Our recent cruise to Alaska aboard Cunard Queen Elizabeth included a day in the fantastic port of Skagway. If you’re planning an Alaskan cruise and stopping in Skagway, the train tour is considered one of the best port tours in Skagway.
Thousands of Alaskan cruisers enjoy the White Pass & Yukon Route railway every year. During the White Pass Summit excursion, you’ll enjoy a one-of-a-kind train journey in a vintage carriage and learn the history of the railroad.
The White Pass railroad is considered an engineering wonder, and when you learn its history, you’ll understand why.
White Pass & Yukon Route History
In 1896, explorers discovered gold in the Klondike region of Yukon in British Columbia, Canada. Gold fever quickly spread and brought thousands of prospectors!
However, the gold was in a very inaccessible place. The Chilkoot trail provided the only route through the Chilkoot Pass. But, the passage was rough and rugged.
Skagway founder Captain William Moore and First Nations Skookum Jim proposed an alternate route. Their suggested path was easier over uncharted land.
The new pass rose from Skagway and crossed Canada’s Yukon territory. They named it White Pass after the Canadian Minister of the Interior, Sir Thomas White.
The White Pass & Yukon Railroad Company was formed in April 1898. The route was so treacherous that they built the track with a narrow gauge.
Instead of the standard 4 feet 8.5 inches built in the rest of North America, the track used was just three feet apart.
The route rises from sea level in downtown Skagway to almost 3,000 feet in just 20 miles. There are 110 miles of track, two tunnels, and numerous bridges.
Work at Mile 16 took place in the dead of winter during extreme conditions. Some days there was heavy snow and temperatures as cold as -60 degrees Fahrenheit (-51 Celsius)!
In July 1900, after 28 months of work, the USD 10 million railroad was completed. Thirty-five thousand men constructed the icon Yukon railroad.
There were many deaths during the construction of the railroad; many of them pack horses. At Inspiration Point, a memorial dedicated to the horses who perished, overlooks Dead Horse Gulch.
The White Pass railroad was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994. If you love history, Sitka and Skagway are filled with historical sites, so pick a cruise that goes to either of these ports.
Reasons To Book A Tour On The Skagway Train
The Skagway train tour is a ‘Must-Do’ activity for cruisers and travelers. It is also no surprise that it is the most popular shore excursion for anyone visiting Skagway. If you’re traveling with little ones, this family-friendly Skagway tour requires little walking.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of travelers take the journey on the White Pass railway. Will you be one of them? Here are reasons to take this incredible train journey.
Convenience – Since the train runs only during cruise season, each ship has its own train. The operator assembles the cars according to the number of reservations.
The track runs to each dock so passengers can disembark from their ship and quickly board the train. The train boarding was about 200 yards from the ship ramp for our Cunard cruise.
Accessibility – You can book a wheelchair-accessible car if needed. When booking your ticket, indicate that you require wheelchair access. Wheelchair users will be placed in a car with a built-in lift for easy access. An accessible train ticket costs the same as a regular ticket.
Scenery – The incredible views are rated as one of the most scenic train rides worldwide. As you meander up the White Pass, you’ll enjoy mountain, river, glacier, and forest views. The clear skies and bright sun made the journey more breathtaking.
Cost – I found the 40-mile (64 km) round-trip train tour to be a reasonable cost at about USD 150 per person. Children are about half the adult price. The total journey is about 2.75 to 3 hours.
History – When you ride in the vintage passenger coaches, you relive a piece of Gold Rush history. The result is a feat of engineering built during the harshest of conditions.
Where To Book The Skagway Train Tour
I suggest you book through your cruise line because if you need to change or cancel once onboard, you can do it through Guest Services.
You’ll generally have an option of a morning or afternoon time. Booking through your line allows you to board the train next to the vessel.
Also, your ship will never leave port until all passengers have returned to the ship. However, this is true only if you have booked through your cruise line.
Booking in advance is preferable because most lines assign train cars. So, if you have a family, you can guarantee you’ll be in the same carriage.
Alternatively, you can go directly to their website. However, the days that your cruise ship is in Skagway may not be available. Trains may be reserved exclusively for cruise ship passengers.
If you buy a ticket directly, you must board at the train station in downtown Skagway. If you haven’t been assigned a train car, you’ll have the last choice since you board later.
The operator owns fifteen engines (locomotives), although some are old and not in service. A few of the engines are almost new and built in 2020. They were received at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new engines replaced old engines because they burn a lot of diesel and are very stinky. There are over 80 passenger cars, and each carriage can carry 40 guests.
Each cruise line gets its own train and usually does two runs a day. At peak times, they can do three runs. There is a maximum of 16 cars per train. Any more, and it would be challenging to pull the train up the 3,000′ incline.
The front two cars are very noisy because of the engines. You’ll have difficulty hearing the tour operators and announcements sitting there. If the train isn’t full, they leave the front car empty to give passengers a better experience.
After our train ride, we rented e-bikes through Klondike Bicycles. We rode their bikes to Gold Rush cemetery and passed the train yard where the engines and cars are serviced.
For the Alaska cruise season, the first train runs in April with the arrival of the first cruise ship. The White Pass train schedules its tours with the arrival of cruise ships.
Employees spend the first two months clearing the tracks of snow before each season. Rockslides are rare, but the tracks are inspected each day before the first train run.
In previous years, the trains ran year-round, carrying freight outside the tourist season. However, freight shipments stopped in the 1970s with the opening of the South Klondike Highway.
