A little over a century ago, the frontier of the Yukon represented a chance at a new lease on life for many seeking riches in the gold mines of the Klondike. The reality of this otherwise beautiful place revealed a cruel side to that wistful dream, as the everlasting, deeply dark and cold winters, combined with the loneliness of a wilderness thousands of kilometres from home and the fickle variance of gold mining (boom one day, and then a bare seam the next) took its toll on countless people.
Today, the Yukon contains a mere 30,000 souls within its mountain studded, forested and tundra covered landscape, a more realistic tally of those willing to endure the very real downsides of life in the North in exchange for living amidst unspeakable beauty, and having a boundless fortress of solitude in which their free spirits can run wild. You’ll find plenty of these folk during your travels here, and their stories will make your trip every bit as worthwhile as any pretty peak or rusted-out sternwheeler ever will.
What To Do – Culture & History
A great many travelers will experience this territory on the epic drive north and west along the Alaska Highway, and it is by following this route that they will come across the first cultural attraction of the Yukon Territory, which is the Signpost Forest in Watson Lake. Started by an American soldier that was helping to build the Alaska Highway through the Canadian wilderness during the trying days of World War II, other people have added their own signs, both made and “found”, as well as license plates from all over the world to create an accidental modern art masterpiece of sorts. Try and find an artifact from your part of the world, or better yet, bring something (acquired legally, of course) from where you live, and join the party!
In the semi-urban oasis of Whitehorse, fragments of the area’s Gold Rush past still remain, the most prominent of which is the SS Klondike National Historic Site, a steam paddleboat that plied the Yukon River in the days of old. When a modern highway opened between Whitehorse and Dawson City opened after 1950, this ship stopped being used as a freight ship, and after a brief fling as a cruise ship, Parks Canada assumed ownership of this relic of a bygone era. Today, the insides have been restored to the way they were back in its glory days, cargo holds, ship galley, an engine room that is a steampunk’s dream come true, and all.
Whatever you do, make your way to the place that first put this otherwise inhospitable (but gorgeous) wilderness territory on the map, which was none other than the epicentre of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City. At its peak, 40,000 people crammed onto a tiny alluvial flood plain on the Yukon River hoping for giant nuggets of gold that would transform their lives.
The exuberance was short lived though, as the price of the precious metal cratered shortly after the peak years at the turn of the 20th century, and the path of the Alaska Highway laid the final blow to the city’s prominence, prompting the movement of the capital to Whitehorse in the 1950’s. With the rise in tourism since then, Dawson was resurrected from the edge of death, maintaining a year round population of 1,500, which balloons to 5,000 in the summer.
These days, some are starting to come back in the hopes of scooping a giant sphere of gold from the silty shallows of the Yukon River, but most come to admire the wild west facades of the buildings of yesteryear, to play cards against grizzled locals at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, or to slurp the Sourtoe Cocktail, which is a shot of whiskey with a preserved human big toe floating in it. Do NOT swallow it (though it’s unclear why you would), or you will have to pay a $2,500 fine.
What To Do – Natural Attractions
Being a territory where only 30,000 hardy folks stake out their homestead, yet being a place that stretches out over almost half a million square kilometres, there is ample space to find your piece of natural solitude. Paddlers might seek it out at Lake Laberge, which is actually a widening of the Yukon River that is 50 kilometres long and up to 5 kilometres at its widest point. This area is surprisingly hazardous to boaters however, due to its rapidly shifting weather conditions and its cryogenically cold water. Take the appropriate precautions here: you are not in a place where you can get to medical help quickly should something go wrong.
Perhaps one of Canada’s most stunning national parks is one of its less visited ones, due to its placement north of the 60th parallel. Kluane National Park protects a massive mountain wilderness that contain Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan, which towers above its empty surroundings at just a shade under 6,000 metres above sea level. Massive icefields also descend from this and other massive peaks, covering half the area of the park. Hardcore outdoor adventurers will love this park, as there are no shortage of multi-day backcountry treks to ridges with prime views of Mount Logan and the glaciers. Those with cash can hire plane tours, which will give you an aerial view of where only hardcore mountaineers dare to tread.
A park that is a bit further from the minds of most people, but one that is no less beautiful is Tombstone Territorial Park. Being situated so far north, the elevation of the Tombstone Mountains area ensures a treeless landscape, leaving the plant coverage of the area to shrubs that explode with colour in the (brief and early) fall, making it a great place to get away from it all and soak in what it truly means to be in the Yukon.