Hiking the White Pass – Wilderness, Solitude and then Trains!

I was in a bad way yesterday, desperate to just get away. I packed the minimal gear I needed to go hiking in some form and hopped on the bike, headed for the White Pass and Skagway, but was unsure what it was exactly that I needed.

It was cold when I left home just before 9:00am – minus 3°C (27°F). Even more than usual, dressing in layers was the key to being comfortable all day, going from -3 with four layers to +20 with no layers less than four hours later. The fog on Spirit Lake got me to do a U-turn to capture a few shots.
Fog on Spirit Lake, Yukon
It had warmed up a bit by the time I reached Tagish Lake and the Bove Island viewpoint.
Mist over Tagish Lake, Yukon
My mind was a million miles away as I rode, and another U-turn was needed to get this shot down at Ptarmigan Point.
Ptarmigan Point, BC

As I neared the White Pass, I started scouting and imagining routes that would get me into the high country by myself. I had to go right to Skagway to get fuel, as with no gas in Carcross anymore I can’t do a round trip to the White Pass and back. I thought briefly about hiking the Upper Dewey Lake trail, but there were far too many people around so I fueled and immediately headed north again.

The route that kept coming back to me over and over again was from the highway summit to the railway summit. I was guaranteed solitude for at least a couple of hours, and trains are always a bonus. I parked the bike on the shoulder of the highway a few hundred feet from the main viewpoint, got changed and did a short walk to see how it felt.
White Pass, Alaska
There were lots of mushrooms sprouting, and I spent a while shooting them as well as other subjects. I’d just bought a new prime lens a couple of days ago (a Canon EF-S 18-200mm 1:3.5-5.6 IS), and wanted to test it at a wide range of settings – this was the perfect location to do that.
Mushrooms in the White Pass, Alaska
This tiny lichen is called a British soldier (Cladonia cristatella). The red head that gives it its name is less than 1/8 inch across.
British soldier, Cladonia cristatella in the White Pass, Alaska
Feeling good that this was the hike I needed to clear my head, I climbed high above the highway. As well as getting this telephoto view of Summit Lake, I got above the junipers that can be all but impenetrable in some places, and the canyons are smaller and easier to cross at higher altitudes.
Summit Lake - White Pass, BC
There’s nothing difficult about the route generally, but there are some tricky sections including very slippery slanted granite slabs.
Hiking in the White Pass, Alaska
A couple of the canyons took some thought to navigate through. Two of them had tiny creeks that offered icy, pure drinking water.
Hiking in the White Pass, Alaska
Many sections of the route offer superb walking on a thick cushion of lichen, with no sign that any other person had ever been here before.
White Pass, Alaska
Dropping down to the head of Summit Lake, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a single train yet. That could only mean a big problem on the White Pass & Yukon Route line somewhere – a rockslide?
Summit Lake - White Pass, Alaska
The Summit has very little man-made other than rails now, but historically this was a significant site. Among the features from those days is this old wooden dam far above the tracks.
White Pass, Alaska
This flume brought water down from the substantial lake created by the dam.
White Pass, Alaska
The border monument looks much better from this angle than from the tracks 40 feet or so below. Alaska is to the right, British Columbia to the left.
Canada/US border monument - White Pass, Alaska
The border monument from a higher angle.
Canada/US border monument - White Pass, Alaska
There is a lot of broken antique glass of all colours on the hill above the border monument.
White Pass, Alaska
This is the largest of the glass dumps.
Antique glass dump - White Pass, Alaska
I decided to continue hiking down the tracks, probably to the cantilever bridge. Finally, at 2:48pm, I met a train! I always enjoy the reaction of many of the train passengers at seeing a lightly-dressed hiker (t-shirt, shorts and sport sandals) out in the middle of nowhere. I heard my name on one of the speakers as it passed – either the guide or the engineer on this train recognized me. 🙂
Train in the White Pass, Alaska
This is American Shed, once the site of a very large snowshed. With the railway only running in the summer now, the snowsheds were all demolished many years ago. This view is back towards the summit. At the bottom of the gorge, the original “Trail of ’98” from the Klondike Gold Rush can be seen, in incredibly good condition after 114 years.
American Shed - White Pass, Alaska
Six minutes later, another train. And they kept coming – three, four, five, six long trains a few minutes apart. The blockage was cleared and the railway was trying to catch up.
Train in the White Pass, Alaska
The cantilever bridge, built over the winter of 1900-1901, was the highest bridge of its type in the world at the time. The West Fork of the Skagway River is 215 feet below the bridge deck. I needed both time and inspiration to properly photograph the bridge, and I had neither, so came back disappointed at what I’d gotten.
Cantilever bridge in the White Pass, Alaska
Nearing the summit just after 3:00pm, with perfect light for shooting the trains going downhill to Skagway. Just south of this spot I had chatted briefly with a couple of people who were spending a few days in the area researching amphibians – they had so far found one species of frog and one species of toad in ponds along the rail line.
White Pass, Alaska
Back at the summit at 3:50.
White Pass, Alaska
As I climbed back up the slopes to return to the highway, I watched 3 more trains winding around Summit Lake.
Train in the White Pass, Alaska
I took a very different route on the return, but I was getting tired after almost 5 hours of virtually non-stop walking so didn’t take very many photos. Not intentionally, I also didn’t climb as high up the slope, and got into some nasty thickets of juniper.
White Pass, Alaska
There are many ponds of all sizes. While the water in any is probably okay to drink, I stuck with the little creeks that I knew were only a few hundred yards from their snowfield sources.
White Pass, Alaska
One of the last canyons to cross at 4:55, just before reaching the highway. By about 5:20 I had changed back into my riding gear and was headed home.
White Pass, Alaska

