Hiking in the White Pass: the Railway Summit

I hadn’t checked the weather forecast when I drove Cathy back to Whitehorse on Sunday night, but since it’s seldom right, it was the sky when I went to bed back in the RV at Summit Creek that gave me hope for some great hiking on Monday and maybe even beyond that. The first destination would be the historic White Pass summit – the one that the White Pass & Yukon Route railway goes through – and possibly down to the railway’s cantilever bridge, whose base has apparently started to fail.

Before my hike, I needed to tire Bella and Tucker out, since they couldn’t join me on this hike. There’s too much bare granite, and Bella is terrified of trains. But I had a plan for Tuesday’s hike which would include them, and we drove up to the highway summit to confirm the access for that one, above the “Welcome to Alaska” sign.

Welcome to Alaska sign on the South Klondike Highway
The next stop was, of course, the beach at Summit Lake. It was shaping up to be a superb day, and I was really glad that I decided to stay longer. A Holland America cruise line tour bus can be seen on the highway in this photo – this is the kind of day that everybody should see this world.

Summit Lake on the South Klondike Highway
The kids seemed to be a bit slower than they did on Sunday, when they were both really crazy. Maybe they actually do tire out! That Tucker is one funny-looking dude when he runs, isn’t he? 🙂

Dogs playing on the beach at Summit Lake
Once the dogs were happy to play by themselves instead of with me throwing balls and sticks, I went off and did some photography of flowers and rocks and water.

Summit Lake, north of Skagway, Alaska
A small channel of Summit Creek was making some interesting patterns as it sorted the sand and gravels near the lake.

Patterns in Summit Creek
Bella and Tucker pooped out in less than an hour and a half, so I took them back to the motorhome and put them to bed, and I headed off. The route would be across this ridge, from the point on the highway marked “A”, to the railway summit at “B”.

The ridge leading from the South Klondike Highway to the WP&YR railway
Just before noon, I parked the Tracker on the shoulder of the highway, turned on my Garmin and Spot, and started hiking up to treeline. There’s no trail or any route markings across the ridge, and I’ve never seen any other hikers up there.

The South Klondike Highway in the White Pass
I’ve hiked this route a few times, and have found that the higher you go, the easier it is to get across. In particular, the low spruce can be very tough to get through, and there are several gullies that are easier to cross at higher elevations.

Murray Lundberg, hiking in the White Pass
This ramp was built by snowmobilers many years ago – the sign on it says “Rock Star Built”. This slope is a very popular location for sledders – I thought that it was safe from avalanches, but a large one came down here about 3 years ago.

Snowmobile jump in the White Pass
Some of the granite up here is quite incredible – this outcropping is about 60 feet long, with a crack about 10 inches wide.

Granite in the White Pass
A granite sidewalk – easy hiking for 100 feet.

A granite sidewalk in the White Pass
I reached the first of the first of the large gullies at 12:45.

Hiking in the White Pass
The tiny creek in the gully was not only drinkable, it was wonderful to cool off in. The temperature was probably about 24°C/76°F, a bit hotter than what I consider to be a perfect hiking day, but I sure wasn’t complaining!

Hiking in the White Pass
This is one of my favourite places on earth. I could spend an entire summer camped where I’ve been the past couple of weekends. In this photo, the beach we play at is just about at the furthest point you can see on Summit Lake.

Murray Lundberg, hiking in the White Pass
Damn! As I made that step, I had a micro-thought that the footing on the sharp and heavily-eroded granite slab didn’t look very secure and I should go around it. That was my first hiking boo-boo in many years. I sat down for a few minutes until I was sure that it was only a skin issue, then continued on.

Hiking injury
Crossing another of the gullies, at 1:20.

Hiking in the granite of the White Pass
The last few hundred yards to the railway are the toughest, with multiple gullies, cliffs and thick vegetation, but at 1:40, I was there, at Mile 20.4 from Skagway. The cabin is a replica North West Mounted Police post that was built for the 1995 R.C.M.P. Yukon Centennial.

The summit of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway
Perched on a rocky ridge above the railway is this border monument – Monument 17 on the topo maps.

Canada/USA border monument 17, north of Skagway, Alaska
I hadn’t seen or heard any trains during the 2 hours I’d been hiking, so I started hiking south on the rail line. At 2:10, I reached the former site of the large American snowshed, at Mile 19.4. It was demolished in the 1970s – the timbers can be seen in the lower centre of the photo. Snaking up the gully below the railway is “The Trail of ’98”, the actual trail used to get through the White Pass during the Klondike Gold Rush before the railway was built (the trail is a thin greenish line).

