Road trip to the Yukon

In the following text and pictures you will hear all about my road trip to the northern parts of the land, and what a trip it was! Spanning 10 days and covering 6550km and visiting cities from Whitehorse to Dawson City (ok, there aren’t any cities in between but you get the picture).

Speaking of pictures, there are a lot of them on this page so be patient and let them load, they are worth it! (c:

The Decision

The desire to undertake this trip actually started forming about a year ago when I went to Anchorage with some work. I was only in that fair city for 5 days in June but it opened my eyes to the world of the north country and right then and there I knew that I wanted to return someday. I didn’t know that someday would be only a year away.

I had been hoping for and anticipating taking an entire month off during this summer and had been poring over maps and books trying to decide where I should go and what i should do with this month. I wanted to get out the east coast, to Newfoundland and PEI and Nova Scotia, but I also had this nagging feeling in the back of my skull telling me to go up north as well. One day I had mapped out two routes, each taking a month, one the east and one the north. The east route looked good and was the front runner at that point.

In the mean time I had also been looking for new work, and this new work finally came through for me on the day of my 25th birthday. The next day I went in and tendered my resignation, giving slightly more than the customary two weeks notice and watched my month-long excursion slide slowly down the drain. When my notice wasn’t accepted, and I was offered a paid vacation I jumped on the chance right away and immediately amended my plans.

Since I only had two weeks it took some paring down of plans to make the east coast trip fit, and there was so much of the Saskatchewan/Manitoba/Ontario/Quebec nature in between me and the east coast that it wasn’t realistic. This is when the trip north really took shape. I slid my focus to the northwestern part of the world and figured I could be in Whitehorse in three days, from there Dawson City was attainable and maybe even part of Alaska! With this thought tumbling round my head I formed a rough itinerary and started hounding friends and family to see if anyone was interested in a road trip! Everyone was, though some thought I was crazy for celebrating not having to travel with work by travelling… sadly though no one could commit to a two week trip on only two days notice. No surprises there really and I wasn’t afraid to go on my own.

So on the 10th of June, two days after receiving a paid vacation I left town on my trip (c:

The Alaska Highway

The great thing about going north is that once you get on the Alaska Highway or “Alcan” it is quite hard to get lost, there is only one road up there! Mile zero of the Alaska Highway is in Dawson Creek, chosen because during WWII when the road was being built Dawson Creek was the end of a railway line and offered an easy way to move supplies and people into place for one of the largest civil engineering feats of the western world.

Kiskatinaw Camping and the Curved Bridge

While the Alaska Highway is the start of the road to the north it was my ending point for the first day. I camped in a campground just outside of Dawson Creek called Kiskatinaw Provincial Campground. The story behind the place is that was a work camp for the soldiers and civilians building the AK highway, and they were at that location for quite a few months since they had to build a curved wooden bridge over the river.

Ft. Nelson and Beyond

The next day I got going at the nearly respectable hour of 0830, a vast improvement over the previous days 1030. The road from here took me up through and beyond Ft. Nelson where I had also been previously with work. The town was much as I remembered it, an odd mix between a working oil town and a city on the edge of civilization. It also had the most expensive gasoline in BC as far as I can tell at 104.9 cents /liter! Tragically I was right out of gas and had to fill up, it would be the first of many times I considered driving a Prius instead.

Beyond Ft.Nelson the scenery became spectacular and I wrote in my journal “I would be driving along and my jaw would literally drop. There are towering mountains and amazing hills and valleys it is almost indescribably. There were a few times I nearly missed a curve in the road because I was gawking so much!”

That day while I was driving I spotted five different species of mammals, a moose cow with a gangly little calf, a sow caribou, stone sheep, mountain goats and a lynx. The lynx was the most exciting one to be sure, he disappeared over a cement road barrier as I approached and then popped his head back up and we eyed each other as I drove by. I actually turned around to go back and have another look, but of course he was gone.

Liard River Hot springs

I stopped that night a little short of my goal, I was aiming for Watson Lake just across the Yukon border but the road was pretty knarly past Ft. Nelson and there was tons of construction that slowed me down. I spotted the Liard River Hot springs on my map and figured it would be a good place for a quick swim and since it was late enough I may as well pitch a tent there. There was only one slight problem with that plan, and that was that it was a Saturday night and the campground was completely full. The lady at the front gregariously allowed me to set up in the grassy day-use area along with some other tenters and also piously charged me full price for it too.

It was totally worth it though.I got my tent set up and went for a dip in the pools right away. They Liard River Springs are a nice mix between rustic natural hot springs and commercial ventures that seem to lose all their charm. To get to the pools one had to walk about 300m out along a boardwalk over muskeg.

