Highlights: The White Pass Railway and Historic City Highlights tour includes views of the White Pass Trail from two vantage points, the Klondike Highway and the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. Plenty of photo opportunities can be found as your bus makes regular stops when traveling on the highway, and you can exit your railway car to snap a few shots of the scenery while you are rolling down the narrow gauge tracks.
Biggest Disappointment: The tour is well organized and first begins with an overview video of the history of Skagway and the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898. But, at times the tour felt very repetitive. Between the highlight video, train tour, and bus portion, we heard some of the same history and descriptions up to three times. By the end of the trip, it felt like we could give the tour as we knew so much about Captain William Moore, Skookum Jim, and the rest of the cast of characters prominent in the history of Skagway.
Main Takeaway: Taking a ride on the White Pass and Yukon Route to view the Trail of ‘98 is almost a rite of passage if you are cruising to Alaska. With the White Pass Railway and Historic City Highlights tour, you get to see the route from different vantage points, as opposed to the round trip train ride from Skagway to Fraser, B.C. that passes through the same tracks and includes the same exact narration. Multiple combo tours exist that include rides on the White Pass and Yukon Rail coupled with other means of transportation. We recommend finding one that matches your tastes and tolerance for activity.
White Pass Railway and Historic City Highlights
Who Needs a Passport Anyway?
When looking for excursions in Skagway, there were so many reviews about the White Pass and Yukon Railway that we felt almost obligated to take an excursion that included a trip on this famous train. We debated doing the round-trip route, heading from Skagway up to Fraser, British Columbia and back, but read that the trip is exactly the same both ways. Wanting to avoid this repetition in our third port of call on this Alaskan cruise on Celebrity Solstice, we opted for the White Pass Railway and Historic City Highlights combo tour that included a ride on the train with a bus tour on the paralleling highway.
When booking the tour online and again clearly written on the tickets issued to us by the cruise line, it very explicitly reads that you must bring your passport when on this excursion, as you enter Canada-albeit for mere minutes.
We were up early and off the ship by 7:30am. Skagway has a very long pier walk into town, so the tour operators and buses were waiting on the pier. We were soon greeted by our (very young appearing) tour guide, whose Hawaiian name meant “Beloved Son”, and were set to board the bus. For the third time, he stated that everyone would need to have his/her passport in hand so he could check prior to boarding. Of course, wouldn’t you know that the couple right in front of us did not have their passports. The gentleman was rather rude and made a fuss about having to return to the ship to retrieve the documents.
Onboard the bus for close to 30 minutes, the tour guide gave us an overview of the tour and some background about himself. He was quite charming and had great sense of humor. In fact, his wife was actually driving the bus in front of us. If it was not bad enough that our tour guide looked 16, his wife, who was the same age as him, looked barely 12! These kids were going to be driving our buses up a mountain through the Alaskan Tundra?!?
An Overview of Skagway
Waiting for the few stragglers who needed to go back to the ship to get their passports, we were not able to leave until slightly after our scheduled 8am departure time. While the tour can go in either sequence, our White Pass Railway and Historic City Highlights excursion started with the ride up the Klondike Highway to Fraser, B.C. on the bus, followed by the train ride back down to downtown Skagway.
First, the bus took us to a small theater in downtown Skagway. Here, we watched a 12 minute overview of the Gold Rush of ’98. The video recounted the story of Captain William Moore and the discovery of gold in the Yukon as well as the trek prospectors had to take on the Chilkoot or White Pass trials. We would hear these stories again, and again, throughout the tour.
Following the video, we exited through a hallway next to a jewelry store that ALSO contained a coffee shop serving Starbucks. Don’t ask me who designs these places. And don’t judge. A man needs to know where he can get an iced caramel macchiato on this beautiful 60 degree Alaskan day, as this coffee location would come in handy when we returned from the excursion.
Back on the bus, we got an abridged tour of downtown Skagway, including highlights such as the Artic Brotherhood Hall, the Red Onion Saloon, the town hall (that use to be the first college in Skagway), and the St. James Hotel, which is now a hardware store. This is the same tour we would later take on foot to grab photos of these landmarks.
On to the Yukon Gold Fields
Driving through the entire town in less than 10 minutes, we exited the area to head towards the Klondike Highway to make our way up north to Fraser, B.C. This ride would take about 90 minutes. During the bus tour, our guide did an excellent job of retelling the history of the Yukon Gold Rush. Covering the stories of characters like William Moore and Soapy Smith, he described the history of the town and the living conditions prospectors encountered in their 27 mile trek to Canada.
To protect themselves from creating a welfare state, the Canadian government barred folks from entering the Yukon area unless they had a full year’s worth of supplies, or some 2,000 lbs of goods. This meant that prospectors had to travel up and down the White Pass Trail several times to get goods up to the base camp of the mountain. It is amazing that tens of thousands of people traveled on the trail in hopes of finding gold for a better life.
