If you are heading to the Yukon (which Henk and I would highly recommend everyone do in their lifetime), chances are you will be flying into Whitehorse. With a population of 26,000 in a Territory that has only 38,000 people in total, Whitehorse may seem like a small town. But the city is surprisingly urbane, offering everything from trendy eateries to iconic historic sites to unique shopping. And with its beautiful setting on the banks of the Yukon River between 3 mountains, Whitehorse is literally surrounded by nature. Here then, is your grownup guide for the best things to do in Whitehorse that will allow you to experience it all.
Snap a Souvenir Photo of the Whitehorse Horse
You can’t visit Whitehorse without wondering why it got its name, which is of course tied to the Yukon river on the banks of which the city was built. Back at the turn of the century, ‘white horse’ was a common term for a standing wave with a whitecap and the town of Whitehorse was located close to a notoriously dangerous set of whitewater rapids on the Yukon. Hence the city got its name. More than 100 years later, the name inspired artist Daphne Mennell to create a 3-metre-tall, 2-ton metal sculpture of a rearing horse which was installed at the top of Two Mile Hill in 2011.
Over 200 Yukoners contributed to the project with metal artefacts that had special meaning for them (like a pair of 1930’s RCMP spurs passed down through 2 generations of Mounties). The collected metal bits were then welded together by Roger Poole, Mennell’s neighbour, to create the majestic sculpture whose swirling tail resembles the crested waves after which the city was named.
Visit the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site
Back in the Gold Rush days and for the first half of the 20th century, the best way to travel the Yukon River was on a sternwheeler operated by the British Yukon Navigation Company. The largest of their fleet was the S.S. Klondike, which was built in 1929 to move large quantities of silver ore upstream, but its career came to an abrupt end when it sank in 1936. Rebuilt from salvaged bits and relaunched a year later, this historic paddlewheeler worked the river between Whitehorse and Dawson carrying cargo and passengers until 1950.
Today the S.S. Klondike sits proudly displayed on the banks of the Yukon near Whitehorse’s downtown. Fully restored to its 1937 appearance, the ship is now a National Historic Site open to the public, and occasionally serves as an event venue for local festivals. One of these events, Cocktails, Canapes and Costumes on the S.S. Klondike, takes place during the Yukon Culinary Festival, when guests in period costume can stroll the historic decks while sipping on signature cocktails and sampling creative canapés made with locally sourced ingredients.
TIP: The Yukon Culinary Festival takes place in August and brings together some of the best culinary experts in the Yukon for a series of events in and around Whitehorse.
Tour the MacBride Museum and Sam McGee’s Cabin
To really understand what makes the Yukon tick, there’s no better place to start than at the MacBride Museum in downtown Whitehorse. The Gold Rush gallery in particular tells the story of how the discovery of gold near Dawson City forever changed the history of the Yukon. And you should definitely check out Sam McGee’s actual cabin, named after the real-life character made famous in poet Robert Service’s ballad: The Cremation of Sam McGee. There’s probably no more famous poem – or character – in the Yukon (even if he wasn’t really cremated!).
There’s an interesting story about U.S. Senator John McCain, who made a visit to Whitehorse while studying climate change in the north. While there, he visited the museum specifically to see Sam McGee’s cabin, something he had become acquainted with when he was held as a POW in Vietnam: apparently he and a prisoner in the next cell developed a tap code to communicate with each through the shared wall, and it turns out that the other prisoner had memorized the Cremation of Sam McGee in school. With plenty of time on their hands to kill, he shared the poem with McCain, who didn’t just remember the words, but also the tap code he used to ‘recite’ it.
Hike the Rim Trail in Miles Canyon
Whitehorse is nestled in a wide valley on the shores of the Yukon river, between Grey Mountain, Golden Horn Mountain and Haeckel Hill, meaning pretty much every direction you look, you’ll see mountains surrounding you. But if you want to experience some of this beauty more closely, Miles Canyon is the place to go for a spectacular yet very easy hike.
Miles Canyon is only a few minutes’ drive from downtown Whitehorse and has a series of trails for both hikers and mountain bikers. Henk and I wanted to be as close to the edge as possible, so we decided on the Rim Trail, which hugs the cliffs along the edge of the east side of the Yukon river. But even before we arrived at the trailhead, we were treated to a little wildlife spotting, when this pretty red fox trotted in front of us and curled up on the forest’s edge beside the road.
TIP: Wildlife encounters in the Yukon are commonplace even on major roads. If you do see animals, do as locals do: pull over to the shoulder to observe them and put on your 4-way flashers to let other cars know there is wildlife nearby.
