An impressive snow-covered mountain fills our windscreen as I accelerate the SUV around a wide bend. The road curves around a herd of elk grazing by the roadside. Startled, the elk disappear into the woods. The scenery on our Yukon driving trip delivers many jaw-dropping vistas of mountains, lakes and wildlife. I’ve visited the Yukon three times and the most memorable has been these Yukon adventures while on a self-drive trip in winter.
With only two of us, my husband Roger and I, there’s plenty of room for our luggage and camera gear in the huge rental family-sized SUV.
On a five-day driving trip, we only scratch the surface of what the Yukon has to offer. The territory is vast and sparsely populated.
At 483,000 square kilometres, the Yukon is a little more than half the size of New South Wales. At last count, Whitehorse, the capital city, had a population of 23,276. That’s about the size of Alice Springs, give or take a thousand or two.
The Yukon shares a border with Alaska and has comparably stunning scenery. But the Yukon is far less populated and it is truly wild and unspoilt. Actually, it doesn’t seem like much has changed in the Yukon since Jack London’s The Call of the Wild was published in 1903.
Now back home in the muggy humidity of sub-tropical Queensland, I long for the cool crisp Yukon winter air. Memories of roasting elk sausages over an open fire, warming my toes over burning logs and chewing on gooey marshmallow s’mores come to mind.
Yukon Winter Dreaming
I’m longing of the white winter Yukon adventures we experienced on our driving trip.
Actually, visiting the Yukon in winter is a bit like being in the Australian outback; only the Yukon has a vivid white landscape of frozen lakes and snow-covered mountains.
The most colourful time is at night, when the Aurora Borealis lights up a clear and unpolluted sky with a rainbow of green, pink and purple. Yukon poet Robert Service describes the Yukon sky as “amber and rose and violet”.
While the Tlingit people believe the Northern Lights are the dancing spirits of those who had gone to the above people’s country.
One time I look up into the sky and see a curtain of green dancing spirits falling so close above head I’m sure if I had a ladder I could reach up and touch it.
The Yukon has a history of attracting dreamers from faraway lands. As I travel around, I’m sure I feel the echo of 100,000 19th century prospectors who stampeded the Klondike frantically searching for gold.
The Klondike Gold Rush inspired them to climb mountain passes, hike the Chilkoot Trail and cross the Yukon River to Dawson City. Now you can ride a train or a paddle wheeler and try your hand at panning for gold.
These days, the Yukon attracts dreamers of a different ilk. On my travels, I meet several Europeans who have moved to the Yukon for a healthier and more relaxed lifestyle away from populated cities in Germany, Switzerland and France.
Yukon Adventures: Our Driving Itinerary
Day one – Whitehorse
It’s early February and the temperature is -18C.
The arrival hall at Whitehorse Airport is chaotic. We pick up our luggage and head to the Driving Force rental car counter.
In winter, the Yukon has a cold, dry semi-arid climate so it’s important to have the appropriate winter clothing. The good news is you don’t have to bring it all with you.
You can rent everything you need to keep you warm, including winter jacket, snow pants, mitts, hat and boots.
There’s a good reason Whitehorse is called the Wilderness City. The Yukon’s capital is a small city (you really can’t get lost in Whitehorse!) surrounded by nature.
To get a sense of the beautiful surrounds, a trip to Miles Canyon is the place for views, hiking and mountain biking in summer and spring.
The Fish Ladder is the longest wooden fish ladder in the world. You can watch Yukon River Chinook salmon swimming upstream through underwater viewing windows.
Whitehorse Indoor Attractions
However, when visiting in winter, my picks are a photo stop outside the SS Klondike National Historic Site. The historic vessel was once the largest sternwheeler on the upper Yukon River.
Soak up Yukon history at MacBride Museum and visit the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre for a fascinating peek into the Ice Age.
During the Ice Age, Beringia was a bridge of land that stretched from what is now the Yukon to Siberia. Vast glaciers covered most of northern North America and sea levels dropped to the floor of the Bering Sea.
There are a few hotels in Whitehorse but I’d recommend staying a couple of nights in a lodge out of town.
After stopping for directions from a helpful local family, we arrive at Inn on the Lake. Fireweed Cottage is warm and a cosy home for the first two nights of our Yukon adventure.
Day two – Marsh Lake
Led by our guide, we zoom along snow-covered trails through a white and silver forest. After several kilometres we break out of the wooded area and onto a frozen lake.
On the ice, we pick up speed and make a beeline for a winter campfire spot on the lake.
Our guide quickly builds a fire, which we are grateful for as the temperature is around -15C.
With the wind chill factor, we’re glad we’ve put on several layers of clothing.
At first, we feel a little out of our comfort zone being on a frozen lake in winter. But it doesn’t take long to settle in and embrace the Yukon winter. Our morning on the lake is one of the Yukon adventures we have many fond memories of.
