The Golden Circle is without a doubt one of the most amazing trips in North America. After exploring the route ourselves, it’s easy to see why they call it the Golden Circle. It’s pure gold…well it could also have to do with the historic gold rush trails but the point is, its stunning. Traversing Canada’s Yukon territory and beautiful port towns of Southeast Alaska, the landscapes here are simply stunning, diverse, and just so epic that you really have to see it once in your life!
When we reached Whitehorse on our road trip to Alaska, I thought to myself I need a change of scenery! Sure the ALCAN Highway is gorgeous, scenic, and full of wildlife, but it can get a bit monotonous. Seriously, the trees go on forever! There was something mystical about the Golden Circle that called me to turn south from Whitehorse and go exploring.
What Is The Golden Circle?
If you Google “Golden Circle” chances are you will come up with pages and pages of blogs on Iceland’s famous Golden Circle, but Alaska too has a Golden Circle that is filled with the most diverse ecosystem you can imagine.
One minute you’ll be in snow capped peaks, then in a desert surrounded by sharp jagged mountains, and next beneath thousand foot waterfalls while inhaling the crisp ocean air.
Alaska’s/Canada’s Golden Circle refers to a scenic road trip that connects the five towns of Whitehorse, Carcross, Skagway, Haines, and Haines Junction. You can start this from any of the cities and work your way in either direction, but completing the circle requires taking a ferry between Skagway and Haines.
Do You Have to do The Entire Golden Circle?
If you are short on time, I think the Haines to Haines Junction could be skipped. Even though magazines brag that the Haines Highway is one of the most gorgeous drives in the world. I think the uniqueness of the Carcross desert and White Pass, the drive from Carcross to Skagway, is one of my all-time favorite travel memories. I also think a day trip to Haines is a must and doing it as a passenger is much cheaper than ferrying your vehicle.
We had some time to kill doing this itinerary and stretched it to a week, but it can easily be done in only 4-5 days but at the same time, I could see myself stretching this to a 2 week trip and add in some great excursions from Skagway or Haines.
The Golden Circle Itinerary…
It took a little time for the Yukon capital to grow on me but in the end I did love this town. I think I expected a little more quaintness to it, but honestly, its ruggedness is what makes it so rad.
There are a lot of outdoor activities you can do here like mountain biking, hiking, kayaking, SUPin, climbing, as well as, outdoor excursions like dog sledding, glacier flight tours, heli-hiking to attractions like hot springs, museums, and wildlife viewing.
These were our favorite things in Whitehorse:
Artisan Food in Whitehorse
While Whitehorse isn’t as cute of a town to walk around as Skagway, it does have some amazing options for high quality artisan foods.
Here are a few places that we loved in Whitehorse:
- Burnt Toast serves breakfast and lunch with local ingredients in a hip atmosphere.
- Alpine Bakery was my absolute favorite and that’s saying something becasue I’m super picky about my bread. All the breads are organic sourdough, they have fresh soup daily, local artisan foods, and homemade yogurt, hummus and more.
- The Deli was good for getting salami and also a good place to grab a bite or get sandwhiches to go.
- For dinners, I shopped at the Riverside Market where they had organic products and the most burgandy colored grass fed beef I’ve ever seen.
- The coffee and scones at Baked Cafe were delicious.
- Don’t forget to grab a chocolate bar at Yukon Chocolate Company. If you love rich dark chocolate bars, you’ll love these!
- Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters has incredible locally roasted coffee beans (being a total coffee snob I loved this) and a super sick, cozy cafe to sit and enjoy a cup of Joe. I liked the upbeat vibes from the employees and people stopping by. Note: there’s no wifi here, they like to keep it classy 😉
Hiking & Biking
With a hundred kilometers of trails surrounding Whitehorse, it is a great place for outdoor activities. Your top two easy hikes should be Hidden Lakes and Miles Canyon.
Before you head out on these trails be sure to have some form of trail map. The trail networks are so big it’s easy to get confused. The visitor center has free trail maps or you can use an trail app of choice.
Hidden Lakes is a a chain of kettle lakes from Whitehorse’s past glaciers, is a popular destination for hiking, biking, fishing, and wildlife viewing. They are close to town and pretty easy to access even if you are driving an RV like us. Head up the gravel Chadburn Lake Road making a left at the sign to get to the Hidden Lakes trailhead. Click here to get directions.
