How to Make the Most of One Day in Skagway, Alaska
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Since its not-so-humble beginnings as a Gold Rush boom town, Skagway, Alaska, has been a unique place to spend time – and remains so to this day.
Like almost all of Southeast Alaska, Skagway is located on Native Alaskan land, that of the Tlingit people specifically. Their name for the area was skagua, meaning “where the north wind blows.” As someone who’s been to Skagway on one of those days when the wind comes up, it can definitely be a defining feature of your Skagway experience – but during the summer months, you’ll more likely experience the sun (Gugán in Tlingit).
On my most recent visit in June 2022 as part of my Windstar Cruises journey, I experienced both: a beautiful morning of sun followed by classic Southeast Alaska rain with a nice dose of Skagway’s north wind as the afternoon wore on. (I’ve been to Skagway twice times before, including when my family drove to Alaska in 1992 and again when my parents moved out of the state in 2006.)
As I did during my most recent trip, most people visit Skagway as part of an Alaska cruise (over 90%). This means that the vast majority of people are short on time when they find themselves in this literal Alaskan backwater. Never fear though: you can do a lot during one day in Skagway. If you want to do Skagway on your own, it is possible to forego the cruise excursions and plan a day your way.
No matter what brings you to Skagway, this post will help you make the most of the limited time you have. One day in Skagway is more than enough to learn about the history, see the scenery, and get inspired for a return trip… Are you ready to fall in love with Alaska’s Gold Rush town that just won’t quit?
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the Lingít Aaní (traditional lands) of the Tlingit people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Skagway Travel Tips
Getting to Skagway
If you can believe it, Skagway is one of the simpler places to get to in Alaska – by simple, I mean there are only two ways: by boat or by car.
Most people visit Skagway on a cruise ship, and the cruise season is the main economic driver in town. You can also reach Skagway on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry or via the Haines-Skagway Fast Ferry.
You can also drive to Skagway via the Klondike Highway (Yukon Highway 2/YT-2 and Alaska Rte 98). This requires traveling through Canada, which makes it a worthy detour for many people driving the AlCan between Alaska and the Lower 48.
(For comprehensiveness, it is also possible to reach Skagway by plane via Haines with Alaska Seaplanes, but I’ve literally never heard of anyone visiting Skagway this way – and the Fast Ferry is a much more reasonable way to get to Skagway, comparing cost and travel time.)
Getting Oriented in Skagway
Skagway is a small town, even by Alaska standards, so getting oriented is easy. The entire town is laid out on a grid system, with State Street as the primary transit road running from the Ferry/Cruise terminals north from town to become the Klondike Highway. One block east of State, Broadway is the main street for commerce (it’s lined by all the shops).
The historic district of Skagway is about 15 square blocks, stretching from 1st to 7th Avenues along Broadway Street and two blocks to the east of Broadway. (There are also some historic buildings on the west side of Broadway.)
Basically, you can’t easily get lost in Skagway: there are mountains on three sides, and the cruise ships tower over town on the other one. If you’re confused, head for the cruise ships.
When to Visit Skagway
Skagway is a summer destination, catering to cruise ship passengers. This means that the best time to visit is between mid-May and mid-September each year. There are some cruises running later in the year, but most seasonal businesses will close in September. And while there are about 1,200 year-round residents, most will not be providing service in the tourism and hospitality sector come winter.
What to Pack for Skagway
High in the northern inlets of Alaska’s Inside Passage, Skagway has a temperate climate. During the summer, average highs range into the mid-60s during the day, and it rains once every 4-5 days. This means you’ll be fine if you pack the basics I recommend for any Alaska travel in the summer; layers and good rain gear are always important even during the driest months of May and June.
If you’re taking an Alaska cruise to reach Skagway, don’t forget to check my Alaska cruise packing list and the binoculars I recommend for your Alaska cruise.
What to Do in Skagway (When You Only Have One Day!)
Okay, now that you have the basics of Skagway in mind, it’s time to talk about what to do during your visit. Whether you’re just making a port call during your Alaska cruise, stopping for a few days from exploring on the Alaska Ferry, or taking a detour while driving the AlCan, these are the best things to do when you only have one day in Skagway. (I provide suggestions for a second day further down.)
White Pass & Yukon Route Railway
Hands down the best thing to do in Skagway is to ride the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway. This scenic train route was initially built to support industry and transferring goods from the Klondike gold fields and interior of Yukon Canada; today it’s a tourist attraction that’s well worth the time and money – even if you’re short on time in Skagway and trying to visit Alaska on a budget.
