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Our Western Canada Road Trip: Whitehorse, Carcross & Atlin

I was very excited at the start of this week, mainly for the prospect of returning to a bit of civilisation. Don’t get me wrong, I love hiking and epic paddling trips but we had been in northern Yukon for six weeks and I was really looking forward lots of summer food (blueberries! corn!) that was just too expensive or non-existent ‘up north.’

A surprise in Whitehorse

As well as the long-awaited food, we also arrived into Whitehorse to find the sunshine (yay!) and a wonderful surprise. Our friends Richard and Karina from Vancouver Island were passing through Whitehorse the same day as us!

It was really awesome to see some familiar faces after three and a half months on the road, especially 2,500km away from when we had last seen them! Our van looked like a giant compared to Richard and Karina’s little red car, see below.

The wrong way around?

As well as reuniting with friends, we also revisited the Yukon River and reminisced about our Whitehorse departure almost a month before.

If only the weather had been this good that day! Seeing the Klondike sternwheeler at the edge of the river made me think that perhaps we should have stopped in Whitehorse before we started our two-week journey on the river; it feels like we did it all a bit backwards, learning more about the culture and history of the Yukon after we paddled it.

A similar thing with Yukon Brewing; by the time we got to visiting the actual brewery, we had already been drinking the beer for weeks. Definitely, the other way round then how we usually do things!

Meeting with friends in Whitehorse
Klondike boat in Whitehorse
Yukon River Whitehorse
Yukon Brewing
Whitehorse Tram

Going home

Having already driven the Dawson City-Whitehorse road several times already (to get to the Dempster, to start our canoe trip) you may wonder why we didn’t drive into Alaska and complete the standard circuit that most people seem to do. Simply put, it wouldn’t have been worth it since we actually had somewhere to be.

Jean Robert had made arrangements to visit his family in New Brunswick for a few weeks, coinciding with Acadian Day on August 15th. At this point, he hadn’t been home for four years and with us not working or having any commitments, it seems like as good as time as any to go.

We didn’t ever consider me going with him, since it cost around $1000 for the flights (more than my flights in February to back to the UK!) and I knew if I went, we’d end up doing a lot of touristy things and it would cost a whole lot more than the initial flight cost.

Besides, it gave him the opportunity to speak nothing for French and have some quality family time for a whole two weeks! With JR’s flight leaving from Whitehorse, we had a few days to kill…but it can be hard in the Yukon to find things to do without going ‘too far.’

The Carcross Desert

Luckily then, we hadn’t been to Carcross yet, a small town just over an hour’s drive from Whitehorse. On the way, there happens to be Emerald Lake, known for its beautiful green colouring (caused by deposits of clay and calcium carbonate) and the Carcross Desert. No, really.

The latter is one square mile of sand dunes, referred to as ‘the smallest desert in the world’ but really not since the climate is too humid to truly be one. Regardless, we both thought it was pretty awesome (and a bit surreal). Absolutely not something you would expect to find in Canada, let alone the Yukon!

Emerald Lake near Carcross
Carcross Desert Yukon
Carcross Desert
General Store Carcross

Cute Carcross

In Carcross itself there were more surprises, most notably being a really nice beach. Sadly, it was much too windy (as in, hard-t0-walk windy) to even contemplate sitting by the lake, but it did partly explain where all that sand at the Carcross Desert came from. Some local kite-surfers were certainly enjoying it though.

Carcross is a cute place, with a newly developed boardwalk area with ridiculously good gelato and a little museum in Skookum Jim’s house (one of the co-founders of the gold discovery that started the Klondike Gold Rush).

The White Pass railway takes passengers along the historic 1900 route to Skagway, Alaska, and back, via mountains, glaciers, ravines et al. It was built to provide a better route over the mountains for would-be gold miners, who were spending months travelling and transporting their gear on foot over the Chilkoot Trail from south-east Alaska.

The bad news for the White Pass company was that the Klondike Gold Rush was more or less over by the time the railway opened.

