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Alaska Route 98 and the South Klondike Highway

 


Let me guide you through the breathtaking landscapes of southeast Alaska and the magnificent ribbon of asphalt known as Alaska Route 98, which runs for about 15 miles in the Last Frontier. This road pays homage to its roots as a corridor gold prospectors took as part of the way to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 as it winds its way through some of the most magnificent natural wonders on the planet, connecting the historic town of Skagway to the awe-inspiring White Pass and into British Columbia and Yukon in Canada, where it continues as Yukon Highway 2. While the highway was only opened in recent decades, this is one of the oldest access routes from the Alaska coast to the interior of the Yukon. The Tlingit had used White Pass as part of a trading route, and when gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, White Pass and Chilkoot Pass, just to the west, became the main trails for the mad rush to the goldfields. A wagon road called Brockett Wagon Road was built in 1897 and 1898, and later came the White Pass Railroad.

Whether you refer to the road as Alaska Route 98 or as the Klondike Highway, the road from Skagway takes travelers from the town up, into and over White Pass, reaching an elevation of 3,292 feet, a far cry from Skagway which is at sea level. While the two lane, paved road is open throughout the year, the elevation and steep grade, much of it at more than 10 percent, can prove challenging, leaving drivers on wet roads and with low visibility because of dense fog. I encountered plenty of fog on the climb up to White Pass myself. 

As you journey along Alaska Route 98, you will be surrounded by the rugged beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, with its towering peaks, shimmering glaciers, and verdant forests. You will have the opportunity to witness the majesty of wildlife in its natural habitat. As you approach the historic town of Skagway, you will see why this area was once the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush, a place of great opportunity and adventure. Many stops along the way, such as the Gold Rush Cemeteries on the edge of Skagway, tell stories of the area's past. Interpretive displays at roadside pullouts, spaced along the highway, explain various areas and their significance, as they are featured in a place where thousands of people journeyed in 1898 with the hopes of striking it rich. Today, Skagway remains a hub of activity, with bustling streets, charming Victorian architecture, and rich history waiting to be discovered. Finally, you will reach the crown jewel of this journey: the magnificent White Pass, a towering mountain pass that serves as the centerpiece of this incredible landscape. The White Pass, with its steep cliffs and breathtaking vistas, offers a glimpse into the raw power and beauty of the Alaskan wilderness.

The South Klondike Highway connects Skagway, Alaska with the Alaska Highway, 12 miles south of downtown Whitehorse, Yukon. The highway between Skagway and Carcross, Yukon was built in 1978, and formally dedicated on May 23, 1981, recognizing the joint effort by Public Works Canada and the State of Alaska to bring it to fruition. Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities documents show construction of the road began in the early 1970s. The highway connecting Carcross with the Alaska Highway was built by the U.S. Army in late 1942 as part of an effort to lay a gas pipeline from Skagway to Whitehorse. By 1986, the Klondike Highway was open year round and was becoming an important commercial link between the port in Skagway and the Alaska Highway due to the abandonment of the White Pass Railroad from Carcross to Whitehorse, as well as for mining operations in the Yukon Territory. Work to building a road in the 20th Century was erratic because of funding challenges. So, Alaska and Canada each worked on their own sides of the highway as was possible. Eventually, the two governments agreed to connect the highway at their shared border. The overriding challenge to the engineering and construction was that there was no access to the project, except what could be built.

So come discover the majesty of Alaska Route 98, Skagway, and the White Pass, a true natural wonder that will leave you in awe of the beauty and wonder of our planet. These are photos from a trip I took to Skagway and along AK 98 in July 2022. I had taken an excursion bus tour, so my photos are limited to what I was able to get during stops during the tour, along with photos I took in Skagway on foot after the tour brought us back into historic Skagway.


Looking north at AK 98 in Skagway, the jumping off point for gold prospectors in the Gold Rush of 1898, and the jumping off point for many cruise ships going through Alaska's Inside Passage in modern times.

Only 109 miles to Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon.

Stopped at the historic Skagway Gold Rush Cemetery. I didn't find a street car though.

Gold Rush Cemetery.

The White Pass Railroad is now a tourist railroad, and you can see trains passing by and the train tracks along the journey from Skagway to White Pass.

Lower Reid Falls, named for Frank Reid, who killed the gangster Soapy Smith in July 1898. The waterfall is a short hike behind the Gold Rush Cemetery.

Skagway River

Starting to climb up from Skagway and into the mountains above. The White Pass Railroad line is on the opposite side of the gorge. Construction on the railway began in May 1898 and reached Whitehorse in July 1900. This is the view from Rocky Point, which was was one of the main trouble spots when a route for the railroad was being planned in 1898.

There's morning fog and clouds in the distance.

AK 98 has a number of pull-offs where you can stop to admire the scenery.

