Thursday 2 February 2023

Whitehorse and Dawson City, YT

We're very excited to have just started planning a trip to the Yukon and Northwest Territories, after all it is February so time to start planning Summer adventures.  All this planning reminded me that we hadn't written up our trip to the Yukon in March 2022, so here goes!

(By the way, talking about planning for Summer adventures; BC Parks are now taking camping reservations four months out, which means you can now book out to the start of June.  If you need some suggestions of parks on Vancouver Island and the surrounding Gulf Islands check out our previous post.)

While most Canadians were travelling off to warmer climates for a break from the winter weather, us crazy Brits decided to spend March break in the Yukon, and it was amazing!

Yukon, previously known as Yukon Territory and more commonly known as 'the' Yukon, is the most westerly of the three Canadian territories and is also the smallest.

Getting There

We flew into the territorial capital, Whitehorse, from Victoria with Air North.  They fly a triangle route between Victoria, Vancouver and Whitehorse, briefly stopping in Vancouver on the way north.  Air North is a great small airline, with friendly staff, great customer service, and the best warm cookies on the flight!

Things to Do in Whitehorse

You really need a vehicle to get around the Yukon, so we picked up a rental at the airport and headed into Whitehorse for a night in the Best Western Gold Rush Inn.  The hotel was centrally located downtown, and let us explore the city and get our first close up view of the frozen solid Yukon River. 

Frozen Yukon River, Whitehorse

We had a great meal in the Miner's Daughter restaurant, which is attached to a lively bar known as the Dirty Northern. 

 The Woodcutter's Blanket is a cool micro brewery / bar / restaurant which is also worth a visit.

The next day, after a quick detour to Yukon Brewing for some essential supplies (beer, gin, and what has turned out to be Sarah's most worn hoodie!), we picked up some groceries and headed up to Sky High Wilderness Ranch.  

This adventure tourism business has been in operation for over 40 years, and was one of the highlights of our trip.  The ranch is only about 15 minutes drive from Whitehorse, but feels like it is in the middle of nowhere, and has amazing views over Fish Lake.  We spent three nights in the Aurora Cabin.  

The cabin sits alone on the ranch away from other guests so is very private and looks right down the length of the lake.  It is off-grid, so no electricity or running water, but the ranch provides plenty of fresh water in drums which you can heat on the woodstove and it has gas lights.  Bring a charging block if you need to charge up your devices, or just embrace the lack of connectivity.  Obviously there is no fridge or freezer, but they do provide a cooler which you can leave out on the deck to keep your food fresh, and icicles seemed like an appropriate addition to the Yukon Gin and tonic!  

The cabin has its own private wood fired sauna, with a huge picture window sharing the same panoramic views of the lake.  Unfortunately we didn't catch the elusive Aurora Borealis during our trip!  There is also a shower cubicle out in the sauna, and they provide a solar shower bag which you can hang in the sauna to warm up or fill from the pot on the woodstove in the cabin, so despite being off-grid you can still have a nice warm shower.

Dog Sledding in the Yukon

On our second day at the cabin we finally achieved one of our Canadian bucket list items with a dog-sledding trip.  One of the owners of Sky High is a veteran of the infamous Yukon Quest sledding race, and they have a great collection of friendly dogs who are clearly well looked after, some of the retired dogs may even come and visit you at the cabin!  

We did the 'Husky Rush' trip, which included some time meeting the dogs and learning about their care, before heading out onto Fish Lake for the sled trip.  Racing across the frozen lake is a surprisingly peaceful experience, the dogs really calm down when they are pulling, so all you hear is the swoosh of the sled rails over the snow and the occasional command from the experienced guide.  After the sled trip, we fed the dogs and headed up to the fire pit for hot chocolate, delicious local 'smokies'  (sort of like hotdogs but made from bison), s'mores, and a talk about the history of mushing.  It was a great experience and is highly recommended.

