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The Cycle Tour of Your Dreams

Where the mountains soar, you have the pavement to yourself, and the breezes are behind your back.

There are few things more joyous than finding a cycle route that is as scenic as it is easy. Easy, of course, being merely objective. Easy to me means floating on the asphalt without having to navigate traffic along graveled or missing road shoulders. It means hardly passing a car for hours on end, having an ascent grade that keeps the oxygen in your chest rather than making one gasp for air, yet having descents that allow you to coast and feel the wind in your hair.

Easy for me is when the hardest decision is deciding if I should pull over for another photo break, after already having a few dozen pit stops for that very reason.

In my search for the perfect cycle tour, I’ve ventured far. From the car free expanses between the largest cities in South Korea that bisects the country and takes you to places far from any tourist route to the craggy coastlines of Portugal where gazing at the horizon for too long might find you departing the sandstone edges and ending up in the Pacific. I’ve lugged all my possessions in the world with me as my partner lugged kayaks behind him when we cycled across BC twice finding out there are infinitely more mountain passes than one could ever dream of.

And then we’ve cycled in the Yukon, which has a bit of everything we’ve ever loved from every other trip.

Tagish Lake

It had car free expanses that stretch for more than half the journey, where nothing more than a handful of cars would pass us on the road in any given hour making the motor such a foreign sound that it would surprise us in an almost delight of something quaint.

It had viewpoint after viewpoint, mountains in every direction that reached as high as our neck could crane. Rushing creeks that turned to roadside waterfalls filling up lakes and rivers that seemed wild and untamed. Trees and grasses that danced in the wind and provided us a perfume of spruce tips and sage brush. The endless green backdrop gets interrupted with the burning red of fireweed in fall and a magenta coloured vetch that sprawls out in every direction along the roadside in June.

The route follows a classic climb over the coastal mountains, a range that acts like a barrier between Southeast Alaska and the Yukon. It was these formidable passes that the prospectors of 1898 had to navigate with their one tonne of goods in order to reach the goldfields of northern Yukon. In the days of Covid, hardly a soul travels these routes that connect a tiny Alaskan town with the Yukon’s capital city of less than 30,000. We passed three cars in three hours on Sunday, and probably half a dozen trucks for the whole day on a Monday. Hardly anything when you’re riding a main highway. A few years prior on the same route but opposite starting point, we were lucky if we broke 10 vehicles in a day at the start of our trip.

Detour to Kathleen Lake

The Golden Circle is the name of the route, the one you need to dream about.  Starting in Whitehorse, Skagway, or Haines, you’ll find gold rush towns steeped in history, First Nations culture with several world class cultural centres, and a nature fix you will never forget. Looking for emerald coloured lakes that are as pristine as they are photogenic, you’ll see several. Glaciers hanging from mountain passes and wildflower lined valleys? Countless. Salmon filled rivers and enough activities available to warrant a few extra rest days? Of course.

If you start in Whitehorse, you’ll have access to a larger airport and more supplies for the trip as there are several large grocery chains along with several small specialty food and outdoor gear stores. Load up, it’s a lonely road and not many facilities exist between villages and towns. I’d recommended heading west first to Kluane National Park via Haines Junction. 

Your journey out of Whitehorse will include passing through the Takhini River Valley, which also happens to be a great place to spot elk. Kluane is grizzly territory, with the highest concentration in North America located within this park. Don’t worry though, the park is massive meaning you likely won’t bump into the furry friends. Best to be prepared though just in case and bring some bear spray with you while knowing how to bear proof your camp. You’ll be riding beside the frontal ranges of Canada’s tallest peaks, with Mt Logan reaching nearly 6000m (unfortunately out of view for this ride unless you opt for a flightseeing tour), but you can admire the impressive 2000m peaks that climb up and tower just west of the road.

Haines Highway outside of Haines Junction

While in Haines Junction, learn the culture of the people whose land you’re traversing with a stop at the Da Ku Cultural Centre that explores the rich heritage of the Champagne Aishihik First Nations. In a day or two, you’ll be passing their famous fishing holes and salmon camps, before you have a long descent into Alaska following the Chilkat River into one of the Panhandle's least tourist saturated towns, Haines. This place is the real deal when wanting to know what Alaska is like.

The Haines Pass

It is here that you reach the half way point, sitting at ocean level, half way through the 353 miles or 570 km trip that you’ll need to hop on a scenic ferry through the narrow Lynn Canal, which is the deepest fjord in North America. In fog or in sunshine, this canal is impressive with walls that feel as though they’re closing in on you.

When you arrive in Skagway, you likely won’t be alone. It’s been a magnet for tourists ever since the Gold Rush news was splashed on every news paper in the world in 1898. Hundreds of thousands arrived by steamship at the turn of the century and hundreds of thousands have been arriving by cruise ship in recent years. Covid brought a time of quiet the town hasn’t likely seen in decades. 

I’d be lying if I said the road out of Skagway isn’t challenging. Following a pass that once had names such as dead horse gulch for the fact that beasts of burden died by the dozens while traversing the route means that you too will be working it in your saddle. But once you reach the true international border, it’s almost all downhill from there. 




The White Pass, near the international border

The wind should be at your backs by this point, and you’ll slowly descend out of the White Pass into the Tutshi Lake and river system before reaching Windy Arm and Tagish Lake. It’s a region in the Yukon known as the Southern Lakes, each massive body of water is connected and used to serve as the highways of the land. It’s hard to imagine thousands of prospectors carrying their goods on haphazardly made rafts going through the white capped lakes over a hundred years ago. It’s also hard to imagine the many paddle wheelers that took early adventurers in Victorian style were out in the wilderness for the first half the 1900's. Nowadays you’ll be lucky if you see a boat plying the waters.


Near Tutshi Lake

The first town in nearly 100km belongs to that of Carcross, a village of 300 full of residents who are of the Carcross Tagish First Nation. Art is adorned in nearly every direction, with totems and facades making this town visually the most appealing in all of the Yukon. Spot the four sacred mountains that surround the town and are held in high regard as they are a part of the creation story, and note that three of those mountains have some of the best hiking and mountain biking trails along the route. 

From Carcross, it’s a 75km trek back to Whitehorse, where a pause at the scenic Miles Canyon is essential before you find the brew of your dreams to cap off the adventure of a lifetime. It’s hard to imagine this trip not leaving an impression on anyone. We were so taken by the scenery that on the plane ride home, after our first taste of the Yukon, we plotted how we could pack all our belongings and move there for good.

It seems the Spell of the Yukon still runs strong, and the cycle tour of my dreams has fortunately been in my backyard ever since.

Near Tutshi Lake

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A note on COVID times and how to make this trip possible. If the American / Canadian border remains closed, much like it has for most of 2020, this trip can be done via a shuttle service to the White Pass or Haines Pass. Essentially, less than 100km of this 600km trip is done on American soil, with the mountain passes firmly placed in Canada. Most tour operators in Whitehorse can arrange the shuttle service for you. As for seasonality, the start of June to early Sept is your window, after this, expect it to be too cold. Snow can happen any day of the year though. 

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Have any questions about cycling in the Yukon? Cycle touring with a toddler?

Get in touch and follow our adventures in real time on @meandertheworld.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Rachel Bertsch Explorer

Mom | Adventure Seeker | Tour Leader | Find me regularly @meandertheworld on Instagram.