Overview

Located at the northern end of the Inside Passage, Skagway, Alaska, emerged in the late 1890s as a makeshift gold-rush town of tents and shacks with a population of 8,000-10,000 adventurers who arrived by boat with supplies for the hellish trek overland to the Yukon gold fields. Of course, the town had its temptations, too: painted ladies, gambling houses and 80 saloons. A famous person from that time is Jefferson R. "Soapy" Smith, a con artist who ran Skagway and swindled new arrivals out of their savings. (He was killed in a shoot-out in 1898.)

Today, Skagway's rushers arrive on cruise ships. Besides Juneau, Skagway is the most popular port in southeast Alaska. The town has become something of a gold-rush theme park: Much of Skagway has been painstakingly restored and designated as the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Locals dress in 1890s costumes and give tours in vintage autos. Dance-hall girls kick up their legs in restored saloons, and Soapy Smith is immortalized in the play Days of '98.

Although some may find Skagway overly cute and contrived (not to mention crowded when cruise ships are docked), the town can be a fun place to visit and relive the past with the friendly residents.

Geography

The gateway to the Klondike is at the northern tip of Alaska's Inside Passage at the head of Lynn Canal. A triangle of flat land wedged between mountains on two sides and ocean on the third, Skagway still feels like a frontier town, with boardwalks and false-fronted buildings.

The Skagway River and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad flank the town on either side. State ferries and cruise ships dock downtown, and you can walk anywhere in town, much of which is part of the historic district. The town is 15 blocks long and four blocks wide.

Both the railroad and the highway to Canada climb above the tree line in a few miles/kilometers, offering expansive views of the northern tip of the Inside Passage and the town hemmed in by ocean and snow-dusted mountains.

Skagway and Haines are the only two southeast Alaskan communities that are accessible via road from the rest of North America. Skagway is approximately 819 mi/1,318 km from Anchorage and 702 mi/1,133 km from Fairbanks. Even though Skagway is only 14 mi/22 km northeast of Haines, it's about a one-hour ferry ride and 359 mi/578 km via road.

History

Skagua, home of the north wind, began as a Tlingit hunting and fishing area at the head of a traditional trading route through the coastal mountains. Capt. William Moore of Canada homesteaded the area in the late 1880s and named it Mooresville. When gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, gold seekers steamed up the Inside Passage to Skagway.

From town, miners hauled the required "ton of goods" over the precipitous Chilkoot (the poor man's trail) or the White Pass trails through the mountains to the Canadian gold fields 600 mi/965 km inland. The "Golden Stairs" of Chilkoot Pass saw a long, black line of miners hiking, with heavy packs on their back, single-file up steps chopped into the snow. Some of these stampeders were forced to hike this trail as many as 30 times in order to transport their required gear. Dead Horse Gulch is a landmark reminder of the 3,000 horses that died crossing the White Pass Trail.

The trip got easier in 1900 with the construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. It took brute strength, 450 tons of explosives and the lives of 35 men to complete this engineering landmark, a narrow-gauge railway that climbs from tidewater to 2,865 ft/888 m in 20 mi/32 km. The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, the Days of '98 show, and a train ride commemorate this era of Skagway's history.

The Skagway newspaper provides a historic timeline at http://www.skagwaynews.com/skagwaytimeline.html.

Sightseeing

There is much to see in and around Skagway. For the visitor who is short on time, we recommend one of the many organized tours available. A sightseeing opportunity that shouldn't be missed is a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.

Nightlife

Skagway is certainly a small town, and nightlife options are therefore limited. The most popular option is a rowdy night at The Red Onion Saloon.

Dining

Many of Skagway's restaurants are open only in the summer—they're definitely geared to tourists. Prices are high, and waits can be long if several ships are in port at the same time.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.

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