An impressive snow-sprinkled mountain fills our windscreen as I accelerate around the bend. The SUV whizzes past a herd of elk grazing by the side of the road. I hit the brakes and fumble for my camera while the startled elk bolt for the forest. A driving trip around the Yukon is filled with unexpected wildlife encounters and chance meetings with local characters. Seeing wildlife by the roadside is but one of the many memorable Yukon adventures on our winter driving journey.
With only two of us, my husband Roger and I, there’s plenty of room for our luggage, camera bags and tripods in the huge rental family-sized SUV.
On a five-day driving trip, we only just 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. Whitehorse, the capital city, has a population of 23,276 (that’s about the size of Alice Springs!).
The Yukon shares a border with Alaska and has comparably stunning scenery. However, the Yukon is far less populated than Alaska. Actually, it doesn’t look like much has changed in the Yukon since Jack London’s The Call of the Wild was published in 1903.
A month after our Yukon driving adventure, 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 a gooey marshmallow s’more put a smile on my face.
Yukon Winter Dreaming
Actually, the feeling you get when travelling around the Yukon is a bit like the freedom of being in the Australian outback. Both are vast regions with few people. But the similarity ends there.
In winter, the Yukon’s landscape is a mesmerising mosaic of frozen lakes and icy 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.”
The Tlingit people describe 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 shimmering and falling so close above my 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.
The land reverberates with the echoes of the prospectors who stampeded the Klondike searching for gold in the 19th century.
The Klondike Gold Rush inspired more than 100,000 men to climb mountain passes, hike the Chilkoot Trail and cross the Yukon River to Dawson City.
If you’re a keen hiker, a great way to explore the Yukon is on a multi-day hike in the wilderness.
However, you can also relive the heady gold rush days by boarding a paddle wheeler or trying your hand at panning for gold.
Another way to experience history is a journey on the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railway. It’s a ride through the stunning back country of the Yukon, British Columbia and Alaska on a historic narrow-gauge railroad between Carcross and Skagway in Alaska.
The Yukon is a place that has always attracted dreamers but these days, it draws dreamers of a different ilk.
While travelling around, we meet several Europeans who have moved to the Yukon for a healthier and more relaxed lifestyle away from the pressure of large cities in Germany, Switzerland and France.
Yukon 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 and it’s important to have the appropriate winter clothing. The good news is you don’t have to bring bulky clothes 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.
You don’t have to travel far 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.
Nearby, the Fish Ladder is the longest wooden fish ladder in the world. At the right time of the year, you can watch Yukon River Chinook salmon swimming upstream through underwater viewing windows.
Whitehorse Indoor Attractions
Whitehorse has several museums worth visiting. The SS Klondike National Historic Site is a historic vessel that 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.
After stopping for directions from a helpful local family, we arrive at Inn on the Lake, where Fireweed Cottage is a warm and cosy home for the first two nights of our Yukon adventure.
Day two: Marsh Lake
The next morning, I’m zooming along snow-covered trails through a white and silver forest on a snowmobile. After riding in a convoy for 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. The temperature is around -15C and when you add the wind chill factor, it’s one of the coldest places I’ve ever experienced.
I’m wearing two sets of thermal undies, two jumpers and a winter jacket. Five layers of clothing are enough to keep me warm.
At first, I feel out of my comfort zone sitting around on a frozen lake in subzero temperatures. But it doesn’t take long to settle in and embrace the Yukon winter.
By the time the trip is over, I feel that the few hours spent on the ice is one of the Yukon adventures I’ll always remember.
Ice fishing and Marshmallows
First, our guide, Patrick, drills a hole in the ice and we try our luck at ice fishing. Everyone has a turn at holding the line and nobody expects to catch anything.
We roast sausages over the fire and Patrick removes his boots to warm his feet over the crackling fire.
My big rented snow boots and two pairs of socks well and truly keep my feet warm and toasty.
A discussion about life in the Yukon follows a game of ice hockey.
I settle into the rhythm of winter feeling invigorated and alive roasting marshmallows over the fire and munching on s’mores (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 forests.
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. 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 in the Yukon.
In summer, the scenery transforms into a lush landscape of endless forests, sparkling lakes, flowing rivers and verdant mountains.
Back at Southern Lakes Resort, after a beautifully prepared European-style lunch and a quick peek at the cosy cabins, we head 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.
Café Balzam is the place to go for delicious French crepes prepared with Yukon-sourced ingredients. The cafe is located next to the Takhini Hotpools, which are natural hot springs.
It’s not far from the Northern Tales Aurora viewing site, where another late night lies ahead. This time, we’re hoping to see the Aurora Borealis.
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 used to large roadside signs, keep an eye out for smaller signposts in the Yukon that you might miss if you’re expecting to see huge highway signs while on the road.
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
For more ideas, read this post about winter fun in Winnipeg.