For all of its quaint, brightly colored buildings and its serene setting at the head of the Taiya Inlet, Skagway has a dramatic and turbulent past. As the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush back in 1897, the town sprung up overnight in the stampede for gold. Today, the townspeople have gone to great effort to preserve the heritage of this fascinating place.
Along with the historic buildings that are part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and the many other attractions in town, you’ll find superb Alaskan hiking on the legendary Chilkoot Trail, wildlife-spotting excursions, dog-sledding, and on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, one of the world’s most jaw-droppingly beautiful rail journeys.
For those heading to the great state of Alaska soon, here are 12 things to do in Skagway.
Ride the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad
Back in the heady days of the Gold Rush, prospectors had to take the tough route, 550 miles inland, over the Alaskan mountains to the goldfields, which involved enormous risk and physical hardship, especially in the bitter cold of winter with ice and mud underfoot.
By 1900, though, the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route railway had been completed, snaking along the contours of sheer-sided valleys, foaming rivers rushing along below, snow-capped peaks soaring above, over the mountains to Canada.
Today, you can ride the railroad in a vintage railcar, following the route taken by the original prospectors, rattling past forest, glaciers, gorges, and waterfalls—look out for the misty plume of Bridal Veil Falls—and climbing nearly 3,000 feet to the summit of the White Pass in just 20 miles. The whole experience is thrilling and an essential activity when it comes to things to do in Skagway.
Opt for a tour that brings you back by motorcoach and you’ll see more scenes from that frenetic time, such as the stark, rock-tumbled Tormented Valley and twin cascades of Pitchfork Falls, as well as the poignant Dead Horse Gulch, where some 3,000 pack animals died mainly from overwork and malnourishment.
Other tours take you along the Klondike Highway to the Yukon Suspension Bridge, a narrow, wire footbridge suspended 65 feet above the white water rapids of the Tutshi Canyon—cross if you dare.
Fly Over Grizzly Falls On A Zipline
If you like heights, go for the adrenaline rush of the Grizzly Falls Zipline, where you’ll glide through the tops of the spruce trees and fly low over the foaming cascade of the Grizzly Falls on eleven separate lines, one of which extends 750 feet.
From the town of Dyea near Skagway, you’ll board an all-wheel-drive vehicle called a Unimog that will take you high up the mountain. Once at the summit, you’ll clip on and whizz down each of the lines, landing on wooden platforms in the trees in between and making your way across four suspension bridges.
The bird’s-eye perspective of the forest and falls is magnificent. At the end, enjoy toasted marshmallows over a campfire as your reward.
Experience Dog Sledding
If you prefer your thrills closer to the ground, get a taste of the excitement of sled-dog driving from a musher’s camp near Dyea. There won’t be any snow in summer, of course, but the dogs still train by pulling special wheeled sleds.
You’ll meet your team of huskies, all panting smiles and wagging tails, before hopping onto the sled for a high octane ride down the mountain, driven by an expert musher, racing through twists and turns with astonishing precision.
After the ride, there’s plenty of time to relax with and pet your dog team, while the mushers tell fascinating stories about the sport and the legendary Iditarod Trail, known as the world’s toughest dog sled race.
Raft the Lynn Canal
The Lynn Canal, North America’s longest and deepest fjord, is a natural channel about 90 miles long that cuts through a rock gorge over 2,000 feet deep. A white water rafting adventure here is a heart-pumping thrill ride, but also a chance to look for incredible wildlife, from sea lions to whales and bald eagles.
The boats used for this expedition are rigid inflatables, the same class used by the US Navy Seals and Coast Guard Rescue teams, meaning this isn’t rafting in the traditional sense—you don’t have to row, simply sit, hold on and enjoy the ride.
You’ll race past thundering waterfalls and sheer rock faces, while also floating quietly in hidden coves, taking in the silence, and watching out for wildlife. An eagle-eyed naturist accompanies the trip, pointing out everything from eagles’ nests to the blow of a whale.
Paddle a Canoe on Summit Lake
The brilliant aquamarine Summit Lake lies high on the White Pass at nearly 3,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by towering, snow-capped peaks. This is a serene place; the only sound you’ll hear is the wind rustling in the trees and the lapping of water on the shores.
Paddle a 12-person, 31-foot Voyageur canoe, modeled on the same boats used by prospectors in the Gold Rush, and pass by rocky shorelines while heading into narrow channels and tiny coves that characterize this rugged alpine landscape.
If you’re worried about getting tired, the boats also carry small outboard motors, should a little extra power be required.
Drift Through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve
Keep an eye out for moose standing like statues on the banks, bears foraging in the woods, and even wolves on this gentle journey through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, near Haines.
