Plenty of valuable finds await RVers who explore this wild and historic Canadian territory.
By Sally B. Weigand
It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
— From “The Spell of the Yukon” by Robert Service, 1907
The vast Yukon Territory of Canada was teeming with nature’s generous bounty when those lines were penned. It was the discovery of gold that brought the Yukon to the world’s attention in 1896, heralding the Klondike Gold Rush. By 1898, thousands and thousands of hopefuls attempted to walk or boat into this wilderness.
Today’s visitors can still pan for gold, but they don’t have to share space with too many others seeking their fortunes. And First Nation people, the original inhabitants of this scenic land, are eager to share their heritage with visitors.
Yukon is a territory bounded by the vast Northwest Territories on the east, British Columbia to the south, and Alaska to the west. At its northern tip is the great Beaufort Sea. This story begins along the Alaska Highway inside the Yukon border in the southeast part of the territory, at Watson Lake.
This little town is known for the Signpost Forest, where a search may take you to your hometown sign — or you can add your own (bring one or make it here). Watson Lake has plenty of other things to see, too. Children and adults will want to visit Lucky Lake Recreation Site, where visitors can zoom down a 500-foot water slide, walk pleasant trails, or relax on a sandy beach.
During a summer visit to the Yukon, it is unlikely you will see the aurora borealis, also called the Northern Lights — awe-inspiring shafts of colored light sometimes visible in the night sky. But you can treat yourself to an hour-long video of this spectacle of nature at the Northern Lights Centre, where the folkloric and scientific aspects of the lights are explained.
Continuing northwest from Watson Lake along the Alaska Highway brings you to Teslin, home of the Tlingit Heritage Centre. Impressive intricately carved totem poles of various clans welcome guests to the Heritage Centre museum, where displays delve into the history and culture of the Inland Tlingit people. Ideal for boating and fishing, this area, called the Southern Lakes region, contains miles of interconnected cold-water lakes. You will notice the Alaska Highway parallels Teslin Lake and then Marsh Lake for many miles.
Whitehorse, the territory’s largest city and its capital, boasts 19 hours of daylight in summer. Impressive stained-glass windows bring art to the modern Visitor Information Centre, where ample, free RV parking is available. Films and interactive programs, plus brochures and displays, are all there.
Music emanates from LePage Park at noon in summer during free concerts. Next to the park at Donnenworth House, you can begin a walking tour of historical Whitehorse to appreciate a former era there. Eons ago, land now called Beringia connected Asia and North America, but it disappeared at the end of the last ice age. Explore the story of this land and its unusual prehistoric world at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre through films, discovered remains, eye-catching displays, and murals.
Nearby is a unique weather vane created from a restored DC-3 aircraft. It marks the Yukon Transportation Museum, which tells the story of the varied modes of moving goods and people there.
During the Gold Rush, stern-wheelers transported people and cargo on the Yukon River, the area’s main highway. Be sure to see the SS Klondike National Historic Site, where you can tour the boat itself and learn of its important work. Guided tours are offered, or you can explore it yourself with the aid of a brochure. Try your hand at shuffleboard or quoits (a throwing game with rings) as did passengers during the journey from Whitehorse to Dawson City.
Underwater cameras at the Whitehorse Fish Ladder, the largest of its kind in the world, track the progress of Chinook salmon and other species as they travel up the Yukon River. The nearby dam is also worth a look.
Before the river was tamed by the hydroelectric dam, a portion of it called Miles Canyon, near Whitehorse, was so turbulent that boats, merchandise, and a few people were lost in its ferocious, narrow path. Now hiking and biking trails open up delightful vistas of the aqua-hued Yukon River, as well as birds and wildflowers. Across the Robert Lowe Suspension Bridge, a trail goes upriver to where a town called Canyon City once stood during the Gold Rush.
Also in Whitehorse is the Copperbelt Railway and Mining Museum, where you can learn about the area’s mine industry and its important railways, and even take a ride on a small mining engine.
From Whitehorse you can continue along the Alaska Highway toward Haines Junction; turn north onto the Klondike Highway to see more of the Yukon; or, go south to Skagway, Alaska.
A short distance from Whitehorse on Husky Trail off the Alaska Highway, a dog sled experience awaits at Muktuk Adventures, a vacation ranch and dog-sledding tour operation. What is it like to be a dog musher? Stop by and learn, meet the dogs, or plan a dog-sledding trip for yourself. The facility shows a film about the Yukon Quest, an exciting annual 1,000-mile sled dog race that Muktuk owner Frank Turner won in 1995.
