This is part 2 of my Yukon/Alaska road trip. If you missed it, take a peek at Part 1 of the incredible drive from Whitehorse to Skagway.
We arrived in Alaska after an extremely whiplash-inducing drive from Whitehorse. Every. single. turn along the Klondike highway, which winds from the Yukon into Southeastern Alaska, is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It’s no wonder this drive is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in North America.
It’s definitely up there.
All we could see for miles in any direction were craggy mountain peaks, sparkling glacial lakes, lush alpine trees and spectacular waterfalls. I was speechless which, as many of you know, rarely happens (and I’m almost certain my travel buddy Al enjoyed it! ha ha).
Since it was early Spring, many of the mountains were still covered in snow. As you can imagine, Spring thaw comes a wee bit later up here. Surprisingly, though, it was really warm: 25 degrees, baby! (77 F). It was much warmer up here than it was in Ontario at the time even. Not bad considering I was expecting sub-zero temps and that I’d have to wear long johns the whole time I was here.
Although it felt like summer, the contrast of the snow-capped peaks against the brilliant blue sky offered us a spectacular view we wouldn’t get in the middle of July. Just stunning…
Since it was early in the season, we had the entire highway to ourselves. I think we passed 10 cars on the 2-hour drive from Whitehorse. It was eerily quiet, but a nice change from the insanely jam-packed freeways back home.
Not much traffic up here whatsoever.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a bit, you might recall that my friend Al is from the Yukon so I’ve been fortunate to have joined him on his visits back home a few times. On my first trip here, in the late 90’s, we did a camping trip to Skagway and I’d fallen completely in love with this gorgeous little town.
A return trip here has been long overdue.
Skagway is so well-preserved that you might feel like you’ve stepped into a time machine and went back in time a hundred years while you’re here. Since my first visit was in 1998, going back in time a century would have put me smack-dab in the middle of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898!!!! Cool beans…
Since the town was celebrating the centennial of the Gold Rush on that visit, there were tons of gold-rush themed events, costumes, and activities taking place around town. It sure felt like I’d been transported to the late 1800s. No DeLorean required!
When gold was discovered in the Yukon in 1896, thousands of folks flocked north–practically overnight– to chase the ‘promise of gold’ in the Yukon. Skagway became the “Gateway to the Gold Rush” mostly due to its proximity to the Chilkoot Trail, where prospectors started their arduous hike to Dawson.
In just a year, Skagway went from being a tiny village to a full-fledged town with over 10,000 people! Houses were rapidly built, and shortly after a bunch of shops, gambling houses and bars followed suit. With that, of course, brought a few rather ‘unsavoury’ elements to the town including alcohol (gasp!), prostitution and crime.
It was basically a lawless town where anything goes, really. Members of the Northwest Mounted Police (apparently) referred to Skagway as ‘A little better than hell on earth‘.
Um…..I think it’s better that I’m here 100 years later, after all then 😀
To say alcohol was a big part of this boom town would be an understatement. At the height of the Gold Rush, there were close to 80 bars in operation here! Considering it was still a pretty small town (there’s only 900 people living here today), there was no shortage of places to grab a pint back then at all.
If you were a bartender during those days, you probably would have made more money working here than if you’d gone further north panning for gold.
The Red Onion Saloon was the most popular bar in town, though I strongly suspect that might have had something to do with the fact that it operated as a brothel as well.
And it’s still open today! For only $10 you can still get 20 minutes—- the same price as it was in 1898. But, before ya’ll get too excited, that only gets you a tour of the upstairs these days (sorry guys). The bar no longer offers any ‘extra entertainment’ to go with your beer.
Al wasn’t too sad though, mostly because he was excited to try a ‘Smoked Porter’ from a local brewery. While I do love me a porter, this one was way too smokey for my liking (eek!)
At the height of the Gold Rush, 10 women worked here under ‘Madam Diamond Lil’, who charged customers $100 an hour or $1,000 a night. (this was back in the late 1800s, price-y!).
Each of the women had their own doll sitting on the bar that matched their hair and clothing. A potential customer would just point to the doll of their choice, pay the bartender and then—after a little bit of ‘liquid courage’– he could wander upstairs to say hello. The bartender then would lay the doll down so new customers would know that particular girl was ‘occupied’ at the time.