We chose to mountain bike Hidden Lakes. This trail is fantastic for those who want exercise in a beautiful forest. The trail system here weaves through 3 beautiful little lakes. On TrailForks it’s rated as an intermediate ride, but it was steeper than I expected. Here’s the route we chose and it took us a little over an hour:
- Start on Lakes Trail
- Go left on Hidden Lakes east
- Right up Roller Coaster
- Go right again on Blue’s Brother
- Complete the loop by returning on Lakes Trail
Miles Canyon is home to a dense patchwork of trails surrounding Schwatka Lake and the Yukon River to the east of Whitehorse.
If you start in town, you can hike this in a loop by starting on the Millennium Trail Yukon River Trail. Follow the edge of Schwatka Lake until you get to the Robert E. Lowe footbridge, cross the Yukon River, then hiking the Miles Canyon Road and Millennium Trail back. Starting from the SS Klondike, this is a 9.5 mile hike that can also be mountain biked. If you start from the center of town it only adds a little bit.
If you are short on time, you really could skip hiking the canyon and just drive to photograph the suspension bridge. If you’re driving a large RV or trailer, don’t go drive all the way down to the trailhead, there’s nowhere to turn around. In our 30 foot RV we were able to turn around but only because the parking lot wasn’t full.
Hiking Grey’s Mountain looked great and is deficiently THE hike to do in Whitehorse, but we didn’t want to drive all the way to the trailhead with the motorhome. The ladies at the visitor center said it was doable to drive the roading an RV though.
Rock Climb the Rock Gardens
The rock gardens is a surprisingly great crag. Many small areas like this tend to be very scenic and cool to see, but have low quality climbs. At the Rock Gardens, it’s incredibly scenic while also having some really sick routes. The Rock Gardens has a little bit for everyone between. The crag is easy to access from Whitehorse making it “the most crowded crag in Yukon” however we didn’t encounter a single person in the area.
From the Alaska Highway, take the South Access Road west (away from town). You’ll pass Hi Country RV park and reach a roundabout. Head right at the roundabout and you’ll quickly see a large dirt parking lot on the right with access to the small trail network.
If you’re staying at Hi Country RV park you don’t even have to drive to get there. It’s easily within walking distance. Just head out of the campground, cross the street and head west up the big hill Go right at the roundabout and you’ll see the trailhead on the right.
To get to the climbing area, follow the trail to the right and you’ll see signs on the trees with climbers on them. Most of the routes can be top roped and I highly recommend the route Tree of Life.
Camping in Whitehorse
We camped at High Country RV and so far it’s been the best campground we’ve stayed at on this entire trip. The showers are hot, free, and very clean. There was a dish washing station which I love (why do only campgrounds in Europe do this?), and we had site #11 which was right next to the playground. I liked that it still felt like camping since we were in the trees and the sites weren’t super close to your neighbor.
Here are some of the most popular guiding services, excursions, and attractions in Whitehorse:
- Multi day dog sledding trips in the winter
- Meet sled dogs and go for a ride in the summer
- Takhini Hot Springs
- Learn about the history of the Yukon and explore the exhibits at Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre
- See moose, arctic fox, bison, lynx and more at Yukon Wildlife
- Train ride to Skagway
Klondike Highway Travel Tips: Groceries, Fuel, and Customs Station
I recommend stocking up on a few food supplies before leaving Whitehorse. There is one small grocery store in Skagway, but it is pricey. Carcross only has a few food options. When you get to Haines you’ll have a lot more options. Also, keep in mind you will be crossing into the US before getting to Skagway and you will need to declare the food you have.
You will be crossing into Alaska right after White Pass. The U.S. customs station is only open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Alaska Standard Time and you can’t cross if the border is closed.
Also, the line to cross the border into Alaska at the Fraser checkpoint can get really long if it’s a day that the cruise ships are docked in Skagway. I believe this is Wednesdays and Thursdays but I’m not 100% sure. We always try to cross really late in the day so it’s not a problem.
Most importantly, be sure to fuel up before leaving Whitehorse.
Home to the Tagish First Nation, Carcross is most famous for having the world’s smallest desert. Like it’s famed sand dunes, the town itself is very small, but that doesn’t mean it won’t leave an impression on you. I do wish we had spent more than just half a day here, but sometimes the bad weather makes you move on before you are ready. The flip side of moving though here fast was that we were able to get perfect weather as we crossed the White Pass.
