I didn't see The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in The Yukon to scratch them off my bucket list. I didn't see them because they will be fading for the next ten years. I didn't see them for the 'gram.
I saw them because it was the greatest reminder of how small I am, we are, in the grand scheme of this almighty, radiant Universe. I saw them because I turn on CNN and read The New York Times to lose any faith in humanity--to see another shooting in an elementary school, that the color of skin can determine police brutality and that human beings are still killing human beings every day.
But amongst it all; amongst the hate and the skepticism we encounter in our daily lives, The Yukon brought me back to the simple beauty life can offer. Never before has a destination spoken so loudly while being completely silent.
The Yukon is often called a "Larger than Life" destination. And in that moment, as I lay underneath a vibrant array of light green and violet dashes darting across a pitch black, I understood why.
Though the Yukon's magic persists all year round, I found winter to be a particularly special time. I arrived on a small regional plane on which I knew everyone by the time the hour-long flight from Vancouver landed on Air North, The Yukon's airline. But even then, I didn’t realize quite how special it would be.
Whitehorse, the capital of The Yukon, has about 23,300 inhabitants. There is one main street, aptly known as Main Street, intersecting the town. As a Manhattanite, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect with this “city.” But for what it lacked in quantity, it sure makes up for in quality.
It’s the kind of place where you not only know absolutely everyone, but you know their cousins and grandmother, their favorite food and what they did last Friday evening. And everyone has their specialty and niche—whether it be jerk chicken and a Caribbean flair at Antoinette's or a slice of fresh lemon cake at Blackbird Bakery. It takes the "small town" vibe to the next level.
And then there is The Yukon's natural environment. Here is how I recommend visiting a city that is this breathtaking every season, every month, and every moment.
Where to Go to Embrace Nature
Yukon’s Kluane National Park is a destination that will be indelible within your mind's eye- it's a must-see. It is truly one of the most unspoiled parks in North America (and the greater world). The beauty lies in the undiscovered—in the fact that it is almost impossible to spot so much as a shack or another human being.
I experienced the park cruising on a flight with Rocking Star Adventures. Hailing out of Hurwash Landing, this family-run adventure company for aerial sightseeing tours and chartered flights knows its stuff. Within moments our little plane was the only spec of color amongst a panoramic white background. 360 degrees. We were able to spot in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. (“Cool” fact for you: both of these parks are home to some of the globe's largest non-polar ice fields.)
The Yukon Wildlife Preserve: A 30-minute drive from the downtown Whitehorse, The Yukon Wildlife Preserve has vowed to encourage learning and appreciation of the unique ecology of the Arctic. The preserve offers the unparalleled opportunity to view 13 species of Northern Canadian mammals in their natural habitat, including The Canadian Lynx and The Alaska Yukon Moose. The preserve is over 700 acres.
Mount Sima, The Alpine Adventure Park: Mount Sima is open from early December until late March. Whitehorse is quite the paradise for those passionate about winter sports—with 5-6 months of snow and ice, skiing is the quintessential sport to try. The mountain boasts two terrain parks, ten marked runs and a bunny hill for beginning snowboarders or skiers. Though I have skied my fair share of interesting slopes throughout the world, skiing in The Arctic was truly a one-of-a-kind bucket list type of adventure.
Muktuk Kennels: No wonder the local business owners, surrounded by such natural riches, have committed themselves to environmental responsibility. A company that exemplifies this sentiment is Muktuk Adventures. Offering dog-sledding tours in the winter and with a Bed and Breakfast open year round, Muktuk is a must visit for sustainable travelers. Muktuk runs primarily on solar powered energy, supplies its water from an underground well and its restaurant with home-grown vegetables from the greenhouse.
And trust us--the second that you get clobbered and licked by one of Muktuk's pups, the words "puppy love" will take on an entirely new meaning.
Cathers Wilderness Adventures: Many of the businesses in the Yukon are small, family-owned ventures. Cathers Wilderness Adventures spans two generations and offers tours for small groups or individuals. Based thirty miles outside of Whitehorse, Cathers WildernessAdventures offers a selection of unique adventures such as hiking with huskies in the Yukon wilderness. Your pack dog serves as both a companion and a helper, carrying the food and tents for you.
