A Walk In The Woods – Denver Glacier Trail, Skagway, Alaska

After 5 or 6 days onboard our Alaskan cruise ship, and a little over indulgence on the plentiful food and drink, it was good to have the opportunity to get some exercise on an organised trek up the Denver Glacier Trail close to Skagway. To get to the start of the trek we boarded the White Pass and Yukon Route (WP&YR) Railroad which dropped us at the trail head about 5-6 miles north of Skagway.

The WP&YR Railroad was built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush. This narrow gauge railroad is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a designation shared with the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.

The WP&YR railway was considered an impossible task but it was literally blasted through coastal mountains in only 26 months.

The $10 million project was the product of British financing, American engineering and Canadian contracting. Tens of thousands of men and 450 tons of explosives overcame harsh and challenging climate and geography to create “the railway built of gold.”

The WP&YR climbs almost 3000 feet in just 20 miles and features steep grades of up to 3.9%, cliff-hanging turns of 16 degrees, two tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles. The steel cantilever bridge was the tallest of its kind in the world when it was constructed in 1901.

The 110 mile WP&YR Railroad was completed with the driving of the golden spike on July 29, 1900 in Carcross Yukon connecting the deep water port of Skagway Alaska to Whitehorse Yukon and beyond to northwest Canada and interior Alaska.

White Pass & Yukon Route became a fully integrated transportation company operating docks, trains, stage coaches, sleighs, buses, paddlewheelers, trucks, ships, airplanes, hotels and pipelines. It provided the essential infrastructure servicing the freight and passenger requirements of Yukon’s population and mining industry. WP&YR proved to be a successful transportation innovator and pioneered the inter-modal (ship-train-truck) movement of containers.

The WP&YR suspended operations in 1982 when Yukon’s mining industry collapsed due to low mineral prices. The railway was reopened in 1988 as a seasonal tourism operation and served 37,000 passengers. Today, the WP&YR is Alaska’s most popular shore excursion carrying over 390,000 passengers during the 2012 May to September tourism season operating on the first 67.5 miles (Skagway, Alaska to Carcross, Yukon) of the original 110 mile line.

The Denver Glacier Trail begins from the flag stop at miles 5.8 on the WP&YR railroad. From the caboose cabin, the trail parallels the south bank of the Skagway River through spruce and hemlock forest. After about two miles the trail turns south up the outwash of the glacier. The route continues south, but slippery footing and thick brush make access difficult. Winter is a good time to explore the valley on snowshoes or skis because frozen rivers are easier to cross and the brush is buried in deep snow. Avoid the area in March and April when avalanche danger is high.

The walk was easy along a well defined path passing through some magnificent tall conifer trees. The forest and undergrowth was lush and green and along the way we could see a wide variety of wild mushrooms, ferns and berries. There were many types of berries including blueberries, raspberries, cloudberries, lingonberries, high-bush cranberries, salmonberries and crowberries. Our guide pointed out baneberries which were bright red berries with a small black spot and were highly poisonous.

The path eventually came down close to the east fork of the Skagway River and on the other side in the distance we could see the high jagged peaks known as the Sawtooth Range.

As we walked this trail we were always aware that we were very much in bear territory but luckily we did not have an encounter. It is always amusing to read the recommendations about what to do if you have a bear encounter ….. usually number 1 recommendation is to stay calm!

On our return trek we had time to spend some time down close to the river which was very scenic although the clouds were low masking the jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Range.

We had to hurry in the last part of the return trek as we were now getting close to the time of our return train back to Skagway. As we exited the forest the train was already there with guard shouting for us to hurry and board. A gentle ride back down the 5 miles or so and we were soon back in Skagway after a very pleasant trek through some very beautiful Alaskan wilderness.

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