Carcross sits between two lakes, Nares and Bennett, and is surrounded by mountains which makes it an ideal stop for wildlife viewing and outdoor adventure.
To get here from Whitehorse, head east on the Alaskan Highway for about 12 miles before turning right onto the South Klondike Highway.
A few kilometers before arriving in Carcross you’ll pass a gorgeous turquoise lake, Emerald Lake, on your right that you’ll definitely want to stop and take a picture of it and if it’s warm when you visit, I highly recommend going kayaking, SUPing, or swimming here, it’s just so gorgeous.
A few more kilometers further south and you’ll arrive at the world’s smallest desert…
This unofficial desert consisting of one square mile of sand dunes makes for a nice stop and it’s worth the hike out to the edge. I was blown away by how beautiful the mountains surrounding the desert are and the kids loved running and rolling in the steep dunes.
After exploring the desert, drive a kilometer further to one of the smallest towns you’ll ever see. In town there are only a few food options, but the coffee shop was really cool here so we stopped by and picked up a bag of coffee beans that was really delicious.
While in town, walk to Bennett Lake which is considered one of Canada’s top 10 most beautiful beaches. There are trails across the dunes and if you need more info, the visitor center in town can give you beta on all the trails surrounding Carcross.
We had wanted to hike to the top of Nares mountain but it was closed for lambing season so instead, we decided go to mountain biking on Montana Mountain.
Mountain Biking in Carcross
Downhilling AK DNR is so FUN and in all honesty, one of the top 5 trails we’ve ever biked! But to get to it you’ll have to climb a bit. We climbed up Sam McGee and across on black bear before zipping down the fast and flowy AK DNR. It was so fun we did the entire route twice in a row!
Camping in Carcross
There are campgrounds in Carcross but I really don’t recommend them. While the desert, beach, and mountain biking are great, I didn’t think feel like I needed more than a day here.
On the way towards Skagway you’ll pass a provincial park with Conrad Campground. It was in a nice setting on Nares Lake with mountain views if you are looking to extend this itinerary.
Adventures Near Carcross
If you are looking for a unique experience, Muktuk Adventures offers some rad one day and multi day excursions with their sled dogs. If you have passion for the outdoors or a love for dogs, check out their canoeing and hiking trips in the summer, their northern lights trips in the fall, and sled dog adventures in the winter.
White Pass Travel Tips: Carcross to Skagway
You’ll need at least two hours to get to Skagway from Carcross, but should try to plan for 3 because if the weather is good at White Pass, you will want to stop and take a lot of pictures. I hadn’t researched this drive and was completely blown away by how picturesque it was.
The Canadian side of the White Mountains is filled with rocks and lakes that looks like something out of a fairytale. After passing the Welcome to Alaska sign, the descent is very steep and filled with many thousand foot waterfalls.
Skagway is much different than your last two towns. Skagway found it’s way on the map during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Today, tourism keeps it alive and while it can feel a bit touristy like Disneyland when the cruise ships arrive, Skagway is nestled between some epic mountains making the backdrop irresistible. If you love to shop, you will love Skagway. But if you love hiking, then you will REALLY love Skagway.
Hiking in Skagway
Hiking here is a must! Skagway is the best hiking destination on the Golden Circle because there are so many trails that starts right from town.
- Upper Dewey Lake
- Lower Dewey Lake
- Yakutania Point & Smugglers Cove
- The Chilkoot Trail
- Laughton Glacier Trail (Requires riding the White Pass train)
At the very least you’ll want to hike to Lower Dewey Lake. The trail starts right from town. It’s a very steep 1 mile hike to get there (it took about 45 minutes to climb it with kids), but from there, you can choose to turn around and hike the mile back to town or continue on and hike…
- An easy 2 miles around the lake
- A relatively flat 3 miles out to Sturgills Landing
- Head to Icy Lakes, which is another 1.3 miles uphill but not as steep and add on another .7 to get to upper Reid falls, or
- Go for the gusto and hike another 2.5 miles of very steep incline to go to upper Dewey lake.
Upper Dewey Lake is the gem of Skagway. It’s long, strenuous, and stunning. Of course that’s the one we wanted to do but it was supposedly too snowy to hike when we were there. We opted for Icy Lake and quite honestly, it’s the same as lower Dewey and only worth the extra hiking if you are looking for a longer workout.