Once on the Rim trail, hikers get beautiful sightlines of the turquoise Yukon River and the tree-lined cliffs on either side. Henk and I both went trigger-happy with our cameras trying to capture the incredible colour of the water and the dramatic landscapes here.
TIP: You’ll need a car to get to Miles Canyon as there is no public transport that will take you there. There are, however, free guided hikes organized from the Yukon Conservation Society. (Full details here.)
Shop for Yukon Gold at Murdoch’s
If you like to engage in a little retail therapy during your visit, Whitehorse’s Main Street is the place to go. A shopping trip here is an opportunity to take home more than just a souvenir Yukon fridge magnet. In fact, why not treat yourself to something that brought so many people here in the first place: gold! There’s no better place to find authentic Yukon gold nugget jewellery than Murdochs, a Yukon institution that has been here since the 1940s when George Murdoch first opened his store in Dawson City near the site of the original gold strike.
Murdochs has been catering to gold miners for years so it’s no surprise they are known for their gold nugget jewellery which they make right in the store even today. Murdochs also crafts beautiful pieces of jewellery from mammoth ivory (the ivory is usually discovered by miners and is examined by government palaeontologists before being approved for use in artisanal jewellery.) With some of these huge mammoth bones and other taxidermy specimens displayed on the walls of the store, Murdochs feels like part natural history museum, part retail store. And there are other curiosities here as well…
See Klondike Kate’s Silver Belt
George Murdoch had quite a connection to some of the Yukon’s most famous characters, too, including “Klondike Kate” Rockwell, who earned her fame as a vaudeville dancer during the Gold Rush. Kate actually started working as a tap dancer in Whitehorse before moving to Dawson City where she met her lover Alexander Pantages (who later became a theatre owner). During her days of living large in Dawson, Kate became a frequent customer and friend of Murdoch’s and reportedly gave George her own silver filigree belt as a gift, which is now on display in a glass case in the store.
FUN FACT: There are actually two other ‘Klondike Kates’ in Yukon history: Kate Carmack, an Indigenous Yukoner who was with her husband George, brother Skookum Jim and nephew Dawson Charlie at the moment in 1896 when the first gold nugget was pulled from Bonanza creek. History has largely ignored her role in the discovery until recently, instead crediting her husband George (the same husband who later cheated Kate out of her fortune.)
The second is Kate Ryan, a ballsy New Brunswick native who worked as a nurse in Seattle before travelling to the Yukon on her own to stake 3 gold claims. She later become the first female special constable of the North West Mounted Police. You go girl!
Sign an Unusual ‘Guest Book’
If souvenirs really are your thing, then head to the Midnight Sun Emporium where you’ll find a vast assortment of local bric-a-brac to bring home. But more interesting for Henk and I were the garlands of signed clothes pins strung from the ceiling which, like everything else in the Yukon, comes with a story: the clothes pin tradition began with Harriet Osborn in the late 1920’s.
Harriet had a summer cabin near Dawson City where she often invited guests to visit, including dignitaries and prominent business leaders. These guests were invited to sign her ‘guest book’, a wooden clothes pin on which they would sign their name, date and where they were from. This went on for almost 30 years, during which time Harriet collected more than 200 signed pins.
Today, the owners of the Midnight Sun Emporium (who once lived near Harriet’s cabin) continue her tradition: visitors to the store can sign their own names on a clothes pin and become part of this unique Whitehorse guest book. (And yes, Henk and I can now officially say we were strung up in Whitehorse!)
The Best of Both Worlds
Whitehorse may be small in size, but it offers visitors a little bit of everything: urban comforts and local attractions that bring Yukon culture to life, plus easy access to the natural beauty unique to this part of Canada. If you’re looking for a destination ‘North of 60’, Whitehorse really does offer the best of both worlds.
PRACTICAL INFO: Where to Eat in Whitehorse
Whitehorse’s selection of restaurants is as eclectic as its population, which might come as a surprise to people visiting for the first time. There’s a little something for everyone, depending on what you might be craving.
Latte-lovers should definitely check out Baked, an on-trend cafe that is as popular with laptop-toting hipsters as it is with young families. As the name suggests, the scones, croissants and other baked goods are a delicious excuse to visit, but they also serve light lunch fare and every iteration of coffee beverage that you might want.
Likewise if you’re looking for tasty sandwiches, soups, baked goods and particularly decadent desserts, head to the Chocolate Claim Cafe on Strickland Street, 4 blocks north of Main Street. This popular cafe started as a catering and chocolate business, so you know you have the stamp of approval from Whitehorse locals, too, who make this a regular stop for takeout as well.
