The Yukon: an expansive land brimming with history, culture and untouched natural beauty. This Canadian territory is one not to be missed in one's lifetime -- yet far too many travelers don't even know it.
Snow-capped mountains soaring above the clouds, turquoise glacial rivers, unique wildlife strolling the lands, gold rush significance -- there’s so much to love and admire about the Yukon. Sadly, it's so often overshadowed by beautiful Alaska, its more popular neighbor to the west.
Luckily, you can do both in one go. We set out on an 11-day Alaska cruise tour with Holland America Line that took in not only Alaska but the oft-overlooked Canadian Yukon territory. Here's what we discovered about a cruise tour through the Yukon.
Holland America Line is the only cruise line that offers cruise tours that include the Yukon in their itineraries. Princess Cruises has cruise tours in Alaska too, but they don't stop in the Yukon anymore, making HAL the line to choose if you want to take this trip.
HAL cruise tours have several itineraries that include the Yukon. Nearly all begin with the land tour portion and end with an Alaskan cruise -- or vice versa. Alaska cruise tours that include the Yukon and begin with a land tour start in Anchorage; Alaska/Yukon cruise tours that begin with a cruise and end with the land tour set sail from Vancouver. Some longer itineraries are round-trip from Vancouver.
The HAL land and sea cruisetours that include the Yukon also vary in length, including nine-, 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-, 14- and 18-day experiences. Stops along the way also differ in length. Ours, for example, only included a brief stopover in Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, while other itineraries can include a full one-night stay in the city where you have time to do excursions.
Beginning in Anchorage, our 11-day itinerary started with the land portion, which stopped at typical hot spots in Alaska (Anchorage, Denali National Park, Fairbanks) before heading over to the Yukon (Dawson City and Whitehorse).
After our land tour portion concluded in Skagway, we boarded Holland America's Koningsdam and sailed to Glacier Bay and Ketchikan, along with a day of scenic cruising the Inside Passage before arriving at Vancouver.
The sheer vastness of the land you’ll be traversing cannot be underestimated. The distances between stops are far, meaning that you’ll be spending a certain number of days on the road, involving multiple modes of transportation -- buses, trains and even planes -- to get from destination to destination.
Luckily, you're almost always surrounded by astounding scenery, the stuff only postcards and paintings are made of.
Your group is together for the entire land portion of your trip, along with one designated tour guide. The people who experience it all with you remain the same almost the entire time (the group generally breaks up once you reach the larger cruise ship).
Due to the briefness of the stops -- you’re only in most places a day or so -- there isn't much time to unpack and repack. This leads most people to live out of their suitcases, making the experience feel quite a lot like backpacking. HAL makes it easier by bringing your suitcases place to place for you.
The land portion can be a bit exhausting, but having more time in actual cities, as opposed to just a short port stop, can make the experience feel more nature-in-your-face authentic than a typical cruise sailing.
Another important part of our journey to note is the midnight sun. Much like Alaska, the Yukon experiences the midnight sun, a natural occurrence in the summertime where the sun doesn't set. That means when you're ready for bed, the sun will still be up -- and it will remain there. Between midnight and roughly 4 a.m., the sky will slightly dim and take on a "sunset" look, but that's about it.
Most of us felt slightly rattled by this, causing some to stay up later than usual, feeling suddenly more alert at night when they should've been exhausted, or had some trouble falling asleep. Many accommodations feature blackout curtains to help with this, but at least it did make wandering around at "night" much easier.
The Yukon territory borders Alaska's eastern side and is the northwesternmost part of Canada -- one that is practically untouched by people. With a population of just over 41,000 people spanning the entire territory and an estimated population of 70,000 moose, it's safe to assume the Yukon has more wildlife than people.
The Yukon is also 30% larger than the state of California. With only one city being Whitehorse, home to a staggering population of 25,000 people, the Yukon couldn't be more different.
The Yukon is best described as a step back in time. While certain places in Alaska can be as well, the Yukon seems to work even more diligently to retain the Gold Rush essence in its towns and city.
The natural beauty between and around civilization like Dawson and Whitehorse expands for countless miles (or kilometers). The large territory features unending natural, rugged, unperturbed beauty to show off to its ogling visitors. But the few established places that are in the Yukon provide sightseers with unforgettable experiences as well.
We flew into Dawson from Fairbanks in Alaska via private airplane, which was included in our cruise fare like all transfers. Dawson, which is also known as Dawson City (even though the town hasn't been a city since 1980), is located on the Yukon River. The small town is a healthy mix of nature, culture (including First Nations') and history, as it was the hot spot for the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s.
Imagine dirt roads, wooden boards for sidewalks, pastel store facades with the Gold Rush-style font and an overall "never in a hurry to get anywhere" atmosphere. New buildings in the town must meet certain standards and regulations that match the Gold Rush theme, too, so it will remain this way for years to come.
We stayed for two nights in Dawson, which was the perfect amount to experience the quaint town. It was easy to fall in love with the laid-back atmosphere and friendly locals. We admired that it attracted many people from all over the world, most of which of a younger demographic, to come work in the summer season then leave before the winter.
