A beautiful day hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park | Shawn Weller
By Robin Esrock
In August 2021, The Yukon replaced Yukon as the official term when referring to Canada’s smallest and western-most territory. Small, it has to be said, is relative when referring to the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun.’ Consider this: The Yukon is larger than the United Kingdom. It is larger than Germany, larger than Italy, and larger than Malaysia, Sweden, and Morocco. When you factor in the hundreds of millions of people who live in those countries and the fact that The Yukon has a population of just 44,000 sourdoughs (although you gotta earn the right to call yourself a sourdough), you can begin to understand the scale and sheer size of the territory. Factor in soaring mountains and raging rivers, wildlife, tundra, gold rush history and Indigenous traditions that date back to the continent’s earliest human migration. You begin to realize that The Yukon is not so much a place; it’s a state of mind.
As the largest city in northern Canada, Whitehorse surprises many visitors. The weather is milder than in Yellowknife, and the city has an unexpectedly dynamic arts, cultural and culinary scene. Young families from the south are increasingly migrating north, where land is affordable, communities are vibrant, and they get to breathe what Guinness World Records called the best city air on the planet. Sure, it gets frosty and dark in the winter, but locals pull out the ice-fishing huts and sled dogs, cross-country skis, fat bikes and snowmobiles. Now come the lights, the aurora borealis, firing in the early morning skies thanks to Whitehorse’s favourable location beneath the aurora oval.
The seasons change with a flourish of colour across the forests and tundra. Fireweed explodes, poisonous purple lupines blossom, and bright wild berries burst. When summer solstice rolls around, The Yukon will enjoy 24 hours of daylight all the way to September. Think about what you can get up to when it never gets dark.
South of the famous Dempster Highway, we can explore the sweeping valleys and looming mountains in Tombstone Territorial Park. There we’ll find the caribou, bears, moose, Dall sheep and 150 bird species that call the 2100-sq kilometre park home. Dark razor-sharp mountains recall another part of the world, granting Tombstone a deserved nickname as the Patagonia of the North. Turquoise lakes, permafrost and sprawling tundra, make this a hiking destination of a lifetime, with views that don’t quit, even in the wee hours of the morning.
Tombstone immerses you in nature, but The Yukon adds an interesting dose of history too. In 1896, gold was discovered in its Klondike region, lighting the fuse under one of the biggest gold rushes of all time. An estimated 100,000 prospectors flooded north, navigating arduous mountain trails with up to a ton of gear to reach the region and stake their claim. Today we can relive their most challenging trek by hiking the Chilkoot Trail between Bennett, British Columbia and Dyea, Alaska. The centre of the gold rush was Dawson City, the newly minted territory’s capital, which quickly swelled into the most populous city north of San Francisco. Miners and swindlers, traders and poets, priests and outlaws – for a while, there was no place on Earth like Dawson City, all perfectly captured thanks to the poems of Robert Service. Soon enough, the gold dried up, and most prospectors returned south, broke or broken.
When the Alaska Highway diverted road traffic hundreds of kilometres to the south, Dawson City shrivelled, becoming an outpost town and launchpad for Tombstone Park, located 90 minutes drive away. The small town might have lost its golden lustre, but the past is richly preserved and has plenty of character. Walk its streets, and you’ll see original wooden buildings sinking into the ground. There’s a paddle-wheeler graveyard and the restored SS Keno that recalls a grander era. Further into the past, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Cultural Centre showcases the traditions and stories of the First Nations who have lived here since time immemorial.
The Yukon has terrific breweries, and the salmon and Arctic char is always fresh. If you want to taste the territory’s true quirky character, visit the saloon inside Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel. Head to the bar and a local will gladly administer a ceremony that involves a cocktail – or, more accurately, a tumbler with Yukon Jack whisky – and a severed human toe. Over 100,000 people have joined the legendary Sour Toe Cocktail Club, and it’s safe to say it will be one of the most memorable drinks of your life.
The Yukon joined Canada as a political entity on June 13, 1898. It’s seen 125 years of discovery and wilderness, rags, riches and all-between. It’s also seen 125 years of human and animal migration and of big adventure under bright or shimmering skies. Since we don’t say The Ontario, The Quebec, The Alberta, or The British Columbia, I stake a claim that The Yukon is not just another province or territory. It’s The destination you simply won’t forget.
Robin Esrock is the bestselling author of The Great Canadian Bucket List.