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For some travelers, that place is Disneyland. For others, it’s a lakeside cabin where the family always used to converge during the holidays. For me – a kid raised in Alaska – the place I think of fondly when remembering summer vacations, is Canada’s Yukon Territory.
Maybe it was from our seminal drive from Maryland – where I was born – to Alaska when we moved there. Maybe it was the several times throughout my childhood when my parents and I made the long drive from our home near Anchorage, Alaska to spend time at Kluane Lake and neighboring Kluane National Park. There were even a few trips where we made the drive further south to visit Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon.
Whatever the reason, the Yukon – and Whitehorse – hold a special place in my heart, and I had my heart set on visiting during the summer of 2023 to re-tread the steps of my childhood and discover things anew with a travel writer’s eyes.
Following that trip, I knew I had to put together some articles that stack up to my own standard of what you – my fellow travelers – need to have an incredible time in this part of the world. As part of a larger Klondike-Kluane road trip, I spent a few nights and days in Whitehorse along with other Yukon destinations; this post is part of that series.
Below you’ll find what I consider to be the best things to do in Whitehorse. Whether you’re just passing through on a drive up the Alcan highway or are dedicating time to the Yukon as I did, you’ll soon see that for a small, remote city in a large, remote territory, Whitehorse has a ton to offer. Let’s get right to it!
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Kwanlin Dün and Ta’an Kwäch’än peoples. 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.
1. Start at Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre
Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…
Where better to start your time in Whitehorse than at the very beginning – of history?! I distinctly remember visiting the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre as a child; they used to have a giant, fossil-accurate six-foot sloth near the entrance that was… memorable (aka terrifying) to me as a kid!
Luckily, the sloth is no longer there – and the rest of the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre was recently renovated up to the standards of 2020 museums; it’s a really delightful place to explore and get a sense of how the major forces on our planet created this unique place. The museum is very kid-friendly but also has tons of details and depth for travelers/adults who want to learn a lot.
As a bonus, there’s an outdoor scavenger hunt at the museum that’s really fun if you can’t visit during opening hours or need to burn off some kid energy after a long day driving to get to Whitehorse.
2. Explore Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre
After getting a sense of how the Yukon came to be – how humans and animals came to this region tens of thousands of years ago – another good stop is at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre where you can start to learn about some of the First Nations people who call the Yukon home today.
The Kwalin Dün Cultural Centre is both a tourist and local space; it is used for both gathering as a community and teaching those from outside about the traditions and culture of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation people. As a visitor, you can see exhibits, explore the galleries, and attend events (seasonally). There are particularly big and worthwhile events to attend surrounding Indigenous People’s Day on June 21st each year.
3. Visit the MacBride Museum
Photos courtesy of the MacBride Museum
I’ll be honest: I haven’t been to the MacBride Museum of Yukon History in part because I always visit the Yukon Beringia center during my trips to Whitehorse. However, the MacBride Museum offers insights into other chapters of Yukon history, and so is well worth a visit if you have a few days in Whitehorse and enjoy museums.
The museum is home to over 40,000 artifacts dating back to the First Nations peoples all the way through the gold rush chapter of history and through the present day with information on notable events like when the royals visited the Territory in 2016. There are also cool exhibits like a natural history gallery of unique animals of the Yukon and “The Cold Chamber” which teaches you how people survive in the harsh winter climate of northwestern Canada.
4. Dig Into MacBride Copperbelt Mining Museum
Companion to the MacBride history museum, the MacBride Copperbelt Mining Museum sinks deep into the main chapter of Yukon history post-contact with European-descended settlers: the gold rush, and all the mining history that has followed. Specifically – as its name suggests –, the MacBride Copperbelt Mining Museum focuses on copper mining in the Whitehorse area, historically and today.
This primarily open-air museum is only open in the summer, but includes some great activities if you (or anyone you’re traveling with) are big into engineering and/or mining. (I was that kind of weird kid, so no judgment!) The best way to experience the museum is aboard the historic small train with narration to teach you about the copper belt and mining.
