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An Epic Road Trip From Skagway To Emerald Lake

Turquoise hues of Emerald Lake in the Yukon territory

The Klondike Highway provides a unique perspective of glacial lakes, rugged mountains, and cascading waterfalls. The highway runs from Skagway, Alaska on the coast to Dawson City in British Columbia. If you’re arriving in Skagway by cruise ship, consider renting a vehicle, and driving to Emerald Lake, Yukon.

As the most photographed lake in the Yukon territory, it gets its color from the glacial silt on the lake’s floor. When the sun is out, the lake’s hues radiate against the backdrop of Mount Gillian and Surprise Mountain. 

In May, the lake is still frozen. So, if you want to see its beautiful tones, plan to visit at the height of summer.

Most cruise ship passengers enjoy the journey to the Yukon on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway. The trip is relaxing and picturesque, and the tracks run parallel to the Klondike highway for much of the way.

However, due to the pandemic, the Skagway train journey shortened its route making the self-driving excursion more attractive. With a rental car, you’ll avoid the crowded train and can enjoy the Yukon at your own pace.

Even with plenty of options for activities to enjoy in Skagway, the drive to Emerald Lake continues to be a priority for those porting in this Alaskan town.

So, if you’re looking to do a self-driving tour and need tips on where to stop on the way, this guide will tell you what you need to know.

Turquoise waters of Emerald Lake in the Yukon and fall colors Yukon Lake
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Renting A Car In Skagway

Before renting a car in Skagway, ensure you have sufficient hours in port to travel to Emerald Lake in the Yukon. Ideally, allow six hours to make the out-and-back drive, with lots of stops along the way.

Since Skagway is very small, it’s a short distance from the cruise port to get to your rental vehicle. You can choose from the following Skagway car rentals, however, they book up fast.

Affordable Car Rental (648 Broadway) offers to pick up and drop off at the dock. Travelers booking with affordable car rentals can opt for a USD 10 brown bag lunch from Bites on Broadway.

Avis (2020 2nd Ave) operates seasonally for cruise passengers. It’s a ten-minute walk from the cruise dock. Avis has a limited number of rental vehicles.

Klondike Bikes (398 5th Ave) has electric bicycles and one electric car. The Ford Mustang Mach-E has a range capacity of 175 miles, which is more than enough to drive to the Yukon and back.

If you’re looking for a sustainable way to enjoy the Yukon, pass on the gasoline-polluting vehicle, and rent the electric car instead. The car rental includes the use of binoculars and driving directions. Plus, you’ll save on fuel expenses.

DIY Jeep Tours (2nd and State Street) offers Jeep rentals ten minutes from the dock. The Jeeps seat five and have lots of room for backpacks or hiking equipment.

Drive About Car Rental (202 9th Ave) offers Ford Explore XL (7 passengers) and Ford Econoline 350 (15 passengers) vehicles. They are open from 7 am to 7 pm, and vehicles must be returned before closing.

Before The Drive

To make the drive, you’ll need a passport as you cross from the United States and travel to the Yukon, Canada.

Depending on when you drive, the temperature can be vastly different at the higher elevation. In July, I saw snow in the Yukon, even though it was 89 F in Skagway on the coast. If you’re making the drive in shoulder season, take another layer of clothes.

Ideally, you want to carry drinks and snacks as there aren’t many options along the south Klondike Highway. Double-check that you have a full gas tank, although that’s not required if you go with an electric vehicle.

When driving the Klondike highway, watch out for wildlife on the road. It’s not unusual to find bears, caribou, or smaller creatures wandering the roadway.

The Klondike Highway Drive

As you head out of town on the Klondike Highway, also known as Alaska Route 98, it won’t be long before you pass the US customs hut on your left-hand side. There’s no need to stop, as it checks vehicles coming into Alaska.

Before reaching the Canadian border, there were several waterfall sightings along the way. To the right and across the valley, Pitchfork Falls flows from Goat Lake, and the cascade is one of the most photographed spots in the area.

Pitchfork Falls on the Klondike Highway
Pitchfork Falls

Goat Lake produces hydroelectric power for Skagway. You can see the pipeline which supplies the water to the power plant at a lower level near the Skagway River.