For a really chill hike, try the Yakutania Point & Smugglers Cover Hike. The trailhead is right by the airport and it’s a flat 1.4 mile round trip stroll through the forest that will give you great views overlooking the water.
One day we will go back to Skagway to backpack the famous Chilkoot Trail. This 33-mile trail that started as a major trade route during the gold rush and has become a popular, yet challenging, recreational corridor.
Eating in Skagway
There are many great options for eating out in Skagway–Skagway Brewing Co, MexiCo, The Smokehouse, and The Red Onion Saloon. If you just want to grab a pint, then head to Klondike Brewing Co.
Camping in Skagway
There are a few options in Skagway for Airbnb’s, hotels, and RV parks. We stayed at the Pullman RV Park. It’s totally overpriced but you can’t beat the convenience of being right by the center of town and the hiking trails.
If you are staying longer in Skagway, you should camp at Dyea Flats. To get there though you’ll have to drive Dyea Road which is an 8-mile narrow, winding, gravel road and not really recommended for RV’s or trailers though it is possible as long as you are below 11 feet vertical clearance.
Skagway’s National Park Service Visitor Center
You can learn more about the area’s rich gold rush history at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Visitor Center downtown on 2nd and Broadway.
There are ranger talks and tours and a kid’s Junior Ranger Activity Center that has hands on exhibits with animal furs, Victorian dress up clothes, Victorian games, coloring sheets, a reading area, historic artifacts, and lots of amazing history. Kids can use the provided iPads there to complete the six activity stations and become a Junior Ranger.
The kid’s area is only open Mid-May to Mid-September, Monday to Friday 10am to noon and 1pm to 3pm and is located in the historic Pantheon Saloon on 4th and Broadway.
WiFi in Skagway
Skagway isn’t a digital nomads ideal resting place. When the crusie ships docks the cellular service practically collapses and obtaining a good WiFi signal in Skagway will require paying for it. The library has free WiFi, but it isn’t fast.
Excursions From Skagway
We don’t typically do many touristy attractions but I really wish we had done the White Pass train ride. Plus, if you ride the train you can access 2 hikes that are only possible to do if you ride back on the scenic railway: the Chilkoot Trail and Laughton Glacier.
Anyone who loves mountains has to see how epically gorgeous the White Pass is and the train takes you right through the heart of this gorgeous landscape. Other activities in Skagway that sounded fun were riding bikes from White Pass Summit to Skagway and flying over glaciers in Glacier Bay.
Ferry From Skagway to Haines
The ferry ride over is a scenic one hour boat ride with great views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers.
In order to complete The Golden Circle, you’ll need to take a ferry. The ferry is $36 for adults and $16 for kids under 12. It cost $150 for our motorhome. You need to reserve it ahead of time if you are ferrying a vehicle. If you have an RV under 25 foot you can reserve everything online here otherwise call to reserve.
One thing to note about ferrying a vehicle is that you actually have to back onto the ferry. The workers will help guide you but if you are driving a truck and trailer or not comfortable driving an RV, just know that you first pull onto a loading dock and then back onto a ramp on the side of the ferry. You then have to cut it 90 degrees so that you line up with all the cars parallel to the ship. I’ve ridden a lot of ferry’s with vehicles and have never seen anything like this.
Once you are parked you will leave your vehicle below and sit upstairs to take in the wonderful views. When ferrying with kids, don’t forget to pack snacks, a jacket, and entertainment. Even though the actual ferry ride is only an hour, you load at least a half hour before so there will be a lot of idle time.
Travel Tip For Those Short on Time or Money
Another idea would be to leave your vehicle in Skagway and just do a day trip to Haines. While the drive from Haines to Haines Junction is beautiful, I personally thought the Whitehorse to Skagway drive was the best and it’s much shorter. If you aren’t ferrying a vehicle, there’s a Haines-Skagway fast ferry that might be a better option for your time schedule since loading vehicles takes a long time on those ferries.
Welcome to the Hawaii of Alaska. Seriously, it felt so much like Hanalei Bay, Kauai to me. I loved the laid back vibe of Haines.
While Skagway was small and quaint, it had a much more touristy vibe than Haines did. It might have been because we arrived the day before the beer festival so the parks were filled with campers ready to party, but I have a feeling that Haines is always a pretty chill kinda town. This fishing village is much more spread out than Skagway and while we only had a day to spend here, you could easily spend quite a few days here.
