The moment I first stepped foot in the Yukon, I was blown away by its incredible beauty. It’s truly one of the most spectacular, jaw-dropping places I’ve been to in all of my travels.
I’m extremely fortunate that one of my best friends–Al– was born and raised in the Yukon, so I’ve got to visit this northern paradise with him a few times now. In fact, my very first cross-country trip in the mid 90s was from Ottawa to Whitehorse (by Greyhound bus, even) when I was in my early 20s (I was young and brave, clearly). It was the longest bus ride ever (10 days, with a few stops along the way).
But it was worth every.sleepless.night when we arrived and saw this:
There was still a lot of snow on the mountains (photo above) as it was early May on my first visit there (and it was way too early in the season for most tourists, too).
The Yukon is commonly referred to as the ‘Land of The Midnight Sun’. Which I’d actually forgotten about on my first night there while sitting on a patio enjoying the sun. Suddenly I realized that I was getting a suntan and it was after 10pm! Oh yeah!!!! the Midnight Sun!
The Midnight Sun is due to the latitude of the North, of course. Since the axial tilt of the planet is considerable, the sun doesn’t set at high latitudes during the summer months. Especially around the summer solstice in mid June.
Talk about long days, holy cow–they never seem to end. It’s crazy up here around summer solstice where you can golf, hike or sit by the pool at 11pm and it still feels like it’s the middle of the afternoon. While I’m an avid sun worshiper, even I was starting to wonder if the days were ever going to end. It can be a bit tough for night owls like myself who have trouble falling asleep most nights, let alone when the sun’s still shining.
And if you go further north near the Arctic circle, the sun barely sets at all. I was pretty much a completely Zombie in Dawson City as the sun was still shining in my tent at 3 am!! (??) Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep while up North 😀
But why on earth would you want to sleep when you can go for canoe ride at midnight? These photos were taken just outside of downtown Whitehorse at 11:30 pm!
My friend Al grew up here in Whitehorse and this is his family’s home. This was mid evening on the porch. This picture was taken on my first trip to Whitehorse in the mid 90s. Since I was still stuck in the 80s at that point, you might have a little laugh at the fanny pack I was wearing here (haha–I’m sure only those over 35 will know what I’m talking about).
Until a couple of years ago, I’d only been up here in the summer. Then one year I got brave and came to Whitehorse in the winter. While I was expecting/dreading the -40 temps I’d heard about, the Yukon was getting an unusual warm spell and it was a balmy 0 degrees. It was warmer than it was back home in Ottawa at the time. Who knew you could escape the deep freeze by heading even further North in the middle of winter?
The lack of daylight also had me worried since the Yukon goes from the ‘Midnight Sun’ to ‘No Sun’. Ok, I’m kidding, it’s not quite that bad. During the winter it’s called ‘Polar Night’ as the sun stays below the horizon especially near the Arctic Circle. But since Whitehorse is in very southern Yukon (near the B.C Border) the days are a wee bit longer than I was expecting. The sun rose around 9am (apparently, I was still sleeping) and set about 3:00-3:30ish when I was there. I found it similar to early Fall when Daylight Saving ends.
It probably goes without saying, but I much prefer the Midnight Sun.
On my last visit to Whitehorse, we had a couple of free days without plans so Al and I took a little road trip to Alaska.
I find it quite strange that Alaska is much closer to Canada (the north/western part of it anyway) than it is the rest of the U.S. In fact, Skagway is only a two-hour-drive from Whitehorse. And unbeknownst to me, after leaving Whitehorse and driving toward Skagway you actually nip into British Columbia briefly. I was slightly confused when we suddenly passed a sign saying: ‘Welcome to Beautiful British Columbia!’……..HUH?
“Um, isn’t Alaska west of the Yukon?” I asked Al, who was rather amused by my confusion, ” Last time I checked Whitehorse is north of BC, I don’t get it. Are we entering the Twilight Zone or something?”
I’m just lucky he didn’t point out that I have a degree in Geography, so I should probably know this (ha ha).
It’s because of the roads, of course. When you head to Skagway from Whitehorse the highway dips down into British Columbia first before it veers westward toward Alaska. And because of the shape of the state, Skagway is actually quite a bit further south. In fact, it’s nearly 200 km south of Whitehorse.
(map from Haines.ak.us)
So you’re actually driving south from Whitehorse to get to Alaska.
Either way, this drive sure is one of the most incredible road trips on the planet. If you’re heading to the Yukon, be forewarned: you WILL get whiplash.
While on this highway, you’ll follow in the footsteps of the Klondike Gold Rush Stampeders. And you’ll also drive along the White Pass Trail where the Summit is close to 3,000 ft in elevation.
You’ll also follow some of the route of the White Pass and Yukon Railway, which was built during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.
The famous narrow gauge railroad is now an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
If you go to Skagway, I highly recommend the White Pass and Yukon Railway train tour that follows the old train route of the Gold Rush days. I did this train ride on my last visit to Skagway and it’s simply awesome. A definitely must if you’re in Skagway and have a few hours to spare.
