Situated at the head of Lynn Canal is Skagway, one of the driest places in an otherwise soggy Southeast. While Petersburg averages more than 100in of rain a year and Ketchikan a drenching 154in, Skagway gets only 26in annually.
At first sight, Skagway appears to be solely an amusement park for cruise ship daytripppers. But its easily accessed trails, historic railway and excellent dining options make this a a good place to stay a few days. You need only to wander a block or two away from Broadway St before you're away from the tourist bustle.
Much of Skagway is within Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, which comprises downtown Skagway, the Chilkoot Trail, the White Pass Trail corridor and a visitors center. Beginning in 1897, Skagway and the nearby ghost town of Dyea were the starting places for more than 40,000 gold-rush stampeders who headed to the Yukon primarily by way of the Chilkoot Trail. The actual stampede lasted only a few years, but it produced one of the most colorful periods in Alaskan history, that of a lawless frontier town controlled by villainous ‘Soapy’ Smith who was finally removed from power in a gunfight by town hero Frank Reid.
At the height of the gold rush, Michael J Heney, an Irish contractor, convinced a group of English investors that he could build a railroad over the White Pass Trail to Whitehorse. The construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route was nothing short of a superhuman feat, and the railroad became the focal point of the town’s economy after the gold rush and during the military buildup of WWII.
The line was shut down in 1982 but was revived in 1988, to the delight of cruise-ship tourists and backpackers walking the Chilkoot Trail. Although the train hauls no freight, its rebirth was important to Skagway as a tourist attraction. Today Skagway survives almost entirely on tourism, and bus tours and more than 400 cruise ships a year turn this village into a boomtown again every summer. Up to five ships a day stop here and, on the busiest days, more than 9000 tourists – 10 times the town’s resident population – march off the ships and turn Broadway into something of an anthill. It’s the modern-day version of the Klondike Gold Rush and the reason why Skagway has more jewelry shops per capita than any place in Alaska and possibly the country.
Unlike the majority of Southeast towns, Skagway is a truly delightful place to arrive in by sea. Cruise-ship and state-ferry passengers alike step off their boats and are funneled to Broadway St, Skagway’s main avenue and the heart of Klondike Gold Rush National Park Historic District. Suddenly you find yourself in a bustling town, where many people are dressed as if they are trying to relive the gold-rush days and the rest are obviously tourists from the luxury liners.