Top 7 Things to see in Whitehorse
· 19 min. read
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Whitehorse is the capital city of the Yukon and is home to approximately 70% of the territory’s population or around 25,000 people. It’s a small city, but it has all the modern amenities you need, such as Walmart, Canadian Tire, and Superstore. However, it is also the final vestibule of civilization before the desolate Klondike, so it can’t help to also have things like bear-resistant garbage bins and the nickname “The Wilderness City”.
I travelled to Whitehorse around Labour Day this past fall and was able to see a lot ? but I also missed a lot too. Because winter comes so soon to the Yukon, their tourism season is only about 120 days long, ending in early September. The purpose for my trip to the Yukon was to see the fall colours, not necessarily to take in the local sights, but it was nevertheless disappointing to see many of them were closed.
One of the things I try to do on this blog is not review places I haven’t been to. Because of this, I can’t review places like Whitehorse’s iconic MacBride Museum because I wasn’t able to visit it. However, I will list other points of interest at the bottom of this article for people who visit the city during tourism season or who have better time management skills than me.
With all that out of the way, here are the Top 7 Things to See in Whitehorse:
1. S.S. Klondike (Parks Canada Historic Site)
The S.S. Klondike is a former paddle sternwheeler that once serviced the Yukon River, travelling between Whitehorse and Stewart Landing, eventually moving up to Dawson City. The trek would take around 36 hours going one way, and 4-5 days going the other way. The reason for these significantly longer return trips was due to the speed of the Yukon River, which is the fourth fastest flowing river in Canada.
Although Whitehorse was established as a response to the Klondike Gold Rush, the S.S. Klondike would be created after the gold rush had dried up. Instead of hauling gold, it would carry freight down the river to Stewart Landing and would bring back silver-lead ore. While everybody knows the Klondike for the famous gold rush, the silver industry and subsequent “Silver Rush” were much more lucrative and plentiful.
The S.S. Klondike was created in the late 1920s to assist in this silver rush and was created as the “ultimate Yukon riverboat”. It has a flattened hull so that it could float in the shall river waters, no knell, and was the first riverboat to haul 272 tonnes (300 tons) on the Yukon River without a barge.
However, the S.S. Klondike soon had to change its business model as the Great Depression started a few months after its first launch. Instead of servicing just Stewart Landing and Whitehorse, it moved up the river to Dawson City instead. This allowed it to carry people and cargo, connecting Dawson City to the luxuries of Whitehorse.
The Yukon River is an ever-evolving beast, and many ships meet their doom on the roaring waters. This happened to the S.S. Klondike in June 1936, when it hit an underwater gravel bar on The Thirty Mile section of the river. The bottom of the boat ripped apart and they telegrammed the steamer Whitehorse to come and save them. Thankfully, everybody on board survived, but two of the four horses didn’t make it, neither did any of a newly wedded couple’s possessions or the research equipment of two separate geological survey teams.
The S.S. Klondike was paramount to the silver-lead ore industry, and because it was such a well-built ship, the British Yukon Navigation Company salvaged the majority of the ship and created the S.S. Klondike II, launching it in 1937. It would take the same role as its predecessor until the 1950s when it was retired.
Today you can visit the S.S. Klondike II with Parks Canada and get a tour of the former paddle sternwheeler. You can also see some of the menu items the passengers ate, see where the crewmates slept and washed up, and marvel at the mechanics that controlled this incredible vessel.
2. Downtown Whitehorse
Downtown Whitehorse is the hub of the city, being the site where the city was first founded as well as many of Parks Canada’s attractions (see above) and historic sites (see below).
Downtown Whitehorse is also very colourful, with quirky restaurants like Burnt Toast Cafe and Miner’s Daughter / Dirty Northern Bastard. The Spicy Chorizo Pizza I got from Dirty Northern Bastard was exactly what I needed to warm up after being outside in the freezing Yukon air.
But there are other fun shops to see around downtown Whitehorse too. Unfortunately for me, most of them were closed as I wandered the streets on Labour Day Monday, but I would have really liked to check out Bearpaw Gifts if it had been open.
I also recommend visiting the Yukon Visitor Information Centre to learn about all the things to see and do in Whitehorse and beyond. They’re also the same folks who made my Unboxing Yukon article possible, so be sure to drop by and tell them I sent you.
3. The Old Log Church Museum
The Old Log Church Museum in Whitehorse closes in mid-August, so while I didn’t get to see inside the museum, there was plenty of information about it outside and on their website. Created in 1900 following the peak of the Klondike Gold Rush as the Cathedral Church of the Diocese, the church-turned-museum is a time capsule of information about early stampeder life in the Klondike. It is one of the oldest buildings in Whitehorse and has sat in the same location since its construction.
The church operated for 62 years, closing in 1962 and being declared a territorial historic site in 1978.
Today the Old Log Church Museum holds a collection of over 4,500 artifacts from the early days of the Klondike ? and even before. The museum holds artifacts from as far back as 1861 ? 35 years before gold was discovered. It also highlights a century and a half of the church’s role in the life of the Yukon, including stories of Bishop Isaac O. Stringer, who is also known as “the Bishop who ate his boots.”
With all that said, The Old Log Church Museum seems like the kind of place I would spend hours exploring. Some information was outside the building so I technically “visited” it, but I know I would have a lot more to say if I was able to get inside. However, the officials at Parks Canada told me that the information shared inside this museum is the church’s “version” of history ? which means it might not be the full story. Either way, it’s always good to get a variety of different perspectives about history so I would highly recommend adding this to your list of places to visit.
