Back in the rough-and-tumble days of the Klondike Goldrush, Skagway, Alaska attracted a colorful mix of characters, all drawn by the prospect of striking it rich. The travelers passing through this port in the present are attracted by a different sort of treasure: the incredible scenery that surrounds Skagway on all sides.
The city itself may not be particularly large, but it packs a great deal of history and atmosphere into a few blocks. The food scene includes a number of real gems that showcase Alaska’s phenomenal seafood and produce.
Plan to spend some time exploring the downtown area, or head into the wild for a few hours of adventure.
Why Visit Skagway
Few cities embody the enduring pioneering spirit of Alaska quite like Skagway. With less than 1,000 full-time residents, the town is barely a blip on the map. The entire city consists of a few streets, all of which can be easily traversed on foot in under an hour. That’s all part of the charm.
What makes Skagway so compelling is not so much these small signs of civilization as the overall lack of them. Dense pine forests, snow-capped peaks, and slate-hued waters surround this small bastion of humanity on all sides.
Here, the natural world is not so much a looming presence as a fully integrated part of everyday life. Popular animals in Alaska, such as bears, eagles, and all sorts of creatures, pass through Skagway’s main street on a regular basis.
For most visitors, Skagway represents an ideal landing place from which to go on a day hike, or a journey on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, one of the most beautiful places in Alaska.
After any excursion, it’s worth spending a little time in the town itself. Locals very much pride themselves in living the frontier lifestyle and Skagway has a distinctive character of its own.
History & Culture
For millennia, the Tlingit people hunted and fished in the area that is now Skagway. Skagua, the word from which the city’s current name stems, translates loosely as a “windy place” or “the place where the north wind blows.”
During the Klondike Gold Rush, when more than 100,000 ambitious prospectors went north to seek their fortunes, Skagway became something of a boom town. As one of the closest ocean ports to the gold fields of the Klondike, this tiny hamlet swelled in population and wealth almost overnight.
Although the Gold Rush past may be long behind it, locals are still proud of the area’s rich Alaskan culture and history. Today, Skagway is a welcoming community with a powerfully independent streak. Nods to Skagway’s past can be seen all over town.
Wildlife & Nature
Swooping bald eagles in Alaska are such a common sight that locals pay them little more mind than common crows. Pesticides once pushed these majestic predators to the brink of extinction. Although the species has partially rebounded, sightings are still relatively rare in the lower 48 states.
Alaska, home to more than half the entire population of these birds in the United States, is another story entirely. By some estimates, as many as 150,000 eagles fish and fly in the Last Frontier. Since the majority of these cluster around coastal regions in southeastern Alaska, Skagway is a terrific place to spot them.
Plenty of other megafaunas call southeastern Alaska home. From mountain goats to river otters, there’s always something to see here. Just offshore, expect to see migrating pods of orcas, playful Dall’s porpoises, and bubble-feeding humpback whales.
Black bears regularly amble through town, as do larger brown bears. The nomenclature surrounding Alaska’s bears can be somewhat confusing, as black bears can also sport brown coats.
Brown bears, meanwhile, are virtually the same as grizzly bears, save for the distinction that they inhabit coastal areas and therefore have a different diet.
Skagway’s surrounding wilderness and proximity to a salmon run make it one of the best places in the state to spot bears. Note that while bears mostly prefer to leave humans alone, it’s important to exercise common sense around these creatures.
If hiking on any of the trails around Skagway, be sure to bring a buddy, keep any food in sealed containers, and carry bear spray.
Tips for Visiting Skagway
Skagway’s approachable scale makes it perfect for a relaxed day trip. Many of the best excursions require a short jaunt out of the town center, but can be accomplished within a few hours—leaving plenty of time for a beer and some stellar seafood by the docks.
As with most places in Alaska, it pays to invest in insect repellent and apply it liberally. Pack plenty of sunscreen, breathable layers, and, if you’re planning on taking an extended Alaskan hike, bear spray.
Things to Do & Attractions in Skagway
Board the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway
Easily one of the best things to do in Skagway—particularly for travelers with children in tow—is a three-hour ride on a vintage railcar.
See all that’s left of the Klondike Trail of ‘98, a path etched into the rockface by thousands of prospective gold miners, along with cascading waterfalls and luminous blue-tinged glaciers, all from the comfort of your seat.
Tour operators have kept the old-fashioned aesthetic of the train intact, all while subtly modernizing and updating the interior for a decidedly cozier ride.
See the Sights from Above
There’s no better way to take in all that natural beauty than from a private helicopter high up in the air. Typically, you’ll spend up to two hours in flight, cruising above Alaskan mountain peaks and vertiginous ravines.
Catch the sunlight glinting off glaciers in the northern end of the Juneau Icefield, home to some of the best glaciers in Alaska. If you’re looking to make some memories—not to mention snap a few truly eye-catching photos—this is one of the best ways to admire the pristine nature that surrounds Skagway.
Go Dog Sledding
For much of Alaska’s history, dog sled teams were a vital means of transportation. Even today, rangers in the National Parks often rely on dog sleds to venture to hard-to-reach places in the wilderness.
