Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
Occasionally in the early 1970s my commercial salmon fishing buddies and I would travel up to Skagway for the weekend, when fishing was closed around Haines, around 15 miles south. The merchants were thrilled to welcome our group, kept their shops and restaurants open late for our business. Dust blew in the empty streets, or if the Alaska state ferry was in, perhaps a few dozen visitors wandered around. It was definitely sleepy.
This isn’t what you’ll find today. If you come by cruise ship, you’ll probably arrive with eight or ten thousand other visitors to a town with perhaps 825 permanent residents.
Yet surprisingly, this town still retains its charm and the ghosts of the men who passed through in the epic Gold Rush that essentially put Alaska on the map still walk these streets.
As much as anything that kept the turn of the 20th century buildings intact – Skagway essentially was built between 1897 and 1900 – was the weather. Buildings that would have rotted away without maintenance in rainy Ketchikan, simply last longer in this much drier, sunnier climate.
Left: Klondikers on homemade boats at Lake Bennett, spring 1898. They cut down trees and sawed them into planks to make these boats to float down the Yukon to Dawson and hopefully, their fortune along the Klondike River. Anchorage Museum b64-1-43. Top: Klondikers aboard Yukon River steamboat, circa 1898. UW Thwaites – 0394-1286
But it is the drama of ’97 and ’98 that fills this town. Skagway blossomed for but a few years, lawless and rough, then almost disappeared.
The gaunt-faced men have passed through to whatever fate The North had in store for them. But the town the boom built at the jumping-off place for the Klondike remains, looking much as it did in 1897 and 1898, when some 80 saloons and many professional women were anxious to serve the lonely men on the trail north.
Today, Skagway offers a unique experience to visitors. Even the vegetation is different from the rest of Southeast Alaska, as the town is under the influence of the harsher temperature extremes of the interior instead of the milder, cloudier maritime climate elsewhere in the region. Some of the native craftwork available here, especially of ivory, is truly excellent.
If Skagway’s your last stop and you’ve saved your shopping until the end, you’re in luck, the density of shops, particularly jewelry shops (their website, Skagway.com lists 17…) equals that of any other town on your cruise.
Shopping’s great, but make sure you take some time between your excursion if you take one, and shopping, to just walk around town, get a sense of the place and of the drama that took place here.
A good place to start is the Gold Rush National Historical Park Visitor Center, on the water side of downtown in the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad station. It gives a great overview of the Gold Rush saga, as well as being in the train station for the WP&YR RR, which is fascinating just by itself. The town of Skagway also operates its own visitor’s center, in the restored and very dramatic Arctic Brotherhood Hall, with its 10,000 or so nailed on pieces of driftwood, probably the most distinctive building in all of Alaska. The Fraternal Order of the Arctic Brotherhood constructed this hall and at least another in the Yukon Territories as a social and cultural organization to further the interests of the miners. It grew to have substantial political muscle as well. being an early advocate for more political power for Alaskans to manage their own affairs locally rather than through Washington, DC.
Pick up a copy of the walking tour map at the AB Hall. It’s got directions up to the Gold Rush Cemetery, the Trail of ‘98 Museum, and other points of interest. It’s definitely worthwhile to walk around with the map as your guide. The hike to Lower Dewey Lake (3 hrs. RT) has a steep stretch at the beginning, but then flattens out for a very pleasant walk.
Of course, Skagway’s signature hike is up the old Chilkoot Trail, followed by so many of the men of ‘98. This is way, way more than a pleasant stroll; more like a grueling 4-5 day epic, and that’s in summer, not in the depth of winter with the poorly insulated clothing of the day and 1000 pounds of gear to pack over the summit. If you start up the trail, think about this: many of the men who took it took a dozen or more trips back and forty ferry their loads if they couldn’t afford to hire a native porter to help them.
One good way to see the old trail is an excursion combining a hike up the first few miles with a raft trip back down the river to Dyea. Skagway and Dyea boomed together, but today only Skagway remains, primarily because of the railroad and the docks quickly constructed there. (The tide flats at Dyea were almost a half mile wide on a big low tide, a long, long, way to carry your gear in multiple trips.)
What’s interesting about Dyea is this–today the ruins seem really far from the water even at high tide. As it turns out, the land used to be much lower, and hence the water much closer. But as the glaciers that used to cover this whole area thousands of feet deep had only receded recently (well, maybe 10,000 years earlier) the land was experiencing ‘glacial rebound’ to the tune of about a half to three quarters of an inch a year–enough to lift the land 6-7 feet since the Gold Rush and push the waterline back considerably in that flat river delta.
The White Pass and Yukon Route train is the most popular excursion in Alaska and not to be missed. Before tourism, for years the railroad and the town made a good living by transporting mine ore down from the Yukon to load onto ships in Skagway. Then ore prices closed down, the railroad closed and Skagway got way too quiet.. But then with the coming of the cruise ships the railroad started up again, started refurbishing old classic rail cars and transformed itself into this exciting attraction .
Just renting a bike downtown for a few hours is also a pretty mellow way just to explore the town and surrounds. The 10 miles out to Dyea is a pretty nice ride, but at least in 2005 much of the road was unpaved and though we loved the free tour by a ranger around the old townsite, we were really glad when a kind driver offered to run us up to “the top of the hill.” (Which was most of the way back to Skagway.)
The helicopter excursions that operate out of near the waterfront are a good way to see the dramatic landscape as well as the Chilkoot Trail. There are a number of different variations most of which include a landing on top of one of the nearby glaciers and a chance to walk around. If you’re ready to dig deep and have never been around dog teams, there is an excursion that includes a dog sled ride. The dogs get really excited then the choppers land and they know that they will be on the trail soon!
Save some time at the end of the day to drop in to one of the local watering holes like the Red Onion Saloon, where a lot of the Klondikers tipped a few before they hit the rugged trail. If you want a bit more local color, try Moe’s Frontier Bar, between 4th and 5th. Another highly reccomended spot is The Skagway Fish Company, located by the small boat harbor out near the Railroad docks.
But most of all, try and take a few moments to think about the men who came, in the fall of 1897, and walked these streets and prepared for the obviously difficult challenges ahead. And the Skagway of those days was very very different from the cheerful busy place you’ll encounter. By all accounts it was a grim place full of hard men.
Excursions: Note: these change from year to year; please check with tour vendors.
Skagway & The Dangerous Days Of ’98
Klondike Summit & Liarsville Experience
Klondike Summit, Bridge, & Salmon Bake
Historical Tour & Liarsville Salmon Bake
Skagway’s Original Street Car
To The Summit
Experience The Yukon
White Pass Scenic Railway
Best Of Skagway
Klondike Scenic Highlights
Delectable Jewell Gardens
Deluxe Klondike Experience & Rail Adventure
Alaska Garden & Gourmet Tour
Yukon Jeep Adventure
Horseback Riding Adventure
Klondike Bicycle Tour
Rainforest Bicycle Tour
Klondike Rock Climbing & Rappelling
Alaska Sled Dog & Musher’s Camp
Chilkoot Trail Hike & Float Adventure
Glacier Point Wilderness Safari
Glacier Lake Kayak & Scenic Railway
Dog Sledding & Glacier Flightseeing
Glacier Discovery By Helicopter
Heli-Hike & Rail Adventure
Alaska Nature & Wildlife Expedition
Remote Coastal Nature Hike
Takshanuk Mountain Trail By 4×4
Eagle Preserve Wildlife River Adventure
Chilkoot Lake Freshwater Fishing
Wilderness Kayak Experience
Skagway’s Custom Classic Cars
Glacier Country Flightseeing