Skagway sits at the end of the Lynn Canal, a deep water fjord ringed by mountains and frequented by summer cruise ships. It’s a gold rush town best known as the jumping off point for fortune seekers headed for the Klondike Gold Fields in Canada between 1896-1899.
While tourists have replaced miners, Skagway retains a frontier feel with restored and facade storefronts that are saloons, restaurants, shops and well-thought out-museum exhibits that tell the town’s story. The downtown is mobbed with cruise ship visitors during the day and a ghost town when they have departed.
This was my second visit to Skagway and I appreciated it much more than the first time around when I hadn’t done any pre-trip research and didn’t know what to do after my half-day cruise ship excursion. Shoppers won’t have this problem as the streets are lined with stores. Families will find a bounty of historical exhibits and outdoor activities around town that immerse kids in the Klondike Gold Rush lore.
The Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park is a three-part “park.” It’s comprised of gold rush exhibits in the town of Skagway, the White Pass historic trail that miners used to travel the 550 miles from Skagway to the Klondike Gold Fields and the famous Chilkoot Trail and Dyea, Skagway’s rival that’s now mostly abandoned. The Chilkoot Trail is a 33-mile trail to Canada and not a spur-of-the-moment activity with kids. Begin your visit at the National Park Visitor Center in downtown. The exhibits and a short movie tell the gold rush story and the rangers are knowledgeable and helpful. You can pick up a junior ranger booklet here if you intend to visit other park sites.
The most interesting and impactful exhibit for kids is the recreated scene of a miner with the year’s worth of supplies that every prospector was required to have in order to enter the Klondike Gold Fields. If you take the White Pass & Yukon Route train ride you’ll see firsthand the challenging terrain that miners had to cross on foot, an unbelievable feat with supplies weighing almost a ton. Many miners had to make several trips to get all their supplies to Canada.
The second most interesting exhibit in town according to my 8 and 10-year-olds is the Mascot Saloon. They did a double-take because this recreated 1910 saloon looks so real that they wanted to touch the mannequins to a make sure they weren’t actors pretending not to move.
You have the background history, you know how many supplies you need and now it’s time to travel to the gold fields. Alaska’s most popular shore excursion, the White Pass & Yukon Railroad train ride, is the same route that miners traveled from Skagway to the Yukon although the tourist route is about 40 miles shorter than the original but still crosses the Canadian border. When the railroad was completed in 1900, miners abandoned the Chilkoot Trail for the more convenient train and Skagway flourished.
The narrated 3.5 hour ride ascends 3000 feet in 20 minutes, travels across bridges and through tunnels. Seats are comfortable and riders can stand on the platform between the train cars to take in the mountain and pass views. There’s no “bad seat” because riders switch sides on the return trip so everyone has a view. Parents should know that there’s complimentary water but no snacks sold on the train and beyond going outside on the platform for air there is no room for young kids to run around.
Our ziplining tour had nothing to do with the Klondike Gold Rush other than that it was based in the town of Dyea, gateway town for the Chilkoot Trail. You can find ziplining all over Southeast Alaska but there are very few companies that take kids younger than eight years old. Grizzly Falls Zipline allows kids as young as six assuming they meet weight restrictions. The tour begins in Skagway and travels along the coastline to Dyea and then up into the mountains via an all terrain vehicle called a UniMog.
The four-hour tour includes two hours of ziplining across waterfalls, hanging bridges and forest. The longest zipline is over two football fields in length. Unlike some zipline tours, Grizzly Falls Zipline does the braking for you which means you have time for a style competition. This is an easy introduction to ziplining in a safe environment. And there’s a bonus we didn’t know about. The musher’s camp excursion is also based here which means there are impossibly cute puppies yipping and yapping for your attention.
While most visitors arrive in Skagway on a cruise ship, we flew in on a 9-seater small plane with Wings of Alaska from the Juneau, a highlight of our two week family vacation in Alaska. We spent a night at the conveniently located Westmark Skagway before heading to Haines.
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Editor’s Note: Ciao Bambino was part of a media trip to experience Skagway. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Kristi Marcelle
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