Canada’s Yukon Territory is one of the best travel destinations in the Northern Hemisphere, but it’s still relatively unknown to tourists! Read on to learn all the reasons why you should consider planning travel to the Yukon.
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In the far northwestern corner of Canada lies a sparsely-populated, ruggedly wild, impossibly beautiful region known as the Yukon Territory. Fewer than 40,000 residents share this area with gorgeous snow-capped mountains, majestic lakes, vast swaths of virgin forest, braided glacial rivers, undisturbed wildlife, and other natural wonders.
For the outdoor adventurer, it’s a pristine and challenging paradise. For the history buff, it’s the homeland of ancient and proud First Nations peoples and one of the great 19th-century gold rushes. For the animal lover, bears, caribou, moose, wolves, birds, and other fauna roam freely across the vast and untamed countryside. It’s a place that gets in your heart, that humbles and awes you and leaves you wanting more.
Thanks to its remote location and the fact that so few people are aware of the wonders awaiting them there, the Yukon is much more lightly touristed than neighboring Alaska and British Columbia. For example, 2017 was a record-setting year for tourism in the Yukon Territory with an estimated 334,000 visitors, compared to the almost two million people who traveled to Alaska. Especially for those who have been looking to visit Alaska but want to avoid the summer tourist hordes, it’s a great time to discover all that the Yukon has to offer. Trust me, it won’t be a secret for long!
Ten Reasons Why You Should Travel to the Yukon:
1.) The landscapes are unbelievable.
Above everything else in the Yukon, the scenery is the most likely to overwhelm and impress you. This is a vast, rugged, untamed land that has been sculpted by glaciers, rivers, and extreme temperatures. It is covered with unending forests and impossibly high, icy mountains, with lakes and rivers so beautiful they’ll take your breath away.
Whether you’re headed north on the Klondike Highway toward Dawson City or following the famous Alcan Highway westward, driving through the territory gives you no shortage of magnificent views. You don’t have to seek out spectacular surroundings in the Yukon; they’re right there waiting to envelop and awe you at every turn. It’s a place that makes you feel small in all the best ways.
And again, the small population makes it easy to leave civilization behind and enjoy some blissful peace and quiet amongst all this natural beauty.
2.) You can follow in the footsteps of gold rush history.
The California Gold Rush in the 1840’s tends to get all the glory, but later that century tens of thousands of prospectors stampeded into Canada’s remote northwestern corner looking to strike it rich. It was an incredibly difficult journey and few were prepared for the harsh climate and
The Klondike Gold Rush is a fascinating chapter in North American history and one you can experience quite viscerally in many places while you travel the Yukon. The most obvious is Dawson City herself, where the dirt streets and colorful wooden buildings transport you back to the height of the gold rush. There, you can tour the goldfields, visit the gold rush-era cemetery, or try your luck at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall.
You can also follow the trail of the stampeders from Skagway (in Alaska) to Whitehorse and up the Klondike Highway to Dawson, visiting multiple important gold rush landmarks like Bennett Lake and Five Finger Rapids (above) along the way.
3.) There are plenty of chances to spot wildlife.
With so few people around, there are huge stretches of the Yukon that belong only to her wilder inhabitants. Venturing out from Whitehorse will very quickly bring you into
4.) Depending on the season, you can experience the midnight sun or the northern lights.
Because of its far northerly location, the Yukon experiences dramatic swings in the number of hours of daylight throughout the year. During the summer, you can go for weeks at a time and only experience a dusky dimness in the very middle of the night. If you’re traveling far enough north around the summer solstice (June 20 or 21), the sun may not set at all. Going for days without a proper night can mess with your head a little at first (and you’ll want to make sure you bring a sleep mask or utilize your hotel’s blackout curtains), but I have also found that I have more energy throughout the evening because there is no dusk or twilight to tell my body it’s time to wind down for sleep.