A short distance up the road, Bridal Veil Falls cascades next to the highway (on the left). Another viewpoint offers views of the Sawtooth Mountains and Cleveland Glacier.

But, maybe the most popular stop is the “Welcome to Alaska” sign, where everyone wants their selfies.

Canadian Border

Beyond the Canadian border, the landscape changes. The valley becomes wider and flatter, and there’s an absence of a dense forest.

The lengthy Summit Lake runs next to the roadway and, judging from its leaning shrubs, is subjected to high winds in winter.

Summit Lake in the Yukon
Summit Lake

Summit Lake lies in Tepee Valley, often called “Tormented Valley.” The area is dotted with smooth boulders and can be pretty picturesque when the wildflowers bloom.

Should you drive in August, the Fireweed plants are in bloom. Their fiery pink petals blanket the landscape in pink, magenta, and rosy hues.

Soon, the highway meets the railway at a log cabin. This is the original turnaround point for train passengers pre-Covid.

The historic Chilkoot Trail blazes through rough terrain across the White Pass back to Skagway.

Yukon Suspension Bridge

If you love suspension bridges as I do, you must stop at the one in the Yukon.

Yukon Suspension Bridge over the Tutshi River
Yukon Suspension Bridge (photo courtesy of Yukon Suspension Bridge)

Crossing the Tutshi River, the Yukon Suspension Bridge may not be the longest or highest in Canada (that honor goes to the Skybridge in Golden). But it’s a fun activity for the whole family.

At 200 feet long, the bridge provides picturesque views 65 feet above the white-water rapids. If you’re accustomed to the swarms of tourists at more popular suspension bridges, you might find the lack of a dense crowd quite refreshing.

Those arriving at the Yukon Suspension Bridge by car, can get bison chili, sandwiches, soup and snacks from the Assayers Café.

For those on a bus tour, you can enjoy a unique dining experience at the Cliffside Restaurant, where you can enjoy a delicious snack or lunch while taking in the breathtaking views of nature from the patio.

You can enjoy burgers and chili made from ranch raised organic bison meat and they have an option for meatless chili for vegetarians. For smaller appetites, you can go wrong with Wild Alaskan Halibut Nuggets or Quebec Style Poutine, perfect for sharing.

Yukon Suspension Bridge site
Yukon Suspension Bridge site (photo courtesy of Yukon Suspension Bridge)

As you savor your meal, keep an eye out for adventurous rafters and kayakers braving the river below.

Beyond the bridge, the Tutshi River follows the highway on the right until you reach its immense lake. Be sure to stop at some of the pullouts to capture shots of Lake Tutshi.

Tutshi Sled Dogs

While dog sledding on a glacier is a bucket list experience, it often comes with sticker shock. Sled dog tours are often more affordable if you’re traveling with family. So, if you’re making this road trip from Skagway with kids, be sure to stop here.

No reservations are required. Tutshi Sled Dog Tours are available during opening hours, Monday to Thursday, 9 am to 5 pm. Reservations are recommended from Friday to Sunday, from 11 am to 3 pm.

At the Tagish Lake Kennel, you’ll learn about the iconic Iditarod race and what goes into training a dog for such an event.

The musher’s camp allows guests to take a dog sled ride on a wheeled UTV, pulled by a team of 14 huskies. Afterward, you can cuddle with some of the newest puppies, soon-to-be Iditarod athletes.

While visiting a musher’s camp isn’t quite the same as a dog sled tour in Juneau on a glacier, a family of four can enjoy the activity for CAD 200, compared to USD 600 per person for the glacial experience.

Windy Arm, Tagish Lake

Soon the highway run next to Tagish Lake in Windy Arm. Early prospectors used Tagish and Marsh Lakes to get to gold mining areas. But, due to stormy weather, boats often capsized, resulting in drownings.

Beyond the “Yukon, larger than life” sign, the Conrad Historic Townsite features some old mining equipment and abandoned buildings from the Gold Rush period.

Bove Island Viewpoint

Bove Island, Yukon
Bove Island

Where the lake widens, a great stopping point offers views of Bove Island. You can see Nares Lake to the left and Tagish Lake running south.

Behind Bove Island, Tagish continues north and is connected to Marsh Lake by the Tagish River.

Traveling northeast along Nares Lake, you’ll reach Carcross after 7 miles (11.2 km).