In 2022, the WPYR is operating, but only up to Mile 20 up to White Pass Summit. In years past, the train crossed the Canadian border to either Carcross (Mile 67.5) or Whitehorse (Mile 107); border crossings are not permitted this year due to, well, you know.
For 2023, nobody is quite sure which excursion(s) will be offered or how far the train will go, so I’ll update this post once that information is released.
The train ride takes about three hours round-trip and departs several times per day. I recommend booking the earliest time that works with your schedule for your day in Skagway.
Explore Historic Skagway
After disembarking from the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, you’ll be right in the heart of historic Skagway, so be sure to take some time and walk around. There are tons of historic buildings that date back to the late 19th Century – some of which I’ll cover in greater detail below.
In addition to those, be sure to check out:
- The Arctic Brotherhood on Broadway, which dates to 1899 and is covered with 8,800 pieces of driftwood.
- The Golden North Hotel, which dates to 1898 and is one of the iconic buildings in “downtown” Skagway.
- Kirmse’s Curios, which was built in 1899 and became a jewelry store in 1904 – and still is today. (Take that, Diamonds International!)
- The First Presbyterian Church, from 1899, which sits outside the historic district near the corner of Main and Alaska Streets and still operates as a church today.
Red Onion Saloon
If there’s one historic building you can’t miss and absolutely have to spend some time in, it’s the Red Onion Saloon. The building dates back to 1898 and has pretty much always been exactly what it is today: a saloon on the ground floor and a brothel upstairs.
And by brothel, I mean a historic brothel that offers tours… not, you know, whatever you were thinking!
Actually, the historic brothel tour at the Red Onion Saloon is one of the best things to do in Skagway. Tours run several times daily and are a very reasonable $10 per person. You’ll be guided through the private former rooms of the women who worked in this building over a century ago – and learn about how these women lived and attempted to thrive in a harsh place (in more ways than one). I found that the whole tour excellently handled women’s rights historically and the reality of life for women who did this work.
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
For even more history, you can’t miss spending some time at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Two fun facts about this park before I tell you more:
- There’s also a visitor center in Seattle, since that’s where the vast majority of prospectors set out from when trying to reach the Klondike gold fields.
- There isn’t one location for the National Historical Park – it’s scattered all over Skagway’s historic district.
The Visitor Center is at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Broadway, but you can see other historic buildings too, including The Moore Homestead (5th & Spring), The Brass Pic (the alley between 5th & 6th east of Broadway), and Jeff. Smith’s Parlor (2nd, west of Broadway). That last location bears the name of its proprietor and Skagway’s most famous resident, outlaw, and… philanthropist: Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith.
Gold Rush Cemetery
Photo credit: Larry Syverson (L) & Ryan Schreiber (C) via Flickr, Karl Gurcke (R) via NPS
Another scenic spot to experience Klondike history is at the Gold Rush Cemetery, about 2.5 miles out of town. I personally consider this a must-do, but I acknowledge that not everyone will have time for it during just one day in Skagway, so I’ve put it lower down on the list in case you run out of time.
The best way to reach the Gold Rush Cemetery is either by walking or taking the local SMART bus shuttle to a stop that’s about a half-mile from the cemetery.
There you’ll find a number of graves dating back to the Klondike era – about as old as any you’ll find in Alaska. Of particular note, “Soapy” Smith was buried here after his famous shoot-out in town and his grave is still marked and protected today.
Lower & Upper Reid Falls
While you’re at the Gold Rush Cemetery, you might want to get a little hiking in; if you’re doing one, you definitely have time to do both. Lower Reid Falls is a five-minute walk from the cemetery by way of a forest trail. It can get quite muddy if it’s rained recently so wear appropriate shoes.
You might also hear (or wonder) about Upper Reid Falls – this is a much more complex hike with a different trailhead.
Have an Extra Day in Skagway? Here’s How to Fill It
For a small town, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with the suggestions I’ve made for how to spend one day in Skagway. I you do all of the thinsg I recommended above, it’s a great, full, interesting day – but wait, there’s more! (Do we think Soapy Smith ever said that?)
Here are some ideas for how to spend extra time in Skagway, if you have it in your Alaska itinerary.
Photo credit (L): becc via Flickr
While it might be a contemporary term, the best way to think of Dyea is as a “sister city” to Skagway – though during the boom periods of both towns, they operated more as rivals than relatives. (Like most siblings.)
