Located between Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territories, Whitehorse is the capital city of the Yukon and the largest city in Northern Canada. Although the city is now home to more than 28,000 people and serves as a major hub for Canada’s north, it owes its existence to the Klondike Gold Rush, which started way back in 1897.
There weren’t any proper highways back then either. Gold prospectors had to traverse the difficult and sometimes deadly journey over White Pass from Skagway, Alaska while negotiating the Miles Canyon and Whitehorse rapids before finally descending the Yukon River in hopes of striking it rich. With so much activity, a small settlement grew next to the river, and due to the foaming waters of the mighty rapids that looked like white steeds, the settlement became known as Whitehorse. Although the rush of it all is long over, there are still gold mining operations in the area and you too can pan for gold as part of the experience.
I’ve been to Whitehorse a few times, starting back in the 90s when I was just a child visiting my uncle on a road trip with my parents, and most notably, in 2017 when my wife and I embarked on a 150-day road trip across Canada. If you ever have the chance to make it this far north, I highly recommend it. There are so many cool things to do in Yukon and Whitehorse is where it all starts.
Take a Tour of Whitehorse
When visiting a new place, it’s always nice to take a general tour of the area to get a feel for the layout and the history that’s hidden all around you. Thankfully, the Yukon Historical & Museums Association provides information on three self-guided tours that you can do at your own pace. You can follow the tours by downloading the audio program to your mobile phone and/or by printing out the accompanying map. If you have no way to print the map, just head on over to the office and they’ll provide you with one free of charge.
In addition, there are also options for exploring Whitehorse by bus, horse-drawn carriage, or by hopping aboard the M.V. Schwatka to Miles Canyon and Schwatka Lake.
Tour the SS Klondike National Historic Site
Whitehorse has a unique history and so it makes sense to learn about some of that history when you visit the city. One of the best places to do so is at the SS Klondike National Historic Site, which is home to the largest sternwheeler that once navigated the rivers during the gold-rush era.
Built back in 1936 and retired in 1955, the restored and refitted sternwheeler is a popular Whitehorse attraction right in the city centre. Visitors can explore on their own with a self-guided tour booklet or guided tours are available as well.
Visit the MacBride Museum of Yukon History
Another great place to learn about the history of Whitehorse and Yukon is the MacBride Museum of Yukon History, which features a large collection of items and photographs from the gold rush, as well as information about the Yukon First Nations. It’s not a huge museum but there are a number of exhibits, including a log cabin belonging to Sam McGee, a variety of machinery and implements, and even an exhibit about the beautiful wildlife that calls Yukon home. You’ll even find the original Whitehorse telegraph office and the MacBride Waterfront Trolley, which takes visitors on a ride along the Whitehorse waterfront in a fully-restored 1925 trolley.
Old Log Church Museum
Don’t worry, there’s more to Whitehorse than history, but before getting into the adventure side of things, there are still more museums to check out, such as the Old Log Church Museum, which was the first Anglican church to be established in the Yukon. This museum offers insight into the establishment of the Christian faith in the territory with displays and artifacts focusing on the pioneer days and the role of religion during this period. Guided tours are provided daily throughout the summer.
Yukon Transportation Museum
Transportation is obviously a key component of economic activity and the Yukon Transportation Museum is a great place to learn about the early means of transportation that helped Yukon become what it is today, including snowshoes, dog sleds, stagecoaches, boats, aircraft, and vehicles used during the construction of the Alaska Highway.
People tend to love the Queen of the Yukon, which is the sister plane of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, but there are also many great personal stories of Yukon ingenuity and self-sufficiency. With advanced bookings, the museum offers 40-minute tours or you can also explore on your own.
Explore Miles Canyon
Now that we’re done with the museums, it’s time to focus on the thing that sets the Yukon apart from most other destinations in North America. Nature. There’s so much nature. However, not all of us can go explore the extreme backcountry, so if you want to get a taste for some of the beauty near Whitehorse, check out Miles Canyon, which was once a treacherous portion of the Yukon River before a hydroelectric dam tamed the waters. Today, there are many hiking trails to explore and a cool 25-metre-long suspension bridge. Plus, it’s only a few minutes from downtown Whitehorse.
Another wonderful outdoor adventure is canoeing. Canoeing is a classic Canadian activity and few things compare to a beautiful trip down the Yukon River. If you’re interested in heading out on a 28-km canoe trip, check out Up North Adventures. If that sounds too soft, you can always join them on a 15-day excursion as well! They also offer self-guided trips, fishing tours, equipment rentals, and more.
Admire Native Animals at Yukon Wildlife Preserve
Did you know that the Yukon has 10 times more moose, bears, wolves, caribou, goats and sheep than people? That’s right! There are not a lot of people in the Yukon and yet, it’s a massive territory full of wildlife and wilderness. However, just because there are lots of wild animals doesn’t mean you’ll see them, so if you want to see the beautiful native animals, you’ll want to head to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. This wildlife preserve, which doubles as a wildlife rehabilitation centre, covers more than 350 acres with distinct habitats ranging from wetlands to cliffs that allow the animals to live–and be seen–in their natural environments.
Located only 30-minutes from downtown Whitehorse, guests can take a guided tour to see many wonderful animals, such as muskoxen, moose, mountain goats, wood bison, mule deer, elk, woodland caribou, and two species of thinhorn sheep. Visitors can also enjoy a five-kilometre hike on the trail that loops around the site.
Watch the Northern Lights
If you’re like most people and have always dreamed of seeing the Northern Lights, the Yukon is a great place to be. In fact, it’s one of the best places in the world to see the spectacular Aurora Borealis. However, timing is critical when it comes to the dancing lights. After all, most people explore the Yukon in the summer when the weather is at its warmest. Unfortunately, this is also the time when the sun almost never sets, making it very difficult to see the Northern Lights. If you do want to see them, you’re best to time your visit for the fall or winter when darkness is more often than daylight.
