In Alaska, Gold Rush insights on White Pass & Yukon Route tour

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A tourist train along the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad makes its way back to Skagway.
A tourist train along the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad makes its way back to Skagway. Photo Credit: TW Photo by Eric Moya

One of my favorite ways to sightsee is from the comfort of a rail car. If that sightseeing tour happens to take place aboard a train with its own storied past, all the better.

So during my Alaska cruise last year, I was excited to board a White Pass & Yukon Route (WP&YR) train in Skagway for a White Pass Summit excursion. The 40-mile, roundtrip excursion traverses a narrow-gauge railroad built for the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, winding its way "along jaw-dropping hairpin curves, over plunging gorges, past sparkling glaciers and waterfalls and across sky-high trestles," as my shore excursion list described it. Sounded like a great way to spend about three hours.

A shuttle picked us up from the pier and drove us to the rail station a couple of minutes away. Most modern trains are too wide for the summit's 19th century tracks, so WP&YR employs midcentury, narrow-gauge cars and locomotives (though most of the vintage locomotives were set to be replaced by new ones this year). Two cabin classes were offered: I opted for the standard class; luxury class included appetizers and beverages.

The White Pass was named for Thomas White, a Canadian politician who served as minister of the interior, and for those prospectors headed to the Yukon in search of riches, it became the preferred path versus the shorter but far more treacherous Chilkoot Pass. That's not to say the White Pass was without its dangers: About 3,000 horses died along the way, earning it the nickname "the Dead Horse Trail."

The railway was completed after just over two years, and the WP&YR operated from 1900 until 1982, shutting down operations amid the mining industry's collapse. Six years later, the WP&YR was revived as a tourism attraction. 

We learned those facts and others as our train made its ascent. I sat on the right-hand side, which was the less picturesque view; those who would prefer to catch the tour's highlights on the way up should angle for a seat on the left-hand side. It was a brisk, sunny day during my tour, and a handful of passengers stood in the platform area for optimum views and photo-ops. 

WP&YR offered hourly departures, and I opted for an early one, which meant we returned to Skagway with an hour or so to spare before lunch. 

I took a stroll down Broadway and did a quick walk-through of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park's visitor center before heading to the Red Onion Saloon, a Skagway institution since 1897. Costumed servers evoked the venue's bordello roots, and the saloon offers tours of the building as well as walking tours of the town. The menu was decidedly, and thankfully, contemporary: sandwiches, pizza and a wide variety of liquors and beer, including the ubiquitous Alaska Brewing Co. selections.

Prices for the WP&YR's White Pass Summit excursion start from $130 per adult to $65 for ages 3 to 12; ages 2 and younger ride for free. See https://wpyr.com.

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