I hate small towns because once you’ve seen the cannon in the park there’s nothing else to do. – former American comedian, Lenny Bruce. I confess. I muse over Lenny Bruce’s one-liner as I drive into Whitehorse, a small town situated in the Yukon Territory’s south, just off the Alaska Highway. Named after the creamy rapids of the 3,200km-long Yukon River on which the town is located (the rapids were thought to have resembled horses manes), Whitehorse is compact indeed. Its downtown area measures just four by one kilometre and its population of 28,000 people makes up the majority of the Yukon Territory’s total population of 36,000; it’s a dot in a territory that is so vast, locals claim there are 10 moose and 10 caribou per person. But as the saying goes, small things hold big surprises. I soon discover that this compact place – with its wide streets and charming 20th century buildings – has a huge history, with sights to prove it. Here are my top things to do in Whitehorse.
White Pass & Yukon railway
Beyond the town’s ultra-clean, grid-like streets are the pretty spruce-covered peaks – Grey Mountain, Haeckel Hill and Golden Horn Mountain; these explain why, perhaps, Whitehorse is known as “the Wilderness City”.
It’s easy to imagine how the area might have looked when First Nations people camped here before 1898.
The year marked the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush, when prospectors paused at Whitehorse en-route to the gold fields, after tackling their major navigational obstacles, among them, water rapids.
By 1900, in part to bypass the tricky white waters, the White Pass & Yukon narrow gauge railway was built.
This linked Whitehorse with Skagway, a tidewater port on the Alaskan coast. These days, the only trip from Whitehorse is via a restored waterfront 1925 trolley that runs between the two ends of town.
Copper mining in the first decades of the 1900s, and the construction of the Alaska Highway during WWII, secured Whitehorse’s place on the map. It became the territorial capital in 1953.
As I wander past the restored White Pass and Yukon Railway depot, I can almost hear the clatter and whistles, steam and shouts as men prepared frantically for their prospecting adventure.
Or perhaps that’s because I’ve just spent hours with my imagination in the evocative and quaint McBride Museum of Yukon History. The museum is a gem and wandering around it is one of the best things to do in Whitehorse, especially when the weather is inclement.
The museum’s beautiful dioramas depict life as it was, along with profiles of the town’s shady and colourful characters, many of whom made – and subsequently lost – fortunes.
That evening, I return to the museum to hear a local band, ‘Hank Karr and the Canucks’, perform.
Judging by the crowd, it’s clear that Hank, a 70-or-so year old country crooner and his musicians, are legends among his aged ‘groupies’.
While I enjoy a wine, couples dance on the stage wings. It’s one of the many things to do in Whitehorse I had not imagined I’d really enjoy.
The next day, I explore further on foot. Despite its modern buildings and neat, wide streets, Whitehorse maintains a frontier feel.
My guide Erin tells me that bears, coyotes and foxes sometimes venture into town.
During winter, it’s common to see lynx, moose, deer, and caribou using the surrounding Klondike and Alaska Highways as their corridor (a ‘first world hazard’ for drivers, Erin jokes).
My first ‘confrontation’ with wildlife comes, however, in the form of a stuffed and mounted moose head (along with a complete Canadian Mountie) in the foyer of our hotel Best Western Gold Rush Inn.
To try to look as outdoorsy as the locals (whose canoe-laden 4x4s, Gor-Tex jackets and all round ‘can do’ natures make me feel like a city-slicker wimp), I stroll along the Millennium Trail, a 5km paved track that runs along the Yukon River.
My first stop is the Fireweed Community Market where, every Thursday and Saturday, cheerful locals sell their organic produce and baked items.
Then it’s the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, a fascinating facility that celebrates the region’s First Nations people, the Kwanlin Dün, and exhibits everything from artworks to a traditional canoe to beadwork.
I learn here that 11 of 14 First Nations groups in the Yukon are self governing.
A kilometre or so on from the White Pass and Yukon Railway depot is the SS Klondike, a wonderful old Canadian paddle steamer (built in 1936) that plied the waters of the Yukon River, transporting freight and cargo.