The boardwalk was a total blessing since the only other way out the springs would have been muddling though muskeg and mosquito infested swap lands. The pools themselves were extremely well done with a boardwalk all the way along the edge of the pool, which was simply carved out of the muskeg and then the bottom lined with white rock. Halfway down the pool was a small waterfall with a concrete bench underneath it for sitting on, and I discovered that if one ducked behind the waterfall the mosquitoes couldn’t get in!

The pool pictured there was actually the “alpha” pool, there was an “beta” pool higher up the boardwalk which I checked out the next morning. It was far more rustic than the “alpha” pool, a muskegy bottom and really hot water up to a depth of 3m.

After my swim I went back and cooked up some dinner and chatted with my fellow displaced tenters. There was the two guys on a motorbike trip from Toronto up to Fairbanks, there was the two ladies on a trip from some small town in Alaska down through Banff and ending they knew not where, and there was the couple from Michigan riding a Harley with a trailer. We all had a decent chat and people slowly drifted off to bed around 11, despite the sun being high in the sky.

Arriving in Whitehorse

My journal for the day starts out this way Every day on this trip has been better than the last, so if yesterday was incredible today was spectacular!” The day started out rather rudely with the Michigonian Vietnam Vet firing up his Harley at 7am, followed by me rolling over and going promptly back to sleep! When I finally did get up most of the people from the night before had rolled out, which left me a little guilty feeling for the extra sleep but the guilty feeling didn’t last long. I packed up my gear and went for another swim in the pool, just lounging and enjoying the warm water and empty pool. I eventually hauled myself out and hit the road though headed for Whitehorse.

The drive on this day was varied and amazing, carrying me through mountains and swamp and flatlands each of which was beautiful in its own way. I stopped around lunch time to make a sandwich and take a short rest, which was made even shorter by the mosquito invasion. There was a little faux log cabin across the highway which I explored, sandwich in hand, but wasn’t able to figure out why it was there. I say it was a faux log cabin because it was framed like a regular house with half-logs nailed to the frame… seemed rather odd to me. The bugs started getting to me though so I headed back to the truck and with the windows down at 120km/h they have a hell of a time trying to get in!

The Alaska Highway kind of takes a strange path, it winds over and back across the BC/Yukon border a few times, which resulted in a few photo-ops for me. One at the first crossing into the Yukon

And then another when I hit the “real” crossing into the Yukon, or at least the crossing that would keep me above the 60th parallel

I stopped at the Wolf Creek Campground about 12km east of Whitehorse. The territorial campgrounds up there are really well done, with large discrete sites and free firewood. The site I took had my right beside the Wolf Creek and was just gorgeous.

So I set up camp, made some dinner and decided that I should really get all the way into Whitehorse that night. I cruised around the town a little, getting my bearings for the next day and finding the Tourist Info Center. I also explored Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids.

I also drove around and found the float plane base, a rather large lake/eddie in the river with about 10-15 float planes docked/parked there. It was a rather unusual sight, but typically northern I think.

A Day on the Town

I remember at this point thinking that my body clock was getting completely messed up by all the sunlight. I would go to bed around midnight, in the light; and wake at 10am, in the light. I also remember feeling guilty for waking up late and feeling that I was wasting time, which was really an illusion because it was light so long that it didn’t really matter. It would be some time before I fully understood the marketing slogan “On Yukon Time” but after a week in the land of midnight sun it became readily apparent.

Anyway, I headed in to town and made the first stop at the spectacular Visitor Info center in downtown Whitehorse. There I got some good info on all the places I needed to see, which lead me to my second stop, the McBride museum. It is a small log-cabin affair (like a lot of the buildings up there) that was packed to the rafters with animals and NWMP displays and of course mining tools and stories. I walked around town for a bit poking my head into various shops and seeing the sights. I went and had lunch at the SS Klondike, the last stern wheeler to paddle the rivers of the north. I didn’t actually go on a tour of the boat but it was certainly something neat to see. After that I went up to the Whitehorse Dam and saw the power plant and the worlds longest wooden fish ladder.

You read that correctly, The World’s Longest Fish Ladder. It is a series of lochs that allow the spawning salmon to get around the power plant and spawn in their native territory. They weren’t spawning just then, it was a little early in the season, but it was still something neat to see. The only other thing on my list to see was The Old Log Cabin Church, erected in 1900 and one of the first Anglican churches in the area. Neat, but not spectacular.

I was kind of feeling that I had seen most everything in Whitehorse, and it was only around 4pm or so, but there was one thing left Grey Mountain. There is an old road that takes adventurous people up to nearly the top of the mountain which has a communication tower and a heli-pad on it. From there there is a trail leading off towards the actual summit of the mountain and incredible views.

