A cruise through southeast Alaska is a convenient way to stop and discover the coastal towns that are not always easy to get to by other means. My recent Alaska cruise offered many Skagway excursions to discover this historic port. Tempting as they were though, this time I chose to take my own road less traveled to Carcross, Yukon in Canada.
My Princess Alaska cruise was actually a combination cruise and land tour that started with an exploration of Fairbanks under the midnight sun and ended in Vancouver. This was my second Alaskan cruise in recent years and between the two, I have done a number of shore excursions in each port, both organized by the cruise lines and independently.
Skagway excursions – finding a touch of history
Our cruise ship stop in Skagway was going to be a very long one so I really wanted to optimize the amount of sightseeing I did that day. I got off the ship soon after we docked and walked around Skagway for a bit, stopping briefly at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park Visitors Center and at the local quilt shop.
Skagway is not a big town and can be easily explored on foot from the cruise ship dock. About 100 buildings in Skagway’s downtown are designated as a National Historic District. They have been restored and maintained as a reminder of the Klondike gold rush era of the late 1890’s. The park district offers free ranger led tours that brings the history of Skagway and the Klondike Gold Rush to life. (You will need to pick up a ticket for a tour at the visitor’s center.)
In 1897 Skagway became the jumping off point for fortune hunters (called stampeders) headed for the Klondike gold rush in Canada’s Yukon Territory. But not just anyone could head out to stake a claim. The Canadian government accepted only those that brought with them a year’s supply of food. The prescribed supply list included 150 lbs of bacon, 5 lbs of salt, 1 lb of pepper, 1 can of mustard along with a long list of other necessary supplies that ultimately weighed in at a full ton.
Initially, all these goods had to be hauled by pack animals or on a stampeder’s back. Eventually the White Pass and Yukon Railroad was built from Skagway to Whitehorse, Canada. By the time the train line was completed in 1900, much of the Klondike gold rush frenzy had petered out, but the train continued to haul other metal bearing ore and passengers until 1982. In 1988 this narrow gauge train line reopened for cruise tourism passengers and continues to provide daily scenic rides from late April to early October. You can book train ride excursions in Skagway directly on the White Pass and Yukon website or take one of the shore excursion options offered by the cruise line.
I love train rides and for me, this was one of the most tempting things to do in Skagway. But since we had such a long day in port, I decided that I preferred to explore the route and the scenery from Skagway to Carcross in Canada on my own. So before leaving home I had made a rental car reservation with Avis which was a short walk from the National Historic Park Visitors Center.
By 11 AM I was on my way, driving the 1.5 hours to Carcross, Canada. For the first few miles, the road climbed steadily toward the White Pass. At about the 7 mile marker I drove through the US border patrol checkpoint (make sure you have your passport with you). I kept driving, looking for the Canadian border patrol, but it was another 15 miles further on, well past the White Pass summit, in Fraser, Canada.
The route up to White Pass was a gradual climb through mountains covered in evergreen trees. But once I crossed over the pass, the scenery changed dramatically to a subalpine environment with opal blue glacier carved lakes surrounded by rocky terrain, small, stunted greenery and soaring peaks on either side of me.
This was scenery like none I had ever seen before and I could not get enough of it, so it was a good thing that it went on for miles and miles. I later learned that this part of the drive was called the Tormented Valley which seemed a very appropriate name for this rocky and somewhat barren landscape. It was an overcast day with low hanging clouds and I am sure I did not see the scenery in its full glory.
Visiting Carcross, Yukon
In Carcross I headed for the Visitors center, which is located in the Carcross Commons, a collection of small colorful buildings that house shops and small local eateries, and even a tiny quilt shop.
Each building in the Commons is uniquely decorated with designs representing the local First Nations’ clans. The Carcross Tagish First Nations people follow a matriarchal lineage and belong to one of two larger groups: the Wolf or the Crow. The Wolf moiety is further divided into the Whale and Wolf clans, while the Crow moiety is made up of the Beaver, Raven, Frog, and Crow clans. Symbols representing these six clans were painted on the building and carved into the totem poles decorating the Carcross Commons.
During the summer months, you are likely to also find a local musician performing live music at the Carcross Commons during the week.
This was my lucky day because the town was in the middle of a weekend long First Nations’ celebration. I learned that this Haa Kusteeyi celebration is a biannual gathering of regional Tagish and Tlingit clans and this was the first time that this celebration was occurring in Carcross. In the Lingit language Haa Kusteeyi means “Our Culture” or “Our Way” and with this event the clans were sharing their dances, storytelling, traditional arts and crafts and food and all were welcome to participate.
The celebration was being held in the recently completed Carcross Learning Center which was built to showcase the art, culture and history of the Carcross/Tagish First Nations People. Decorating the front of the center were beautiful totem poles representing each of the six clans and also a bigger story pole.
I hung out with the locals for a while, grabbing lunch from one of the food trucks and then watching a few of the dance performances. Many of the dance costumes were quite elaborate and were clearly worn with a lot of pride as they showed which clan each person belonged to. This was not a fancy event – just a community getting together, sitting at long rows of tables, sharing food that was free to all and watching as their friends, relatives and neighbors shared their heritage through song, dance and stories.
It is because of these types of serendipitous encounters that I love to travel. Unfortunately, I had to get back to the ship, so could not stay very long, but I felt privileged to have had this authentic glimpse into the local culture. I would have missed out on this unique experience if I had not ventured on my own and gotten off the beaten path.
The drive back to Skagway was no less scenic than the drive into the Yukon. It started raining for a bit, but then the clouds cleared a little and mother nature graced me with a rainbow. A fitting end to a great day of exploration.
Travelers Tips for Skagway, Alaska excursions to Carcross, Canada
- If you want to drive for the day from Skagway to Carcross, be sure to book your rental car before you leave home. There are only a limited amount of cars available and multiple cruise ships dock in Skagway each day. When I picked up my car, all available cars were rented.
- Do not forget your passport since you will be traveling from the US to Canada and back.
- Download an offline version of Google maps for the area so you are not using up data as you navigate or in case you have poor cell service.
- It’s not a long drive to Carcross but the scenery is very pretty. Allow plenty of time to enjoy the sights along the way and also time to explore Carcross once you get there.
- Stop at the Carcross Visitor’s Center to get information about sights in and around town and about any possible events going on that day.
- If you don’t want to drive, the White Pass and Yukon railroad offers scenic train rides from Skagway to the White Pass and back.
- I loved my independent Skagway excursion to Carcross. It gave me a chance to have experiences I would not have had otherwise so do not be afraid to venture out on your own in an Alaskan cruise ship port.
Please note that I received a media credit on my cruise with Princess. All content and opinions are my own
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