At the Skagway Sled Dog and Musher’s Camp, visitors can get up close to these cuddly canines, while learning all about the past and present of dog sledding in Alaska.
The adventure kicks off with a chance to visit the Alaskan huskies—many of which are real-life racing champs—and their puppies at the kennel, followed by a mile-long ride through the Tongass National Rainforest in a summertime sled powered by a team of well-trained dogs.
The tour, which runs just under four hours, packs in tons of entertaining facts about the area’s history, along with family-friendly action.
Embark on a Canoe Trip
Situated just under 50 miles down the Klondike Highway, Summit Lake is a dreamy oasis an hour-long drive from Skagway.
The image of the mirror-like waters here reflecting the surrounding mountains feels like something pulled from a postcard. Since the lake is part of a larger recreational area, there are plenty of activities, from leisurely walks to mountain biking.
One of the best ways to enjoy the lake is to set off on a canoe or kayak tour for the afternoon. Paddle out to the center, then take a pause to surrender to the stillness.
Read: Incredible Places to Kayak in Alaska
Journey Back in Time with a Street Car Tour
Hands down the best way to learn about the history of Skagway is via a Skagway Streetcar Tour. Not only will this take you through all the highlights, including the Gold Rush Cemetery where all sorts of famous characters were laid to rest, but it will do so in style.
Your vehicle for the day is a vintage 1920s bus, helmed by a highly knowledgeable conductor and guide dressed up in period costume. As you wind through the Skagway Historic District, you’ll pass 20 preserved and restored Klondike Gold Rush Era buildings along the waterfront. The whole tour is peppered with anecdotes that really bring the past back to life.
Hike the Sawtooth Mountains
Picture a valley with a 7,000-foot rise—greater than that of the Grand Canyon—with snowy peaks all around. The Sawtooth Range, which is easily accessible by car from downtown Skagway, offers trails that are perfect even for novice hikers.
The three-and-a-half-mile nature trail in particular is a great way to see wildflowers, not to mention abundant Alaskan birdlife and other local fauna, without breaking too much of a sweat.
Check Out the Yukon Suspension Bridge
Travelers with vertigo may want to watch this one from the sidelines, but anyone looking to channel their inner Indiana Jones should head straight for this 200-foot pedestrian cable suspension bridge.
Walk all the way to the middle and gaze down on the roaring white water rapids of the Tutshi River Canyon. The bridge is impressively engineered to minimize sway on windy days and makes for an unbeatable photo.
Admire the Natural Splendor at Haines
Located a 45-minute ferry ride from Skagway, Haines is a treasure trove of unspoiled wilderness in the northern part of the Alaskan Panhandle. For many of the Alaskans who live off-road and off-grid, Haines is the primary point of contact with civilization.
Spend a few hours soaking in the scenery and keep an eye out for bald eagles—this is one of the best places to spot them.
Food & Drink
Despite its modest size, Skagway’s restaurant scene overperforms, offering plenty of tasty Alaskan food options for travelers.
True to its name, Skagway Fish Co. specializes in impeccably fresh, wild-caught Alaskan seafood. Made with local halibut, the fish and chips here is a real standout. The kitchen also turns out a rotating mix of inventive specials, from cioppino topped with a massive crab claw to teriyaki-glazed coho salmon.
Some of the best options of all are the simplest—you can’t go wrong with a dozen Alaskan oysters or a single, mammoth king crab leg served with clarified butter for dunking.
One of the best places to eat in town also happens to be one of the top drinking establishments. Skagway Brewing Company is a family-owned operation with a serious focus on sustainability.
Not only do the chefs here go above and beyond to reduce food waste, but they also use CO2 capture technology to harness emissions from the on-site craft brewery in order to help grow their own vegetables in their hydroponic farm.
Order anything with the local sockeye salmon or halibut, then wash it down with a Spruce Tip Blonde Ale, brewed with foraged local spruce Alaskan spruce tips.
For a glimpse of Skagway’s Gold Rush past, a drink at the Red Onion Saloon is an absolute must. Originally opened in 1897, the establishment was once one of the most notorious drinking dens and dance halls in the state.
Jan Wrentmore, an enterprising businesswoman, took it upon herself to restore the historic space decades ago. Its days of ill-repute are long behind it, but the Red Onion Saloon still hosts occasional parties with period costumes.
Best Time to Visit Skagway, Alaska
Around summer in Alaska, the sky over Skagway stays light until well after 11 p.m. and this small but vibrant town really comes to life. Temperatures during the day tend to be mild and pleasant.
Later in the season, around September, lucky travelers in town or at sea nearby may have a chance to spot the Northern Lights after dark.
For centuries, Skagway’s historic status as a port town has made it a crucial stopping point for ships carrying explorers, gold miners, and more.
The best way to experience this iconic piece of Alaska is still by ship—only nowadays the accommodations are far more comfortable than the vessels that once plied these waters. Browse our cruises to Skagway and book a luxury voyage today.