This younger generation allowed for more forward thinking in Dawson than was honestly to be expected for a town that's "stuck in time." There was even a drag show while we were there, which sadly conflicted with our show at Gerties so we didn't get to experience it. However, it was a great sign of just how truly inclusive and "modern" the small town really is.
We called the Westmark Inn "home" during our two-night stay, which is centrally located and the only hotel that Holland America uses. Indeed it was like "home," as the beds were comfortable, rooms cozy and the people working there were friendly, catering and always happy to help.
The inn has two buildings across the street from one another: one with the restaurant and lobby, the other with the accommodations, soda machines and guest laundry room. The rooms weren't modernly designed, which matched the town's overall aesthetic, and lacked Wi-Fi connection. Wi-Fi was only available in the lobby and restaurant.
The rooms did come equipped with blackout curtains, which made for combatting that midnight sun easier.
The food, however, wasn't the best we've had. We couldn’t wait to try reindeer -- a local specialty -- but found the bolognese in particular wasn't enjoyable, as the sauce was runny and lacked flavor. HAL offers meal plans for purchase prior to the trip, but they can be limiting and only apply to specific eateries, this being one of them.
Many of us thus chose to eat in town for most meals, especially lunch at the Riverwest Bistro or dinner at the Drunken Goat Taverna for stellar Greek grub. We had heard good things about Sourdough Joe's, which unfortunately was always closed during our Dawson stay.
Most of the time spent in Dawson wasn't guided, so we were allowed to simply wander the town (or not) at our leisure. One of my favorite things was going for a walk or a jog along the Klondyke Millenium Trail, which is a recreational trail that hugs the Yukon River in the heart of Dawson.
This free time to do whatever we wanted was a nice contrast to how you often feel on a cruise, where the brief time in port gives you some pressure to pack things in.
Exploring the local shops in town was another fun "thing to do" in town. Just one quirky sighting we had was in the antique shop, which surprisingly had a lot to offer antiquarians -- even mammoth ivory.
As for the guided events in Dawson, which were all included in our fares, we visited Diamond Tooth Gerties, a gambling hall with especially extravagant nighttime shows. Their shows featured highly talented singers and dancers, many of which performed Can-Can shows (which only got raunchier as the night progressed).
We also took a shuttle bus to the top of Midnight Dome during the day, which provides a stunning panoramic view of the Yukon River along with Dawson nestled in mountains and valleys.
The most thrilling and unique experience, however, was hands-down the Sourtoe Cocktail -- yes, you're reading that correctly.
The Sourtoe Cocktail is just that -- a cocktail with a double shot of alcohol. Instead of the common olive or lime wedge garnish, this cocktail features a real pickled human toe (find out more on the Sourtoe Cocktail and its eyebrow-raising history).
Did we try the Sourtoe Cocktail? We sure did (this particular excursion did cost extra), because hey -- how often are we going to get the chance to try alcohol with a pickled human toe in it? As they say, When in Dawson…
But Dawson's bizarre drinks don't end with just the Sourtoe Cocktail. Dawson also has the "Dog Ball High Ball," which is offered by the local Humane Society only in the fall and winter. The Dog Ball High Ball is quite similar to the Sourtoe Cocktail, but no toe here -- just canine testicles. Sorry not sorry that we didn't give that cocktail a try.
During our Yukon trekking, we saw other notable head-tilting things, like a giant mosquito sculpture at a rest stop (large mosquitos run rampant in the Yukon) and a huge mammoth statue.
But that's just what's so remarkable and unique about the Yukon: you never know what kind of bizarre, cringey and questionable -- yet memorable -- things you're going to encounter. And that's a large part of the Yukon's draw.
After Dawson, we made the trek to Whitehorse, which took a whopping eight hours by bus. Normally, the distance takes about six hours by car. Our group made various stops along the way -- including a lunch stop next to the Yukon River and a stunning overlook at Five Finger Rapids Recreation Site.
We arrived in Whitehorse at around 5 p.m., the entire tour group far too exhausted to explore the biggest city in the Yukon, which was a bummer, to say the least. Our 7 a.m. departure time the following morning didn’t allow for a night excursion, so many of us dined at the hotel (included in the meal plan), which was the Tony's Pasta, Steak and Seafood House at the Sternwheeler Hotel & Conference Centre. Fortunately, the food was a stomach- and soul-nourishing affair after a long day on the road.
The beds at The Sternwheeler Hotel & Conference Centre were exceptionally comfortable and the rooms provided comfortable and modern appliances. Generally, it was a warm welcome after such an exhausting journey from Dawson.
After our short stint in Whitehorse, we ventured to Skagway in Alaska. Normally, the land tour takes a train from outside of Whitehorse all the way to Skagway, but we instead took a bus there due to a recent change in border patrol regulations.
Fortunately, we didn't really care much about the switch up in transportation because it still guided us through the most scenic ride of our lives. We climbed and wound through snow-drenched mountains, touched then surpassed the clouds, admired pristine glacial creeks, saw the world's smallest desert (Carcross Desert) and practically drooled over vibrant, calm lakes like Emerald Lake.