One thing you will almost certainly see here are bald eagles, as the preserve is home to the world’s largest population of these majestic birds, which along with other creatures, enjoy the annual banquet of the salmon that come here to spawn.
Getting there is half the fun; you’ll whizz along the narrow Lynn Canal by jet-powered catamaran and then drive along the National Scenic Byway to the raft launching point.
This is a drift, not a white-water thrill ride, so sit back and enjoy the view, looking out for birds of prey and gazing up at hanging glaciers and jagged, 7,000-foot peaks as your guide paddles the raft.
Experience a Klondike Winter
Feeling the bitter chill of an Alaskan winter in a special cold chamber (protective gear is provided) is just one of the thrills at Alaska 360’s Dredge Town, a fantastic experience near Skagway that dives deep into Alaskan culture.
This is one of the best activities in Skagway for families, as you’ll gain a real insight into life in the wilderness and have plenty of fun along the way.
There’s a gold panning activity with a guaranteed “find.” You can tour an authentic gold dredge, used for mining in the Yukon, as well as learn about mining techniques back in the day of the Gold Rush.
There’s a chance to meet a musher and learn all about the role of sled dogs during the Gold Rush, and the stamina and drive it takes to compete in legendary races like the Iditarod. Needless to say, there are plenty of opportunities to cuddle the husky puppies, too.
And then there’s the 40-below experience. Gear up and enter the Chilkoot Chill, a chamber that will give you a taste of Alaska’s extreme winters, as well as information about how the cold affects both humans and wildlife.
Unlike those early gold prospectors, you’ll emerge from the frigid temperatures after a few minutes and warm up with a steaming hot chocolate. Or visit the on-site soda factory and learn how to bottle your own root beer.
Walk on a Glacier
Take to the skies and soar in a helicopter over the colossal, creaking rivers of ice of the Chilkat, Ferebee, and Meade glaciers, while also spotting deep valleys, jagged peaks, and the old town of Skagway and its surroundings.
You’ll be outfitted in boots and a vest for the adventure. Your pilot will land on an actual glacier and you’ll have a chance to walk on a moving river of ice, which is an experience of a lifetime.
Hike the Chilkoot Trail
The Chilkoot Trail is a tough but breathtakingly beautiful trek. At one point, this punishing 33-mile hike over the mountains to Bennett in British Columbia was the most direct route to the headwaters of the Yukon River.
The Gold Rush boomtown of Dyea sprung up at the trailhead, which once teemed with thousands of prospectors. Today, it’s a ghost town, as there’s little left apart from a few wooden pilings.
You can hike as much of the trail as you can manage, walking through forests of spruce and hemlock and lush meadows while enjoying birdsong on the breeze and the scent of alpine flowers in the air.
Stop for a breath on your climb and imagine the scene in 1898, when the trail was crammed with prospectors that were slowly making their way from the coast to the goldfields. Back then, the trail was steep, muddy, and treacherous, crowded with strings of overburdened pack animals and busy both summer and winter.
One option, if you want to combine a hike with some gentle relaxation, is to climb as far as the viewpoint of Saintly Hill and then at the Taiya River, board an inflatable boat for a leisurely float back down to the tidal estuary, watching out for bears and bald eagles.
Ride a Vintage Bus
Explore Skagway the old-fashioned way, in a vintage yellow bus on which a costumed conductor regales you with tales of the city’s history while you visit some of the famous sights.
This tour has been operating in one form or another since 1923, when Martin Itjen, a gold prospector who arrived in 1898 and never left, took U.S. President Warren G. Harding on a tour of the town in his coal truck.
Itjen was the local undertaker and Ford dealer, as well as coal delivery man and a celebrated storyteller, who offered these tours for many years.
Following in his tracks, you’ll visit the Skagway Historic District, the waterfront, and the Gold Rush Cemetery. Many of the original prospectors are buried here, as well as Itjen himself and famed con man, Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, who wreaked havoc in the Gold Rush years by swindling prospectors of their newfound wealth.
Smith was killed by disgruntled surveyor Frank Reid in a shoot-out in 1898 after Reid had been conned out of his gold haul in Smith’s saloon.
Climb a Glacier-Carved Rock Face
Take in the natural beauty of Skagway’s surroundings on an adventure, where you’ll go both hiking and rock climbing. You’ll drive along the Klondike Highway past serene lakes and tumbling rivers before embarking on an uphill hike through the sun-dappled forest.
You’ll arrive at a rock face, sculpted over the millennia by the mighty glaciers of Alaska, marked out with climbing routes. These range from easy, so beginners can have a go, to challenging. Shoes, helmets, and harnesses are provided and expert guides are at hand to offer advice.
Whatever your ability, with a degree of fitness and courage, you should make it to the top and marvel at the sweeping views down over the Skagway River and the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad with a real sense of achievement.
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