Occupying a narrow plain along the mouth of the Skagway River at the head of Lynn Canal, Skagway (year-round pop. 800; twice that in the summer) is a triangle-shaped town that seems to drive a wedge into the sheer slopes that lead to White Pass. The name of this northern terminus of the Inside Passage is derived from an Indian word meaning “home of the north wind.”
During the Klondike gold rush, the town was the gateway to both the Chilkoot Trail and the White Pass Trail (the Klondike Highway and the scenic White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad parallel the historic White Pass Trail), a funnel through which thousands of frenzied fortune-seekers passed. Today, the boardwalks, frontier storefronts, restored interiors, gift shops, historic films and slide shows, and old-time cars and costumes, all in the six-block town center, give it the flavor for which it has been famous for nearly a century.
Skagway survives on the thousands of visitors and adventurers who come each summer to continue on the trail that led to gold. This is the most popular cruise port in Alaska, and the Skagwegians are inundated with over 7,000 cruise ship visitors on a typical midsummer day; up to five ships can dock at once. Today, over 800,000 travelers spend time in Skagway each year, the vast majority stepping off these megaships.
Independent travelers often leave Skagway with mixed feelings, and some regard it as a schmaltzy shadow of its former self. To some extent this is true, but the town also has genuine charm, and when the cruise ships sail away each night, the locals come out to play. Skagway is compact enough to walk around easily and is filled with all sorts of characters.
Besides, if the downtown scene isn’t to your taste, it’s easy to escape into the surrounding mountains or to head up the Chilkoot Trail, where only the hardy stray. One way to avoid most of the crowds is to get here before mid-May or after mid-September. Come in the winter and you’ll have it almost to yourself.
Skagway’s weather is considerably drier than other parts of Southeast Alaska. It gets only 27 inches of precipitation per year, and alders, willows, and cottonwoods carpet the adjacent hillsides. It is especially colorful in mid-September when the leaves are turning. The driest time is before July; after that, rain is more likely.
Both the National Parks Service Visitors Center (907/983-2921, www.nps.gov/klgo, daily 8 a.m.–6 p.m. early May–late Sept., closed late Sept.–early May) and the Skagway Visitors Information Center in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall (907/983-2854 or 888/762-1898 message, www.skagway.com, daily 8 a.m.–6 p.m. May–Sept., Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Oct.–Apr.) are downtown.
Getting to Skagway
By Ferry: Skagway is the northern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system (907/465-3941 or 800/642-0066, www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs), and ferries arrive daily during the summer, stopping at the ferry terminal (907/983-2941) just a block from downtown.
Alaska Fjordlines (907/766-3395 or 800/320-0146, www.alaskafjordlines.com) operates the Fjord Express, a large and stable high-speed catamaran with daily summertime runs from Skagway to Haines and then on to Juneau. The boat leaves Skagway at 8 a.m., arrives in Juneau at 11 a.m., and then heads back at 5:30 p.m., returning to Skagway at 8:15 p.m. The cost is $155 adults, $125 children round-trip, including a bus to downtown Juneau. A light breakfast and dinner are included, and the boat stops for wildlife and photo opportunities. This passenger-only ferry is very popular with RVers who want to see Juneau in a day. One-way trips ($100 adults, $80 children) and overnight stays in Juneau are allowed; reservations are recommended. This is an efficiently run and friendly operation.
Haines-Skagway Fast Ferry (907/766-2100 or 888/766-2103, www.chilkatcruises.com) offers high-speed catamaran service between Haines and Skagway, with several departures a day early May–late September. The cost is $68 round- trip ($34 for children). The boat does not stop on any of these trips for wildlife-viewing or photos, but does have a few snacks on board.
By Air: Wings of Alaska (907/983-2442, www.wingsofalaska.com) has daily flights connecting Skagway with Juneau and Haines. Air Excursions (907/697-2375 or 800/354-2479, www.airexcursions.com) lacks scheduled service but typically has daily flights connecting Skagway with Juneau, Haines, and Gustavus.
By Long-Distance Bus: Yukon Alaska Tourist Tours (867/668-5947 or 866/626-7383, www.yatt.ca) has a daily bus to Whitehorse ($60), along with a mix of bus/train combo tours. In Whitehorse, catch the Alaska Direct Bus Line (800/770-6652, www.alaskadirectbusline.com) for service north to Anchorage or Fairbanks.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition