A Day on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway

Every Victoria Day long weekend, the White Pass & Yukon Route railway offers Yukoners discounted rides on the railway, and on Saturday Cathy, my niece Bobbie and I joined hundreds of other Yukoners on the trains. We chose to drive to Skagway and take the longest trip available, from Skagway to Fraser and back, a total of 56 miles. It was an amazing day! I figure that it would take about 62,000 words to properly tell you about it, but since a picture is worth 1,000 words I’m posting 61 photos and some commentary instead 🙂

We left the house at 9:00 and our first stop was at Emerald Lake. The ice has melted off in the past couple of days and the gorgeous colours are now visible.

The gorgeous colors of Emerald Lake, Yukon

We expected a delay at the border but we certainly didn’t expect a 40-minute delay with this few vehicles! Our crossing was as quick and friendly as usual, so I don’t know who/what had caused the delay.

US Customs at Skagway, Alaska

There were 2 cruise ships in port, Holland America’s Volendam and the Island Princess.

Holland America's Volendam and the Island Princess at Skagway, Alaska

The Island Princess was looking very ratty – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cruise ship this badly in need of a paint job.

The Island Princess at Skagway, Alaska

We went to the Skagway Brewing Company for lunch but it was still closed so went to The Station instead. The quality of all 3 meals was so disappointing that I doubt I’ll be back. In my case, the pieces of halibut were extremely small inside extremely thick batter. Blah! for 15 bucks.

Engine #90 arrives at the depot with engineer John Westfall at the controls just after noon local time (that’s 1:00pm Yukon time). Many years ago I rode up to the summit with John in the cab of the locomotive. Very cool, but the view from the passenger cars is better.

WP&YR locomotive #90

Right at the scheduled 12:30, we headed north with a string of about a dozen cars.

the interior of a WP&YR passenger car

The peaceful lower Skagway River. The sight and smell of budding trees brings Yukoners by the hundreds (if not thousands) to Skagway, Dyea and Haines on this weekend every year. We got the last car on the train, and for the ride to Fraser, Bobbie and I went to the outside platform and ended up staying there, so the photos show the same clear view you get from the locomotive, except looking backwards.

The lower Skagway River

Just north of the bridge over the East Fork of the Skagway River at Milepost (MP) 6.

MP 6 on the White Pass & Yukon Route

The cut through Rocky Point at MP 7.

Rocky Point, MP 7 on the White Pass & Yukon Route

By the standard naming convention, Bridge 7B is the 2nd one past MP 7. This is where the steep drops from the edge of the tracks really begin.

Bridge 7B on the White Pass & Yukon Route

At Clifton the granite cliffs hang over the tracks.

Clifton, on the White Pass & Yukon Route rail line

In just a little while we’d be waaaay up there!

The WP&YR high line

At Glacier, MP 14.1, there is another siding to allow trains to get by one another. The elevation at Glacier, which we reached at 13:28, is 1,871 feet above sea level.

Glacier, on the White Pass & Yukon Route rail line

At Glacier, we dropped off a group of hikers who were making the fairly easy snowshoe hike to the Laughton Glacier.

Hikers heading for the Laughton Glacier

Just north of Glacier, Bridge 14A crosses the main fork of the Skagway River.

Bridge 14A over the Skagway River

Slippery Rock, seen just to the right of center in the photo 4 above this one, was a particularly difficult section to blast a ledge wide enough to build a railway on.

Slippery Rock on the WP&YR rail line

The approach to the tunnel through Tunnel Mountain is one of the classic views along the rail line, one that every serious photographer has to have in their collection, so the outside platforms get very crowded. 🙂

Tunnel Mountain, White Pass

The view back to Skagway and Taiya Inlet from Inspiration Point at Mile 16.9 – the elevation here is 2,475 feet. When only one or two trains were running each day, a 15-minute stop used to be made here, but schedules are much too tight to allow that now.

Inspiration Point at Mile 16.9 above Skagway, Alaska

Across the canyon from Inspiration Point is Mine Mountain, site of the Inspiration Point Mine which operated for a short while in the 1920s. The upper terminus of an aerial tramway that connected the mine and the railway is circled.

Inspiration Point Mine, Alaska

MP 17.6 was the site of the Hannan Snow Shed which kept snowslides off the tracks until 1992 when it was demolished because it was in very poor condition.

MP 17.6 was the site of the Hannan Snow Shed

A 215-foot-long cantilever bridge sits at MP 18.5. The tallest of its kind in the world when it was constructed, it opened in 1901 and served the line until 1969 when the use of much heavier trains carrying ore from the Yukon to tidewater forced a new, stronger bridge to be built.

Bridge 18A

Bridge 18A is another photo “must”!

Cantilever Bridge 18A

This 675-foot-long tunnel is at the north end of the bridge that replaced the old cantilever bridge.

A tunnel on the White Pass rail line

The American Snow Shed at MP 19.4 was demolished sometime in the early to mid 1970s.

American Snow Shed at MP 19.4

The snow beside the tracks was as high as the cars as we neared the White Pass summit.

Deep snow at the White Pass summit

White Pass summit is the border between Alaska and British Columbia. Although a map on the WP&YR Web site says that the summit is 2,865 feet high, many books use the figure 2,856 feet, Wikipedia says 2,885 feet and I’m almost certain that the sign at the summit says 2,888 feet! Despite the presence of snow here for much of the year, the pass isn’t named for The White Stuff but for Thomas White, who was Canada’s Minister of the Interior when the pass was named in 1888.

White Pass summit

The line actually climbs another 75 feet just past the summit.

The broad Meadows area at MP 25 is beautiful when the snow finally melts, with lots of ponds surrounded by grasses and wildflowers.

The White Pass Meadows still buried in snow

The train crawls down the 3.8% grade (the steepest on the line) at Fraser Hill.

A 3.8% grade (the steepest on the WP&YR line) at Fraser Hill

Tour buses stop to watch our train cross the small bridge over the Thompson River. From the highway this is one of the most scenic spots to get photos of the rail line.

Tour buses on the South Klondike Highway

Bridge 26A over the Thompson River.

Bridge 26A over the Thompson River

At Fraser, rather than turn the entire train, the locomotives are simply moved to what had been the back of the train. Here Engineer John Westfall, having gone around us on the siding, throws the switch to get back on the main line and re-connect to our string of cars.

The Fraser siding

A closeup of the thunderbird on the locomotive as it backed up to our car.

The WP&YR thunderbird

Most people only go one way on the train to or from Fraser, and connect with buses or motorcoaches.

Motorcoaches at Fraser, BC

While we sat at Fraser, a large flock of Cackling Geese landed close by. These are Branta hutchinsii minima, the smallest of all Cackling Geese (many thanks to Cameron Eckert for the subspecies identification).

Branta hutchinsii minima, the smallest of all Cackling Geese

At 14:45 we started the journey back to Skagway. Here the train climbs the steep Fraser Hill.

Fraser Hill on the White Pass rail line

Back in deep snow country across the top of the pass.

Deep snow in the White Pass summit area

We stopped at the former Meadows station to pick up this group of people who had snowshoed over from the highway.

Snowshoers in the White Pass

The flags at the summit/border are those of the United States, Alaska, British Columbia, the Yukon Territory and Canada.

Flags of the United States, Alaska, British Columbia, the Yukon Territory and Canada

People apparently shooting video of the snow going by.

Deep snow at the White Pass summit

An off-kilter flash-lit look at the inside of the tunnel at MP 18.7.

A tunnel on the WP&YR

A closer look at the cantilever bridge. I tried to walk across it a few years ago but quickly lost my nerve – it’s a very long way to the creek below!

Rotten Bridge 18A

Nearing Inspiration Point.

Nearing Inspiration Point

Looking south from Tunnel Mountain across Bridge 15C.

The view from Tunnel Mountain

Crossing the Skagway River at Glacier.

Crossing the Skagway River at Glacier

Looking back up at Tunnel Mountain – what incredible engineering 114 years ago!

Tunnel Mountain on the White Pass & Yukon rail line

Bridal Veil Falls on Moore Creek can be seen across the valley. Due to the fact that the high country is still frozen, none of the waterfalls are very impressive yet.

Bridal Veil Falls on Moore Creek at Skagway, Alaska

One of the locations that I had yet to get photos of on my many trips is Black Cross Rock – it always sneaks up on me. This time I was ready, though, with a clear spot on the open platform.