The next turnout north on AK 98 has a great view of Pitchfork Falls, which flows out of Goat Lake. Pitchfork Falls is one of the most photographed falls in Alaska, but the construction of a hydroelectric operation in 1999 has led to the waterfall being known by locals as Pipeline Falls.

View of the White Pass Railroad and into the mountains on the other side of Skagway.

AK 98 looking northbound. We can see fog placing a veil on the tops of the mountains in the distance.

Yet, it is still very scenic.

The William Moore Bridge is an asymmetrical cable-stayed suspension bridge which crosses an active earthquake fault. The bridge is only firmly anchored on the downhill side so that it can move freely with the earth. The gorge that the bridge crosses is only 110 feet wide, but 180 feet deep (the bridge deck is about 250 feet long). Captain William Moore was a famous steamboat captain and the first settler in Skagway. The modern bridge for AK 98 is located right next to the William Moore Bridge. The tour bus didn't stop at the bridge and I was pleased I was able to get this picture.

Now in British Columbia, Canada, Alaska Route 98 has become Yukon Highway 2. In both British Columbia and Yukon, the highway is marked as Yukon Highway 2. You'll find a similar situation with the Haines Highway a bit to the west, where the British Columbia portion of the route is signed as Yukon Highway 3. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any pictures of Yukon Highway 2 signs.

The Tormented Valley is an exceptional landscape that consists of wind-battered rocks, a sparse forest of 300 year old trees, and sparkling blue lakes. Despite the name, the Tormented Valley is beautiful. This sub-arctic alpine tundra is one of the most unique ecosystems in North America.

The lake is Summit Lake. Fortunately, enough clouds lifted and shifted around at the right time to provide some unforgettable sights. This view is just a short walk from the pull-off.



After the climb up from Skagway to White Pass, the road itself has become flat as it traverses through Tormented Valley.

You know, I'd rather look at some nice views of Tormented Valley and Summit Lake.



Getting back on the road, it is time to work our way back south towards Skagway. You will find that the customs stations are a few miles away from either border, so the Tormented Valley is actually south of the Canadian customs station in Fraser. As for the American customs station, it is located at the edge of Skagway after descending down White Pass.

Fog still rules the roost up this high.

We quickly make our way back to Alaska. The scenery would be majestic to see behind this shroud of fog. But the fog is common in southeast Alaska, especially on summer mornings.

Looking south at AK 98's beginning.

Klondike Highway commemorative marker.

A cairn set up by the Kiwanis Club can also be found at the border sign.

Going lower in elevation means starting to see some of the mountains again.

The tour stopped briefly at Bridal Veil Falls, located alongside AK 98.

I also got to see some a runaway truck ramp in the distance, along with some snow plow road markers. Quite a bit of snow falls here during the winter, so every bit helps.

Small planes are a common sight in Alaska, especially in southeast Alaska where the only way to get between some towns are by boat or plane.

Getting back into Skagway, there's some snow capped mountains to see. This is where the bus tour ends.

But I also made time to explore Skagway's historic downtown as well. While Broadway is not on AK 98 itself (just a block away), this is where you'll find many of Skagway's historic buildings. The Red Onion Saloon and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park Visitor's Center can also be found along this stretch of road.

Another view of downtown Skagway and one of the cruise ships that dock at Skagway during the summer months. If you're into hiking, another good view of the mountains can be found by hiking to Yakutania Point.

Historic building marks the starting off point for the historic White Pass Railroad.

Statue honoring the many prospectors who started from Skagway during the Klondike Gold Rush.


How to Get There:



Sources and Links:
The Milepost - South Klondike Highway
Alaska's News Source - Roadtrippin’ 2022: Cruising along the Klondike Highway
Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities - Historic Roads of Alaska (PDF)
Corco Highways - Alaska Route 98, YT-2/BC Int’l Boundary to Alaska Marine Hwy
Bell's Travel Guides Alaska - Klondike Highway
ExploreNorth - South Klondike Highway Mile-by-Mile Guide

Comments

mrostron said…
I lived in Skagway for ten years, and enjoyed your observations, photos, and comments. One correction: Frank Reid did not kill Soapy Smith, though they did wound each other. Research has verified that a railroad employee, Jesse Murphy finished off the outlaw. Read about it in Soapy Smith's fascinating biography, "Alias Soapy Smith: The Life And Death Of A Scoundrel," by Jeff Smith—by far the best researched biography of the famous outlaw. While your at it, you might enjoy my novel, "Cape Decision," which is set in SE Alaska. Thanks again for your very informative travel articles!
Anonymous said…
Some current day writers speculate that Jesse Murphy killed Soapy, but the coroner’s inquest called to investigate Soapy’s death ruled after multiple eyewitness accounts and two autopsies that it was Reid’s bullet that did the fatal work.

New evidence has also recently come to light in the form of the Dyea Trail newspaper of July 9, 1898 that states Murphy shot Soapy with a revolver rather than Soapy’s own rifle as some claim, and that Murphy only wounded him.

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