Most of the Alaskan Cruise ships stop in Skagway for a couple of days so many folks do a short road trip to Whitehorse since it is fairly close (note: if you’re not Canadian, you will need your passport as you’ll cross the Canadian border just outside of Skagway).
It’s no surprise that this lake is referred as the ‘Jewel of the Yukon’ because of its exquisite beauty and brilliant emerald-green colour. When you first lay your eyes on it, you’ll feel like you’re somewhere tropical as opposed to Northern Canada. It’s almost surreal.
The unique colour of the lake is created by sunlight reflecting off marl, a mix of clay and calcium carbonate at the bottom of the shallow lake. The marl is from limestone rock that was eroded during the last ice age. When the sun is shining on it, the brilliant emerald colour will take your breath away. Pictures just don’t do it justice.
After spending some time walking around and photographing Emerald Lake, we were back on the highway. Within a few minutes we arrived in Carcross–a town that used to be a hunting and fishing camp for the Tlingit and Tagish people, who called the area ‘Caribou Crossing’.
In 1900, The White Pass and Yukon Railway extension from Skagway to Carcross was completed so during the Gold Rush this community became a stopover (and supply centre) for the miners heading to Dawson City to seek gold.
The town sits on Lake Bennett, a fairly large and scenic lake that straddles the Yukon/British Columbia border.
Carcross is also home to the “Smallest Desert in the World”. It’s not a ‘real’ desert, rather– it’s a large tract of sand covering a glacial lake bed that’s over 10,000 years old. At only a mere 260 acres in size, it’s more of a sand dune than a Desert, really. But I found it quite fascinating that this odd geological wonder can occur in such a cold climate. Even stranger that it’s surrounded by lakes, mountains and forests.
Sorry for the bad quality photo (above). It was taken almost 15 years ago by one of the first (crappy) digital cameras on the market. No wonder I avoided digital for so many years. Okay, moving on as I’m probably dating myself a little here (ha ha) 😀
The sand was deposited into Lake Watson 10,000 years ago and once the glaciers disappeared, so did the lake. It left behind huge amounts of this finely ground sand and since then, the nearby Watson River has been bringing a constant supply of sand with it into Bennett lake.
After we left Carcross, we were now driving through the barren beauty of Tormented Valley and the gorgeous lakes of the Tutshi, the Windy Arm of Tagish Lake–which is over 100 km (about 60 miles) long. The Taku Arm of the lake is in the east (mostly in British Columbia), whereas the Windy arm is mostly located in the Yukon.
As we neared the border, we stopped at the Bove Point lookout to admire the spectacular scenery. Bove Island is located in Tagish Lake, just outside of Carcross. There is a turnout here so you can get out of the car and get a better look at the lake and mountains in the distance. Trust me, you’ll want to.
And of course, we took some photos with this spectacular scenery behind us.
In this area of Tormented Valley, we started climbing in elevation and the environment around us changed drastically. There are numerous sparkling glacial lakes and alpine trees that are fairly stunted by the harsh climate and environment (due to the much higher elevation here–getting up near the tree line).
It’s still jaw-dropping scenery as all you can see for miles in any direction are gigantic craggy mountain peaks (some with quite a bit of snow on them), scenic lakes and spectacular waterfalls. I must have taken a few (hundred) photos on this drive alone.
It started to look so barren when we got to the tree line that it almost looked like we were on another planet. This area is considered subarctic tundra with its wind-battered rocks, stunted alpine trees and mesmerizing blue lakes. It’s also one of the most unique eco-systems in North America. When we got out to take a few photos, we were freezing as the air is much colder here (hence the snow).
While I’m usually a bit of a photo nut, I couldn’t stop taking photos. This scenery will make even the most shy picture-taker suddenly turn into a frenzied photographer (so be fore-warned even if you’re usually a photo freak). Maybe bring an extra memory card so you don’t go through 1000 photos before you even get to Skagway (yep, I’m basing this on experience).
As we travelled through the White Pass we finally arrived in Fraser, where Canadian Customs is located. Many of the prospectors during the Gold Rush preferred this route as it was easier than the Chilkoot Trail where the harsh climate and long journey took its toll on many of the men (some of whom were already suffering from starvation). It was a difficult journey for the horses as well and–very sadly– many of them died along the trail. As a result the White Pass was nicknamed “Dead Horse Trail’. 😦
When we got to the border right before customs, we took a picture of the sign–of course! Woohoo, we’re in Alaska!
Not too long after we went through Customs, we were getting close to Skagway. I will post part 2 of this road trip (Around Skagway) soon!
If you get a chance to get to the Yukon, or you’re doing one of the Alaskan cruises, I strongly recommend spending a day or two driving through the Yukon to Whitehorse. You won’t regret it!
Thanks for reading everyone, if you made it this far!