When I first arrived in Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s northern Yukon Territory, I expected to find a rough-edged old mining town that had seen better days. And sure, Whitehorse was founded as a transit hub during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, and mining remains a major part of the local economy.
But today’s small city has moved well beyond the cliché of the bearded old prospector squatting over a gold pan and then spending his winnings at the local saloon. These days, Whitehorse is a young, thriving community filled with outdoor enthusiasts, artists, musicians and more. It’s a gateway to the Yukon’s vast wilderness filled with unexpected urban comforts, and it’s worth a few days of your time.
Start your day at Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters, a small local roaster tucked away inside a bike shop right downtown. Get to know the heart of the city through a short cycle tour, or stroll the 3-mile paved Millennium Trail along the Yukon River on your own time.
Picnic by the water in Rotary Park or Shipyards Park. You can hit a food truck – Compadres Burritos is open summer-long in both parks, and the shawarma and Greek food truck tweets its daily location @GarlicAGoGo – or pick up made-to-order sandwiches at The Deli. After lunch, check out one of the city’s museums: The MacBride Museum of Yukon History and the Old Log Church Museum focus on Gold Rush history and the territory’s pioneer years, while the Yukon Transportation Museum tackles the region’s challenging relationship with travel, and how Yukoners have used bush planes, sternwheelers and their own two feet to explore the territory. Next door to the Transportation Museum, the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre looks back at our ancient, ice age past.
Not in a museum mood? Head to Yukon Brewing for a tour (and tasting, of course) of the only brewery in the Canadian North. In the evening, you’ll find live music in the bars, or you can seek out one of the local theater companies. The free weekly newspaper What’s Up Yukon has up-to-date cultural listings.
Get outside! Whatever your outdoor activity of choice, chances are it’s accessible from Whitehorse. The Yukon’s mountain biking scene is exploding, and there’s a growing network of trails both inside city limits – on Grey Mountain and Mount McIntyre – and just south of town, on Montana Mountain. The rivers offer paddling for all experience levels, whether you want a quiet canoe ride or a wild whitewater kayaking or rafting experience, or even want to test out a stand-up paddleboard. Try the Yukon River for a moderate day, the Wheaton or the Takhini for canoe-able whitewater, and the Tatshenshini or the Tutshi for a rafting rush. SUP paddlers head to quiet Chadburn Lake or to the Yukon River for some moving water. Several nearby lakes are known for their great fishing: check out Squanga, Snafu and Tarfu, or Kathleen Lake. And the area offers plenty of rock climbing, too – pick up the Yukon Climbing Guide at Mac’s Fireweed Books or Coast Mountain Sports, both on Main St.
Hiking trails are everywhere. The visitor information center has a trail map for the areas in town, on Grey Mountain and along the Yukon River, and YukonHiking.ca offers info for nearly every known option in the region. Fish Lake is a popular short hike, just a short drive from downtown and with big, easy-to-access alpine views. South of town, tackle Mount Lorne or Caribou Mountain for a more challenging trail.
With a rental car and some good advice, it’s possible to spend time in the wilderness around Whitehorse without a guide. But you can also put yourself in the hands of a talented tour operator: There are options for fishing, whitewater rafting, canoeing, or mountain biking.
Ready for a meal after a big day? Try Burnt Toast for creative modern cuisine, or go traditional at Klondike Rib and Salmon, where you can sample wild game and local wild salmon and char.
Venture out to Takhini Hot Springs Road, on the edge of town. There, the Yukon Wildlife Preserve is home to 10 species of mammals that make their homes in the North, including lynx, moose, muskox, bison and mountain goats. You can ride a bus around their various habitats or do a self-guided walking tour.
After you’re through moose-gazing, check out nearby Bean North, Whitehorse’s second local coffee roaster, with a nice café to snack, caffeinate, or just kill some time in. There’s also a restaurant at Takhini Hot Springs, just past Bean North at the end of the road: Café Balzam features crepes and other French cuisine. There’s a network of walking trails in the area, or you can head straight for the hot springs themselves, and end your day with a long, soothing soak.