5. Visit S.S. Klondike National Historic Site
Are you getting the sense that Whitehorse is big on history yet? We’re not done! I’ve started this list of things to do in Whitehorse with the majority of the museums in town, so the best way to experience them is to pick 1-2 that are interesting to you – but if I can guide you specifically to one other (in addition to the Yukon Beringia museum), it’s the SS Klondike National Historical Site.
There are outdoor exhibits but for the best experience, check out the schedule of guided tours and try to attend one of those (offered only in the summer). On a tour, you’ll explore the interior and exterior of the ship to learn about navigating the Yukon’s waterways and developing the economy of this remote territory.
6. Explore Shipyards Park
If you look at a map of Whitehorse (which I highly recommend so you can get oriented before you arrive), you’ll notice that Whitehorse sits on the banks of a river – the Yukon River. While it might not look like much, the Yukon River is the main artery that carries lifeblood in the territory; it flows some 1,980 miles from its source in British Columbia through the Yukon and into Alaska to end at the Bering Sea.
As Whitehorse has always been one of the biggest cities in the Yukon and on the Yukon, it was central to infrastructure in the territory; many of the sternwheelers that once moved people and goods throughout the region (like the SS Klondike on its banks today in Whitehorse and the SS Keno in Dawson) were built right here along the waterfront.
Today, that area is called Shipyards Park and is connected by the Waterfront Trail to the SS Klondike at the park’s southern area. The park also passes the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre and MacBride Museum, so it’s a great location to spend/base yourself for a whole day of exploring things to do in Whitehorse on foot.
This is a fantastic trail for a stroll, and there are also play areas, benches, and other businesses along the way. I began my first morning in Whitehorse with a run in the park which is at least my definition of a perfect way to start the day while traveling.
7. See Old Log Church Museum
More history! More history! Right? Okay, it’s just me, the history nerd/major from college…
If you’re like me and still want more, plan a short stop at the Old Log Church Museum. This is a very quick thing to do in Whitehorse – the old log church building is a single small building with a few rooms, and teaches about the history of the church in the Yukon and missionaries who tried to tame this wild, remote area.
The Museum has very limited hours even in the summer so be sure to check their website to see if it will fit in your travel plans.
8. Wander the Yukon Transportation Museum
Okay, just one more museum, I promise. This one’s for those of you traveling with mechanically-minded little ones: while the Yukon Transportation Museum is also interesting for adults, it’s really great for kids who you need to tire out and teach as part of their own Yukon travels.
Inside, you’ll find exhibits about all kinds of planes, trains, and automobiles that helped build Whitehorse and the Yukon Territory; outside, there’s a series of exhibitions with special large transport vehicles preserved to document different technologies and chapters in history. The museum as a whole also does a great job of telling the stories of the people who operated these machines – and it has one of the best gift shops in town if you’re looking for a cool souvenir from your stay in Whitehorse.
Located right next to the airport, this is also a great option if you have a few hours before your flight and don’t want to just sit in Whitehorse’s small airport.
9. See Whitehorse’s Street Art & Murals
If you’re totally over being inside at all those museums (aside from Shipyard Park, of course) and the weather is good, you might just want to set out and enjoy Whitehorse on foot. I’ll be honest: Whitehorse itself isn’t much to look at; it’s more about practical architecture and city planning than grand boulevards and historically significant design, but there is still plenty to look at.
Specifically, Whitehorse is home to a surprising number of murals and street art projects given its size (roughly 25,000 year-round residents at last count). I immediately was drawn to discovering the different styles and designs on buildings across the city center; more recent works and artists have sought to go beyond the traditional imagery and glamorized noble savage to show the diversity and inclusiveness of the city and its First Nations roots.
I’m working on a post guiding you to the murals I found in Whitehorse and will add the link here once I publish it!
10. Go Hiking at Miles Canyon
By somewhat chance, I found myself at Miles Canyon on my second day in town, only to discover later that it is consistently recommended as one of the best things to do in Whitehorse! I was staying south of Whitehorse during part of my trip, and saw a sign for Miles Canyon. I decided to take the turn and found a beautiful natural wonder a short drive from town.
