My husband and I have been traveling for 14 years — since the time we met and married. And whenever we are asked the question “What is the most memorable trip you have ever taken?” our answer is still, after all these years, the same. It happened because we wanted to go back from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Seattle, Washington on a different route from the way we came up from Calgary, Alberta. That was a consequential decision because it led to our epic Yukon Arctic Road Trip. That it was almost fall added to the color and the spectacle. Let me tell you this once-in-a-lifetime story, highlighting the best stops along the way.
1. Chicken, Alaska
After a short visit to experience Christmas in September in North Pole, Alaska, we were ready to go back to mainland U.S.A. But we determined to go back via a different route, not along the Alaska Highway. Instead, we found an interesting diversion: Go east to Chicken, Alaska, and the Top of the World Highway, then on to the historic City of Dawson, Yukon, before going south on the Klondike Highway, which drops down to the Cassiar Highway in British Columbia.
The road to Chicken, Alaska was all gravel, a prelude to our next several days of travel. The town’s summertime population was 32 at the time (wintertime: 7). It got its name because the residents could not spell the word ptarmigan, a type of bird with feathered feet that is native to the area and looks like — you guessed it — a chicken. This was the most rustic camping we had experienced to date. There were two campgrounds, one with gold-panning activities up the hill and the other with the country store down below. We chose the former and were rewarded with a spectacular sunset.
2. Top Of The World Highway
This 79-mile-long highway begins at a junction with the Taylor Highway and travels east to Dawson on the western banks of the Yukon River in the City of Dawson. It has been in existence since 1955 and is only open mid-May to mid-October, and sometimes not even. It is one of the most northerly highways in the world. Two farther north, the Dempster Highway and the Dalton Highway, both lead to the Arctic Circle.
The Top of the World Highway deserves its name because it skirts the crests of endless mountains, affording only random peeks of the valleys below. Since the highway is above the tree line, the whole route was devoid of trees. We got a preview of this kind of alpine tundra in Denali National Park. But here it was in great splendor, resembling an expansive carpet of red, orange, gold, and yellow that covered the undulating mountain tops, setting it apart from the great big, blue sky.
The Poker Creek-Little Gold Creek Border Crossing was open (pre-COVID) during the summer months from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Alaska time). It was unlike any other border I have seen. There was nary a soul, just my husband, the immigration officer, and me. And soon after, we reached the highway terminus, where a ferry connects West Dawson to Dawson in summer (the residents use an ice bridge in winter). My husband and I, Star (our RV), and Vino (our scooter), rode the small ferry. Such exciting times!
3. Downtown Dawson City
The City of Dawson is inextricably linked to the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-99). It served as Yukon’s capital from the territory’s founding in 1898 until 1952, when it was moved to Whitehorse. During its heyday, there were about 40,000 living in the city, but now the population stands at only 1,375. Even then, it is the second-largest town in the Yukon, a part of Canada that is remote, pristine, and sparsely populated, just like the two other Canadian Territories, Nunavut and Northwest.
Dawson City’s “golden” past is kept alive by colorful saloons, thriving general stores, and old theaters in the architecture of its historic past. All new construction must comply with standards that ensure this appearance. This historic core of the town is a National Historic Site of Canada. Every February, Dawson City acts as the halfway mark for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, during which mushers do a mandatory 36-hour layover to prepare for the second half of the world’s toughest sled dog race.
The town is so interesting that the area around it is featured prominently in the novels and short stories of American author Jack London, including his classic, The Call of the Wild. The famous writer lived in a rustic Dawson cabin up the hill from 1897 to 1898. Surprisingly, it was side by side with another cabin, the one owned by the Canadian poet Robert Service. This was a great find for us.
4. Sites Of The Klondike Gold Rush
Dawson is in the area where, in the spring of 1898, gold was discovered in nearby creeks. Thousands arrived, and the famous Klondike Gold Rush began. Later, the discovery of large gold dredges kick-started an industrial mining operation, unearthing large amounts of gold out of the creeks. The landscape changed, the creeks shifted, and a network of canals and dams were built to produce hydroelectric power. The dredges shut down for winter, except for Dredge No. 4, which is now the Klondike National Historic Site of Canada. That’s where we saw what is said to be the largest gold steam shovel in the world. Dawson was definitely worth the diversion.
5. Dempster Highway
The only thing that disappointed me about our time in Dawson was the fact that I did not get to witness the aurora borealis there. So the day we were to leave for Whitehorse to resume our trip back to the Lower 48, I pleaded with my husband to go north instead, up the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle. We passed up the opportunity in Fairbanks, Alaska, even though the Dalton Highway is shorter and better. I told him we would probably regret it if we did not do it; only about three days and two nights separated us from the bragging rights.
Luckily, he agreed even though he knew it would be a rough journey, especially since we had an old second-hand 24-foot RV. The Dempster Highway is a 457-mile road that connects the Klondike Highway in the Yukon to Inuvik, Northwest Territories (now there is even a new highway that extends to the Arctic Ocean). It was a dirt-gravel road; rocks were put together and sealed/packed by mud. My husband said that if it looked like Star would not be able to handle it, then we would just go back. But we didn’t. Many times we had to slow down to 5 miles an hour. At the end of the trip, Star had to have all her shocks replaced. But it was all well worth it.
6. Tombstone Territorial Park
Crossing the Ogilvie and Richardson mountain ranges had been a succession of one beautiful scene after another, as the trees of the valley changed into shrubs of the subalpine hills then into the moss, lichens, and fungi of the alpine tundra, all in blazing fall colors. Every 15 minutes, I would ask my husband to stop for yet another spectacular view. The day after, going down from the Circle, the colors seemed even more vibrant as more of everything had turned even brighter yellow.
Everything seemed to gather, collect, and distill at Tombstone Territorial Park. It stands near the southern end of the Dempster Highway, protecting over 2,100 square kilometers of rugged peaks, permafrost landforms, diverse flora and fauna, including Dall’s sheep, caribou, moose, and black and grizzly bears. The park is also a birder’s delight, with about 150 bird species identified. A notable feature is Tombstone Mountain, which resembles a grave marker. Tourism operators offer excursions into the park during the summer months. There is an interpretive centre as well as several camping sites. But we were simply content with looking at the spectacular scenery.
7. Eagle Plains Hotel And Service Station
There is even a place where you can rest, on the way up or the way down, halfway between Dawson and Inuvik. Eagle Plains has a hotel with basic rooms, a cafeteria, a gas station, and several RV spaces. A storm had developed, the winds were strong, and the cold was biting during our stay. But we survived the night in Star because we kept each other warm! In the morning, the sun was shining again.
On the way down, we chose to boondock at a spot we found near where I saw a Dall sheep grazing at the river bank the day before. On the other side of the road was a hill ablaze with red, yellow, orange, and gold. Before nightfall, we spent the time looking at the different plants up close to discover how such a magnificent tapestry was woven. And we were happily surprised to meet a European couple who had stayed the night but camped farther from the river.
8. Arctic Circle
We saw an elephant rock atop a hill, fluted whitish mountains, little lakes, colorful carpeted fields, rushing rivers, and all things beautiful. Knowing that this was the land first seen by those who migrated from Asia to North America is moving. It is beautiful, untouched wilderness, vast and still. When we reached the Arctic Circle-Yukon at latitude 66 degrees 33 north, we were alone at the arch, proclaiming that one-of-a-kind spot on earth. It was cold. The winds were biting. We could not stay long. Shivering, we hurriedly put our camera on its timer, placed it on the lone picnic table, and took our once-in-a-lifetime shot.