After this point, the trail loops around over the river at the Centennial Bridge, which affords a great view of the impressive Whitehorse Dam, a hydroelectric project that garnishes the power of the gushing waters.
Spray mist fills the air and when it clears I spot a long wooden ‘ladder’ that snakes its way along the river.
This 366m-long contraption, the longest in North America, was especially constructed for salmon to be able to bypass the dam wall which would impede their natural, if arduous upriver journey for hundreds of kilometres to spawn (the ‘salmon run’).
Near the dam, too, is a utility pole. Incredibly, this tall rod is on the tourist map.
For several years it’s been occupied by pair of Bald-headed eagles (with family) whose nest perches on top (apparently, since my visit, the eagles have moved nest and will do so while their ‘home-on-the-pole’ airs out, after which, according to local biologists, she will return to her former home).
Passionate locals even installed a webcam at the site and, according to my guide Erin, the website gets thousands of hits, especially when the eggs are hatching and the chicks are learning to fly.
She herself admits to rushing home from work to watch the ‘birth’ her soapie’s feathery stars.
By now, in animal-loving mode, I head to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, a 280-hectare reserve 28 kilometres northeast of Whitehorse.
It’s a tick-off-the-Canadian-animal experience seeing resident moose, mountain goats, elk, caribou, Dall sheep and musk ox live in surrounds that closely replicate their habitats.
More things to do in Whitehorse – Berengia
Ironically, my favourite local animal is, in fact, extinct. Nevertheless, I come face to face with one back in town, at the Yukon Berengia Interpretative Centre.
Meet, Whitehorse’s woolly mammoth. This extraordinary creature is a legacy of Beringia when the Bering land bridge joined Asia and North America, encompassing part of modern-day Yukon.
Displayed in the centre’s foyer is a life-size – and very life-like — cast.
I wander through this modern museum, enthralled by its maps and geological finds, plus the museum treasure – the mummified skin of an extinct horse of the Pleistocene Age (think meat jerky that’s 26,000 years old).
Unfortunately, I’m not in town long enough to hike any of the 800km of marked hiking trails that head out from Whitehorse. Instead, Erin drives me west of town to a viewpoint above the Miles Canyon.
The canyon, striking for its vertical basalt walls, was one of the major obstacles for the gold-seeking prospectors because of its narrow width and fast waters.
Beyond the canyon extends a carpet of spruce trees; the entire scene resembles a massive Christmas Santa Land. I breathe in the cool air as I survey this stunning scene.
Cafes and restaurants
If interesting sights and hard-core outdoor activities – fishing, sledding and skiing – around ‘them these parts’ are plentiful, eating options are more so.
Local Arctic char and roasted elk dishes feature prominently on the menus of the town’s top eateries, including the attractive Wheelhouse Restaurant.
Whitehorse even boasts a good coffee spot, Baked Café, and I head here for my java fix. It’s a modern, convivial place where thankfully, the word ‘barista’ is understood.
On my final day, I keep coming across quirky attractions: the Old Log Church Museum, an historic monument that is a log cabin with a spire, and one of Whitehorse’s oldest buildings (1900).
Incongruously, as though accidentally left on a sidewalk stands a giant desk sculpture, a tribute to Robert Service – an author and poet, who’d visited the Yukon during the gold rush.
Every local, regardless of age, knows his famous poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee, about a prospector, miserable from the cold, who is cremated (or is he? I won’t spoil the poetic twist; Erin recites it without a verbal stumble).
We then head to the nearby Takhini Hot Springs, which in addition to its 42 degree waters, holds a winter “hair freezing competition”.
But surely the most unusual of all the town’s sights is the one that greets guests at the local airport (and I’m not talking Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who’d been in town and happened to fly out on my arrival). I refer to the airport baggage carousel.
In the middle of the circulating bags stand two stuffed caribou, their antlers locked together, posed in a battle stance.
I had giggled, thinking of how the ‘elk-in-the-airport’ might be Whitehorse’s version of Lenny Bruce’s ‘cannon-in-the-park’.
Several busy days later, I conclude I was wrong. When it comes to Whitehorse, locals and its visitors have the last laugh.
For more ideas on what to do in the Yukon see Best of Yukon and Yukon Tourism