After a brief hike, around an hour or so I got to the summit and could look down on Whitehorse

That night I wrote in my journal of the hike “It took me through arctic meadows filled with buttercups and bluebells and things I don’t have names for. There were rocks jutting up everywhere and a vast array of plants. I noticed that they were all quite small, short trees, shrubbery, flowers, no real forest type stuff….I probably spent an hour just enjoying the view and the quite sereneness of it all. This northern land is one I will definitely return to.” That seems to capture it quite well I think.

That night I went to Takhini Hot Springs, about 25km west of Whitehorse. They were definitely commercial and right in the middle of a seedy RV park. I enjoyed the water but didn’t stay too long.

Gold Rush, here I come!

My goal from the start was to make it up to Dawson City, mostly for the reason that it was really far north and probably a cool place to go. After spending a day in Whitehorse I decided that I had seen everything I needed to see, and picked up some much needed groceries, and could head out on the road again. I took the Alaska Highway until the turnoff to go north and that is where everything changed. The road northwards is completely different from the AK highway. It is like comparing a small back road with a freeway, the Dawson City road felt a lot more intimate and wild. The drive itself was nice, there are a ton of awesome campsites along that road that would be great to stay in next time, and the scenery is rather breathtaking.

I arrived in Dawson City around 5pm and camped in the Territorial campground on the far side of the Yukon River. They have a 24/7 ferry that runs from one side to the other and ferries people and cars across the river in the summer. In the winter it freezes solid and they can simply drive across. The Yukon River Campground was an excellent campground, much like Wolf Creek really in that it is private and spacious and still wild. Here is a view of the Yukon River from my campsite.

They said that there were falcons nesting on the cliff on the other side of the river but I didn’t see any the whole time I was there. After some dinner I took the ferry back across and wandered around the main area of Dawson City for a bit. It was kind of spooky, the streets are all done up in the old style with gravel roads and wood plank sidewalks, but there was nobody out. I mean nobody! There were a few tourists who were like me wandering around a little lost but the streets were nearly deserted.

Eventually though I stopped for some frozen-drink-slush thing and asked the girl behind the counter what there was fun to do in the town at night. She directed me to Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, the local casino and one of the many watering holes. I hung out on a bench for a while drinking my frozen drink and contemplating Gertie’s before taking the plunge and heading in. There was a $6 cover charge and then I was admitted into the middle of the 1890’s. The staff were all wearing period costumes and the tables were all set up the way they would have been during the huge gold rush. It was a really neat atmosphere and I sat at the bar enjoying a pint and chatting with Julie the bartender, a trucker from Alaska and a businessman from Montana. I ended up staying until around 12:30pm and came out blinking and squinting into the bright mid-day sunlight! I walked towards the ferry and was alternated between blinking a lot and looking at my watch to make sure that everything was actually how it seemed, the sun just doesn’t go down up there! And it’s funny because I knew that going in, but somehow no matter how much people tell you that it is still strange to experience.

The next morning I woke up and set about exploring Dawson City. I hit the Dawson City Museum including train annex, the firefighters museum, and a display called “Dawson as they saw it” which featured letters and journal entries from the people who were there during the gold rush and into the years afterwards.

I followed that up with Jack London’s cabin,

Robert Service’s cabin

and the boyhood home of Pierre Berton which is now used for a “writer in residence” program so that Canadian authors can experience the north and hopefully be inspired by it. I know I certainly was.

The other thing that every good tourist has to see is the Discovery claim on Eldorado creek where gold was first found in 1896 and spurring the gold rush. Since I am a good tourist I went to go see the monument and the creek itself.

That whole area is quite beautiful on the surface but all the heavy mining has really destroyed a lot of the natural scenery and re-routed creeks and streams. I had never thought before about how incredibly destructive mining must be and this was a real lesson for me about the impacts of our actions. Most of the area is a gigantic tailings pile, nothing more than stacks of gravel and rock for miles on end. So much so that you can even see it from a significant distance as away.

The main mechanism for this back in the day was a dredging machine which was far more powerful and efficient than hand panning or the back breaking work of digging through permafrost.

I also took a drive up the Midnight Dome Hill which was used to celebrate the solstices and offers a spectacular view of the surrounding area, and is the place from where the tailings pictures was taken.

Back at camp that night I chatted with a fellow from Bakersfield CA who was up on a trip on his BMW motorbike. We had a good chat and he was quite impressed by Canadians and northerners in particular. I also gave some backpackers a ride across the ferry since I had my truck (I was filling it with gas at $1.15/l !!!) and they had a ton of gear for a canoe trip. I hope they are doing ok, they said they weren’t really experienced canoers and the current on the Yukon was really high and fast just then.

