In 1896, gold was discovered in Canada’s Yukon Territory, which kicked off a stampede of adventurous prospectors during what has come to be known as the last great gold rush. Skagway, then a tiny settlement at the northern tip of the Lynn Canal, was the jumping-off point for the long, arduous journey through the coastal mountain range to the Klondike. A boomtown if ever there was one, many of the original buildings still stand.
Although most of the year the local population is a mere 950, Skagway becomes a busy port destination during summer months, welcoming more than a million visitors.
Start off any visit at one of Skagway’s most famous watering holes: the Red Onion Saloon. Located at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Broadway, it was once Alaska’s most exclusive brothel. Today, visitors find a fun, energetic atmosphere, where women dress up in costumes that embrace the spirit of ‘98. Upstairs, a provocative museum displays relics left by the former working girls, including a priceless silver dress found beneath the floorboards.
The red, wooden structure across the street is the former depot for the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, now headquarters for the National Park Service Visitors Center. Next door is the Gold Rush Museum, which displays artifacts from the pioneering days.
Moore’s Cabin, built in 1887 by gold prospector Captain William Moore and his son Ben, was the first structure to be erected in Skagway, and Moore is regarded as the founder of the town. Today, the National Park Service operates the restored log cabin and its adjacent Victorian home.
The McCabe College building, just off Broadway on 7th Avenue, was established in 1899 as Alaska’s first higher learning institution. It’s now home to Skagway City Hall and the Skagway Museum. Stop in for a quick bite and brew at the neighboring Skagway Brewing Company, known for producing fresh, unfiltered ales using hydroelectricity and only the purest Alaskan water. Along with exclusive craft beers, the pub serves up everything from specialty burgers and Buffalo wings to smoked salmon and halibut fish and chips.
For a complete tour of downtown, board the yellow 1920s-style Skagway Street Car. A costumed conductor imparts a century of knowledge with behind-the-scenes tales of life in small-town Alaska as the streetcar passes through the historic district; the Gold Rush Cemetery, where fabled villains are buried; and nearby residential neighborhoods famous for their flower gardens.
The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad was built in 1898—against all odds—over the jagged mountainside from Skagway into the Canadian Klondike. Today the narrow-gauge railroad is Skagway’s most popular tourist attraction, serving half a million riders every year. Make the round-trip by train or return by motor coach along the Klondike Highway.
While Skagway’s history is the focus of many excursions, the surrounding wilderness is just as worthy of exploration. Flightseeing tours are arguably some of the best—and most thrilling—ways to see the nearby glaciers. Helicopters lift off near the Skagway harbor. Another way to get face-to-face with Skagway’s glacial side is to ply the waters of the Lynn Canal via high-speed jet catamaran, 30-foot long canoe, or sturdy kayak, watching for whales, sea lions, beavers, porpoises, and swooping bald eagles. The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve boasts the largest concentration of the national symbol of the United States. The untouched and protected habitat is about 20 miles from Skagway alongside the shallow, never-freezing, narrow Chilkat River.