My favorite part of Haines was how sharp and jagged the mountains to the southwest were.
Hiking in Haines
While Haines is known for its hiking, we ended up skipping out on hiking here due to weather.
If you want an easy hike in town, try exploring Battery Point. It’s less than 4 miles round trip and has only 340 feet of elevation gain.
We had wanted to do Mount Riley, which is also under 4 miles RT but gains over 1,000 feet and it’s a bit of a drive from town.
If you are looking for an epic hike, Mount Ripinski is what you’ll want to climb. There are a few different ways to climb it depending on if you just want views of the inlet or views of the mountains behind it.
Camping in Haines
There are four great camping options in Haines. Camp right in the center of town and on the harbor at Oceanside RV Park. There aren’t many places you can camp for only $25 right on the water with views of all the snow capped mountains.
If you are just tent camping, I highly recommend camping at Portage Cove State Campground, which is also right on the water. If you are looking to surround yourself in nature, Chilkat State Park is just 10 miles south of Haines. It’s a great place for RV or tent camping, hiking, and wildlife viewing. There is also an RV park right as you drive out of town leaving Haines, Haines Hitch Up RV Park. It wasn’t necessarily scenic but you’re close to town here.
Eating in Haines
Haines is a big enough town that there is actually a Safeway and a natural foods store. We ate at Geno’s Food Truck that sells delicious fish and chips. Haines Brewing Co was awesome too, but no food here.
Excursions in Haines
Haines is a fishing town and the one thing I do wish we had done while we were here is go sport fishing and possibly a kayaking trip to see whales and other marine life.
Driving from Haines to Haines Junction
This is considered one of the most gorgeous drives in the world, but I disagree. It is gorgeous but I enjoyed the South Klondike Highway and the Seward Highway more.
When you leave Haines you will be following the Chilkoot River. Between miles 18 and 24 is the main viewing area for the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The best time to view the bald eagles is between October to February. Note we were here in May so we didn’t see any bald eagles here but we saw tons of them when we got to the Kenai peninsula in June.
Between Haines and Haines Junction you’ll go over another gorgeous mountain pass (pictured above). If you are looking for free camping opportunities are here is a huge dirt pullout/lot on the west side of the highway a few miles before the summit that has great views.
We chose to drop down from the mountains and camped at Million Dollar Falls. There is a nice waterfall with a viewing platform here and is known for having a lot of grizzlies in the area when the salmon are running.
There are also some great campgrounds and many hiking trails further on towards Dezadeash or Kathleen Lake. If you want some incredible views of Kathleen lake and the Yukon, hike to Kings Throne.
It’s a stout 3 mile climb up a scree trail that brings you right to the base of the cirque. You can also continue on for another mile and stand on the peak to get views of the mountains of Kluane NP. Even if you don’t want to hike, the trailhead, Kathleen Lake, a UNESCO world heritage site, is an incredible place to stop for a picnic and take in the views.
Haines Junction, Yukon
Haines Junction is known as the “Gateway to Kluane” and that really is the main draw for this area. There isn’t a lot to do in this wilderness town, but it makes a great jumping off point if you are looking to get into the mountains of Kluane.
We didn’t spend much time here but if you are looking for attractions to do check out Da Ku Cultural Center. I think this would be a great place to come during a festival weekend when it can draw a crowd.
If you are looking to camp near Haines Junction, I’d camp a few miles back at Kathleen Lake or Dezadeash Lake Campground.
Is The Golden Circle Really a Must Do?
We enjoyed our 4 day tour of the Golden Circle tremendously, but to be honest, if I had known how much I was going to love the Kenai Peninsula, I probably would’ve skipped this.
That’s not to say the Golden Circle isn’t amazing. Going over White Pass will forever be seared in my mind as one of the most gorgeous mountain passes ever.
It really depends on where you are coming from and what you are looking for. If you are time rich and want a break from the Alaskan Highway, you should definitely do this loop. If you are only flying in and out of Whitehorse and not on a trip to Alaska, you should definitely add this to your itinerary. But if you are on a limited budget and time schedule, I’d say drive on to Alaska and spend more time in Denali, Anchorage, and the Kenai Peninsula.
Got questions? Let us know in the comments section below!
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