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Roadtrippin’ 2022: Cruising along the Klondike Highway

A quick drive down a section of the winding road boasts great views and points of interest, no matter the weather
Even the short hop from Skagway to White Pass, along a section of the Klondike Highway, is full of history and opportunities for exploration.
Published: Jun. 20, 2022 at 10:25 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The town of Skagway, Alaska, boasts a rich history, but a big part of that is what’s around it, including the South Klondike Highway, a route rich with history, and following a path along the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush.

Also known as Alaska Route 98, the path can be traveled in various ways and at any pace. Millions of visitors have chosen the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad to carry them. Others hop in a car, or on a bike as part of a short tour, to travel the highway itself.

Becoming part of the first road link between Skagway and the Yukon in 1978, the Klondike Highway in its entirety was formally dedicated on May 23, 1981, recognizing the joint effort by Public Works Canada and the State of Alaska to bring it to fruition. Department of Transportation and Public Facilities documents show construction of the road began in the early 1970s.

“By 1986, it was open year-round,” according to the department, “and was becoming an important commercial link between the port at Skagway and the Alaska Highway, as well as mining operations in the Yukon Territory. In recognition of the history of the Klondike Gold Rush that started in 1898, the Alaska portion is signed as Route 98.”

Whether you refer to it as Alaska Route 98 or the South Klondike Highway, the road from Skagway takes travelers from the town up, into and over White Pass, reaching a marked elevation of 3,292 feet. While the two-lane, paved road is open throughout the year, even in the summer, that elevation and steep grade — much of it at more than 10 percent — can prove challenging, leaving drivers on wet roads and with low visibility because of dense fog.

The history is ever-present, however, and much of it can be learned along the way, whether on foot, two wheels or more. Many stops along the road or just near it, such as the Gold Rush Cemeteries on the edge of Skagway, tell stories of the past. Placards at pullouts, spaced along the highway, explain various areas and their significance, as they are featured in a place where thousands of stampeders journeyed in the 19th century in the hopes of striking it rich.

“The story of the Klondike Highway is a complicated one,” shows a department display at a pullout not too far into the drive from Skagway. “There was discussion of constructing a road in addition to a railroad since the Klondike Gold Rush days, but the road became a low priority once the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad was established in 1900.”

Work to building a road in the 20th century, the department wrote, was erratic because of funding challenges. So, the U.S. and Canada each worked on their own sides of the highway as was possible. Eventually, the two governments agreed to connect the highway at their shared border.

“The two parts of the road met at the summit of White Pass on the Canadian and U.S. border,” the department wrote, “and the Klondike Highway was opened to the public in 1979.”

Aside from funding, rules and other formalities required to see two countries join forces on a single high-traffic roadway, a department project engineer on the site, M. Paul Taylor, pointed to complications in building the road at all.

“The overriding challenge to the engineering and construction was that there was no access to the project, except what you built,” he said, per the same DOT display. “So the highway construction method was very simple and limited to always advancing the front.”

The environment and weather conditions can change rapidly as one moves from sea level in Skagway, through a temperature rain forest, and then into alpine conditions above that. Thick, smoke-like fog can quickly creep in, and rain showers were consistent during a trip taken in mid-June. Rain or shine, though, the view from the winding road is often no less than picturesque, and a clear summer day can boast deep green forest, rolling terrain, waterfalls, pools of bright blue water and colorful flora.

If you’re looking for the “Welcome to Alaska” sign, you’ll find that a short ways after customs on U.S. side. It sits toward the summit of the pass, and is accessible before the Canadian border crossing.

To learn more about historic roads across Alaska, check out this Department of Transportation and Public Facilities booklet on historic roads of Alaska.

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