On the other hand, visiting in the colder months means shorter days and blacker nights. However, one benefit to all those hours of darkness is that if the northern lights come out, you’ll actually be able to see them. If aurora viewing is a priority, you could do worse for a travel destination than the Yukon, particularly between Dawson City and Whitehorse. I have personally witnessed the lights over Dawson as the September nights lengthened and can confirm that they are every bit deserving of a place on your bucket list.
If you’re in a region where auroral activity is a possibility, the best forecast I’ve found comes from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. It’s a good idea to check both the weather and northern lights forecasts before heading out, as clouds can obscure the phenomenon and the lights themselves are notoriously fickle. Sometimes they appear and linger for hours; other times you may catch a hint of green that disappears so quickly you wonder if you imagined it. The hours surrounding midnight usually see the most activity.
Many hotels have northern lights wake-up calls that may or may not be reliable to alert you to auroral activity. It all depends on whether or not the hotel staff receives word that an aurora is occurring and if they follow through with making all the calls before it disappears. Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask and sign up if the service is offered.
5.) You can drive a historic (and stunning) stretch of highway.
Spanning the distance between Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and Delta Junction, Alaska, is one of the most beautiful lengths of the Alaska-Canada Highway. This road – also known as the Alaska Highway, the Alcan / ALCAN, or Highway 1 in the Yukon – runs right through the heart of the territory. It was built during World War II to connect Alaska to the Lower 48 in the face of the Japanese threat to the west coast of the USA, and the original highway was a remarkable feat of engineering, perseverance, and fortitude by the Army Corps of Engineers. These men battled extreme temperatures, permafrost, mosquitoes, isolation, rough terrain, and other harsh elements to complete 1,700 miles (2,700 km) of road in just seven months.
Today, the road has been paved and shortened, but it’s still a pothole- and frost heave-ridden adventure of a ride. Along the way, you’ll travel through some truly beautiful and remote areas, including passing in the shadow of spectacular Kluane National Park (below). Especially if you’re continuing on to Alaska after your time in the Yukon,
(For more information on the building of the Alcan, you can watch this National Geographic video on YouTube or purchase this compelling PBS documentary that we used to show to guests while driving the highway.)
6.) It’s home to one of the world’s most prestigious dogsled races.
Although the Iditarod gets all the fame (and has the bigger purse), the Yukon Quest is a grueling, prestigious race in its own right. Spanning 1,000 miles between Fairbanks and Whitehorse (with start and end points alternating each year), the Quest is colder, hillier, and more restrictive than its famous cousin. It’s a thrilling race that really makes you appreciate the skill, speed, and endurance of these remarkable dogs as well as the ability of humans to triumph over an unforgiving environment. Also, since the Quest is less well-known and almost all of its checkpoints are accessible by road, it’s easier to take in the spectacle than at similar races.
Be prepared to bundle up, though! The race is run in February, so it’s bound to be chilly.
7.) You can join a bizarre and exclusive club.
Want an experience or an Instagram shot you can’t get anywhere else in the world? Do you like the idea of being a member of a club that none (or very few) of your friends may have ever heard of, and even fewer will have the chance to join? Then head down to Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel to join the Sourtoe Cocktail Club.
What is the Sourtoe Cocktail, you ask? Oh, just a preserved human toe plunked into a shot of Yukon Jack whiskey.
Following a small ceremony in which you are told that “you can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have got to touch the toe,” you take the shot, make sure the toe grazes your lips, and accept your certificate and membership card. You can kiss or put the toe in your mouth afterward if you’d like, but biting and swallowing are strictly forbidden and punishable by a hefty fine. (Though, if you’re the kind of person for whom biting and swallowing a preserved human toe seems like an attractive option, we may need to find you some professional help.)
I kept things simple and straightforward my first time.
It’s an undeniably weird (and many would say, gross) tradition, but one you won’t find anywhere else!
(PS: You can also stay in the Downtown Hotel during your time in Dawson City if you’d like to be near the action, and there’s a decent restaurant as well.)
8.) The Yukon boasts the “world’s smallest desert.”