American Shed on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway
Nobody hikes The Trail of ’98 anymore, since it doesn’t go from or to anywhere, but decade after decade, it looks the same.

The Trail of '98 on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway
There are quite a few artifacts along the trail, ranging from shovels to horse skulls. In the early madness of the gold rush, this was the infamous “Dead Horse Trail”. The trail was narrow, steep, slippery, and overcrowded, and about 3,000 horses and other pack animals died here.

The Trail of '98 on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway
Looking south at Mile 19.

Mile 19 on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway
The Trail of ’98 can be seen at the lower right, and the Skagway River is in the distance.

On the White Pass & Yukon Route railway
In the fall of 1969, a new tunnel and bridge were built to bypass the old cantilever bridge which wasn’t up to the weight of the new trains loaded with ore coming out of Yukon mines. Although I’d planned to go to the old bridge, which is to the right in this photo, the alders have grown up a lot since my last visit during a hike in 2012, and about 100 yards in, I decided that I didn’t have the energy to push through a half-mile of them. Some fresh bear poop added to my decision to turn back, at 2:25 pm.

Tunnel on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway
Just after I started walking north, I could hear a train far off in the distance. The valley funnels sound so you can hear them for many miles, and I was well north of American Shed when it reached me. This was the afternoon train to Fraser. A couple of train crew members yelled at me that there were “3” and “a bunch of” trains coming in the next hour, and I was tempted to hang around, though their intent was clearly to get me to bugger off for some reason. I was starting to feel bad about leaving the dogs for so long, though, and kept going.

White Pass & Yukon Route train near the summit
Back at the summit, at 2:52.

Nearing the summit on White Pass & Yukon Route railway
I hardly took any photos on the way back. I hadn’t done any hard hikes yet this year, and I was tired (but at 65 years old, that doesn’t embarrass me). This dried-up creek was too cool to pass up getting some photos of, though. I got back to the car at about 4:30, very pleased with the day. Granite as a medicinal aid for seniors – who knew? It was a very calm night!

Hiking in the granite of the White Pass
On Tuesday morning, I decided to drive back to Fraser to see what the border looks like when it’s closed (it’s closed from midnight until 08:00). As I got near, I was very surprised to meet 4 semis heading south. I still don’t know how that happened, unless they crossed the border and then went to sleep for the night, because when I got to Fraser at 07:25, it was all locked up. So camped out in “no man’s land” between the two Customs posts, you really are trapped if you want to look at it in a negative way. 🙂

From Fraser I could see rain to the north, and by 9:30 it was raining heavily at my campsite. It soon became clear that the rain was not going to quit, so I packed up to head home. The last time I looked at a forecast, the weather was supposed to turn wet on Wednesday and stay that way for several days.

A tour bus in the rain in the White Pass
There were 4 large cruise ships in Skagway (Crown Princess, Coral Princess, Solstice, and Nieuw Amsterdam), and the lineup at the border was very long when I got there at 11:00. It took over half an hour to get through, but I was home by 1:00. I really like having a strong connection with the cruise ships – of these four, I worked on the Coral Princess as the ship naturalist for 3 weeks in June/July 2010, and Cathy and I sailed to Hawaii on the Solstice in September 2014.

As I write this, it’s hard to say when the next outing will be be – the weather forecasts for Whitehorse and everywhere else I look within a reasonable driving distance suck. Oh well, I have no shortage of projects I need to deal with, including some work on the motorhome (this weekend, the water pump died for a couple of days and then re-started, and the screen door latch broke) 🙂


Hiking in the White Pass: the Railway Summit — 6 Comments

  1. Great pictures and comments along the way, the dogs look great and the scenery brings back memories . Thanks for sharing !

  2. Very, very enjoyable…..I love that area also….at least what I could see from the road.

  3. I never tire of the trail adventures, looks at the mtns, ridges and lakes and of course that TRAIN and all that brings with it. I need to refresh my memory as far as the gold rush and the subsequent events in the pass, pre-rail days -can you recommend a good book on that subject?

    Shame that so many of the days you have the time and energy to go out are derailed by poor weather and forecasts – some smart 15 year old needs to develop an APP to change that!

    • A heavily-illustrated look at the Klondike, focusing on the Chilkoot Trail, is Chilkoot Trail: Heritage Route to the Klondike. A much deeper look is provided by Pierre Berton’s classic The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush

  4. Murray!!
    So good to see you still at it!
    I’m still plying the wild seas and ancient forests down here in Sitka
    Hello to Cathy and……. may all your seas be fair

    • Great to hear from you Davey! and to hear that you’re still doing the awesome things you do. I hope we’ll be down to see you again in a not-too-distant summer.