4. Log Skyscrapers
While the Klondike Gold Rush is the biggest event to occur in the Yukon, the Second World War would be the second biggest event. For decades prior, the United States was trying to pressure the Canadian government to create a highway that crossed from Alaska into the Yukon and into British Columbia. However, the Canadian government dismissed the request twice, saying that the cost would be too high to only benefit a couple of thousand Yukoners.
This changed on December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbour. The United States was entering the war and needed various ways to get supplies across the continent. They once again asked Canada for permission to construct the highway, and Canada said yes, under the condition that the US would pay for all of it, and that Canada would keep ownership of it after the war ended. Construction of the new Alaska Highway began almost immediately.
The Alaska Highway, along with the Canol Project Pipeline and the creation of the Northwest Staging Route airports brought an influx of people into the Yukon. Mixed with the metal shortage due to the war, this drove housing costs in Whitehorse sky-high. This crisis gave Martin Berrigan an idea and decided to build high-rise buildings out of wooden logs.
Berrigan would create two wooden skyscrapers ? with Log Skyscraper One being two stories tall, and Log Skyscraper Two being four stories tall.
It’s also important to remember that, unlike steel, wooden beams weigh around 300 pounds each, making this a very heavy building. Because of this, the buildings are reinforced with steel cables ? a postwar addition ? to make them safe for the residents. In 1964 electricity and plumbing were added to the structure followed by drywalling and a new concrete foundation in 1971.
Although both Log Skyscrapers are a quirky delight to behold, they sit on private property and are inaccessible to enter.
5. The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre
The Ice Age is known as one of the largest cataclysmic events in North America and Europe. However, the Ice Age also had an impact on the Yukon ? and not one that you might expect. With so much ice spreading across the northern hemisphere, sea levels dropped in the Pacific Ocean ? creating an ice-free land in what is now the Bering Strait.
This land was called Beringia, and it offered a haven from the ice and constant freezing temperatures. Beringia connected two separate continents and allowed animals from both to criss-cross between the two of them. North American camels and horses came to Asia, while elk, lions, and musk ox came from Asia to North America. With these animals came people too, moving from East Asia, across Beringia, and into modern-day Alaska and the Yukon.
The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre discusses this incredible migration of animals and people, and the evidence we have to support it. Towering creatures like the woolly mammoth, Jefferson’s Ground Sloth, or the six-foot-long Giant Beaver once lived and thrived in this same area of the world.
These ancient animals are even part of local indigenous culture, with stories dotting the interpretive center of the Tutchone hero Soh Jhee who was told about the “giant buffalo that lives under the ice”. Other stories of Soh Jhee say that he turned the giant, man-eating animals into the smaller variations of what we see today.
I found this interpretive center very interesting, and one of my favourite parts of my trip to Whitehorse. It’s also very close to the airport if you have some time before a flight home. It is also a four-minute walk away from the Yukon Transportation Museum. Both museums can also be walked to from downtown Whitehorse, but it’s an uphill walk so I’d recommend getting a $20 taxi ride up and walking down instead.
6. The Whitehorse Horse
In August 2009 there was an art competition for Whitehorse’s new Public Safety Building. Daphne Mennell decided to enter the contest, along with her neighbour and friend Roger Poole. They submitted a proposal for the now-iconic Whitehorse Horse. Their submission won, and then the real work began.
Mennell records the challenges they had with the creation of the horse on her website. Their plan was to make the horse out of scrap metal pieces, bringing in memories across the territory into one magnificent sculpture. Mennell struggled at first to get people to donate metal for the sculpture, but thanks to publications like What’s Up Yukon and media outlets like CBC Yukon, word began circulating and a slow trickle of material started coming in.
It took two years to complete, and the iconic structure was installed on a drizzly August 13, 2011. You can see it on Mennell’s son’s YouTube channel.
Although a little different than the other items on this list, The Whitehorse Horse is an amazing addition to the city’s landscape and one of the most iconic places to visit in the city.
7. Miles Canyon Loop
Do you like hiking? I do, and sometimes I like easy hikes over the terrible, horrible, body-aching hikes. Thankfully Whitehorse is home to one of these hikes. The Miles Canyon Loop is a 15-kilometer long loop that starts just south of the S.S. Klondike on the Whitehorse Millennium Trail. It goes south, past the Rotary Centennial Bridge and the Yukon Energy Fish Ladder, down to Miles Canyon, across the suspension bridge and back up the other side of the river. It’s a nice, easy hike, that’s rated 4.3 stars out of 5 on All Trails.
I hiked part of the trail when I was in Whitehorse, but not all of it. I was planning to conserve my energy for a hike I had planned in Tombstone Territorial Park the next day. If I had had more time, or if I was to go back, I would hike the whole trail.
Miles Canyon was one of the two challenges for early gold rush stampeders prior to entering the Klondike. This ? and the Whitehorse Rapids ? were known for having taken the lives of 200 stampeders during the peak of the gold rush. It was thanks to Norman Macaulay’s ingenuity that these hazards could eventually be bypassed and lead people directly to what is now Whitehorse.
For those who don’t mind venturing a little off the beaten path, you can go further south, off the Miles Canyon Loop about a kilometer and half to the remains of Canyon City, an old Klondike ghost town. Not much is left of Canyon City but if you’re a history buff or you heard about the city at the MacBride Museum, it’s worth checking out.
As I said before, I didn’t get to everywhere I wanted to see because I went there over a long weekend and there were some scheduling conflicts. So, while I can’t say these places are super cool, if I was to visit Whitehorse again, they’d be at the top of my list:
- MacBride Museum
- Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre
- Yukon Transportation Museum
- Bicycle Wheel Dome
- Yukon Legislative Building
Have you ever been to Whitehorse? What did you think of my list? Would you add anywhere else to it? Let me know in the comments below!
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Categories: Canada, Travel Tips, Yukon