If your destination is found along the Alaska Highway, continue west to Haines Junction, which is located near the spectacular granite mountains, white ice fields, green valleys, and glacier-fed rivers and lakes of Kluane National Park and Reserve. The park and its preserve occupy the southwestern corner of Yukon Territory. Become informed about the park at its visitors center, located in the modern Da Ku Cultural Centre in Haines Junction. The park contains 23 hiking trails rated from easy to very difficult. Fishing is available, too, as is mountain biking on old mining roads. Or, join a guided walk, a special event, or a campfire program at Kathleen Lake.
We headed back eastward to Whitehorse, and then north to see more of the Yukon via the Klondike Highway. A few miles north of Whitehorse, take a left turn onto Takhini Hot Springs Road, which leads to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. Whether on a self-guided walking tour or a guided bus tour through the acreage, you have an opportunity to see and photograph elk, bison, oxen, caribou, moose, foxes, sheep, and more, all in their natural habitat.
Continue along Takhini Hot Springs Road to its namesake, where woods and pastures await hiking, after which you can soak in the soothing mineral pools. The waters do not contain foul-smelling sulphur and are said to have healing properties for numerous conditions. Adventurous and athletic guests ascend the 32-foot climbing tower and then zipline down over the treetops and across the pond to the landing site.
Dawson City lies at the junction of the Yukon River and Klondike River. This town was the destination of thousands seeking their fortunes during the 1897-98 gold rush. Stories about memorable former residents such as Skookum Jim, Dawson Charlie, and Klondike Kate enliven Dawson City’s current-day activities. The spirit of adventure from the early days lingers in the air, and during your visit you might consider yourself a “cheechacko,” or newcomer.
Excellent films at the Dawson City visitors center reveal the character and history of this fascinating town, the original capital of the Yukon Territory. On a guided tour you can hear tales of its heyday while strolling downtown and gain admittance to buildings not open to the general public. Another option is to take a self-guided audio tour.
Wooden boardwalks in most of the downtown area contribute to an easy stroll around the dirt streets. Restored gold rush-era buildings mingle with new construction that must adhere to the facades common to the period, so it’s easy to feel you are part of gold fever days.
Ever wager a bet or two at a nonprofit gambling hall? You can at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, where proceeds are returned to the community. Today’s real-life version of Gertie joins colorful can-can dancers in nightly shows for patrons who try their luck at games of chance.
Housed in the stately former Territorial Administration Building, the Dawson City Museum reveals the history, people, geography, and industry of the city, as well as of the Yukon. Films, demonstrations, and live theater enliven one’s visit. If you have time to see only one historical museum in the Yukon, make this it.
The beautiful and gracious former Commissioner’s Residence, open every afternoon, once served as a hospital, and then a private home. It is open for tours. Another important piece of history is the last paddlewheel steamboat on the Yukon River — the SS Keno, built in the 1920s. The boat once towed minerals from the isolated northwest. It, too, is open for tours.
Dawson City originally was a fish camp of the First Nation Han people, and lies within their territory. Overlooking the Yukon River, the Danoja Zho (“Long-Ago House”) Cultural Centre is housed in a striking contemporary building reminiscent of salmon drying racks. On a guided tour and through film and live presentations, the First Nation culture comes to life.
Further exploration up the hill to the more residential area takes you to the log cabins where poet Robert Service and author Jack London lived. Readings of Service’s entertaining poetry at his restored two-room log home highlight a visit.
Driving a short distance out of town takes you to three sites on Bonanza Creek related to the largest gold rush in history. While strolling the self-guided trail at Discovery Claim National Historic Site, you gain insight into the work and lives of the people who came there and engage in the opportunity for hands-on experiences. Explore the huge Gold Dredge #4, an example of the industrial monsters that later invaded this land. After you’re inspired by hearing the gold story, rush to Claim #6, where you can dig for gold free of charge and keep any you may find.
After seeing Dawson City, you may decide to continue westward into Alaska via the beautiful Top of the World Highway. Or, return south to look again through the land for wildlife and to experience more of Canada’s Yukon Territory. It’s an experience that I, for one, plan on repeating.
Whitehorse, YT Y1A 2C6
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