Carcross

After a 66-mile (106 km) journey from Skagway, you reach the first town, Carcross. Carcross sits at the junction between Nares and Bennett Lakes and provides a stopping point to eat and get refreshments.

Due to caribou crossing this area during migrations, the town was once called Caribou Crossing. The name remains in establishments such as Caribou Crossing Coffee and Caribou Crossing Trading Post.

Carcross has some historical attractions like the White Pass and Yukon Route train station and Matthew Watson’s General Store. When you shop there, know that you support the oldest store in the Yukon. How cool is that?

Just outside of town, the Klondike Highway surprises visitors with its claims of having the “smallest desert in the world.” The Carcross Desert isn’t a real desert.

At one square mile, it’s a deposit of sand dunes left by glacial lakes. While the Carcross Desert provides an exciting place to visit on this Skagway to Emerald Lake road trip, it has a fragile ecosystem.

Carcross Desert in the Yukon
Carcross Desert

The dunes are home to rare plant species that endure dry conditions to survive. So, tread carefully as you explore.

Emerald Lake

So, where is Emerald Lake? Approximately 72 miles or 116 km after leaving Skagway, you reach your destination of Emerald Lake, Yukon. Surrounded by Mount Gillian and Surprise Mountain, it gets its name from the turquoise-green color of its waters.

Emerald Lake photos don’t do it justice. The color comes from sunlight reflecting off the lake bed’s white marl (calcium carbonate and clay). So, if you want to see its beautiful hues, make the journey on a sunny day.

At first glance, its blue/green hues look similar to lakes in the Canadian Rockies, and there is a lake with the same name in Yoho National Park.

However, those get their color from glacial silt, which produces crystal-clear water. In contrast, the marl in Emerald Lake creates a milkiness in the water.

Emerald Lake, Yukon
Emerald Lake

The First Nations often refer to Emerald Lake as the “Rainbow Lake.” Emerald Lake is small in size compared to the other lakes in the region. However, it’s the most photographed lake in the Yukon.

Look beyond the colored water, as wildlife sightings can include bald eagles, osprey, moose, and smaller waterfowl.

For most cruise passengers, Emerald Lake is the turnaround point to head back to Skagway. Since car rentals require the gas tank to be filled on return, expect to pay around USD 40 for a Jeep, and USD 70 for a 15-passenger van.

If you plan to make the journey in an electric car, you’ll save the cost of a fill-up.

Should you have a shortened day in Skagway, you might want to make the direct drive to the Yukon, and make your stops on the return trip to Skagway.

Beautiful turquoise colors of Emerald Lake in the Yukon

Ron McClure

Saturday 30th of March 2024

Do I need to do a currency exchange to make purchases once in the Yukon?

Karen Hosier

Saturday 30th of March 2024

Ron, I'm not sure where you're traveling from but the Yukon being in British Columbia takes CAD. Alternatively, you can use a credit or debit card.

Anna Ramos

Sunday 4th of February 2024

Hello, loved your article. I'm so looking forward to this drive on May 28th. What is the weather usually like at this time

Karen Hosier

Monday 5th of February 2024

The weather in Alaska is unpredictable. Pack layers and a waterproof jacket. Have a wonderful adventure!

Kathy

Friday 29th of December 2023

This information is wonderful! I have a serious question though. During this drive, are there very many “drop off” cliffs that you have to drive by or along? I really would love to make this drive but am terrified of drop offs.

Karen Hosier

Saturday 30th of December 2023

The Klondike Hwy is safe to drive and doesn't run along any dangerous cliffs.

Nancy

Friday 15th of September 2023

Thanks for this great information; we leave in 3 days for our Alaskan cruise. We just cancelled our train excursion reservations and booked a rental car in Skagway instead!

Forever Karen

Friday 15th of September 2023

Nancy, have a wonderful cruise and enjoy your road trip to Emerald Lake.

Cassidy Southard

Tuesday 27th of June 2023

This article is fantastic!! We are cruising to Alaska on the Royal Princess in August and I've read all of your posts. I was torn between the White Pass Railway and renting a jeep in Skagway, but I'm leaning towards renting the jeep after reading this.

Forever Karen

Tuesday 27th of June 2023

Cassidy, both are good excursions, so you can't go wrong with either.