For an extensive dinner menu with Mediterranean-inspired fare, head to Giorgio’s Cuccina, one of Whitehorse’s more upscale restaurants which offers tasty Greek and Italian dishes along with pizza, steaks and local seafood such as Arctic Char and wild salmon.
The decor is as Mediterranean as the menu, with leather chairs, frescoed walls and stucco arches, and even though the restaurant is large, it is very popular so be sure to make a reservation.
Antoinette’s is one of Whitehorse’s surprises, a Trinidad-Tobago themed restaurant with a fun Caribbean vibe where you might least expect it (then again, this is the Yukon where unexpected is the norm.) Antoinette’s lives up to its sign’s promise of ‘pure niceness’ not just with its invitation to ‘come lime with us’ but in the well-crafted dishes that are inspired by owner Antoinette’s upbringing on Tobago.
Bang on-trend with its reclaimed wood tables, funky decor and craft cocktails is Dirty Northern/Miner’s Daughter, a resto-pub right on main street that looks like it would fit into any hipster’s hood in Toronto or Vancouver.
Food is equally on-trend with a selection of internationally-inspired dishes from curry prawns and pistachio/avocado bruschetta appetizers to bison burgers and jerk chicken. Great for both dinner and/or a night out as this place is hopping in the evenings and the small outdoor patio gets packed on those long Yukon summer days.
Where to Drink in Whitehorse
As mentioned, Dirty Northern is a great option for enjoying signature cocktails in a lively restaurant atmosphere, but if you prefer to sample your suds at the source, check out the Winterlong Brewing Company, Whitehorse’s 5-year old craft brewery located just outside of town.
The tasting room at this brewery is bright and open, and offers flights of Winterlong’s favourite brews (such as their Weekend Warrior or Reckless Abandon) as well as seasonal beers and appetizers to complement them.
TIP: A Yukon tradition is that anyone who rings the bell (there’s one displayed in every bar here) buys a round for the whole place. So think, don’t drink before you ring – or you’ll may find yourself with a credit card bill you weren’t expecting!
When it comes to Whitehorse bars, one of the most authentic might just be the one at the 98 Hotel, one of only two bars in the Yukon that have a licence to serve alcohol starting at 9am (the other is held by Dawson City’s ‘The Pit”).
Affectionately nicknamed the ‘Breakfast Club’ because it originally catered to miners coming off graveyard shift who wanted to enjoy a drink after work, the 98 bar remains one of those gritty dives that is about as far removed from hipster as you can get. With rifles mounted over the bar (just in case?) and its ‘Perverts Row’ sign (offering the best view of the bartender’s boobs), the 98 makes no apologies for its reputation – just like many of its patrons. This is the kind of place where if you don’t go looking for trouble, you won’t find it. Just don’t go ringing that bell unless you’re serious. Seriously.
TIP: If you are looking for more local Yukon libations to try while you’re here, order one of the beers made by the Yukon Brewing Company (their label designs alone are worth checking out). Or for something harder – and rougher around the edges – there’s always Yukon Jack Whiskey.
Where to Stay in Whitehorse
The Edgewater Hotel has a perfect location right downtown on Main Street in Whitehorse, and offers a storied history that dates back to the 1890s when it operated as the Windsor Hotel. It was rebuilt several times over the past 120 years following fires that devastated much of the downtown core. The current building goes back to 1961 and despite its motel-like exterior the rooms inside have been recently updated and furnished with modern decor and amenities.
Spot the giant Mountie and you’ll have found the Coast High Country Inn, an 82-room property a little farther from downtown but only a block away from the Yukon river and the S.S. Klondike. The hotel has undergone extensive renovations recently and the updated rooms are very comfortable. The King Jacuzzi room we stayed in was spacious with a large whirlpool tub and the hotel’s Royal Suite is actually where Prince William and Kate Middleton stayed on their visit to Whitehorse.
Getting Around Whitehorse and the Yukon
Whitehorse itself is not a large city and downtown is easily walkable but if you want to explore more of the area and the Yukon (and why wouldn’t you?) rental vehicles are the best way to go. You will definitely want to take advantage of the scenic drives throughout the Yukon (check out the Top of the World Highway near Dawson, for example.) But be aware that most of the roads in the Territory are gravel, and if you plan to drive the Dempster Highway, Yukon’s gravel highway that takes you north of the Arctic Circle, rental companies will insist you rent a 4-wheel drive because the road can be a rough one.
If you are only planning to hit up Dawson City and Whitehorse and you prefer to fly, there are quick flights via Air North that will save you about 6 hours of driving.
Special thanks to Travel Yukon who hosted Henk and I on our visit to Whitehorse.