Miles Canyon formed as the Yukon River cut its way through a particularly strong flow of basaltic lava; you’ll notice in my photos that the unique stone formations evoke memories of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland or parts of Iceland, right? The First Nations people originally called the area Kwanlin meaning “running water through canyon;” you might also connect that to the name of the primary First Nations group in the area – obviously, this natural wonder was significant if their name reflects it!
Today, there are trails on both sides of the canyon, and a suspension bridge connects the two. It’s one of the most iconic spots to get a photo or selfie during your time in Whitehorse – it’s also stunning in the winter if you’re visiting during the off-season.
11. See the Whitehorse Rapids Fishway
Photos courtesy of Yukon Energy
While you can take YT-1 back up to Whitehorse after visiting Miles Canyon, I recommend the side roads: Miles Canyon Road wanders and climbs the landscape running parallel to the Yukon River, and offers rewarding views of both the Canyon from a different perspective as well as Whitehorse as you make your way back to town.
Additionally, Miles Canyon Road runs past the Whitehorse Rapids Fishway, which was designed to help native fish species – especially Chinook Salmon, who make the nearly 2,000-mile journey from the Pacific – bypass the large power plant and dam on the river here. The Fishway (also called a fish ladder) is the longest one in the world and is a great spot to see salmon if they’re running. (As you might expect, this also tends to attract other wildlife, so be aware for potential bear sightings and eagles or other birds of prey in nearby trees.)
12. Soak in Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs
There are also some great things to do north of Whitehorse; the first is probably controversial to locals. When I was growing up, the area now known as Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs was called “Takhini Hot Springs” and was a moderately hot spring system with a locally-run business that people loved to visit.
Times change, and so do hot springs though; in 2022, the hot springs were redeveloped into Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs which is a very nice and fancy property with a variety of other amenities too, including saunas, steam rooms, meditation spaces, yoga classes, and a cafeteria (where the food is actually really delicious, actually!).
I don’t mean to sound like a “things should never change” traveler, as I understand the inevitable march of progress and development. I am sad that Takhini Hot Springs’ rustic style is gone, but Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs is a really nice amenity and experience for the Whitehorse area. (Also, thankfully, the new owners/development still hosts its annual “hair-freezing contest” so that hasn’t been lost!)
13. Admire Animals at Yukon Wildlife Preserve
Photos courtesy of Yukon Wildlife Preserve via Facebook
After – or perhaps before – you go soak your cares away at Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs, you might want to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Specifically, you’ll pass the Yukon Wildlife Preserve on your way down Takhini Hot Springs Road to the resort and it’s a great spot to stop and guarantee some incredible wildlife sightings.
The 350-acre property is home to 12 native Yukon species including moose, caribou, musk ox, lynx, mountain goats, and red fox. (Okay, I tried not to spoil all of them!) Much like the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Southcentral Alaska, this is a great place for families too, since you can see and learn about animals in a safe way.
Bonus: See the Northern Lights
I’ve already mentioned – and you’ve probably gathered – that for the most part, Whitehorse is a summer destination. Many attractions and businesses close completely or greatly reduce their hours during the cold, dark winter months. This is normal in this part of the world – but don’t let that discourage you if you’re visiting Whitehorse during the winter anyway!
In addition to most of the things to do in Whitehorse that I’ve listed above which are open during the winter, there’s one additional treat you can enjoy between roughly mid-September and late March each year: the northern lights!
Whitehorse sits on the 60th parallel north, not quite under the “auroral oval,” but certainly far enough north for some incredible displays of the aurora when the skies are clear and solar activity is strong. The winter of 2024-2025 is expected to produce some of the best aurora activity of this current solar cycle; if you’re visiting Whitehorse this winter or next, you’re in for a real treat if the conditions are right! (The University of Alaska, Fairbanks has a great aurora forecast tool to help you plan.)
And there you have it – the best things to do in Whitehorse. There’s more than you expected, right? What questions do you have about what to do in Whitehorse? Let me know in the comments below!