Black Cross Rock

On August 3, 1898, Maurice Dunn and A. Jeneaux were killed when a huge rock dislodged by a blast fell on them. Their bodies were never recovered.

The cross marking the burial site at Black Cross Rock

“On To Alaska with Buchanan” – for about 10 years through the 1920s and early ’30s George Buchanan, a successful Detroit businessman, brought groups of boys to Alaska, and one of those groups originally painted this sign on a cliff below the US Customs office (though neither the border post nor the highway existed then).

On To Alaska with Buchanan

Almost back to Skagway.

A view of Skagway Alaska from the railroad

Bridge 5A over the East Fork of the Skagway River at Denver.

Bridge 5A over the East Fork of the Skagway River at Denver

This caboose at Denver can be rented from the Forest Service – see the Denver Caboose Cabin listing at Recreation.gov.

We got back to Skagway at about 4:30. We had hoped to have dinner at the Sunfire Thai restaurant but couldn’t get in so went to the Skagway Brewing Company and had the usual excellent meal there.

A mile out of town on our way home, I did a U-turn and went back to spend a while with this black bear beside the road. He’d been hidden by a pile of gravel until I was well past the road into the gravel pit where he was feeding on new greens. Cathy had my camera and took this shot.

Black bear along the South Klondike Highway at Skagway

Just north of Log Cabin, there was another black bear beside the road.

Black bear along the South Klondike Highway at Log Cabin, BC

I have no idea what this bear was doing, bending this little tree over. A territorial display, perhaps?

Black bear along the South Klondike Highway at Log Cabin, BC

A dancing bear as he left the tree 🙂

A dancing black bear

Back in the Yukon at Dail Peak, we watched 14 Dall sheep rams on the slope. A few minutes later, Cathy spotted some mountain goats fairly low at Pooley Canyon, but it was getting late and we didn’t stop for them.

Dall sheep rams at Dail Peak, Yukon

I had to stop along Windy Arm to capture these patterns and colours on the lake!

Ice on Windy Arm, Yukon

This broader view of the rotting ice shows where the photo above came from.

Rotting ice on Windy Arm, Yukon

At 9:20 pm, just south of the Alaska Highway, we saw 2 caribou, but there was a car blocking a good photo and when the car left, so did the caribou so all we got was a ‘bou bum 🙂

What an amazing 12 hours that had been. It’s not without good reasons that the White Pass & Yukon Route railway has been the top-selling tourist excursion available at Skagway for most of the last century-plus. Thanks, Whitepassers!


A Day on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway — 10 Comments

  1. Murray,

    I HATE YOU…….there now I feel better…..GRIN !!!

    A most excellent use of your time and pixels, thank you for a wonderful trip.
    BTY……I seem to remember Emerald Lake’s colors as a bit more intense than those in your picture……too soon after the ice has left ?


  2. Murray

    Some awesome photos. They bring back many memories of my trips to Skagway and rides on the WP&YR.


  3. Great photos ! I have been on the Wp&y two times and your photos bring back good memorys. Is the bridge at Carcross finished yet? Are Those geese the same as what we call Canada geese ? Is the colour of Emerald Lake dependent on the time of day ? [ the angle of the sun]

    • Hi Bruce. The Carcross bridge isn’t finished and there’s talk that the first few trains to Carcross will be cancelled as a result. The Cackling geese are much smaller than Canada geese. And the colour of Emerald Lake does very much depend on the angle of the sun – early morning is best.

  4. Wow, awesome trip report and photos! I was out there as well, and the colours in Emerald Lake seemed to be the brightest and most vivid I’d ever seen! It was mid-afternoon, maybe the sun was hitting it just right. Anyways, haven’t been on the WPYR trip yet, so thanks for making me feel like I was there!

  5. The photography is excellent and certainly brings back the indelible memories of two round trips (standing on the coach platform too) we were fortunate to take from Skagway to Carcross on the WP&YR. How beautiful it is with snow still on the ground. Thanks for the report and photos Murray.

  6. Nice pictures that you got ,i was out on the train earlier that morning and watched your train go out in the afternoon i think i even have video on you on the back of the train .oh and yes the Island Princess looks like it is due in for some tlc updates soon on board was the same .