Indie Travel Guide to the Yukon Territory

The Yukon Territory may not be on your dream destination list. Words outsiders typically use to describe it include: remote, freezing, and barren. With Antarctica being so trendy these days among extreme travelers, it doesn’t get a whole lot of attention from the usual set of travel role models.

Well, I’m here to tell you that the Yukon should be on your dream list. It’s a place with the vastness and power to change your perception of who you are on this planet. Contrary to popular belief, the Yukon is not in the middle of nowhere; it is a mysterious expanse wherein you realize that “nowhere” is always “somewhere,” and that’s where you always are. When you stare up into the Yukon sky, you don’t feel small and insignificant; you feel yourself rooted in the world; small and essential.

Experiencing the Yukon wilderness

Yukon road

I was riding a horse up through the challenging, craggy mountains outside of Whitehorse when I realized how special this place is. Up in the Yukon, the wilderness rolls out shamelessly all around you and invokes a kind of instinctive respect. The land, the trees, the sky, the water, and the mountains sit as they have for centuries, entrusting you and your animal to move through in peace.

It’s not always peaceful, though, as I discovered when gliding down the Yukon River in a voyageur canoe. My tour group was quietly, diligently paddling along when a bear came out to look at us. Typically, a bear would run away from the shore at the sight of people, but instead he sat down and watched us, passively, not like he was protecting anything, but more like we’d just appeared on his TV set. We were even more enthralled with him than he with us, and we stopped paddling, hoping and fearing we would drift closer before steering our vessel away.

One thing to be familiar with before you venture into the Yukon is bear safety. Most people know to travel in groups and pack their food in airtight containers, but did you know that you can sometimes keep them away altogether just by loudly talking or singing as you move through the brush? Also, if a bear appears stressed, it is considered “defensive,” whereas a calm bear who approaches you is considered either “curious,” or, and this is the bad one, “hungry.”

It’s a good idea to arm yourself with the tactics for dealing with both potential encounters. As for me, I was glad to be in a boat and hoping the bear wasn’t up for a swim. Other bear encounters included twice on the side of the road — once so close we made eye contact. I also saw a coyote cross the street in downtown Whitehorse, the Yukon’s capital city. He used the crosswalk.

Yukon activities

Let’s move onto more adventuresome (and less terrifying) topics. Near Whitehorse, there are a few activities I recommend based on my time there.  

The first one is to take the White Pass & Yukon Route train. It’s a bit of a drive down to Skagway, Alaska to board the train (and don’t forget your passport!), but you can opt to board in Fraser, British Columbia, for a shorter, yet thrilling ride. You’ll get the first glimpse of the incomparable scenery of the Southern Lakes on your drive down. The water colors are so intense they look tropical, and slowly, you wind up the mountains into a winter wonderland where craggy, snowy, strange rock formations pepper the landscape in a way I can liken only to what C.S. Lewis must have been envisioning as he dreamt The Chronicles of Narnia.

The old-timey train pulls into the modest station, and the dapperly dressed train conductor and brakeman emerge to welcome you. Then, in the cozy comfort of the train, which features on-board wood burning stoves, you wind down through altitude-dependent climates, from snow and ice, to water, to green. The station in Bennett, British Columbia and lush surrounding area is an intriguing historical site which was an important stop for the Gold Rush stampeders of 1898 and 1899. The food is fine, but the view is legendary. It makes one imagine the lives of those weary travelers in some of the harshest conditions man has ever endured and wonder whether some small part of them couldn’t help but appreciate the glory of the environs. Perhaps the beauty is part of what pulled so many of them through.

“Then, in the cozy comfort of the train, which features on-board wood burning stoves, you wind down through altitude-dependent climates, from snow and ice, to water, to green.”

The train can drop you in Carcross, Yukon, where you’ll find the both the oldest store in the Yukon and what is renowned as the best ice cream in the Yukon. For souvenirs, I recommend a White Pass & Yukon Route train conductor’s cap,  $16.95, or a locally made husky hat knitted from fur the dogs shed naturally for $50.00.

Another activity adventure-seekers should check out in the Yukon is the brand-new WildPlay Yukon, located right outside of Whitehorse. It features a surprisingly challenging Monkido Aerial Adventure ropes course, as well as high speed ZOOM Zip Lines on which you can fly down Mount Sima in excess of 100 miles per hour. This is a splurge of at $42.99  per adult on the Monkido course, and $99.99 for a ZOOM Zip.  While a bit pricey, it’s a memorable activity that is definitely worth it.

In the winter, you can check out various activities like a 750 kilometer (466 mile), 17-day snowmobile trip from outside Whitehorse to Dawson City with a 3-4 day break. Alternatively, you can arrange to take an RV into the wilderness, or in the summer, take a multi-day ATV trip to places that roads don’t go. There are companies that organize similar kinds of excursions for horseback riders, canoers, mountain bikers, or whatever your daring pleasure desires.

Where to stay and eat

For those of you who like to stay in the same bed every night and have reliable electricity, water, and terrific chefs at hand, staying in or just outside of Whitehorse is your most attractive option. There are large hotels, like the Gold Rush Inn and the High Country Inn, right in town.

