Canada’s Yukon Territory is known for its remoteness, and for its astounding scenic beauty. It’s a destination for adventure seekers and adrenaline junkies, and for those looking to escape the suffocating crush of the city. From float plane flights to exploring the region’s First Nation culture, there are a thousand ways to spend your time in the Yukon. Here are six of the very best things to do on your vacation to Canada’s last frontier.
Canoe the Region's Mighty Rivers
The Yukon’s wild tracts of spruce and pine forest are criss-crossed with rivers. In the past, these rivers were aquatic highways, providing the easiest method of transport for settlers, traders and First Nation hunters. Today, the rivers also offer one of the most authentic ways of experiencing the territory’s vast, untouched scenery for yourself. You can hire a canoe from operators like Yukon Wild or Kanoe People (both located in Whitehorse), or you can opt for a guided trip instead. There are many waterways to choose from, with some of the most popular being the Yukon River, the Teslin River and the Pelly River.
Each river has its own set of attributes—the three listed above, for example, are particularly good for historic sights, beginners and wildlife sightings respectively. Whichever river you choose, embarking on a canoe trip into the wild is the ultimate way to reconnect with nature. Spend your days drifting on fast-flowing currents past dense forests and high limestone cliffs. In the evening, make camp in the bush to the accompaniment of the loon’s lonely cry. You can put your survivalist skills to the test by fishing for your dinner in creeks and eddies filled with pike and grayling; while wild animals are often spotted on the river banks.
Tour the Alaska Highway
If you’d rather travel by car, consider a road-trip along the legendary Alaska Highway. Designed to connect the contiguous U.S. with Alaska, construction on the highway began in 1942 during the height of the Second World War. Now paved in its entirety, it runs for 1,387 miles/ 2,232 kilometers from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Delta Junction in Alaska. For intrepid travelers, the Alaska Highway offers spectacular scenery, fascinating history and above all, the freedom of the open road. There are numerous points of interest to visit along the way, making this route as much about the journey as the destination.
Stops in the Yukon include the Continental Divide of the Americas, the Signpost Forest at Watson Lake and the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center in Whitehorse. The Signpost Forest began in 1942, when a homesick U.S. soldier working on the road’s construction put up a signpost for his hometown in Illinois. The tradition stuck, and today the “forest” includes more than 72,000 signs from all over the world, left by travelers making their own pilgrimage along the Alaska Highway. At the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center, learn about the animals that once roamed from Siberia to North America when a land bridge existed between the two during the last Ice Age.
Watch for Wildlife
Whether you’re traveling by canoe, car or horseback, there is always a chance of coming face-to-face with the region’s wildlife. From black bears grazing on wild berries at the side of the road to bald eagles soaring overhead, one comes to expect the unexpected in the Yukon. For the best sightings, head to Kluane National Park, a protected area in the southwest that boasts Canada’s largest ice field and highest mountain. It’s also home to North America’s most diverse grizzly population. Other predators include black bears, wolves, coyotes and lynx; while ungulate species like moose and Dall’s sheep are also frequently spotted.
Kluane is also a good choice for avid birders, providing a home for around 150 different species. Amongst these are the mighty golden and bald eagles. Opt to see the park on a day hike, or a multi-day rafting or camping expedition.
Those that don’t have the time or budget to head out to Kluane should consider a visit to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, located a 25-minute drive from downtown Whitehorse. Here, you can see northwest Canada’s indigenous mammals in an enclosed, but natural, environment. Species on display include woodland caribou, Dall’s sheep and Canadian lynx, and unlike Kluane, sightings are almost guaranteed.
Discover Gold Rush History
Gold was first discovered in a tributary of the Klondike River in 1896. Before that time, the population of the Yukon was just 5,000; by 1898, that number had inflated with prospectors and gold rush entrepreneurs to 30,000. The Klondike Gold Rush was short-lived, however; by 1899, many of the fortune-seekers had moved on to new claims in Nome, Alaska. Despite its brevity, the Klondike Gold Rush is still entrenched in Yukon culture—and nowhere more so than in Dawson City. Originally a First Nations hunting camp, the town became the center of the gold rush and was known for a while as the Paris of the North.
Although just 1,375 people remain of the 40,000 that lived at Dawson City during its peak, it’s a much-loved destination for tourists hoping to relive the Klondike glory days. Visit the Dawson City Museum for an insight into the rush’s great rewards and hardships, as well as a look at the First Nations people and European fur traders who came before the prospectors. At nearby Claim 33 Gold Panning, you can even learn the art of gold panning for yourself. Gold Rush history is also prevalent elsewhere. In Whitehorse, the MacBride Museum offers several exhibits on the subject, while the Yukon River is home to abandoned settlements and gold dredges.
Sample Local Restaurants & Nightlife
If you’re headed to Dawson City for its gold rush heritage, make sure to pay a visit to its most famous bars. The Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall is a period-style casino boasting three can-can shows every night from May to September. The Sourdough Saloon is best known for the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail—a shot of Yukon Jack whisky garnished with a mummified human toe. This bizarre tradition began with the frostbitten toe of a 1920s rum runner, and to date over 71,400 visitors to Dawson City have imbibed the cocktail and joined the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. Fortunately, swallowing the toe is strictly forbidden.
For a more substantial meal, then, try the Klondike Rib & Salmon restaurant in Whitehorse. Open only in summer and subject to queues around the block, this popular spot serves local delicacies ranging from bison meatballs to elk stroganoff and Alaskan halibut. Nearby Gold Pan Saloon is another Whitehorse highlight, serving feel-good American cuisine and microbrews from Yukon Brewing. Also available from any Yukon liquor store worth its salt, the brewery’s range includes an impressive list of different beers with imaginative names like Ice Fog, Lead Dog and Midnight Sun.
Experience the Yukon in Winter
Although many restaurants close in winter and activities like canoeing are no longer possible, there are plenty of reasons to visit the Yukon out of season. The weather frequently drops below -22ºF/ -30ºC, and daylight hours are limited (above the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t rise at all on the December solstice). However, winter is also usually characterized by clear, sunny days, and the beauty of the snow and ice-bound landscape is astonishing. Try your hand at snowshoeing, or join an ice-fishing trip—allowing you to angle for species like lake trout, Arctic grayling and Arctic char. Fishing licenses can be bought online ahead of your trip.
The Northern Lights can also be seen any time from the end of August to early April, and dedicated Aurora Borealis tours put you in the best location to see this bucket list phenomenon firsthand. Perhaps the most popular winter pursuit in the Yukon, however, is dog sledding. Whether you sign up for a few hours or a serious multi-day expedition, dog sledding tours give you an insight into the incredible bond between the dogs and their musher. If you want to watch the pros at work, time your trip to coincide with the Yukon Quest, the legendary 1,000-mile sled race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.