There are no roads leading to Lake Bennett. The only way you can get there is by hiking the Chilkoot trail all the way from Skagway, paddling down the lake from Carcross, or riding the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway train like we did. Back in the Klondike days, the town of Bennett grew to an impressive size since it was located at the end of the Chilkoot trail. Weary travellers would spend a few days resting up in Bennett before building the raft they would use to travel down the lake to Whitehorse and on to Dawson on the Yukon River. The whole town was abandoned a few years after the gold rush and the only buildings that subsist to this day are St. Andrew's Church, one private residence, and the train station with its historic dining rooms, where you get to have lunch when you're on the railroad expedition (beef stew, coleslaw,sourdough bread, and a delicious slice of apple pie!). There's a short walking trail you can follow up the hill to where the town used to be and from where you get a really nice view of the lake. The trail also leads to the end of the Chilkoot Trail, and you can still see some of the items that were discarded by the stampeders as they reached Bennett lying on the ground.
This was without a doubt the highlight of our 10-day trip to Alaska & the Yukon. Back in 1898, construction of the White Pass railroad began to bring gold rushers from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon. It seemed like an impossible thing to do, but railroad engineer Michael J. Heney's quote is now famous: “Give me enough dynamite and I’ll build a railroad to hell”. Unbelievable as it may seem, it only took 26 months to build the 177 km long railroad, the first part of which had to climb to nearly 880 m to reach the summit of the White Pass before slowly making its way down to Lake Bennett, BC and on to Whitehorse, YK.
It started operating as a tourist attraction in 1988. Several types of excursions are offered, depending on the time you have and on whether or nor you need to get back to Skagway, In our case, since our friends were there to pick us up, we chose to go on the excursion that goes all the way to Carcross (the train no longer goes to Whitehorse, though it's possible to book a train-bus combo). We left Skagway at 7:30 am and arrived at Lake Bennett shortly after 10:00 am. Lunch was included at the historic Lake Bennett station, just like it was in the old days. We had a little over an hour to eat and walk around the area (see my Lake Bennett tip for more info) before the train departed for Carcross. We arrived there at 1:00 pm. The time spent on the train really flew by! You can ride at the back of the train to take pictures, and there were so many things to see along the way, I don't think i sat down for more than 10 minutes all together! The train ride is narrated, which gives you interesting historical information and they also let you know ahead of time when something special is about to come up so that you don't miss it. I especially enjoyed all the sharp turns, old bridges and tunnels we had to go through during the ride - they were a bit scary but so much fun, like a real-life rollercoaster!
Please note that reservations are highly recommended and that you need to bring your passport if you plan on crossing the Canadian border. There are restrooms on board and free water bottles, but no food facilities (you're allowed to bring your own snacks).
The reason why I'm putting this tip in the Things to do section rather than the Nightlife one is that it's much more fun to visit the Red Onion Saloon in the daytime, when the place is packed with people coming off the cruiseships, which makes for a loud and rowdy atmosphere, just as it should be given the history of the place. The Red Onion Saloon opened in 1898, and while the first floor was where men went to get liquored up, the second floor was where they went to satisfy a different kind of thirst...! There were 10 tiny rooms upstairs and to see which girls were available, customers only had to look at the 10 dolls behind the counter, each representing one of the girls working that night. When a doll was lying down, it meant that the girl was busy. Like everything else in Skagway, the Red Onion closed its doors soon after the Gold Rush, but it reopened in the 1980s, this time operating as a bar and restaurant with a brothel museum upstairs.
After having read so much about the Chilkoot Trail and seen so many photographs, i wanted to check it out for myself and although we didn't have time to do the whole trail (it takes most people at least 3 days to do it), I still wanted to got for a walk on it and imagine what it must have been like for the men (and the few women) who did it over 100 years ago, carrying the ton of supply that was mandatory to cross the Canadian border. The trail begins in Dyea, just a short drive from Skagway. Trail access is limited to 50 people per day, and you need a permit (issued by Parks Canada) to do the full trail. However, if you only plan on going for a short walk and don't plan on using any of the overnight facilities, then you don't need to worry about it. The trail is much nicer than what I had always imagined it to be - I was expecting it to be functional rather than scenic, but the climb up the lush and luxuriant forest is magnificient and it leads to some amazing views of the Taiya River down below. Do be aware that bears are common in the area and take the necessary precautions (for more info, see my "You are in bear country" tip).
Once you're done shopping, you might want to find out more about the history of Skagway and how it came to be associated with the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1896, when gold was found in the Klondike River, Skagway was the farthest point that could be reached by boat for the thousands of stampeders looking to make their way up north. They then had to walk up the steep Chilkoot trail, or the slightly easier but longer White Pass trail, until they reached Lake Bennet. The first ship arrived in Skagway in July 1897, and it's estimated that roughly 1,000 hopeful prospectors arrived in Skagway every week for the next couple of years, turning Skagway into Alaska's biggest town overnight. If Dawson City was virtually crime-free thanks to the presence of the Mounted Police, things were much different in Skagway - the city was filled with brothels and saloons, and Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, a notorious con artist, became the unofficial town's mayor. The Skagway Visitor Center has produced a brochure that includes a short self-guided tour of the city with some very interesting historical information. You can stop by the center to pick it up or print one using the link provided below.