The bar’s slogan today is: “Our Business is Your Pleasure.” Ha ha! Cute. I thought that was a nice little tribute to its very colourful past.
Did I mention I got a new job? Yep, I got to meet one of the sweet Gold Rush ‘Goodtime Girls’ and she told me they were hiring!
As a tour guide, of course.
Don’t worry, this place really is just a bar and tourist attraction now. If you’re curious to see what a real brothel looks like, you can get a tour of the upstairs after your meal. As I expected, the tour really is a ‘quickie’ (ha ha sorry-had to). It basically consists of: “Here’s a bedroom…oh and here’s another bedroom…etc”
It’s pretty neat to see though, and I highly recommend it if you’re visiting Skagway. There are 10 small rooms (called ‘cribs’) in the upstairs bordello and each has an escape room as well (probably a good idea). There are also lots of cool antiques on display throughout the upstairs too. I have to say for my first bordello viewing, I was rather impressed.
You can’t visit Skagway without learning about Soapy Smith, one of the most notorious ‘characters’ of the Gold Rush. He was a swindler who considered himself kind and generous because he gave money to the needy while at the same time running the biggest crime organization in town.
And he ran a few good scams, too. The most famous one of all was probably his ‘telegraph scam’ where he charged $5 to those who wanted to send a message back home to their loved ones. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Unbeknownst to these poor folks, the telegraph hadn’t even been invented yet (this was in 1898, the telegraph wasn’t invented until 1901) so none of their messages went anywhere. Not a very nice chap, indeed.
Soapy also operated many of the town’s saloons from this building, which he called ‘Soapy’s Parlor’. It still stands today.
Many folks called this place the ‘real city hall’ (even though the town already had a city hall). Looks a bit dodgy, if you ask me. I wasn’t overly surprised to learn that Soapy died from a gunshot wound on July 8,1898. I’ll bet he wasn’t overly missed here in town.
Skagway is quite touristy, of course, since many cruise ships stop here all summer long. But if tourist shops or historic places/museums aren’t your thing, Skagway is also an outdoor lover’s playground. If you love camping, hiking, water sports etc, you’ll be in your glory here.
On my two visits here, I went on a quite a few amazing hikes in the area.
This is Al on our waterfall hike in May ’98. He was pretty happy to be wearing a t-shirt and shorts…. in May!!!…up North!! (can you tell I/we were excited about this?)
Here he is 12 years later on a different hike in Skagway.
He hasn’t aged much in nearly 15 years (and his ego hasn’t changed at all either–ha ha).
And here is a photo of me during our first visit here in ’98. (Do I ever look young here, holy cow!)
And… a decade or so later. Different waterfall, same pose 😀
There are so many gorgeous waterfalls ’round these parts that you’d be hard-pressed to not come across one whilst exploring the area. If you’re here via a cruise, there are so many hikes around the town, you won’t have to rent a car at all either.
This is one of the coolest buildings in Skagway. And also one of the most photographed ones as well.
Built in 1899, the Arctic Brotherhood Hall was constructed with over 9,000 small pieces of driftwood. It’s got such a unique, rustic look, I’ve never seen another building like it.
This hall was built for the men who organized a fraternity while en route from Seattle to Skagway during the Gold Rush. The brotherhood provided assistance, social interaction and support for those visiting the northern communities.
A visit to Skagway isn’t complete without a trip to the Gold Rush Cemetery. It’s a bit heartbreaking though as you learn about all the poor folks who lost everything (including their lives) in their attempts to strike it rich. So sad…
But the area and hiking trails are quite beautiful…it’s definitely worth a visit.
Especially since this is where you’ll find the World’s Largest Gold Nugget!
While I was taking photos, Al was trying to figure out how to sneak it out of there and put it in the camper van (just kidding!).
After a great hike, we headed back downtown to grab a bite to eat as we were starving. While meandering around the waterfront, where we parked, we came across this in the middle of the campground/park. Yep, it’s an outdoor toilet. Skagway’s version of an outhouse….I think???.
Um…yeah, I think I can wait ’til we get to the restaurant (ha ha).
While there is so much more I could share about Skagway, this is already getting too long (surprisingly….. right?) so I’ll wrap it up with just a few more pics of the area.
Thanks for reading, everyone! I hope you get a chance to head to Alaska in the near future. If you haven’t already, hopefully this post will convince you that it’s a really good idea!!!!
Love, Dana xo