You’re in for an exhilarating ride along this gold-rush era, narrow-gauge railroad route as your train hugs granite walls, crosses glacial rivers, passes glistening waterfalls, traverses plunging gorges, trundles over trestles, disappears into tunnels and pops out the other side. You’ll see the awe-provoking yet unforgiving country the way the gold-obsessed saw it on their way to the Klondike. Retrace their route on a half-day excursion, or go all the way to Carcross, Yukon, and take it by motorcoach from there. Or, ride the train into spectacular hiking and backpacking terrain, including the end of the Chilkoot Trail.
Travel Back in Time
Gently swaying back and forth along the tracks, you’ll travel back in time aboard parlor cars, some vintage, some replicas, with enormous windows and viewing decks fore and aft of each car. Glancing down at the 10-foot-wide railroad bed carved into solid-rock mountainsides, then up at the panoramic views, you’ll be as floored by the scenery as you are by the marvel of engineering it took to carve this route through country formidable even for goats.
Go for the Summit
The three-hour excursion to White Pass Summit pulls out of the station at Skagway, passes by the grave of the city’s most notorious shyster, Soapy Smith, then begins to climb nearly 3,000 feet in 20 miles up steep grades and around tight, cliff-hanger curves.
You’ll pass Inspiration Point, looking down on the Skagway Harbor and out at the Sawtooth Range, and know how this spot got its name. Same for Dead Horse Gulch, with the bleached bones of perished gold-rush pack animals scattered below. Before turning around at the White Pass Summit, you’ll get a look at the headwaters of the Yukon River.
You’ll find tremendous photo opportunities all along the route. For the best conditions, go with the 8:15 a.m. train, available daily, for the soft morning light, or the 4:30 p.m. train, which runs Tuesdays and Wednesdays, for the glow of the evening light. There are also fewer passengers on these trains.
You’ve gone this far, keep going with the Bennett Scenic Journey, a 67.5-mile ride through history to Carcross. You’ll stop for a hot lunch along the way at the remote, turn-of-the-century Bennett Station House, reachable only by train or by making it over the Chilkoot Trail. From Carcross you can take a motorcoach to Whitehorse or return to Skagway the same day. Or, you can spend one or more nights, and return to Skagway by train.
Go by Steam Power
The Fraser Meadows Steam Excursion adds the authentic image, power and sounds of the gold-rush era as a steam locomotive chugs its way up the pass and six miles beyond the White Pass Summit before turning around.
Ride the Rails to a Hike
From Skagway, the train will drop you off and pick you up for day hikes or overnight backpacking trips. The train also will pick you up at the end of the Chilkoot Trail.
Hike to Glaciers
Hop aboard in Skagway and ride the train six miles to the Denver Glacier trailhead. The trail winds through an old growth Western Hemlock forest, past Denver Falls, to the upper end of the valley, with stunning views of Denver Glacier's hanging blue ice and the surrounding Sawtooth Mountains. If you want to spend the night, there’s a public-use cabin, a refurbished caboose donated by the WP&YR, next to the tracks. Reservations are required and made through the U.S. Forest Service. Some cruise ships offer this day hike as a guided trip.
The Laughton Glacier Hiker Service takes you 14 miles out of Skagway to the Laughton trailhead, where you’ll hike through an old-growth forest, along a glacial-fed river and up the moraine for a look at the glacier. There’s a public-use cabin about 1.5 miles from the tracks. Reservations are required and made through the U.S. Forest Service. A guided version of this day trip is offered through some cruise ships.
The Bennett Backpack Adventure departs from Carcross on Friday mornings and takes you to Bennett, British Columbia, where, on your own, you’ll camp overnight in Parks Canada's Bennett/Lindeman campground, then take the train back to Carcross on Saturday afternoon. A hot lunch at Lake Bennett Station is included in this trip.
Imagine the Feat
Between May 1898 and July 1900, some 35,000 workers had a hand, big and small, in connecting Skagway and Whitehorse by rail, and 35 died in the process. (The useable tracks now end at Carcross.) Imagine workers hanging from rock faces by ropes, and the 450 tons of explosives it took to blast the line, a good half of it just to get past Rocky Point at Milepost 6.9.
“Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I’ll build you a railroad to hell,” contractor Michael J. Heney is said to have boasted.
Twelve miles out of Skagway, the train begins a huge horseshoe curve. You’ll see Slippery Rock, a wooden trestle, a tunnel and the best perspective on the engineering wonder and grit it took to build this section of rail in the dead of the 1898 –1899 winter.
The White Pass & Yukon Route has been designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, putting it in the good company of such landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and the Panama Canal.
Pack your passports
Passports are required on all but the White Pass Summit Excursion, including the hiking service trips. Reservations are highly recommended. Cruise ship passengers can board dockside, if they purchase tickets through the cruise line. The White Pass Summit train is equipped with a wheelchair lift, but be aware that others may not be. Space is limited in cars equipped with a lift, so please advise when booking if your party will need extra assistance when boarding.