The Aurora Borealis is free to see, but if you want the most optimal experience, you might want to join a tour. These tours usually pick you up from your hotel and drive you out to a remote area, often including a warm cabin where you can enjoy hot drinks, snacks, and warmth, while occasionally stepping outside to see if the magical lights appear.
Whitehorse Fishladder & Hatchery
Salmon are incredible creatures, swimming against the current to make their way upstream to spawn. In Whitehorse, this occurs in the spring when Chinook salmon go upstream from the Pacific Ocean to the Yukon River, travelling roughly 3,000 kilometres over a 60-day period. Witnessing this would typically be hard to do but at the Whitehorse Fishladder & Hatchery, visitors can watch this incredible spectacle first-hand.
The longest such structure in the world, the site also features an interpretation centre that educates about the fish and their journey while providing an underwater window and viewing platform to enjoy the experience. There’s also a nearby fish hatchery that protects and replenishes the Yukon stocks of Chinook and other fish species, and somewhat ironically, there’s a seafood restaurant where you can enjoy a wide variety of salmon delicacies as well.
Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre
If you want to go even deeper into the history of the Yukon, head over to the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, which is located near the Yukon Transportation Museum. The name Beringia refers to the route that was believed to be travelled by the first people who entered North America from Asia thousands of years ago. The name fits this interpretive centre really well as it covers the last great ice age, which refers to the untouched areas of Eastern Siberia, Alaska and the Yukon. You’ll learn about massive animals like the woolly mammoth and giant beavers, as well as the area’s history, geographical events, and culture, all illustrated through fossils, First Nation exhibits, murals, and dioramas.
You can certainly explore on your own but you can also opt for the free 30-minute guided tour, which offers a great overview of the facility, its collections, and research.
Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre
It’s always fascinating to learn about First Nations culture and here at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre (KDCC), visitors get to learn more about the Kwanlin Dün, the first people that settled in the area. The centre serves as both a meeting spot and a place to celebrate the Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s rich cultural heritage and history and includes a sizeable collection of rare Kwanlin Dün cultural artifacts, and the chance to experience performances of dance and storytelling. There’s also Indigenous art on display, with rotating exhibits from a variety of local and other artists from across Canada.
Enjoy a Soak at Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs
There’s nothing quite like a soak in a natural hot spring and thanks to the Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs (formerly Takhini Hot Springs), you can do this just 30 minutes from Whitehorse. These hot springs are a popular attraction and are known for their therapeutic and curative traits, and unlike many other hot springs, they are also odourless. You can even extend the experience and spend a night at the on-site hotel.
If you’re driving to the Yukon, we also highly recommend stopping at Liard Hot Springs, one of the best hot springs in BC, located just off the Alaska Highway. It’s one of our favourite hot springs in the country as it’s much more rustic and wild. However, it does get busy and it does smell like rotten eggs.
Yukon Arts Centre
For those into the arts, you’ll want to pay a visit to the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC), which is a multi-use arts facility that features arts events, local performing groups, dance and theatre companies, and both local and travelling art exhibitions. There’s also a collection of more than 100 works by Canadian artists, from painters to musicians, all of which can be seen in the facility’s permanent collection. Those travelling with children will also enjoy the kids’ programming that occurs throughout the year.
Yukon Government Building
Another cool place to stop for a short visit is the Yukon Territorial Government Building, which is home to some beautiful tapestries and paintings produced in the Yukon. If you’re taking a self-guided walking tour of Whitehorse, it will likely include the Government Building and this is because of the lobby-long mural of stained glass that people enjoy seeing. The building is also right across the street from the tourist information center, which is another great place to stop if you have any questions.
Blow Some Glass
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Whitehorse, how about learning how to do glassblowing? This is a great way to use your hands and your imagination and learn a new skill that is not only fun but also results in a physical product that you can bring home. Young or old, most people can participate in this fun activity and make anything from a simple bowl to a fancy ornament. The staff are very supportive and will make sure you have a great time.
Emerald Lake and Carcross Desert
If you’re looking to do a short road trip or if you’ve driven to Whitehorse, you might want to stop at Emerald Lake, a beautiful lake that looks emerald-green on a calm day, while surrounded by Surprise Mountain and Mt Gilliam. Plus, as an added bonus, you can also stop the Carcross Desert, which is one of the smallest deserts in the world.
Kluane National Park
Another spectacular place to explore is Kluane National Park, which is just a two-hour drive from Whitehorse. This protected place is home to the largest non-polar icefields in the world as well as 17 of Canada’s 20 tallest mountains—including Mount Logan, the highest peak in Canada. It’s also home to ancient glaciers that feed the Alsek River that flows through the sprawling Alsek Valley. Dall sheep, mountain goats, caribou, wolves, grizzlies and black bears all roam various parts of the massive park. Visitors can go hiking, camping, or even take a plane ride to one of the glaciers, allowing you to actually walk on the world’s largest non-polar icefield.
Take a Road Trip to Dawson City
Although Dawson City deserves its own travel guide, we didn’t want to end an article about things to do in Whitehorse without mentioning one of the coolest towns in all of Canada. Dawson, which is a six-hour drive from Whitehorse, is a famous gold-mining town that still looks like the wild-west. In my humble opinion, you simply cannot come to the Yukon and not go to Dawson City. It’s so unique. However, you really should spend two to three nights there and take it all in. Plus, if you’re up for an even bigger adventure, you can drive further north on the adventurous 700-km Dempster Highway that takes you all the way to Inuvik.
Want More Things to Do in the North?
Canada’s northern territories are full of adventure. If you’re looking for even more things to do up north, check out our other travel guides below: