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The Golden North

Yukon highway in Alaska, image
Photo caption
Driving in the Yukon and Alaska on the Golden Horseshoe reveals a rich landscape of mountains, lakes, and forests.

Here is a drive—a rare thing in a place where roads are relatively few—that provides a vivid snapshot of the dramatic landscape and history of the Great Land and the Yukon. Soaring mountains, gleaming glaciers, emerald lakes, thick spruce forests, and gold miner history pave the way. Referred to as the "Golden Horseshoe" for its shape, this 360-mile route (one-way) is on excellent highways from Skagway to Haines by way of Whitehorse. You can do the drive in a day (allow seven to nine hours), but it’s more enjoyable to break up the journey with an overnight in Whitehorse or at the edge of spectacular Kluane National Park.

From the tidewater village of Skagway, drive north on the Klondike Highway (Highway 2), climbing over 3,000 feet to the summit. It’s a climax marked by lush vegetation, a ragged horizon, waterfalls, and the long Windy Arm of Tagish and Tutshi lakes.

Catch your breath at Canadian customs and stop in Carcross (a contraction of Caribou Crossing from early hunting days). In this picturesque village of 400 inhabitants, you can get a meal in the old Caribou Hotel, pick up handmade mukluks at the general store, and browse the Visitor Reception Centre in the red-trimmed train depot.

Continue north and, 98 miles from Skagway, you’ll be in Whitehorse, territorial capital of the Yukon, and a lively place to spend the night. Visit the MacBride Museum, Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, Transportation Museum, and the SS Klondike paddle-wheeler in dry dock. And be sure to drive out to the stunning Miles Canyon, which you can cross on a suspension bridge. Here, just upriver from the Yukon’s White Horse Rapids, the rafts of the 1898 stampeders were often shattered against the cliffs.

Continue west on Highway 1, passing the turnoff for Dawson City. Plan on adding two days to your trip if you take the turnoff. Dawson, with original turn-of-the-century buildings and plenty to do, is where the gold fields lie that sparked the gold rush of ’98.

Next hundred miles to Haines Junction regales you with the vast sky and dramatic light of the North. Goshawks and other wild birds take flight from tundra. You’ll cross the Takhini River and pass Champagne, a native peoples settlement.

Near Haines Junction, the road skirts Kluane National Park, 13,649 square miles of valleys, ice fields, and peaks lofting to 19,545 feet. Offering lodging and the park’s visitor center, Haines Junction is for wilderness buffs. You can explore trails and have a delicious lunch at the Village Bakery. Visit the park’s placid Kathleen Lake, edged by a boardwalk.

Travel south on Highway 3. In Klukshu, a small Indian village, you can find the home/shop of an elder selling tea, bannocks, dreamcatchers, and stories, this last for $5. Then get ready to chug over 3,493-foot Chilkat Pass with moody northwest skies and glacier-dotted peaks. Pullouts let you stop and admire the Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Provincial Park, created by Canada in 1993.

Go through U.S. customs and, 33 miles before Haines, you pass Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which swarms with the national symbol during the fall chum salmon run. The scenic Chilkat River estuary parallels the last 15 miles of road into Haines, which sits like a jewel on the fjord, Lynn Canal. Snow and glaciers on craggy mountains are perpetual backdrop here. The sprawling 1903 Edwardian Halsingland Hotel in historic Fort Seward is fun (and slightly ramshackle) lodging.

Haines has a little museum (the "town attic"), a helpful visitor center, and not-to-be-missed Bald Eagle Foundation, all within walking distance. And, at Chilkoot Lake or along Lynn Canal, you can watch eagles perch on spruce snags, twirl in pairs, and fish for salmon.

Planning your trip:
Contact: Alaska Tourism Council, 3601 C St., Ste. 700, Anchorage, AK 99503; (907) 269-8180. Tourism Yukon, Box 2703, Whitehorse, Yukon, Y1A 2C6; (867) 667-5340. Lodging: Skagway: the Westmark Inn, (800) 544-0970. Whitehorse: High Country Inn, (867) 667-4471. Haines Junction: Kluane Park Inn, (867) 634-2261; Haines: Halsingland Hotel, (907) 766-2000.

Rent a car in Skagway (or Haines, if you prefer to do this drive in reverse). Bring photo ID—customs requires citizenship proof, even for kids. Commuter flights leave often between Haines, Skagway, Juneau, and other ports of entry.

Photography courtesy of Richard Martin/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in January 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.