Yukon Road Trip
Updated: May 30, 2020
The wild terrain of the Yukon has cultivated an incredible history — thousands of years ago mammoths roamed the tundra, then Indigenous populations thrived in this unforgiving territory, and in modern history, it was the location of the Klondike gold rush (that has more incredible stories than we have time for today). With the landscape as a backdrop for artists and explorers, it is no wonder that this place is home to such a diversity of art and culture that can be experienced on the streets, in the many museums and of course in the wild under the midnight sun.
We went to the Yukon for my Mom’s retirement present; she wanted all her kids to road trip to the Arctic Circle with her. This is the first family vacation we had all done in probably 15 years, so, in the middle of June, my brother and his wife, my sister, Daniel, my parents and their two dogs had an epic nine-day road trip around Canada’s western territory. Here we experienced the awe-inspiring landscapes as well as the incredible history and culture of the Yukon.
Whitehorse is the capital city of the Yukon Territory. The community is lined with outdoor stores, public art and on one side, the Yukon River. It has a population of roughly 25,000 hardy people who choose to live in an area that gets 24-hours of daylight in the summer, but also 24-hours of darkness in the depths of winter.
There’s a lot of art and great museums in Whitehorse. And as the expedition launch point for the rest of the Yukon, it feels like the town is buzzing with the anticipation of adventure, as if the entire place is saying, "let's go!"
One of our first stops was the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site (we Cuthberts love a good museum). When rivers were highways, this sternwheeler was a behemoth ship that transported goods up and down of the mighty Yukon River. Now it has been meticulously restored, and visitors can explore it. As we were headed to Dawson City, this was a great exhibit to give us a bit of gold rush history (and fever) as we headed north to the heart of it all.
The next day we went to the Beringia Interpretive Centre, yes, we were completely drawn in by the Mammoth statue in the parking lot. 18,000 years ago, the ice age caused the land bridge in the Bering Sea to be exposed, connecting Alaska and Siberia. This area is called Beringia, and unlike a lot of North America, it was not covered in ice. Instead, its dry climate created plains of grasses and wildflowers. The interpretive centre showcases some of the incredible beasts that roamed in that time. Yes, there were Mammoths of course, but also the Jefferson's Ground Sloth, the Beringian Lion and the Yukon's camel.
After exploring the museums of Whitehorse, we picked up our supplies and hit the road to Dawson City. We camped for a night in a place called Moose Creek where there were more mosquitos than I have encountered cumulatively in my entire life. My Mom bought a bug tent that could fit around a picnic table, so we all crowded together and played games until the sun didn’t go down. This bug tent was a lifesaver and is a must-have for a trip to the Yukon. Luckily, Moose Creek is where we encountered the bulk of the mosquitos on the trip, and we were relatively bug-free for the rest of the journey.
In 1905, the Dawson City Nuggets hockey team travelled 6,400 kilometres by dog sledge, foot, bicycle, train and ship to challenge the Ottawa Hockey Club for the Stanely Cup. They lost the best of three series in two games, the second game had a score of 23-2. The fact that this even happened is a nod to the incredible history and resilience that is Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Rush.
Diving through Dawson City is like driving through a Wild West theme park (but with less show business). The dirt roads, raised boardwalks and leaning buildings are everything you could wish for from this historic town. We camped across the Yukon River in “West-Dawson,” an area that was initially inhabited by the wealthier settlers who were looking to escape the hustle, bustle and typhoid of the central city. Today, a 24-hour ferry transports people and cars from one side of the river to the other, so typhoid would totally make it across.
The Yukon River Campground is spectacular, we had two spots right against the river. And although the 24-hours of daylight was initially a little eerie, it came in handy at 2am when I could go to the washroom without a flashlight. Watching the never-ending sunset with my entire family on the banks of Yukon River, my Dad astutely said, “It’s nice that we all get to see the same thing together.”
From the Yukon River Campground, we could walk to the ferry and into town, which saved us from the long lineups in the ferry line. Daniel and I had a beer at the pub where you can get the world-famous Sourtoe Cocktail in the Downtown Hotel. The Sourtoe Cocktail is whisky with a human toe in it, and to successfully complete the shot you must let the toe touch your lips. They’re very serious about this shot in Dawson City. A toe was intentionally swallowed in 2013 (the drinker was then run out of town), and in 2017 another one was stolen. For the record, “Toe Time” is between 9:00pm and 11:00pm, it’s a $7 shot plus $5.50 for the toe. We didn’t do it because that is disgusting.
Of course, we visited the Dawson City Museum. This museum is in a beautiful heritage building downtown, and it’s home to a variety of gold rush history exhibits. At the start of our visit, we watched an old National Filmboard of Canada video that is voiced and remembered by Pierre Burton describing the Klondike gold rush. Daniel loved it -- he thought it was one of the best things he’d ever seen stating, “everyone should have to watch this before they enter the town.” It’s pretty good.
From downtown Dawson City, we walked to Robert Service's log cabin. "The Bard of the Yukon,” Robert Service is also known by British Columbia public elementary school students as the author of the Cremation of Sam McGee.
"There are strange things done
in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;"
His little log cabin is lovingly kept and offers another perspective on gold rush history as one of the most prominent voices of the Yukon, Robert Service still lived very minimally.
We packed a lunch and drove up Dome Road. At the peak, there are 360-degree views of the valley, the town and the river. After visiting the museum and getting a better picture of the madness that was the Klondike Gold Rush, standing on top of Dome Road, you can almost put yourself right into that time. You can see how the vastness of this territory and the evidence of gold drew in prospectors and adventurers from across North America. There’s a dream here for those willing to work for it.
ARCTIC CIRCLE & TOMBSTONE TERRITORIAL PARK
Tombstone Territorial Park is Lord-of-the-Rings-gorgeous. Seemingly overshadowed by the gold rush history, Tombstone is located on the Dempster Highway, roughly 1.5 hours from Dawson City. It is epic, beautiful and endless, with mountains that are old and uncompromising. We camped here for two nights to explore the areas day hikes and launch us on our final journey to the Arctic Circle.
On the longest day of the year, we drove to the Arctic Circle. We got up early (although the sun was already high in the sky) and drove through the spectacular mountain ranges of Tombstone and onto the plains of Berigina (that we learned about in Whitehorse — this is why everyone should go to museums). The Dempster Highway is notorious for being a rough gravel road that eats spare tires. For us, it was recently graded and actually one of the better stretches of gravel road I’ve been on.
The Arctic Circle was more of a symbolic mission than an actual practical experience for us, very typical of my family. We stopped in Eagle Plains (30 kilometres south of the circle — population: 9) for lunch.
We made it to the Arctic Circle’s marker is a gravel parking lot with a sign and some picnic tables. It was incredibly windy, which was perfect for the surprise my mom had with her. To celebrate our arrival at the Arctic Circle my Mom brought three Star Wars Death Star kites for her three adult children. Why not?
So after driving across the Yukon and making it to the symbolic Arctic Circle on the longest day of the year in a land where the sun doesn’t set, my family flew Death Star kites together in the howling wind.
It’s nice that we all get to see the same thing together.