South of Whitehorse, almost on the border of British Columbia, is the colorful little village of Carcross. As you drive south into town, you’ll notice that the pine-clad hills suddenly give way to something unexpected: sand dunes. It’s a surprising sight; you’re still over a hundred kilometers from the ocean and deep in a region of forested mountains.
Welcome to Carcross Desert, the debatable “smallest desert in the world.” In addition to being an interesting geological anomaly and a fun photo stop, the area is also gaining popularity for those looking for a little outdoor adventure. More and more people are heading to little Carcross to hike, sand board, sled and toboggan, and otherwise take advantage of the mysterious dunes. Especially if you’re headed south to Skagway, Alaska, or looking for a fun day trip out of Whitehorse, consider adding Carcross and its unusual desert to the list.
To learn more about amazing little Carcross Desert, check out this article that the BBC fortuitously published as I was in the middle of writing this post 🙂
9.) Dawson City nightlife includes a community-benefiting casino and dance hall-style shows.
One of the most popular spots in Dawson City is Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, a gambling hall that features table games, slots, a bar, and three different can-can shows each night during the summer season. Modeled after the Klondike-era dance halls and named for a gold rush “good-time girl” who famously stuck a diamond between her front teeth, Gertie’s is the place to be on a summer evening. The music is enjoyable for folks young and old, and the atmosphere is a lot of fun.
The best part about Gertie’s is that the place is run by the local visitors’ association and all proceeds are reinvested into the community. You can even see a school that has benefited tremendously from Gertie’s dollars just across the street.
Losing money at a blackjack table never felt so bittersweet.
Additional casinos can be found throughout the territory, and other live entertainment is available as well. Whitehorse used to be home to a musical vaudeville revue called Frantic Follies that was very well done, but it has recently closed. Here’s hoping it reopens again soon!
10.) You can visit one of the most beautiful national parks in Canada.
The territory’s national parks are one of the best reasons to travel to the Yukon. Kluane National Park and Preserve (pronounced kloo-AH-nee) is located in the southwestern corner of the territory and home to some spectacular scenery, hiking, rafting, and outdoor activities. Canada’s highest mountain, Mt. Logan, lies within the borders of the park, and the area provides an almost unparalleled opportunity to experience
Rather than driving by, though, you should really stop and spend some time taking in all that Kluane has to offer. Opportunities for hiking and exploration abound, and you can also go river rafting or even take to the skies for a flightseeing tour of some of Canada’s highest peaks.
The town of Haines Junction serves as a great jumping-off point for Kluane. Don’t forget to stop by the Village Bakery to fuel up with some delicious sandwiches and treats, and if they have budgie bars on the menu I will gladly send you my address so that you can mail me a tray of them.
For a real adventure, the Yukon contains two other National Parks, Ivvavik and Vuntut, which are both located in the far northwestern corner of the territory. Spectacular Tombstone Territorial Park, which sits within an easy driving distance of Dawson City, is also well worth a visit.
As you can see, the Yukon is a truly remarkable place, and one that has clearly captured my heart. The three summers I spent there only left me wanting more.
I’ll admit that I am not generally a great appreciator of poetry, but one poem by Robert Service has stuck with me since I heard it for the first time while traveling through the Yukon. In my opinion, it fully captures the wonder of that land and the hold it takes of you. The full poem is worth reading, but I’ll share my favorite section here by way of closing.
I hope you find yourself under the spell of the Yukon someday soon.
There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—and I will.
They’re making my money diminish;
I’m sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish
I’ll pike to the Yukon again.
I’ll fight—and you bet it’s no sham-fight;
It’s hell!—but I’ve been there before;
And it’s better than this by a damsite—
So me for the Yukon once more.
There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
— Robert Service, “The Spell of the Yukon”
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(Note: some of the links in this article may be affiliate links, which means that I may earn a small commission from your purchase at no additional cost to you. You can find the full disclosure here.)
Have you ever taken part in any Yukon travel? What were your favorite sights, activities, and points of interest?
What landscapes have taken your breath away?
This post about travel to the Yukon was originally published on July 2, 2018, and last updated on July 5, 2020.
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