The Top of the World

The next day I skeedaddled out of town and drove over the top of the world. The Top of the World Highway is one that goes north west out of Dawson City, into Alaska and then brings you back to the Yukon. The best part, and one of the best parts of the whole drive was just outside of Dawson City. The scenery was so amazingly spectacular. I didn’t get any pictures though so you’ll have to use your imagination I guess! I crossed over in the US at Poker Creek, the north most land border in the USA.

I was in the US for a total of 5 hours and didn’t even hardly stop since there wasn’t anything worth stopping for! I cleared the border again just outside of Beaver Creek and the guard seemed a little skeptical when I told her I was gone for only 5hrs. I think they get a lot of people doing that route though because she wasn’t too surprised.

The crossing by Beaver Creek is a lot more ostentatious than that of Poker Creek, they have a whole pavilion set up that talks about the 141st parallel and the surveying of the boundary which was in dispute during the gold rush. I stopped at Beaver Creek for gas and dinner in a local diner, it had excellent local charm with stuffed animals everywhere, farm implements and slow surly service. It was better than cooking for myself that night though.

Kluane National Park

The next part of the drive was the absolute best on the entire trip! From Beaver Creek down to Kluane Lake (clue-on-e) is like driving through the Banff area 20 years ago! The mountains are rough and jagged and there is hardly a sign of habitation or interference anywhere. I camped at the Congdon Creek Campground, right on Kluane Lake which is a spectacular location. When I got back to the Yukon, and it is when, not if, I will camp there again for sure. As I was setting up I had the radio on to CBC that was featuring a show with David Suzuki as the keynote speaker.

His fundamental feeling was that the problem with the environmental movement is that everyone believes that the environment is “out-there” and we are over here. He was saying we are the environment, we are a part of it, and it is a part of us. Every breath we take and every glass of water we drink comes from somewhere and goes somewhere and that is something we need to think about in everyday life, with everything we consume and produce we affect everything else around us. IT was a good message and reinforced by my surroundings.
I spent most of that evening and night wandering around the campground staring and photographing the scenery, it was breathtaking.

The next morning I set out to do some hiking. I went to the Info Center, and had a great chat with the girl there, though didn’t get her name unfortunately. She directed me to some excellent hikes and I set off to conquer them!
Sheep Mountain was the one nearest and sounded also like it was the most bear-free which was something I was looking for. She said that the trail wound up the mountain, got a little indistinct but after a few hills it became obvious again. I think her definition of obvious is a little different than mine though! I lost the trail and ended up climbing a ridge which was nice, and beautiful but rather rocky and steep and totally not the right direction!

I plodded on for a while thinking I might come back to the trail but decided to turn around, and in doing so I saw the trail! Way down the ridge and over a steep rocky section…. greeeaaaat. So I headed down, slowly and carefully down this ridge, sliding on scree and clinging to rock to keep from slipping. I eventually made it though and headed of on this new trail.

This trail, much like the other one eventually died out on me and left me searching the rocky mountainside for a trail of some sort. I never did find it and decided that though the view was nice two wrong turns in a day was enough and I should probably head down at this point.

Gallery Of Images

Here are some photos I took along the way that didn’t fit into the narrative, but I just had to post them for everyone to see.

Heading Home

I decided later that night that I was probably going to go home the next day. I had seen everything I had come to see and that it was just time to go. I didn’t really want to leave the Yukon, I absolutely love it there and can’t wait to return, but some time in Calgary before starting the new job sounded nice too and seeing some people to get some human interaction sounded like an excellent thing.
I did indeed pack up the next morning and head out. I drove from Kluane Lake (2hrs west of Whitehorse) to Ft. St. John BC that day, a total distance of 1600km. Admittedly the last 400km from Ft. Nelson to Ft. St. John were pretty rough and I didn’t get in until after 3am but the majority of the drive was excellent, I was mostly lost in thought and hardly noticed the passage of time. I spent that night in FSJ, then the next night visited my Dad in Ft. Saskatchewan, it seems all northern towns are either Fort Something or Something Creek. I made it home on monday the 20th, 10 days after leaving and over 6500km later!.

I had an excellent trip to the Yukon and would suggest it to anyone as somewhere to go. The vast wilderness and expansive history mingle in a spectacular way that makes the whole area wonderfully appealing. It is certainly rugged and wild country though and the people that live there seem to thrive on it and understand it in a way that most urbanites don’t comprehend. I had an amazing time, saw amazing sights and learned a lot about myself, I can’t wait to go back!

Cheers!
Jon Neufeld
June 2005