Today, the former townsite of Dyea is a National Historic Landmark and part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. You can still find some remnants of the sizable town – by Alaska terms – that once stood here.
Note: You can best reach Dyea by car, so you may need to arrange private transport if you haven’t driven to Skagway with your own vehicle.
The Chilkoot Trail
Another reason to visit Dyea is to spend some time hiking on the historic Chilkoot Trail – also part of the Klondike Gold Rush NHP. You should register in advance for a permit at the Chilkoot Trail Center in Skagway before heading to the trailhead near Dyea.
The Chilkoot Trail is a challenging 31.4-mile one-way trail; most people spend 3-5 days hiking the whole thing. You can also hike shorter portions of it as a day hike, as the elevation gain doesn’t really kick in until around 7 miles along the trail.
Also, note that you cannot hike the entire trail in 2022; the Canadian border is closed to hiker crossings.
Lower (and/or Upper) Dewey Lake
Photo credit (R): David Kobuszewski via Flickr
If you’d rather do a hike closer to Skagway (or don’t have a car to reach Dyea), Lower and Upper Dewey Lakes are a great option.
Lower Dewey Lake is a three-mile loop trail that sets out from right near downtown Skagway. It has decent elevation gain and drop (800 feet up and then back down) so it’s not a stroll or for those with inappropriate shoes.
Upper Dewey Lake is a spur off of the Lower Dewey Lake Trail; it’s 5 miles out and back from the trailhead, and comes to about 6.7 miles if you do both lakes in a single hike (3 miles around Lower Dewey + 3.7 miles out-and-back to Upper Dewey). Upper Dewey has a ton more elevation gain (over 3,000 total) but rewards you with a gorgeous alpine lake view at the top.
Tin-Type Portrait Session
If your idea of a fun day involves a lot less walking than the hikes I’ve suggested, head to Alderleaf Artworks and sit for a tintype portrait. Unlike those cheeseball “authentic olde tyme photos” you see elsewhere in town, Brian uses the same techniques and materials that photographers in the mid-1800s did when the technology was developed. If you’re looking for an authentic Gold Rush era souvenir in Skagway, this is it.
Honestly, I would have sat for one of these in a heartbeat (even though it is an investment piece) but I didn’t have Mr. V with me on my most recent visit and knew he would be sad to miss out. Instead, I bought a small print and began plotting our return trip.
Finally, you could spend part of an additional day in Skagway – or an entire day – in the nearby town of Haines. I already mentioned Haines as a location one might visit to get to Skagway, but you can also take advantage of the Fast Ferry to visit Haines from Skagway.
Haines is slightly larger than Skagway, but with fewer tourism-oriented activities. Some popular activities include:
- Wildlife viewing tours (as Haines has some incredible opportunities to see bears and eagles)
- Port Chilkoot Distillery and Three Northmen Meadery & Cidery (cheers!)
- The American Bald Eagle Foundation (much like the one in Sitka)
- The fantastic Sheldon Museum (full of cultural artifacts) and unconventional Hammer Museum (full of hammers)
I’ll be visiting Haines again soon (I only had about 90 minutes there on my most recent trip) and will add links to future Haines posts here in case you want to visit.
Where to Stay in Skagway
Last, but certainly not least, you might need a place to stay after spending your one day in Skagway (if you’re not visiting on a cruise ship, in which case, bon voyage as you sail away!). Don’t be fooled by other bloggers telling you there are lots of hotels in Skagway – their lists are full of properties in Haines.
Here are the places I recommend in Skagway, of the limited options:
- The Historic Skagway Inn was founded in 1897 and will convince you that you’ve stepped back in time in their historically apportioned rooms. Rooms start from $192 per night; book on Booking.com or on Hotels.com.
- Morning Wood Hotel – all jokes aside – is a great little local establishment if you’re looking for something more casual. Rooms start from $ per night; book directly on their website.
- For a chain you might recognize, the Westmark Inn Skagway is another good option. Rooms start from $189 per night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
The Explore Skagway site also has a complete list of properties in Skagway, in case these options aren’t available during the dates you plan to visit. (Skagway is so small that it can sell out during busy times of the year, especially around the 4th of July.)
There you have it – a complete guide for spending one day in Skagway… plus a little extra time if you have it. Have any questions about visiting Skagway? Let me know in the comments!
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