There was just a little blurb about these falls in my guide book so I wasn't really expecting much but since they're only a short walk away from the Gold Rush Cemetery, I thought I'd check them out. There's a short walking trail that starts near the back of the cemetery and goes through the forest all the way to the falls, which were named in honor of Frank Reid, the man who finally rid the town of Jefferson "Soapy" Smith during a bloody shootout that was fatal for them both. As you walk up the trail and get closer to the falls, the temperature gets noticeably cooler since the water comes from the nearby icefields. When we finally reached the falls, I was stunned by the beautiful spectacle of these majestic falls rushing down the mountain. You can get pretty close to them but do be careful as rocks tend to be slippery. Definitely worth the short walk up from the cemetery!
As in Dawson City, a cemetery had to be created in Skagway for those who managed to make it all the way to the start of the Chilkoot trail but no further. The Gold Rush Cemetery is located on the outskirts of town, within easy walking distance from the downtown core (about 3 km from the cruise ship terminal). The markers and history of people buried there have been very well preserved so a quick stroll through the cemetery will offer you an interesting glimpse into what Skagway was like at the time of the Gold Rush. For instance, most people were buried between 1898 and 1902, and the vast majority were men in their mid-20s to mid-40s. There is a large information pannel near the entrance of the cemetery that's well worth reading - you'll surely get a few chuckles out of some of the stories reported there. Like most people, you can then go look for the grave of Jefferson "Soapy" Smith and that of the man who killed him, Frank Reid. Reid's gravestone is the largest in the cemetery and it bears the inscription "He gave his life for the honor of Skagway".
Access to the cemetery is free of charge.
Though it's miles away - both literally and figuratively - from New York City's Broadway, the two streets have this in common: their shops are one of the city's top attractions! Skagway's Broadway begins at the cruise ship terminal so that passengers who only have limited time to explore the city (cruise ships usually depart in the late afternoon) immediately invade the street and its souvenir shops. Prices are surprisingly low, so once you're done getting souvenir hats, t-shirts and mugs for your entire family, you can splurge on saltwater taffy, popcorn, a piece of fudge, or the seemingly inevitable ice cream!
Shopping in Skagway can fall under shopping, things to do AND Tourist Traps. And the buildings are a bit rougher version of how Disney might have done an Alaskan town. Despite that a wander up Broadway has a certain nostalgia to it.
As mentioned earlier, Haines is the perfect place to grizzly bears.
While we were walking along the riverbank we came across this grizzly teaching her cubs how to fish. I was amazed at just how close they were to the fisherman and they simply did not seem to care about each other.
It seems to me that if you have to buy all of you fishing gear, fishing attire and apply for a fishing licence to simply stand in the middle of grizzly bear country, US$35 per kilo in the supermarket is a chap price to pay!!!!
Well, another stunningly successful day!
Part of the reason that Anne and I travelled to Alaska was to see the grizzly bears, black bears, salmon spawning, glaciers, whales and Glacier Bay. I wanted to eat King Crab, attend a salmon bake and take a float plane ride into the wilderness.
Here we were, after only our second port of call and we had achieved every goal, except one. And we had achieved it in perfect weather.
The only thing that we had not done…..sailed into Glacier Bay. That meant there was only one thing left to do today, board the Sea Princess as the next destination is Glacier Bay……
The “Ports of Call Seaman’s centre” is the only place that I could find in Skagway to access the internet was on 2nd Avenue. If you are walking from the dock you will walk along 2nd avenue, past the Red Onion Saloon on the corner and the internet “café” is located on the right had side half way along the next block.
At $7.00 per 30 minutes, the price was very reasonable for this remote location. (Especially when the ship charges approx 65 cents per minute!)
Skagway fish Company - What a great place to try the King Crab Legs!
You can't come to Alaska and not try the King Crab!
Located close to the port, on the left hand side while walking the short distance to town, you will find the Skagway fish Company. Specializing in locally caught produce such as halibut etc, you can also order the staple “fish and chips,” or you can lash out and order the King Crab. Try it, you will not be disappointed!
As you can see by the attached photo, Skagway is very compact and flat. It is very easy to get around and is not strenuous at all.
Self guided walking tour maps are available from the Tourist Information Centre, located in the old Arctic Brotherhood building in the main street.
The maps have the complete layout of the town and the historical buildings/points of interest are numbered. There is also information on each of the points of interest along the way.
This walking tour can be completed in approx 60 minutes with an easy paced walk.
The weather was magnificent when we visited Haines and it appeared that just about every local was out fishing!
Just about everywhere you turned and looked on the river you either saw people or bears fishing, sometimes in very close proximity! It was amazing the watch the way that these fishermen cast their lures into the exact places that they wanted them…..but apart from the bears, I did not see one fish caught.