Whitehorse, Yukon’s Capital City
Whitehorse, with a population of 25,000, is the big city in the north. For the rural Yukoners, it is the scary metropolis. They may look at you in real horror when you tell them that you just came from there.
It is a welcoming place with a frontier spirit, easy to get around with amazingly friendly people. It is a great starting point for travellers exploring the North. Whitehorse has a fairly young population with many of its residents being active and adventurous.
The city is nestled in a forested valley with mountains on either side. The mighty Yukon River winds through Whitehorse. Yukon’s capital city lies in the traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and Ta’an Kwächä’n Council. You will find all the amenities of a big city in Whitehorse and I fell in love with its small-town personality. Actually, I could see myself getting settled here.
While you’re in Whitehorse pick up a couple of books from the Robert Service collection and The Call Of The Wild from Jack London to get into the northern spirit.
The Visitor Information Centre, on Second Avenue and Lambert Street downtown, is a great place to stop when you first arrive in town. It offers a big parking area for RVs. Once you got some travel tips from the helpful staff head south on the river pathway and start exploring.
The Early Days
Long before the Gold Rush First Nations occupied seasonal fish camps along the Yukon River in Whitehorse for thousands of years. Whitehorse started as a transportation hub for boats, trains and later road vehicles. In 1898, it was a stopover for stampeders travelling downriver to the Klondike Goldfields.
The White Pass and Yukon Railway between Whitehorse and Skagway, Alaska was completed in 1900. The railway made it easier to reach the Klondike for those who could afford the train fare. The arrival of the railway turned Whitehorse into a more permanent community.
In 1942 when the Alaska Highway was built Whitehorse boomed. Whitehorse became Yukon’s capital in 1953 and replaced Dawson City.
Getting There and Around
Whitehorse is a small city and the downtown area can easily be toured by foot. In summer, Whitehorse and its surroundings are perfect for cycling. The Whitehorse Transit bus system connects downtown with residential neighbourhoods.
By Air – Whitehorse International Airport is five minutes from downtown. Daily flights connect to regional and international airports. Most hotels, bed and breakfast and tour operators offer airport transfer. Otherwise, you can hire a cab in front of the airport. Car rental firms are also at the airport.
By Car – Downtown Whitehorse is only a short drive from the Alaska Highway. Take Robert Service Way turn off at km 1419 or Two Mile Hill at km 1425, both take you to downtown Whitehorse.
By Bus – Greyhound Canada connects Whitehorse to various western Canada destinations, like Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. Check out their website for times and destinations. www.greyhound.ca
For destinations north of Whitehorse and for Alaska search for Alaska Direct Bus Line or Alaska/Yukon Trails.
By Sea – The nearest port is Skagway, Alaska. If you arrive in Skagway on a cruise ship you can travel on the historic White Pass and Yukon Route railway to Carcross, where you connect by bus to Whitehorse (only available in summer). Some cruise and tour companies provide bus connections between Skagway and Whitehorse.
Note: It is one-hour time difference when travelling between the Yukon and Alaska. The time is one hour ahead in the Yukon. Also, remember that you will need a passport or other approved ID at the international border.
Things To See and Do In Whitehorse
S.S. Klondike National Historic Site
One of Whitehorse’s historical display you don’t want to miss is the S.S.Klondike, the largest sternwheeler that plied the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City, first launched in 1937.
The vessel used to take 36 hours to travel to Dawson from Whitehorse and four or five days to return upriver. In 1952 it was transformed into a cruise ship and retired in 1955.
In 1966 the Klondike was moved from the Whitehorse shipyards to her current location and restored. Part of the self-guided tour is a 20-minute video that’s played. It shows historical footage from the 1930s of the wood camps and life on the ship.
Note: The S.S. Keno in Dawson City is very similar to the S.S. Klondike in Whitehorse and is also run By Parks Canada. The video is the same. www.parkscanada.gc.ca/ssklondike
MacBride Museum of Yukon History
MacBride Museum offers a full overview of the territory’s past. The museum has a great display that tells of First Nation history. as well as the wildlife and environment of the Yukon. Check out the new Modern History gallery, see over 40 species of animals and try your hand at gold panning. See Engine 51 and don’t miss Sam McGee’s Cabin. Enjoy old films and imagine yourself back in time.
The museum is open year-round, on the Whitehorse waterfront. www.macbridemuseum.com
Yukon Beringia Centre
This place focuses on Beringia, the unglaciated continent that formed during the last ice age, comprising the Yukon, Alaska and eastern Siberia. Beringia was home to the mammoth, the giant short-faced bear, the steppe bison, the scimitar cat, and the early North American people. The Beringia Centre is dedicated to this prehistory. It features recreations to the now extinct animals and exhibits of their remains.
Films are shown in the theatre, which is also used as a lecture and film venue by the Yukon Science Institute and others. It is definitely worth a visit. www.beringia.com
Yukon Art Centre and Gallery
The Yukon Art Centre has an excellent music, dance, and theatre program. Consult their online calendar to see what is happening www.yukonartscentre.com
Yukon Transportation Museum
Find out what the Alaska Highway was like back in the days. Find out about dog-sledding, visit the Bush Pilot Room, visit a photo exhibit of Yukon’s aviation history. The museum is located next to the Beringia Centre near the airport. www.goytm.ca
One look at the Yukon majestic Yukon River and you want to stroll along its bank. The White Pass & Yukon Route Station has been restored and leaves Rotary Peace Park, across from the SS. Klondike, picking up passengers at several stops along the Whitehorse waterfront. It is a great way to get oriented with the city.
Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre
Experience various cultural activities, exhibits, and demonstrations and find out how local First Nations groups used the river. This gathering place of the Kwanlin celebrates the culture of the original people of this area and houses historical displays and artwork. www.kdcc.ca
Old Log Church Museum
The 1900 Old Log Church is the only log-cabin style cathedral in the world. The church exhibits and interactive displays tell stories about the early days of missionaries, whalers, explorers and Yukon First Nations. Don’t miss the legendary story of the”bishop who ate his boots”. www.oldlogchurchmuseum.ca
Copperbelt Railway and Mining Museum
Ride through history on the Copperbelt Railway and visit the museum and gift shop. This is an interesting place for both kids and adults to learn about the copper and rail history of the Yukon. www.yukonrails.com
Yukon Brewing & Spirits
I doubt that you came to the Yukon for beer or spirits. Still, a tour of the brewery and distillery is a must for any visitor. You need to make reservations to visit the brewery. During the tour, you ‘ll get to walk through the entire facility, learn how beer and spirits are made, hear about the history of the brewery, and of course enjoy a full tasting session. www.yukonbeer.com
Whitehorse Fish Ladder
See the longest wooden fish ladder in the world. Witness the seasonal migration of Yukon River Chinook salmon and other fish species through underwater viewing windows. The Whitehorse Fish Ladder is located at the end of Nisutlin Drive at the Yukon River Dam. You can also walk to the ladder along the scenic Millennium Trail.
Takhini Hot Springs
There is no sulfur in the Takhini Hot Springs and they don’t smell. Winter is definitely the best time to visit the hot springs. You stay warm in the water and rising steam, but your hair turns to white icicles. And, look out for the northern lights while you soak. Bring your own flip-flops as you’re not allowed to walk around barefoot or in outdoor footwear.
The hot springs are located 30 km from Whitehorse and it takes about 25 minutes by car to get there.
Yukon Wildlife Preserve
Most probably you see moose and other wild animals as you drive Yukon’s highways. However, if you visit the Wildlife Preserve, you will be able to take home pictures of ten northern mammal species: moose, musk oxen, mountain goats, wood bison, mule deer, woodland caribou, elk, lynx and two species of thinhorn sheep; Dall and Stone sheep. The offered tours of the facility are very informative. www.yukonwildlife.ca
Canoeing and Kayaking
Whitehorse is the starting place for popular canoeing and kayaking trips. A trip to Carmacks takes an average of eight days and 16 days to Dawson City. Outfitters offer all the gear, guides, tours, lessons and planning services. They also can arrange transport back to Whitehorse. The mostly used maps for paddlers is The Yukon River: Marsh Lake to Dawson City, available at www.yukonbooks.com
Places To Stay
Robert Service Campground
It is a 15-minute walk from town on the Millennium Trail to the campground, located on the river 1 km south of town. Bikes are available for rent. Excellent coffee, baked goods, and ice cream is sold in the Coffee Shop. The campground is mainly used by tenters as most sites are walk-in. A few small RV’s can be accommodated by parking next to the site. It was a good place to stop for a couple of nights but it was very noisy till late at night. No surprise as it didn’t get dark till after midnight.
Beez Kneez Backpackers
This is a friendly hostel with a garden, deck, grill and bikes. Two cabins are also available for rent and are very in demand.
Hot Springs Campground and Hostel
This is a wilderness campground a 25-minute drive from downtown Whitehorse with forested sites. Soak at the nearby Takhini Hot Springs and enjoy. New campground building open year-round.
Hi Country RV Park
Located at the top of Robert Service Way, the wooded campground offers hookups, showers, laundry and a playground.
Walmart Parking Lot
That’s where I spent the night when I came through town coming back from Dawson City. It was late and rainy and I couldn’t see the point to go to a campground for the night. Lots of other weary travellers stopped at the Walmart Parking lot and settled in for the night. I used the Walmart washroom before the store closed at 10 pm and was happy when it opened again at 8 am.
Whitehorse has many hotels and motels to choose from, as well as plenty of very good bed and breakfasts if you look for a more personal touch.
For a special wilderness experience book a stay at one of the out of town lodges. Some of the lodges are only a short drive from Whitehorse, others are in remote bush locations. They tend to offer full board as well as outdoor activities. Prices vary depending on location and facilities.
There are lots of cabins for rent in the Yukon. Some of them have electricity and running water, others do not. Make sure to check what to expect before you book. Remember, the fewer the facilities the more special the wilderness experience!
Weather And When To Visit
The time of year to choose for your northern trip depends on what kind of experience you want to have. If dog sledding and to see the Northern Lights are on your list, winter is the time to go.
Best time to see fall colours on the Dempster Highway is generally late August to the second or third weekend of September. If you rather go for the endless nights and midnight sun, middle of June to the middle of August are probably best.
For more information on the weather go to Climate and Weather.
Yukon Quest, the thrill of a 1,000-mile race through frozen wilderness.
Each February Whitehorse is either the Start or End of the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile race with dogs who love to run. The race happens between Whitehorse and Fairbanks in Alaska. Both mushers and dogs are tough and thrive in blizzards, -50 temperatures and long winter nights.
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