I actually surprised myself, being able to hike that far and hard after being sick for almost a week. It did have the desired effect – the motorcycle, wilderness, exercise and trains are each good for my head, and in combination they work magic.


Hiking the White Pass – Wilderness, Solitude and then Trains! — 6 Comments

  1. From a visual perspective , I think you prescribed some good medicine for yourself.
    Great pictures as usual. Take care and best wishes from Australia.

  2. Hi Murray,

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading about your trip up to the high White Pass & Yukon Railway. I have never been there, but like that area and therefore am building a modul of said railway in scale 1:160 = Nn3. I own two of those handsome GE Diesels models, done to perfection by Mister Bachmann of WESTMODEL, sold by Aspen Models.
    Your hike above the clouds into blue skies and shining mountains helped you discover the ever young world there and – lo! , far away and far down you left worries and sickness.
    That happened to me, too, when hiking under the blue skies in the boreal unlimitless of Northern Scandinavia. There as well the world is young and the days 24-hours long, and the soul remembers why we live!
    Keep your beautiful photos of the virgin country coming – to enjoy and to be grateful.

    Rainer from Germany

  3. you are amazing, so enjoy your blog, as I sit with no AC or water and 95 degrees fromn Tropical Storm Isacc. Good night

  4. great pictures again Murray, thanks for sharing ! Everytime you post such wonderful hikes, I find myself checking out prices on aircanada.com.

  5. My wife, Jan and I took a trip to Summit Pass last June. I am interesting if you took any close up pictures of the White Pass Summit Marker. What is the Marker Number ? Did it have any inscription on the the Marker ?

    Thanks for the the “The border monument from a higher angle.” picture.

    Tom Schooley

    • Hi Tom. I do have a closeup photo of that border monument. It’s quite boring, but I sent it to you in an email. It says simply “United States” on the south side and “Canada” on the north side. The bronze identifiers from the top have both been chiseled off, and I don’t recall seeing any other information on it. Somewhere online I’ve seen details of all the monuments in that area (part of a GPS, probably geocaching, database), but I can’t find it this morning.

      Not much information, but an answer to your question at least 🙂

      [Edit:] I found the database 🙂 This monument can be seen at http://www.geocaching.com/mark/details.aspx?PID=TT0043