The Gold Rush Inn features a bar frequented by locals — a perfect place for a lone traveler to strike up a conversation about life in the Yukon and explore the interesting cultural dynamics of the First Nations, Inuit, and Klondike Gold Rush heritage.

However, if you’re willing to sacrifice some anonymity, you can stay at one of the small lodge accommodations on the outskirts of Whitehorse. The Northern Lights Spa and Resort features an in-house masseuse (she’s one of the owners) and a hot tub with a view. The French-run Takhini River Lodge has splendid rooms and sensational food and operates like a French B&B disguised as hunting lodge — an excellent choice for men and women. Both the breakfasts and the bathtubs will keep you coming back. The Inn on the Lake may take the cake as far as luxury goes. You enter through a phenomenal kitchen, making you feel instantly at home and cared for, and step into a massive common area with a large wall made of almost all glass looking out onto Marsh Lake. “Not a lightbulb on the other side of the lake,” says owner and designer Carson Schiffkorn. Inn on the Lake has been featured in both Martha Stewart Living and National Geographic Traveler, and in winter, snowshoes are included with your room.

If you do stay in or around Whitehorse, there is a local restaurant which truly stands out from the rest: Klondike Rib and Salmon. It’s like a hybrid fishing hut, warming house, pub, rib shack, and diner. With a jovial hipster atmosphere and enticing and unusual menu items like elk carpaccio, you could plop it into Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and it would thrive. It’s a little spendy, but go, even if only to enjoy a mug of local Yukon Gold beer.

Traveling up north isn’t cheap, as supplies are difficult to get, but for those looking for the most affordable journey possible, Whitehorse, Yukon offers two multilingual hostels: The Beez Kneez and Lead Dog Backpacker, from $30-$35 per night. The city is walkable, so it’s no trouble to head to the grocery store and stock up without breaking the bank — unless it’s 40 degrees below zero — but you should be aware that prices are still going to be a little higher due to the distance products have to travel. Both hotels and hostels book up well in advance, so be sure and make your reservations early.

When to visit

Northern Lights

The Yukon Territory is a four-season destination. I know we’ve all been burned by ski resorts telling us just that and offering up a swimming pool and a closed nightclub, but beyond the snowmobiling, skiing, and dog sledding you might expect, plus a few other winter activities I’ll get into, in the warmer weather, you can canoe, mountain bike, ATV, hike, zipline, go dog sledding on a cart with wheels, camp, and more.

The difference in doing those activities in the Yukon is that wherever you are, you can see for miles, and the scenery of shimmering, emerald glacial lakes and enchanting boreal forests is amazing. As a repeat visitor mentioned to me in passing early in my trip, “This place seeps into your consciousness.” I had no idea how sagely she would prove.

“The other especially astounding time to be in the Yukon is, of course, whenever you can see the Aurora Borealis, which is most visible in late fall and winter months.”

There are particularly advantageous times to visit the Yukon, but they do come with a price.

For summer indie travelers, go from mid-July to September to catch the best weather and see the landscape erupting with fireweed, the Yukon’s official flower. The bright magenta plant grows along the roads and rivers, unabashedly singing summer. It’s one of the first plants that reappears after a forest fire, and is well-regarded by the First Nations for its medicinal properties. If you happen to miss the fireweed season, you can buy a stick of fireweed lip balm at Aroma Borealis, the Whitehorse local apothecary. My lips recommend it personally.

The other especially astounding time to be in the Yukon is, of course, whenever you can see the Aurora Borealis, which is most visible in late fall and winter months. Both hotels in town and large-windowed lodges outside of Whitehorse understandably raise their prices as their stake in the “middle of nowhere” becomes an exceptional vantage of the universe’s dancing activities.

The mysterious draw of the Yukon

Not surprisingly, other countries, such as Germany, don’t consider the Yukon to be an underdog of a destination like we do in North America. In fact, many of the droves of visitors like it so much they ditch their lives as pharmacists and engineers and move to the Yukon for good. The population of the province was measured to be 23,491 in 2011, and about 2,000 of those residents speak Deutsch, making it the third most popular language behind English and French. It’s fascinating to hear the stories of many of the “locals” who are actually from all over the world.

“Just 23,491 people in a 186,661 square mile territory — bigger than California.”

Just 23,491 people in a 186,661 square mile territory — bigger than California. If you live in a city; if you travel mainly in Europe or Asia; I encourage you to visit the Yukon and feel yourself, physically and mentally, stretch out wider than you knew was possible, like taking a long, deep breath after a taxing run. It’s a step outside the rat race, a step outside concrete and steel, and a refreshing, addictive plunge into cool, clean waters. I know I will return, maybe next time with my husband, and I hope to see you in the bar at the Gold Rush Inn.

Getting to the Yukon

Getting to the Yukon is a cinch by plane (Whitehorse International Airport – YXY), but it’s also 1,500 miles from Seattle for the ambitious road tripper. Another way you can arrive is by boat. The port in Skagway, Alaska is a cruise ship hub and connects the White Pass & Yukon Route railway, from which it is easy to get a motorcoach to Whitehorse (more info here). Good old Greyhound will also get you there.

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Study up: Links to helpful Yukon information sites: