Skagway is located in Alaska's panhandle along the northern tip of the Inside Passage, which is a sea channel between several large islands and the mainland. The closeness to the sea brings cool summers and mild winters.
Skagway had a population 920 in the 2010 census. The economy of the city is based on tourism. Average summer temperatures range from 45°-67°F and winter temperatures average 18°-37°F. You definitely need warm clothes and raingear because Skagway gets about 26 inches of rain per year and 39 inches of snow.
Skagway's downtown area has many gold-rush-era buildings that are preserved as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. One of the main attractions is the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad that runs vintage locomotives along the trails used by prospectors during the Yukon gold rush.
Skagway became the first incorporated city in Alaska in 1900. It had a population of 3,117 at that time, which was the second largest settlement in Alaska.
The restored buildings have colorful facades, but are thoroughly modern inside. The picture above shows the Milano Diamond Gallery whose customers are mainly cruise ship passengers on vacation. The waitresses in the adjacent Red Onion Saloon are dressed in gold-rush period costumes.
Many of the stores sell salmon products and the typical souvenirs, such as magnets, cups, bottle openers and T-shirts. The stores also sell warm clothing and raincoats, which are very necessary in Skagway.
There is not much to do in Skagway. You can explore all the downtown by walking for about one hour. Cruise ships typically dock for eleven hours in Skagway, so many passengers choose to take a bus or train tour into Canada's Yukon territory.
The Yukon Territory
Gold was discovered in the Klondike in August 1896, and the first boatload of prospectors landed in Skagway in 1897. By October of the same year, Skagway had grown from a field of tents into a city of 20,000 people with well-laid-out streets and numerous frame buildings, stores, saloons, gambling houses and dance halls.
The bus and train tours take passengers along the same route used by the gold prospectors.
Crossing the international border requires a passport. Immigration officers board the buses or the train and check the documents.
The bus route from Skagway to Carcross goes over the Carcross Desert, which has the distinction of being one of the smallest deserts in the world. The desert sand was deposited as silt in glacial lakes during the last glacial period, and the sand dunes were formed by the wind after the lakes dried up.
The city of Caribou Crossing, which is 53 miles from Skagway, was renamed as Carcross in 1904. Carcross is an unincorporated community in Yukon, Canada with a population of about 300 people.
In the 1880s, large numbers of caribou migrated across the natural land bridge between Lake Bennett and Nares Lake. This migration gave the city its name. That caribou herds were hunted almost to extinction during the Klondike Gold Rush. Today, Carcross is more like a rest stop than a town.
Carcross provides a convenient bus stop that allows passengers to eat, get some Canadian souvenirs and learn about dog mushing. Carcross is the transfer point between the train and the buses.
One of the attractions at Carcross is the wild life exhibit. In addition to some live animals like the llamas and the huskies housed outdoors, there is an indoor exhibit of current and extinct wild life of Canada, such as mastodons and short-faced bears.
The Yukon tours provided by the cruise ships take passengers in buses for one leg of the trip from Skagway to Carcross, and the passengers are transferred to the train for the return trip. Carcross was a fishing and hunting camp for Inland Tlingit and Tagish people. Artifacts from First Nations people living in the area 4,500 years ago have been found in the region.
The abandoned houses across the river from the tourist area are evidence that life here is hard. Human habitation is challenged by the inclement weather, the rugged terrain and the ferocious wildlife.
Construction on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad started on May 1998. The route climbs from sea level in Skagway to almost 3,000 feet at the summit of the White Pass of the Coastal Mountains. The railroad track has tight curves over a 10-foot-wide road bed with steep grades of about 3.9%. The first four miles of track were completed in just two months, and the railroad's first engine went into service on July 21, 1898.
The construction of 110 miles of track had to overcome many obstacles. Two tunnels had to be dug and numerous bridges were built to cross the streams and chasms between the mountain peaks. One crew worked from the south and another came from the north heading south. They met at Carcross on July 29, 1900, where the president of the railroad, Samuel H. Graves, drove a ceremonial golden spike. By this time, the Klondike Gold Rush had ended, and large numbers of prospectors headed for Nome, Alaska lured by new discoveries of gold.