June 30, 2015

Skagway, Gateway to the Klondike

Skagway is perhaps the best-known town in the Inside Passage.  The town is tiny, but it is visited by just as many visitors as the larger towns of Juneau and Ketchikan.  Although I had been to Skagway on an earlier trip to Alaska, I wanted to return.  Tim and I had decided not to take the RV to Skagway, but to take a day trip from our base in Haines instead.  Getting to Skagway from Haines is easy – easy, that is, if you decide to travel on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.  The schedule for the Haines-Skagway Fast Ferry (not a part of the Alaska State Marine Highway System) between the two towns is such that you can spend an entire day in Skagway on those three days.  The schedule, however, does not work out for a day trip on the other four days.

We had initially planned to take the ferry on Thursday, but our continuing work on the cataloging project kept us RV-bound.  When we finally finished with the project, we realized that we had missed our opportunity for an easy trip to Skagway.  Now it was time to get creative.  And that’s exactly what Tim did!

Tim was able to find a scheduled flight from Haines on a small plane at 8:05 am, but the return was more of a challenge.  There were no flights, or ferries, in the late afternoon.  He called Mountain Flying Service, a flightseeing company, and found that its plane would be in Skagway around 6:00 pm.  Paul, the owner and pilot, would be willing to take us back to Haines.  Score!  We had transportation, and the cost was not too much more than the cost for the ferry.  Plus, the chance to fly in a small plane in Alaska is an opportunity that I always enjoy.

Joyce, the wonderful owner of our campground, offered to take us to the airport on Saturday morning.  Our flight was delayed an hour because of fog in Juneau, but we were finally in the air for all of seven or eight minutes (fifteen minutes total including ground time).  That’s got to be one of the shortest flights I’ve ever taken.  The Skagway airport is so close-in that we were able to walk to town in less than ten minutes.

Approaching Skagway on a Foggy Morning

We had another stroke of luck when we discovered that Saturday was a one-boat day, as the local call it.  It’s often a four-boat day in Skagway, and we were so happy not to have to share the sidewalks with more than 10,000 cruise ship passengers.  At times, the town seemed almost empty!

Our first stop was the visitor center for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.  Yes, there is a national park unit in Skagway.  We joined a ranger-led walking tour of the Skagway Historic District and learned about the history of Skagway and its important role as the gateway to the Klondike.  When gold was discovered in northwestern Canada, the rush was on.  More than 100,000 people headed north, lured by the promise of adventure and quick wealth.

Welcome to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

The National Park Visitor Center Is Housed in the Former Depot

We visited several building that have been restored by the National Park Service, and I was surprised at the progress that had been made since my visit in the 1990s.  Buildings in the Skagway Historic District are owned by federal, state, city and private interests, but all entities seem to have worked together to faithfully restore the town to its 1890s appearance. 

The National Park Service Has Restored the Mascot Saloon

The Moore Homestead Is Another National Park Service Property

I do believe that it is the influence of the National Park Service that has led to the quality and integrity of the restoration efforts.  Skagway does not seem like a stage-set to me, unlike Tombstone, Arizona, Deadwood, South Dakota or a few of the former mining towns in Colorado that are now basically casinos.  The storefronts in Skagway are filled with restaurants and shops, albeit a ridiculous number of jewelry stores, just like Ketchikan.  Some people complain that too many historic towns are ruined by tee-shirt shops.  In Southeast Alaska, it seems that Caribbean jewelry stores are threatening to overwhelm the towns.

Quite an Impressive Setting

One of the Most-Photographed Buildings in Skagway

It's Easy to Get Around in Skagway

Although some people might consider a hike on the nearby Chilkoot Trail to be a highlight of a visit to Skagway, for me it was a ride on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, often billed as the Scenic Railway of the World.  Constructed between 1898 and 1900, the railroad was intended to offer an easier route to the Klondike than the harrowing Chilkoot and White Pass Trails.  This narrow gauge railroad was constructed against all odds, but by the time it was completed, the gold rush was all but over. 

The White Pass and Yukon Route

Diesel-Electric Locomotives Have Replaced the Original Steam Locomotives

Tim and I took a three-hour round trip excursion to the White Pass summit on a route that climbed steep grades, made cliff-hugging turns and crossed deep gorges.  The views were stunning, and I found the ride thrilling.  I can only imagine what it took to construct this railroad through such challenging terrain.  

To try and capture a few good photographs, I hung out on the outside platform of the car and watched the scenery pass by.  The camera certainly got a good workout, and I filled the memory card.  Don’t worry, however, I’m just including a sampler here!  Glaciers, waterfalls, rivers, bridges and historic trestles all caught my attention.  It was especially eerie to be on the platform as we passed through two pitch-black tunnels.  Talk about disorienting! 

The Train No Longer Crosses this Bridge

The Steel Bridge Was the Tallest Cantilever Bridge in the World

I Wasn't the Only One on the Platform Taking Photographs

Getting Ready to Enter the First Tunnel

Part of the original White Pass Trail on which thousands of gold-seekers trudged was clearly visible from the train.  I tried to imagine the effort required to haul 2,000 pounds of supplies over such a route.  Most stampeders scaled this pass or the Chilkoot Pass between 30 and 40 times in order to shuttle the required one year’s worth of supplies north to the Canadian border.  Amazing!

The Original White Pass Trail Is Visible on the Right

The Clouds and Rain Add to the Atmosphere

Skagway and the Lynn Canal Are Visible in the Distance

Making Our Way Back Down through Meadows Covered with Fireweed

We finally made our way back down the mountain and soon headed for the airport.  We were the only two passengers on our flight.  The light was beautiful as we flew over the Lynn Canal, the longest and deepest fjord in North America, on the way back to Haines.  After we landed, we watched Paul haul the plane back into its own “garage” at the airport.  That was fun.

Flying Back to Haines Over the Lynn Canal

Pulling the Plane Back into its "Garage"

I definitely feel the trip to Skagway was worth the time and cost, and I think Tim agreed.  He seemed to think that visiting the town and taking the train ride were a great way to celebrate his birthday, even if it was a day early.


  1. Happy Birthday Tim!! What a great birthday!!!

    1. Tim says, thank you, Ana. We loved the train and the planes.

  2. A great birthday celebration ... who cares if it was a day early. We had a terrific day in Skagway when our cruise ship docked there ... we were the only ship that day ... YAY! We did a sightseeing tour in a little yellow bus ... one of many brought to Skagway from Yellowstone NP and then did the R/T train ride ... loved that train ride. Seeing the landscape, I had to shudder at what the miners had to endure.

    1. That's funny that you should mention the yellow bus. I thought I saw one while we were in town., but did not know about them. I loved riding the yellow bus in Yellowstone, so your tour must have been fun. Yay for one-ship days!

  3. Happy Birthday, Tim! Yes, I agree this was a great way to spend your birthday with a quick plane ride and a super train tour! Thanks for sharing:)

    1. Thanks, John and Pam. It was a great birthday.

  4. Wow. I'm clearly not as inventive as you. Had I known a plane was possible, we would have made the trip to Skagway, at minimum for the train ride. You got some excellent pictures! Happy Birthday, Tim!

    1. Thanks. I think you can fly almost anywhere in Alaska. When I was here years ago, we even chartered small planes if there wasn't a scheduled flight, and it really wasn't that expensive. I think more flights are in our plans this summer.


We love hearing from you and reading your comments.

To leave a comment, type what you'd like to say and then click on the arrow next to "Comment as:". You can select "Anonymous" if you'd like. Finally, click "Publish." That's it.