During the bus ride portion of White Pass Railway and Historic City Highlights tour, there were a few stops made for photo opportunities. Our first stop was near the William Moore Memorial bridge, one of the scariest bridges ever built as it is right over a fault line. Here, you can get some great pictures of the bridge and the Sawtooth Mountains. The second stop was near Summit Lake that allowed us to get pictures of the unique rock “piles”.
One thing that was evident during the tour was the change in ecosystems and the landscape. Our guide was sure to point out how the types of trees and scenery changed as our elevation changed. Small increases or decreases in altitude resulted in very different types of trees and greenery.
Taking in the landscape, I noticed that we had passed into Canada, but there was no border patrol. Basically, you have to travel for seven or so miles before you encounter customs agents. Here, we waited in a short line for 2 agents to come aboard our bus to view our passports. At this point, the small train station for the White Pass and Yukon Railway could be seen. The first leg of the White Pass Railway and Historic City Highlights tour was coming to a close, and the next stage of our adventure onboard the historic White Pass Railway was about to begin.
We’ll Be Heading Down the Mountain
The guide informed us that our bus would be sharing two rail cars with the other bus, driven by his wife. SPOILER ALERT-During the history talk on our cruise ship, our historian advised us that going up the White Pass Railway, you want to sit on the left hand side; on the way down, you want to sit on the right hand side. Good information to know.
You do not want to spend all this money and sit on the wrong side of the train. We were instructed to head into the first car until completely filled then begin to fill the second car, but of course, the right side of the first car was already completely full. So, trying to be discrete, we kept walking right through the car and onto the second one that had plenty of seats on the right side. Phew! We would be able to get good pictures after all.
Once seated, an announcement was made that we would be departing soon and that the conductor would come by to collect our tickets. The same voice would also do the narration of the entire trip. As with the bust portion of the White Pass Railway and Historic City Highlights tour, the narration was very well done. Announcements were made intermittently during the trip to point out highlights as well as give some history behind the Gold Rush of ‘98 and the landmarks on the White Pass Trial. We were also given an All Aboard magazine with a map of the mile markers so we could follow along. Once tickets were collected, we were ready to take the 2,800 foot descent back to Skagway.
Try and Get a Picture
Once on our way, I ran outside to the staging of the railway car to try to grab a photo of the Fraser train station. In between all the railway cars, there is a little platform that you can stand on to take pictures. Luckily, our car was not too full, as you can only fit two or three people in this area at once.
The first major landmark on our journey was the White Pass Summit and the U.S./Canadian border about 7 miles from the Fraser station. About a mile further down the track, a wood plaque exists indicating the remains of the Trial of ’98. While we did get a few photos, all you can see is a little hiking trial and the sign.
Continuing on, we passed through a 675 foot tunnel. Upon exiting, we witnessed an engineering marvel–a cantilever steel bridge, which when built in 1901 was the largest to date and remained in use until 1969. Shortly thereafter, remains of the tragic Dead Horse Gulch can be seen. This was a very dangerous portion of the trail where over 3,000 horses, overloaded with goods, lost their footing and were trampled to death by the processional of prospectors making their way along the trail.
At times during the narration, I would try to get better pictures by going outside of the railway car, but amazingly, most of our photos were taken through the train windows. You do have to be vigilant and follow along on the map as there were certain times when a landmark was announced, but by the time I got outside, I was too late.
Next up, at mile 17, was Inspiration Point. Here, there is a great view of Mt. Harding and the Chilkat Range. At mile marker 11.5 is Bridal Veil Falls, a waterfall cascading 6,000 feet and said to resemble a bridal veil. Soon after, Black Cross Rock is visible, which is really only a black cross that marks the resting place of railroad workers killed in a granite accident.
Traveling a couple miles further down the mountain, we approached Buchanan Rock- “On to Alaska with Buchanan” and Brackett Road- an advertised easy route through the trail but with a steep toll.
The last notable landmark during the train ride on the White Pass Railway and Historic City Highlights tour was Rocky Point. This is a great photo opportunity of Skagway with the cruise ships in the distance. From outside the train car, I was able to get decent photos of Bridal Veils Falls and Buchanan Rock, but just an okay shot of Rocky Point. Here, the trees were too tall, and I was not quick enough to get a good close-up photo of the valley.
Along the journey, our train made 2 stops to pick up additional passengers who had been out on hiking adventures on the trail—something to consider if you are the more outdoor, adventurous type.
Riding the train is a nice pastime, with a great history lesson and many picturesque opportunities, but it is a bit long, clocking in at two hours. By the time we got back to the station in Skagway, I was glad we did White Pass Railway and Historic City Highlights combo and not the round-trip train excursion.
We can now say we rode the White Pass and Yukon Route, narrow gauge railway. The beautiful, sunny weather allowed us great photo opportunities. Would I ride the train again? Probably not. Would I recommend you do the railway? Yes, as part of a combo tour. The White Pass Railway is historic and one of those excursions you have to do, just to say you did it, if you are ever in Skagway.
Have you visited Skagway, Alaska on a cruise? Did you do the White Pass Railway and Historic City Highlights shore excursion? Drop us an anchor below to tell us about your experiences in Skagway, Alaska and your recommendations for the best things to do while visiting this historic area.