Yukon Wildlife Preserve

The next day we took a trip out to Yukon Wildlife Preserve.  The preserve has 12 Yukon species, including Bison, Musk Ox, Elk and Lynx, in over 350 acres of natural habitats, and is only a 30 minute drive from Whitehorse on Takhini Hot Springs Road (sadly the Hot Springs were closed for renovations while we were there).  

Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Yukon Wildlife Preserve

You can take a guided tour of the park in a minibus or walk around the 5km loop on foot, but the best way is definitely on the kick sleds if you are there in winter.

The Klondike Highway

Dragging ourselves away from Sky High was a challenge, but we had more of the Yukon to explore.  The following day we set off on the next leg of our trip, driving the 6 hours or so along the Klondike Highway 530km north to Dawson City.  The Klondike Highway is paved and was well maintained with only a few patches of ice/snow on the route.  It's worth stopping at Braeburn Lodge to pick up one of their famous (and ginormous) cinnamon buns; the lodge is also a checkpoint on the Yukon Quest.  

About 20kms north of Carmacks is the Five Finger Rapids viewpoint.  The rapids are mentioned in Jack London's 'Call of the Wild' and were one of the most dangerous sections of the Yukon River journey undertaken by gold prospectors during the Klondike Rush.  There are a series of steps down to the river, but these were not accessible in winter.

Things to Do in Dawson City

Arriving in Dawson is like arriving on the set of a Western movie; it looks and feels like a film set, until you realise that the buildings are real and still in active use as hotels, bars, shops, restaurants, and homes.
We stayed at the Downtown Hotel (which appears to have been taken over by Coast Hotels since we stayed).  The Downtown is famous as the home of the Sourtoe cocktail, which is served with a preserved human toe.  Unfortunately the hotel bar didn't allow children, so we missed out on that cultural experience!  In fact finding places that did allow children was pretty difficult in Dawson in the winter, but I'm sure would be better in the main tourist season. The Eldorado Hotel did allow kids, and we had a couple of nice meals in their Bonanza Dining Room. Bonton and Co was a really cool cafe/bar/eatery, with great small plates and charcuterie, which was also kid friendly.

While in Dawson you must take a drive (or hike if you're feeling fit) up to the Midnight Dome.  People have been gathering on this hilltop overlooking Dawson City to watch the midnight sun for hundreds of years.  Dome Road winds its way up the hill to almost the very top of the 887m hill, so it's a popular view point.

If you are lucky enough to be here at the right time, you can also cross the mighty Yukon river from Dawson City to West Dawson over the ice bridge, which is a cool experience.  There's not much in West Dawson, apart from a few off-grid cabins and a campsite, but it is the start of the Top of the World Highway which continues on to Alaska.  The George Black ferry runs a similar route once 'break-up' is over.

It's also worth a trip out to Dredge No4; a well preserved example of the mining dredges which used to ply the Yukon River in search of gold.  It was closed when we visited, so we couldn't get onboard, but was still worth the short drive up the mining road.

Dredge No4 in winter

Dawson City is also home to Robert Service and Jack London's cabins, and both are worth a visit.  Robert Service was a British immigrant to Canada; a banker by trade, he spent large periods of his life travelling Canada writing poetry and became known as the 'Bard of the Yukon' because of his poems inspired by the Klondike Goldrush.  The American author Jack London actually lived about 120kms south of Dawson, but his cabin was reconstructed here using some of the original timbers.

After two nights in Dawson, which felt like enough in the off season, we headed back down the Klondike Highway to Whitehorse.  

Our final night in the Yukon was spent in the Moose Cabin at Caribou RV Park, a cozy cabin which makes a great last stop due its proximity to the airport.  They also provide a lovely hamper of Yukon goods, on request, which we actually picked up early and took up to Sky High.

The Spell of the Yukon

We were definitely taken in by the 'Spell of the Yukon', and can't wait to go back this summer.

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