Go North, the Rush Was On! Visiting Historic Skagway, Alaska

Skagway, Alaska, home to gold rushin', gun-totin' prospectors of the 1890's.

There was gold in them thar hills, and people killed themselves for it. Killed each other, too. I’m talking, of course, about Skagway, Alaska, home to drunkenness and debauchery and hundreds of thousands of men (and a good number of women, too) in search of riches beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. Skagway is a place preserved in an era of big dreams, big money, and the greatest of expectations. A stop here means a step back in time for kids, and with the cooperative efforts of the National Park Service youngsters can learn a thing or two about the big dreamers and wild schemers who put Skagway on the map.

Nicknamed “Gateway to the Klondike,” Skagway held the dubious distinction as Alaska’s largest city around 1897, with a fluctuating population hovering near 10,000. It was a crowd of gold-hungry prospectors, many of whom had no previous experience as such, and shifty store owners who knew they were the last stop before the treacherous White Pass and Chilkoot routes up to the Canadian border. Many would-be prospectors, when they finally reached Skaguay (a Tlingit Native term), would take one look at the rugged mountain passes and formidable weather, and become shop or saloon owners, instead. It was a lawless place, and anybody who came into town took lives (and property) into their own hands to make sure both made it out with a minimum of injury.

One of the finest ways to capture Skagway’s essence is through the National Park Service, who, through significant funding, helped to restore much of Skagway to its original look of the late 1800’s. The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park features a fantastic Junior Ranger program, self-guided interpretive walks, and a ton of  hands-on, age-appropriate activities to engage and inspire young people.

AK Kid hangs out with a river otter pelt at the Junior Ranger Center in Skagway.

Thanks to the Park Service, families can take a trip back in time at the newly-refurbished Junior Ranger Center on Broadway street, just up from the main NPS Visitor Center at the train station. Here, an interpretive ranger with extensive knowledge of the area is on hand to walk kids through the Klondike gold rush and that awesome Junior Ranger program. AK Kid stamped Tlingit images on a paper plate to make a hat, tried on vintage miner clothing, and felt the incredible softness of a river otter pelt. The whole space is dedicated to children and the gold rush and it is fantastic fun. What we really liked, however, was the new Adventure Pack, a way to take a tour of the town and surrounding area with the kids in charge. The rugged-looking packs feature a notebook with all sorts of interesting Skagway information, including that devil Jefferson “Soapy” Smith who took the phrase “bad guy” to a whole new level. Cards in the packs offer guidance for recognizing animals, plants, and nearby waterways, all within the easy confines of the greater Skagway area. The packs are free to check out, either from the Junior Ranger or main Visitor Centers in Skagway. Just remember to return them at the end of your stay.

Another Skagway star attraction can be heard and felt from just about anyplace inside the city boundaries. The rumbling White Pass Yukon Route RR was the inspiration of an Irish contractor who found, no surprise, that the schlep up and over the Pass took too much time and too many lives. In 1898, work crews began cutting into the mountains for the White Pass RR, completing the job in 1900. However, since interest in gold-seeking had waned by then due to the lack of color found, the railroad’s future was on shaky ground for a time, but ultimately it triumphed as a supply train and later, as a tourist attraction. And what an attraction for kids! The Railroad offers a number of different sightseeing excursions from Skagway over the summit and into Canada, some one way, some round trip. Tickets range from $112 adults/ $56 kids for the Summit Lake trip, up to $155 adults/$76 kids for the Fraser Meadows trip. The RR also provides service to hikers and bikers wanting to go one way.

White Pass Yukon RR train makes its way up the 3,000 foot pass.

AK Fam chose the three-hour White Pass Summit trip that would provide us enough scenery and diesel-powered fun for most. A designated Civil Engineering Landmark, White Pass and Yukon RR chugs 3,000 feet up a rocky granite mountain pass, crosses a number of precarious bridges, and enters two dark and drippy tunnels on its way to the summit. During the trip, a narrator provides a detailed history of the area, the railroad, and shows off the scenery for which White Pass is famous. We could hear the cars banging against each other as the narrow-gauge rails led out of town and up the side of the Coast Mountains in the Tongass National Forest, and as the engineer began the climb up the side of the pass, we could feel the sheer power of our 1960’s-era locomotive.

Approaching the summit!

Standing outside on the platform, it was easy to smell the scents of alpine fir and mountain hemlock as we made our way out of a rainforest climate and into the alpine landscapes closer to the summit. Temperatures dropped to the upper 40’s as the engines climbed ever upward and the scenery became even more beautiful. Even six year-old AK Kid was mesmerized by the world unfolding far, far below, and the scope of understanding between the 1800’s and now became suddenly much clearer.

White Pass train chugs its way towards White Pass summit.

When we reached Summit Lake, our destination, the engineer stopped the train to switch the locomotives for the ride back down. Waiting, all engines stopped, and we sat, silent on top of the  world. Gulls screamed overhead, a cold wind whistled across the platform, and quiet waves from the lake lapped almost at our feet. For just an instant, we were as back then, standing atop a mountain, wondering what treasures it might hold.

Skagway is accessible by road via the city of Whitehorse, Yukon, or by the Alaska Marine Highway System. Campgrounds are available (the best are out in the townsite of Dyea, six miles from town), and hotels, motels, and RV parks are plentiful, due to the fact that most visitors come from the cruise ships docked along the Lynn Canal.

Plan for chilly, windy weather, and lots of walking; but you won’t regret it. Skagway is rich, indeed. Very, very rich, and families can take advantage of the motherlode.

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