincial Route 4 and is primarily gravel; exceptions to this are paved areas at Watson Lake, Ross River, and the Klondike Highway junction. In all, the gravel poses few problems, except the potential for dust or potholes. Because of the possibility of dust, it’s a good idea to take along a spare air filter for your vehicle.
In the 1840s, Robert Campbell explored this region and named virtually every major river in the Yukon. The highway bearing his name parallels several major waterways, including the Frances, Finlayson, and Pelly rivers. The distance from Watson Lake to Carmacks along this route is 362 miles (583 kilometers).
Before you embark on your trip, be sure to stock up on fuel and supplies at Watson Lake. You also might want to explore some of its intriguing attractions. One of the town’s not-to-be-missed sights, the Watson Lake Signpost Forest, is known and mimicked throughout the world. The “forest” now contains more than 48,000 signs from throughout the world — including street signs, park signs, and entering-a-state signs. The tradition began in 1942 when a homesick U.S. Army soldier, Carl K. Lindley, of Danville, Illinois, posted a sign pointing to his hometown. The sign forest is now maintained by the town of Watson Lake and is located near the Alaska Highway Interpretive Centre. The center offers an excellent interpretive display focusing on the construction of the Alaska Highway, including a video about the highway, a slide presentation, and photos taken during the highway’s construction. In addition, the Northern Lights Centre in Watson Lake provides visitors with an opportunity to learn about this natural nighttime phenomenon. It is located across the street from the Signpost Forest and provides an aurora borealis program (admission is charged) as well as free displays about local wildlife. Programs are presented in the afternoon and evening.
The communities of Ross River and Faro are situated along the Campbell Highway. Both were built to withstand the winter, and not provide visual aesthetics. Ross River, population approximately 350, is located at the junction of the Ross and the Pelly rivers; from there you can walk across a suspension footbridge that spans the Pelly River. According to The Milepost, overnight RV parking is offered (no hookups) at the gravel lot at the end of the footbridge.
Ross River offers services such as a restaurant, a gas station, and groceries. In addition, a free ferry transports vehicles, including motorhomes, across the river for the continued journey along the Campbell Highway. The ferry runs daily from 8:00 a.m. to noon and 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. We opted against exploring Canol Road, an unpaved byway that travels north and south of Ross River, after learning from the ferry captain that it was quite rough due to recent rains.
We found very few people inhabiting Faro, the next town along the Campbell Highway. Apparently this town comes to life when the nearby lead and zinc mines are active, but now they are closed. Interestingly, this town was named after a card game.
An RV campground is located across the street from Faro’s Campbell Region Interpretive Tourist Information Centre. The center is well worth visiting for its historical displays. Faro is ideally situated for wildlife-viewing and hiking, not to mention golf: The town offers an unusual nine-hole urban course that plays through the town’s green spaces.
The Campbell Highway terminates just north of Carmacks, population 489. Turn south on the Klondike Highway (Route 2) and travel into town.
Carmacks was named after George Washington Carmack, who set up a trading post there in the 1890s. Carmack’s post went bust in 1896, so he settled elsewhere. It was a good thing he did. Soon thereafter, he found more than a ton of gold in Bonanza Creek, and word of his discovery launched the Klondike Gold Rush.
Carmacks later became a riverboat fueling station, and a major stopping point on the Overland Trail that linked Whitehorse with Dawson City. Today Carmacks is a good place to stop for fuel and supplies. In town you’ll find an RV park with hookups, and other services, too, such as a bank, grocery stores, and a coin-operated laundry.
From Carmacks, travel south on the Klondike Highway toward Whitehorse.
We stopped for the night at Lake Laberge, named after Western Union Telegraph explorer Michael LaBerge of Quebec. The Yukon government campground at the lake provides 22 sites with no hookups; three driving loops in the campground offer access to a variety of sites. Ours was secluded and serenely quiet, right by the lake.
Boating, fishing, and swimming make this a popular park. As we sat on the shore of Lake Leberge, my husband recited from memory Robert W. Service’s wonderful poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a tale that mentions the lake. It certainly brought Yukon’s rugged history to life.
Only 15 miles farther south of there via the Klondike Highway is Whitehorse, Yukon Territory’s capital city since 1953. Like Carmacks, it offers a taste of civilization, but it’s a much bigger town, with a population of 23,474. The Visitor Reception Centre is worth a stop, and you can purchase camping permits there, too.
Whitehorse was named for the turbulent, frothy rapids on the nearby Yukon River that resemble the flowing manes of white horses. A hydroelectric dam on the river has since harnessed the “horses,” making the waters more placid. Whitehorse flourished during the boom days of the Klondike gold rush, for it was both a steamboat stop and a railway terminus. It boomed again during construction of the Alaska Highway in the early 1940s.
In addition to provisions and several RV supply and repair shops, the city offers opportunities for visitors to view fascinating architecture, art, and gold-rush memorabilia. The history of the steamboat in the area is highlighted at the SS Klondike National Historic Site; a waterfront trolley gives visitors rides along the Yukon River; the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery offers works by artists from the Yukon and around the world; the extensive MacBride Museum features four indoor galleries and outdoor displays — including Sam McGee’s cabin. Much more awaits you in Whitehorse, and several commercial campgrounds are located in town.
The final part of this loop tour involves taking the Klondike Highway to Jake’s Corner, and then turning east toward Watson Lake on Route 1, the Alaska Highway.
The Alaska Highway was built jointly by military and civilian personnel from Canada and the United States, and was to serve as an important access road to Alaska. It is now paved, and it is easy to drive, compared to yesteryear.
Teslin Lake, near the town of Teslin, is one of our favorite stops along this portion of the Alaska Highway. Campgrounds, resorts, and inns are situated along the edge of the lake, which is a magnificent place to fish, swim (definitely refreshing!), and watch the birds. The spacious, private sites at the government campground offer views of the lake. The town contains a small local historical museum and a trading post, as well as a commercial RV park.
The Alaska Highway dips briefly into British Columbia, then continues on to Watson Lake, where your loop tour is complete. You can now say you’ve been “on Yukon time” yourself.
P.O. Box 2703
Canada Y1A 2C6
The tourism office provides a visitors guide that includes a list of campgrounds as well as information about crossing the border into Canada. Another helpful tourism site is www.yukonweb.com.
Camping In The Yukon
Many privately operated campgrounds are available in Yukon Territory, but we stayed exclusively at the government campgrounds, and found them to be delightful and reasonably priced. You must purchase a camping permit before you arrive at the campgrounds. They are readily available at visitors centers as well as at retail outlets throughout the Yukon.
Yukon government campgrounds do not offer hookups. They do have picnic tables, campfire pits, firewood, and at least one picnic shelter, at most locations. Outhouses and hand-pumped water are the norm. At many of the campgrounds, signs indicate that the water should be boiled before being consumed. For your convenience, you might want to carry your own drinking water, if you choose to stay at these camps.
For a list of Yukon government campgrounds, visit www.touryukon.com. Yukon’s commercial campgrounds also are listed in the Yukon tourism guide; in The Milepost; and in campground directories.
Tips For Yukon Travel
- Place a mesh screen over your radiator before driving to protect it from rocks and to filter out insects. Consider protecting your towed car with a rock shield.
- Be sure your spare tire is reliable and ready to install.
- Bring plenty of insect repellent. To keep mosquitoes at bay, wear lightweight pants and tops with long sleeves.
- Nights can be cool, but daytime temperatures can be quite warm. Be prepared for these extremes.
- Take advantage of all fuel stops. In some cases, you may go long distances between gas stations.