Yukon Mountain Horses & More: Yet another option the Yukon has to offer animal lovers looking to bond and explore the land with a four-legged companion. Yukon Mountain Horses & More offers day tours and multi-day tours on Mount Michie less than 40 miles outside of Whitehorse. The business was started by a local couple who wanted to share their passion for horseback riding up hills and across streams in the Yukon.
Where to Eat and Drink Locally (and Sustainably!)
Klondike Rib and Salmon: One of the oldest building still in use in the Yukon, this century-old repurposed building houses a restaurant serving the finest local fare, including Northern Ocean Fish and wild game meats. With fresh and local ingredients, Klondike Rib & Salmon is a great option for sustainable dining.
Bonanza Market: If you find yourself in Dawson before heading out for a camping trip, Bonanza Market is a quaint, locally owned shop that offers fresh locally grown produce and local meats. Bonanza market is a great place to stock up before a camping trip.
Giorgio’s Cuccina: A traditional Italian gem in downtown Whitehorse, Giorgio’s offers homey Italian dishes in addition to Yukon specialties. Highlights from Giorgio’s hybrid menu include the Canadian Bison Burger, the incomparable Arctic char and the butternut squash ravioli which is a highly recommended option for vegetarian travelers.
Where to Shop Sustainably
Forty Mile Gold Workshop: This jewelry shop is truly the gem of downtown Dawson. Leslie Chapman, the owner of the shop, calls the gold in her signature jewelry “green gold” because its mined from her family’s mine on the historic Forty Mile River without harming the environment or exploiting labor. Her original design also features mammoth ivory from Yukon placer mines and Canadian diamonds.
Where to Stay
Campsites: The Yukon is a camper’s paradise with more than 40 government-operated campgrounds. If traveling on a budget, stay at The Gordon Park Campground, which does not incur a fee and is ideal for tents. The campground is run by the Municipality and is complete with fire pits and picnic tables. If your budget is a little roomier, The Tahini Hot Springs, located just outside of Whitehorse, has a tenting area just a short walk from the hot springs. The Hot Springs themselves are worth a visit--one of the most visited locations in The Yukon and over 100 years old, the two pools are a relaxing 36° and 42° degrees Celsius and naturally rich with minerals.
Westmark Whitehorse Hotel: If pitching a tent and cuddling next to a fire isn’t your definition of ideal accommodations, downtown Whitehorse offers travelers a number of more conventional options. Travelers looking for a home away from home will find that the Westmark Whitehorse Hotel has everything you need From a full-service restaurant to a fitness center, you'll find convenience and comfort. Westmark Whitehorse is centrally located in downtown Whitehorse, in close proximity to its finest shops and restaurants.
And there is no need to wander far in search of fine dining, considering the Steele Street Restaurant & Lounge is housed under the same roof. In addition to the local fare and specialties at the restaurant, I highly recommend relaxing at the lounge with a Yukon Brewing Company beer, a locally owned brewery, committed to the growth of the territory’s economy and supporting Yukon causes.
Getting to Whitehorse is even easier than you may anticipate, but caution is advised. As the Yukon Winter Visitor Guidebook explains, “Driving the Alaska Highway in the winter is usually not a problem. Good winter tires are essential as well as an emergency kit in case you break down. Cell phone coverage is sporadic, so dress for the weather in case of a roadside emergency.” For reference, Whitehorse is Kilometer 1,477 of the legendary Alaska Highway.
Protecting the Yukon
The motto for traveling in this area is actually "leave no trace" and here are some tips for doing so. This way nature can be enjoyed not just today, but for centuries to come.
As an environmentally mindful traveler, here are some dos and don’ts
1.Do pack out all your trash
2.Do build fires in existing fire pits or portable fire pans
3.Do bury or pack out human waste
4.Do travel on existing trails to avoid trampling vegetation
5.Don’t feed the wildlife
6.Don’t wash your dishes or yourself in a lake or river. Even biodegradable soap is harmful to fish!
7.Don’t forget to drench your fire with water. Most forest fires are started by humans!
8.Don’t pitch your tent or build a fire on plants
And of course, enjoy the lights.