We headed south in the sun, but with the forecast of rain for the evening. From Whitehorse we took the Alaska Highway to the South Klondike Highway heading to Skagway. The plan was to reach Skagway by 12:00 for a 12:45 trip on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. The same narrow-gauge railroad that was built in 1898 to carry the gold rushers is now used to carry tourists. On the trip the railroad climbs over 3000 feet in just 20 miles to White Pass and passes through 2 tunnels, over numerous bridges, and around sharp turns. It promised to be photogenic and exciting.
We had originally skipped Skagway on our way up the ferry system, opting to get off in Haines and take the road north from there. Skagway was reported to be very touristy; just another Ketchikan. But while we were in Denali, I had sat on a bus ride with Claire Torgerson, assistant editor of The Milepost, who had said that the road into Skagway was beautiful and in good condition, so we decided to drop down there before our trip home.
The South Klondike Highway is amazing. At one point we passed the Carcross “desert.” While not a true desert because it gets too much rain, this is an area of sand dunes created when the wind blows the sand created by glaciers off the edges of Lake Bennett. At one point Cacross and Lake Bennett were important stops along the route north to find gold. After crossing on the Chilkoot Trail, the stampeders camped at Lake Bennett building boats for their trip north and waiting for the ice to break up on the lake. In the spring of 1898 over 7000 boats set out across Lake Bennett to gain access to the Yukon River.
Soon the mountains became larger, rockier, and many are snowcapped. Tutshi Lake (or maybe Tagish Lake; there are so many they all seem to run together) appeared; it’s a whitish blue from the particles ground down by glaciers and has rough rocky sides. Further south more and more islands of rock appear in it, until it is an almost surreal landscape of rocky mounds with little lakes between them – very little or very low vegetation. Through much of this way, the road is narrow and twisting with fairly steep upward and then downward grades. This was probably one of the prettiest roads we have driven in Alaska – which is saying a lot considering the beautiful places we have been.
In Skagway I went to the railway station to make sure the payment had gone through on our rail tickets, but found that the train had derailed at White Pass yesterday, so no trains were running today. We could buy tickets from tomorrow, but since the weather was supposed to be rain, we decided not to get the tickets until we knew better what the weather had in store. Later after we ate our lunch and talked about it, we decided that we had seen most of the scenery we would see from the train, so except for the excitement of the train ride, we wouldn’t be missing much if we skipped the train ride (in the rain).
We spent the afternoon, looking around Skagway and doing our laundry. Skagway is a bit like Ketchikan. The buildings have been restored and are being used for tourist shops (t-shirts and fudge as well as high end gifts) and restaurants. The railroad station is especially nice – maybe nicer than in 1901. There were three cruise ships (Princess, Holland American, and Disney) in town whose size dominates the harbor area. Skagway is different from Ketchikan in that the latter is built on a hillside so the roads ramble up and down and around. Skagway is a grid on the level. But both are full of people pouring off the cruise ships looking for the local flavor.
Skagway experienced a brief revival after the gold industry faltered in 1930 when in 1942 the US recognized the strategic importance of Alaska to the Pacific Theater war. More than 20,000 soldiers passed through Skagway on their way north to build the Alaska Highway and populate forts. At one point 17-20 trains a day left Skagway for Whitehorse carrying soldiers.
After our wash was done, we headed out to the Dyea Road. Dyea Road is a winding, narrow road that leads to views of the Taiya Inlet, the start of the Chilkoot hiking trail, and to a National Park Service Campground on the “flats.” Dyea, now abandoned, was once a town of over 3000. It had a two mile wharf where gold rushers unloaded their supplies and prepared to attack the Chilkoot Trail. The Chilkoot was steeper, but shorter, than the White Pass Route so it was preferred by those on foot. You can see rotted wooden posts in the waters of the inlet which indicate the location of the old wharf.
We found a site in the campground, and David built a fire with wood left by a previous camper and cooked a dinner of pork tenderloin, eggplant and onions, and potatoes. After dinner the campground host came by to warn us that a large grizzly bear had been seen swimming in the river toward the campground, so we should be careful – “He is too big to tangle with.”
Dyea Flats NPS Campground Review: The road into this campground is quite narrow (cliff on one side, water the other) and winding, but is well-graded gravel. The campsites are mostly large and well-separated. Picnic tables, fire rings, and pit toilets. No water unless drawn from the river which must be treated or boiled. Cell service (ATT) was weak.