In the second part of our yukon special feature we explore the golden circle route, a spectacular mountain journey which takes travellers on a grand tour through picturesque yukon towns and alpine passes to the alaska panhandle.
Long before they were highways, the White Pass (on the South Klondike Highway) and Chilkat Pass (on the Haines Road) were trade routes used by Tlingit and Southern Tutchone first nations. The Golden Circle Route contains some of North America’s grandest scenery and wildest places. Within relatively short distances, the route covers a wide range of eco-systems – from boreal forest to coastal rainforest to immense icefields. En route you can experience their culture and lifestyle by visiting local museums and traditional fishing villages. Both of these passes were also used during the Klondike Gold Rush and the towns of Carcross and Skagway still retain the character of those times.
Starting in Whitehorse with the more rounded mountains of the Yukon’s interior valley, the South Klondike Highway rises as you approach Carcross and the Southern Lakes region. The road borders some of these large, long, beautiful lakes before rising over the rugged coastal mountains and then descending into the narrow coastal fjord where Skagway, Alaska is situated.
Leaving Haines, the Haines Road follows the wide valley of the Chilkat River until it steeply rises through thick forests of hemlock and Sitka spruce to the magnificent mountain scenery of the Chilkat Pass. The road ends in Haines Junction on the edges of Kluane National Park and Reserve, which contains Canada’s highest mountains, the largest non-polar icefield in the world, and a rich variety of bird, plant, and animal life. Kluane has some of the healthiest populations of grizzly bears and Dall sheep in the world, and recorded sightings of nearly 200 bird species. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a major tectonic zone (besides being the highest mountains in Canada, they are also the fastest growing) and the major agent in landscape formation is glaciation and contains over 2,000 glaciers – including valley, alpine and rock glaciers.
Over the White Pass
From Whitehorse, the highway curves between two beautiful lakes – Spirit Lake and Emerald Lake as you head to picturesque Carcross, on the shores of Bennett Lake. This historic town on the route to the Klondike is also the terminus of the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, one of the most scenic railways in the world. Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, this narrow gauge railroad is a designated International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Explore Carcross Commons, go mountain biking, or take a self-guided walking tour (available at the Carcross Visitor Information Centre) that takes you past historic buildings, colourful shops, and attractions. Continuing from Carcross, you will drive through the dramatic rocky landscape of the White Pass and cross the border into the U.S. before the road begins its spectacular descent, dropping from 1,003 metres to sea level in 20 minutes to coastal Skagway, Alaska.
Hit the Waves
Skagway is beautifully situated at the end of the Lynn Canal. At the Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau you’ll find information on Skagway’s many attractions and activities, including historic walking tours, gold rush entertainment, and flightseeing tours. From fresh halibut and espresso drinks, to a live theatre glimpse into the gold rush era, spend some time in Skagway before catching the scenic one-hour ferry ride to Haines, Alaska. Watch for whales and eagles, and keep an eye out for grizzly bears fishing for salmon. Haines is a picturesque fishing village situated on a finger of land between Chilkat and Chilkoot inlets in the Lynn Canal. At the Haines Convention and Visitors Center you can get information on local outfitters offering mountain biking, kayaking and rafting tours. The Sheldon Museum and Cultural Centre has some outstanding examples of traditional Chilkat blankets, which are woven from mountaingoat hair dyed with natural mineral and plant pigments.
Haines to Haines Junction
Leaving Haines, the road travels along the braided banks of the Chilkat River. This is North America’s best eagle viewing area where concentrations reach their peak in mid-November when up to 4,000 eagles feast on the annual salmon run. After crossing the Canadian border, the road rises steadily through to the summit of the Chilkat Pass at 1,065 metres. The pass region is rich in wildlife including moose, mountain goats, bears, arctic ground squirrels, ptarmigan, coyotes and golden eagles. You’ll journey past breathtaking views of Tatshenshini-Alsek Park and Kluane National Park and Reserve as you head to Haines Junction, located in the traditional territory of the Champagne/Aishihik First Nation.