Nowadays, people ride the White Pass for fun, or to return to Skagway after completing the Chilkoot Trail themselves. I would absolutely love to do the latter…maybe one day. For now, I just met a friendly bear at the station (see photo below).

Bennet Lake Carcross
Bear at Carcross Station
White Pass Train
White Pass Train
Fishing on Tagish Lake

A trip to British Columbia

With only a few days left in the Yukon for a while, JR just wanted to fish. The fish, however, did not want to be caught, despite trying at Tagish Lake, Snafu Lake and Hidden Lakes. It just wasn’t meant to be.

We did see some nice places though! The weather also held up and was remarkedly warm. After Jean Robert’s crack of dawn departure (5am!) I had some errands to do.

Just before we left Dawson City, I received my Permanent Residency card in the mail, and with my temporary British Columbia drivers license running out very soon, I needed to apply for my ‘proper’ one. So I had to go to BC, which could have been a bit of an epic trip.

Luckily then, there’s a little geographical anomaly south of Whitehorse that makes the trip to BC a lot easier.

Atlin, BC

Atlin is a tiny town in the extreme north-eastern part of BC. The only way to reach it by road is via the province of Yukon, a highway that was only built in 1950!

Atlin’s population, like so many others in this area, exploded during the Gold Rush, with around 10,000 residents compared to 500 today. It’s an attractive place, next to the very long and sometimes very blue Atlin Lake which is a gigantic 136km long. And I thought Lake Laberge, at 50km, was big!

There is no municipal government here, so the town’s residents govern themselves. I loved the spirit and tenacity of the locals, as well as the beauty of the surrounding mountains and glaciers.

Snafu Lake Yukon
Snafu Lake
Hidden Lake Whitehorse
Hidden Lake Whitehorse
Atlin Lake
Atlin Lake
Tarahne Atlin Lake
The Tarahne ‘sternwheeler’ (built in the style but actually diesel powered) used for 1930’s tourism
Atlin Lake mountains
Atlin Jail gold rush
Llewellyn Glacier Atlin
Llewellyn Glacier Atlin

The road to Alaska

New temporary drivers license in hand and the real one on the way, I could now continue onto my true destination: Alaska! Of course, JR does want to go to Alaska one day, but as a dedicated trip, so he was fine with me taking a few weeks to see a little.

It is a big state after all. I was a little apprehensive about going on my own, but what else was I going to do for two weeks? My first stop on my Alaska road trip was Skagway, an easily accessible town perched by the ocean in the ‘bit that should be Canada’ as my Dad says.

It’s only a few hours drive from Whitehorse to get to the border, and on the way, I saw some absolutely stunning scenery which made me more than a little excited for what was in store…

Tagish Lake
Tagish Lake
Driving to Alaska border Skagway
Near the Canada/Alaska border on the Klondike highway

 Week 16: Dawson City to Whitehorse, southern Yukon, Atlin and the road to Alaska

1337 kilometres driven

3km paddled (Snafu Lake, near BC/Yukon border)

0km hiked

$120 spent, with a fair portion on a couple of big grocery shops and ice-cream. Hurray!

camping week 17

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Our Western Canada road trip: Week 17 and 18 | Off Track Travel

Friday 10th of October 2014

[…] road trip….just me, the Astro van and a whole lot of northern wilderness. As mentioned in my last blog, JR flew home to New Brunswick to celebrate Acadian Day with his family for the first time in many […]


Friday 26th of September 2014

I thought the Carcross desert was a joke at first, but it really is cool! Thanks for all of the Northern tips, plenty to keep me going up there. I liked your little dip down in to BC to get your license! Hopefully we can meet next month in Vancouver.



Tuesday 30th of September 2014

Hey Joe! I was really impressed how much there is just a short drive from Whitehorse. Though Atlin is a bit of a geographical anomaly, I'm so glad I didn't have to drive all the way back to the main part of BC!