A colorful gold rush history, beautiful setting, and a lot of cruise ships makes Skagway one of the most interesting and popular towns to visit in the Inside Passage.
About Skagway (Tlingit: Shgagwéi)
Beginning in 1897, Skagway and the nearby valley of Dyea were the starting place for more than 40,000 gold-rush stampeders who headed to the Yukon primarily by way of the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush. Today, visitors are transported back in time to the gold rush days along the seven-block corridor on Broadway that features historic false-front shops and restaurants, wooden sidewalks, locals in period costumes, and restored buildings, many of which are part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
Things to do
Though the town has a rich gold rush history, today Skagway survives almost entirely on tourism, as bus tours and more than 400 cruise ships a year turn this small town into a boomtown again every summer. Up to five ships a day stop here and, on the busiest days, more than 8,000 visitors — 10 times the town's resident population — march off the ships and turn Broadway Avenue into a modern-day version of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Five times a day during the summer, National Park Rangers lead a free, 45-minute walking tour of the historic district on Broadway Avenue, part of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, stopping at historic buildings like the Mascot Saloon, one of the town’s earliest brothels.
Built in 1898, the Mascot Saloon was one of 70 saloons open during Skagway's heyday as ”the roughest place in the world.” Today, it is the only saloon in Alaska that doesn't serve beer, wine, or a drop of whiskey. Instead, the National Park Service has restored the saloon to its Gold Rush days and turned it into a museum that examines the vices - gambling, drinking, and prostitution - that followed the stampeders to the goldfields. Go ahead and belly up to the bar for pint of sinful history.
The most outlandish building of Skagway’s seven-block historical corridor, and possibly the most photographed building in Alaska, is Arctic Brotherhood Hall. What was once a fraternal hall is now home of the Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau. You can’t miss it even if you tried. Its façade is covered with 8,833 pieces of driftwood that were attached in 1899 and extensively renovated, piece-by-piece, in 2005.
The Moore Homestead is Skagway's oldest building, dating back to 1887. Captain William Moore built the cabin when he staked out his homestead as the founder of the town. Moore had to move his home to its present location when gold-rush stampeders overran his homestead. The National Park Service has since renovated the building, and in doing so, discovered that the famous Dead Horse Trail that was used by so many stampeders actually began on the large lawn next to the cabin.
Located in the Historic Golden North Hotel on Broadway, Corrington Museum of Alaska History features more than 40 artifacts, ranging from a six-foot mammoth tusk and a fossilized mastodon tooth to hand woven spruce-root and baleen baskets, exploring the history of Alaska Natives and European explorers. The most impressive display is the large collection of engraved walrus tusks.
Skagway’s history is intriguing, so it should come as no surprise that the Skagway Museum is one of the finest in the Inside Passage. It occupies the entire first floor of the century-old McCabe Building, a former college, and is devoted to various aspects of local history, including the Klondike Gold Rush and Alaska Native baskets, beadwork, and carvings.
White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad
Originally built in 1898 for the stampeders headed for the Klondike gold fields, the White Pass & Yukon Railroad is today the most popular tour from Skagway. Passengers flock to its depot to book one of several tours on the historic narrow-gauge railway. Tours range from 2 hours to full-day, with options for hiking and camping drop-offs and connections to destinations in the Yukon Territory. Spectacular sights along the way include Glacier Gorge, Dead Horse Gulch, and Bridal Veil Falls. At the top of the steep climb at 2,888 feet is White Pass, which is also the international boundary between the United States and Canada.
Hiking and Backpacking
For the adventurous, Skagway has an excellent trail system that begins just blocks from the downtown area and allows hikers to trek to alpine lakes, waterfalls, and even the graves of Skagway’s most notorious residents: Soapy Smith and Frank Reid. The town also serves as the departure point for one of Alaska’s most popular backpacking adventures: the Chilkoot Trail, a three- to four-day hike along the same route that the stampeders followed on their way to the Klondike Gold Fields in Canada to the north.
If you're planning to hike the Chilkoot Trail, you will want to first stop at this National Park Service Visitor Center in the restored Martin Itjen House on Broadway. The center is a clearinghouse for information on permits and transportation for the popular 33-mile-long trail.
Laughton Glacier is an impressive hanging glacier that spills out from between the 3,000-foot walls of the Sawtooth Range. It’s reached with a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad and then an easy 2.5-mile hike. You can arrange transportation back to Skagway on the narrow-gauge railroad or you can reserve the U.S. Forest Service Laughton Glacier Cabin and spend the night.
Gold Rush Cemetery
Gold Rush Cemetery, a 1.5-mile walk from downtown Skagway, is the destination for many visitors who become infatuated with the story of Soapy Smith and Frank Reid, the villainous conman who ran the town and the city surveyor who staged a gunfight with him. Both died from the incident and are now buried in Gold Rush Cemetery. Signs lead across the railroad tracks to the cemetery, which is home to many stampeders' graves as well as the plots of Reid and Smith. From Reid's gravestone, it's a short hike uphill to lovely Reid Falls, which cascades 300 feet down the mountainside.
The Days of '98 Show
Entertaining audiences for over 100 years, the Days of ’98 Show is the Inside Passage’s best and longest-running melodrama. The evening show begins with 'mock gambling,' moves on to Robert Service poetry, and then culminates with an entertaining melodrama covering the town's gold-rush days and focusing on Soapy Smith and his slippery gang.
Dyea Ghost Town
In 1898, the nearby town of Dyea was Skagway's rival. Located at the foot of the Chilkoot Trail, Dyea was the staging area for thousands of stampeders on their way to Lake Bennett for the float to Dawson City. After the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad chose Skagway as its departure point in 1900, Dyea quickly died. Today, the town is the site of gold-rush cabins, the pilings of Dyea Wharf, and Slide Cemetery, where 47 men and women were buried after perishing in an avalanche on the Chilkoot Trail in April 1898.
A self-guided walking tour brochure is available from the National Park Service Visitor Center in Skagway for those who want to venture out and explore the ghost town. Or you can join a ranger-led walk, which meets at the parking area twice daily. The National Park Service also maintains a campground at Dyea, a popular place to spend the night for backpackers who are going to walk the Chilkoot Trail.
If all of that weren’t enough, Skagway is home to a wide range of tour guides and outfitters ready to take you on practically any kind of outdoor adventure. Rent a bike or join a guided mountain bike tour. Take a helicopter flightseeing tour and land on a glacier for a thrilling dog sled ride. Join a guiding service for a hiking, wildlife viewing, or photography tour. Take to the water on a sea kayak or take a scenic float down the Taiya River.
Getting to Skagway
The vast majority of visitors to Skagway – over one million per year – arrive in town by cruise ship for a day in port. Skagway is also accessible via the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. Skagway is one of the few Inside Passage communities accessible by road via the Klondike Highway, which crosses the US/Canadian Border into the Yukon Territory. Several companies provide air taxi service between Skagway and other Inside Passage communities, with daily scheduled flights between Juneau and Skagway.