When we finally arrived in Skagway where our cruise ship awaited us, we had some extra time before sail away for an excursion. We took the train along the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, which was included in our cruise fare. This historical railroad played a major role in transportation during the gold rush and was celebrating its 125th anniversary.
The train travels round-trip from Skagway to the White Pass Summit, which is at mile marker 20.4 and has an elevation of 2,888 feet. While aboard, we saw a lot of the same scenery we witnessed on our bus ride from Whitehorse to Skagway, but somehow even more. We had never heard more "wow"s from onlookers on any other train ride before. It was simply remarkable.
While you can't walk from car to car on this train, you can see rather clearly from your car's window or stand right outside your train car in the front or back. Be sure to wear a jacket, though, as it can get cold up in the mountains.
Prepare for Long Rides in the Yukon: While I enjoyed the cruise tour overall, it's important to know that the land tour portion can be exhausting. We stayed most places for just one night, sometimes two, so there was a ton of unpacking and repacking as we moved between locations, hotels and resorts.
While HAL takes your suitcase to and from the bus to the hotel for you and vice versa, note that you will need to put your packed suitcase outside your hotel room hours prior (if not the night before) to departure. That means that you have the added stress of making sure you have everything with you in the morning to get ready.
The distance you need to travel can be overwhelming, too. For example, our bus ride from Dawson City and Whitehorse took eight hours. Being in the right mindset and having the right expectations going into your trip is key.
Bring Hand Sanitizer, Snacks and Water on Rides: While the train has meals onboard, buses don't (some do stop for lunch, but not all), so be sure to bring your own snacks and drinks to stay nourished. There are bathrooms onboard most buses, so make sure to come prepared with hand sanitizer, in case there isn't any provided.
Bring Plenty of Entertainment for Long Rides: Download music, podcasts, TV shows and/or movies prior to your adventure days. Bring your favorite book, pair of headphones for music etc., an on-going knitting project -- whatever it is you enjoy doing on long travel days to help pass the time.
Prepare for No Internet Connection in the Wilderness: On that note, simply prepare yourself to not have any service for most of your on-the-road days. The Yukon has limited service available unless you are in populated areas, so simply don't rely on it being available on your bus and train rides.
Not All Tips Are Included in Your Cruise Tour Fare: Unfortunately, gratuities aren't included in your cruise fare for your land tour guide and bus drivers. Be sure to budget for tipping your land tour guide (10% to 20% of your cost for the land portion) and have cash on-hand (USD and CAD are accepted).
Budget for Paying for Most of Your Own Meals and All Your Drinks: Meals during your land tour aren't included in your cruise fare, so make sure that you budget for these meals as well. Note that there are no drink packages available for the land portion either, only for during your sailing.
Consider Purchasing a Meal Plan with HAL: When booking, there will be options to purchase three kinds of meal packages for your land tour: one for all meals (except some lunches), another for only breakfasts and the third for just Denali National Park in Alaska.
In our opinion, these aren't really going to save you much money in the long run and they can be limiting. Some of the dining locations where you can have these meals aren't the tastiest (like the Westmark Inn in Dawson mentioned earlier), so it may be best to spend your meal money on your trips in dining locations you'd like to try.
However, if you'd prefer the convenience of having your meals already planned out for you and covered in advance, then purchasing one of these meal plans prior to your trip may be worth it for you.
Pack a Pair of Sunglasses in Your Backpack/Purse: When climbing into the snow-capped mountains of the Yukon, the sun can reflect off the snow and could harm your eyes. Have your favorite pair of polarized sunglasses available to put on during your rides and stops.
Wear Comfortable Shoes and Clothes: While you won't be walking around much, it's still important to dress comfortably. Wear walking shoes for occasional light walking on your gravely stops and bring a light jacket with you because those mountain tops can certainly be cold, no matter the time of year -- and so can your transportation.
Have Your Passport (and/or Other Documents) Available for International Crossings: Because you'll be dipping in and out of Canada, necessary travel documents should be reachable, including your passport and any visa information you may have.
Bring an Eye Mask for the Midnight Sun: Chances are you are going in the summertime where the sun doesn't set. While all your accommodations should have blackout curtains, having an eye mask handy isn't a bad idea just in case.
Have Bug Spray and Sunscreen on Hand: Mosquitos are no joke in the Yukon; bring some spray with you to combat them, especially when in the wilderness. Sunscreen is always a great addition -- even at "night time" with the midnight sun.
We found that it was worth the exhaustion to experience this magical part of the world, especially when you have the right expectations going in. Holland America took care of everyone on our tour, and we witnessed nature at its purest and finest. We met some incredible people, too -- both on our tour with us and those we encountered along the way in Yukon.
If you're interested in witnessing head-scratching quirks, seeing nature at its most rugged without hordes of other tourists, and you don't mind sitting in a bus for several hours at a stretch, then exploring the Yukon on a cruise tour is a great choice.