Ice fishing and Marshmallows
Our guide drills a hole in the ice and we all try our luck at ice fishing. Or rather, have a turn at holding the line. Nobody expects to catch anything. But we’re having too much fun to care.
We roast sausages over the fire and our guide, who is wearing lighter boots, warms his feet over the fire.
My big rented snow boots and two pairs of socks well and truly keep my feet warm and toasty.
A game of ice hockey is followed by a discussion about life in the Yukon. I settle into the rhythm of winter feeling invigorated and alive roasting marshmallows over the fire and munching on smores (melted marshmallows sandwiched between two biscuits).
Day three – Southern Lakes
A new morning brings more exciting Yukon adventures.
The SUV’s block heater has kept the engine warm overnight and the car starts easily. For a couple of Queenslanders, learning to use block heaters to keep the engine warm and scraping ice off the windscreen is actually a bit of a novelty.
It’s 820am when we drive towards Southern Lakes Resort in Tagish.
Along the way, the scenery is a stunning panorama of soaring mountains and trees.
There are few cars on the road and by the time we arrive at Southern Lakes Resort, about one hour later, we feel we’re truly in the wilderness.
The resort’s dining area is warm and cosy. We’re amazed to discover that seated at the only other occupied table is a party of three women from Adelaide, who are staying at the lodge.
Our dog sledding adventure is a fun Yukon winter activity.
My musher, MC, offers fascinating insights into the Yukon Quest, which is starting in Whitehorse the next day.
Sled dogs provided a means of transport for prospectors who headed to the Klondike Gold Fields in the 19th century.
Dog sleds carried people, goods and the mail. Famous Yukon mailman Percy DeWolfe ran the mail between Dawson City in the Yukon and Eagle in Alaska.
Back at the lodge, the hum of an approaching aircraft crescendos from a distant rumble to a distinctive purr of a Cessna as it lands on the frozen lake.
Yukon adventures in the air
A light aircraft ride with Alpine Aviation is another of those memorable Yukon adventures worthy of your bucket list.
The low cloud base has ruined our plans to fly over glaciers and land at Tagish Wilderness Lodge (which is only accessible by boat, snowmobile or dog sled) for lunch. But the pilot has a backup plan and we fly over frozen rivers, lakes and mountains.
The white winter wilderness stretches as far as the eye can see.
If you love nature you will feel right at home here.
In summer, the scenery transforms into a lush landscape of endless forests, sparkling lakes, flowing rivers and verdant mountains. The flight is over all too quickly.
Back at Southern Lakes Resort, after a beautifully prepared European-style lunch and a quick peek at the cosy cabins, we head off back towards Whitehorse.
Our next room for the night is at Sundog Retreat, where we get a couple of hour’s rest before heading to dinner at Café Balzam for delicious French crepes prepared with Yukon-sourced ingredients. The cafe is located at the Takhini Hotpools, which are natural hot springs.
Our 10 pm rendezvous with Northern Tales in the Takhini Gas Station Parking lot takes us to their Aurora viewing site where another late night chasing the Aurora Borealis is on the agenda.
Day four – Whitehorse
One of the main reasons to go to the Yukon in winter is to see the start of the Yukon Quest at Shipyards Park. The annual dog sled race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks in Alaska is a 1000mile (1600km) event that attracts thousands of people.
Restaurants in Whitehorse
For a small population, Whitehorse has a number of good restaurants and cafes. Here are our top three picks
1-The Wheelhouse Restaurant serves up modern Yukon cuisine decorated with authentic Yukon memorabilia.
2-Café Balzam, which is next to the Takini Hotpools, is the place for delicious French crepes prepared with Yukon-sourced ingredients.
3-Burnt Toast Café is a good spot for soups, salads, wraps and grilled sandwiches.
Yukon Road Trip Tips
Driving around the Yukon is an adventure at any time of the year. Here are some tips for a smooth Yukon driving adventure.
1- If you’re using a GPS, contact the lodge and ask for the correct address to use. Sometimes, the address in the GPS can be different to the address published on the website.
2- If you’re from a place where you’re used to seeing large sign boards by the side of the road, keep in mind that many of the sign posts in the Yukon are smaller signs you might miss if you’re expecting to see huge signs along the way.
3- Allow extra time between destinations in case you take a wrong turn along the way! Don’t worry, it’s all part of the Yukon adventure.
4- Dress warmly. If you’re spending time outdoors in winter, wear two pairs of socks, winter boots and more layers than you think you’ll need.
5- Don’t bring your camera into the hospitality tent as the difference in temperatures inside and outside the tent can cause your lens to ice over.
Yukon Calendar Highlights
February – Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race
March – Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race
April – Celebration of Swans
May – International Gold Show
June – Yukon River Quest Canoe and Kayak Race
July – Canada Day (Yukon Gold Panning Championships)
August – Riverside Arts Festival
September – White Ram Poker Tournaments