If you decide to ride the train, you have the option of doing a roundtrip route or a combination of train and bus tour. If you opt to return by bus, you’ll need a valid passport for the border crossing.
Should you take the White Pass train ride in May, you’ll see several feet of snow in the famous White Pass.
About Our Excursion
We booked the 9 am departure through the Cunard website. By completing the train ride first, we booked another tour in the afternoon and still had time to explore the town.
With 83 F temperatures in Skagway, we’re glad we took the early departure as the train became hot. The carriages do not have air conditioning.
We disembarked from Queen Elizabeth and saw our train a short distance down the pier. The host had us queue up while we waited to board. The weather was perfect with bright sun, comfortable temperatures, and almost no mosquitoes!
Cunard did not assign us a train car, although most lines do. Instead, we decided to board the last car because it had a larger outdoor platform, where we could get the best views.
Right on time, the host permitted us to board, and we quickly grabbed our seats. Once you’ve chosen a carriage, you cannot move to another one during the ride.
During our trip, we did a brief interview with our host, who was willing to share about the company, the trains, and the journey.
The White Pass & Yukon Route company has about 500 employees. It is privately owned and not owned by the cruise company, as I had thought.
Interestingly, most employees move to Skagway just for the cruising season. Our tour guide that day came from Idaho. The company provides housing for employees that move to Skagway during cruise season.
The White Pass Train Route
The train begins slowly as it makes its way through the town of Skagway. After passing some shops and homes, the announcer points out the train depot near the Gold Rush Cemetery.
The train yard operates year-round to repair the locomotives and cars during the off-season.
Once out of town, you climb gently to make the 20-mile (32 km) journey up to almost 3,000 feet (914 meters). The ever-changing scenery presents you with waterfalls and breathtaking panoramas.
A couple of trestle bridges made of wood and steel add to the classic history of the route. When crossing, you can look at the valley 100s of feet below!
At one point, we passed an old trestle that was crumbling badly. The bridges provide another photo opportunity along the picturesque journey.
Several times the train will travel a sharp curve where you can see the entire train in front of you. Everyone would have their cameras ready for the classic shot.
Due to the ruggedness of the terrain, the only path possible was to blast tunnels through the mountains. You get to travel through two tunnels on your way to the White Pass summit.
Occasionally, we had to pull over and come to a complete stop while another train passed in the opposite direction. Even the passing of trains was a fun highlight of the trip as we got to wave to other travelers.
The climate change was noticeable as we neared the summit. At almost 3,000 feet, there was less vegetation, and the temperature was cooler. Even though it was July, there were patches of snow on the ground.
What We Liked Best
As a young man, I’ve always had a fascination with trains. My dad worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway for over 30 years.
As a teenager, I worked briefly as a junior laborer during the summer. I can still remember cleaning cabooses that have long since retired in the 1990s.
Railways and trains are an essential part of our past, and the White Pass train tour is an easy way to relive history. As Karen and I “rode the rails,” you could not help but feel you were part of the history.
The scenery was by far the highlight for me. Compared to Karen’s seven trips, I am still a “newbie” when it comes to Alaska.
The train was a perfect way to appreciate the mountains and the forests. All of this was from the comfort of a classic vintage passenger coach.
Frequent announcements from the host kept the passage exciting and informative. You always knew what was ahead so you could get your camera ready.
I would often move to the front or back of our car if I thought it would provide a better shot! The outdoor decks were ideal for unobstructed views.
Every car has a heater, ideal when riding the train during the “fringe” Alaska season. The temperatures can be much cooler in late April or September/October compared to our July trip.
In addition, each car has a washroom, a convenience over the almost 3-hour trip. They provided each car with a case of bottled water. Small things like this, and great customer service, made the ride so enjoyable.
They offered a souvenir pack (cap, guide, DVD) for sale at a very modest price which several passengers purchased.
Skagway Train Touring Tips
Here’s a brief list of tips to consider if you ride the White Pass scenic railway:
- Book through your cruise line. This protects you in the case of reschedules, port cancellations, and returning late.
- Left side or right side? We chose the left because much of the journey up to the summit has the mountains on the right. However, the train currently loops at the summit and returns on the same route. As a result, the right side has the best views on the journey back to Skagway.
- If you aren’t assigned a car, the caboose or last car is best and often has a larger outdoor platform. Avoid the front carriage.
- Feel free to move about the car. We had a large viewing deck at the back of the car which was perfect for taking photos. Sometimes I moved to the smaller viewing deck at the front of the carriage. It was less crowded and let me get a better shot.
- It’s okay to book last-minute. While some Alaska excursions (e.g., dogsledding) sell out in advance, this one does not. Each car can hold up to 40 passengers, and a train can accommodate up to 16 carriages. Also, the train is assembled daily according to the number of bookings.
- No power or Wi-fi – this should not be a surprise! Be sure you fully charge your camera or smartphone before you board. Also, cell coverage can be spotty throughout the route.
- You may need a passport – We did not need our passports because we did not disembark the train in Canada. However, depending on your journey into Canada, you will need a passport if you choose the train and road route.
Having never traveled on a train in the Yukon before, I found the excursion unforgettable. The journey was convenient, reasonably priced, and a photographer’s paradise.
The scenery and just being able to enjoy a classic train ride through the mountains made it memorable. And crossing trestles added to the nostalgia of the train travel.
We also had fantastic weather, which made the journey even more spectacular. It may not be quite as enjoyable if you have a foggy or drizzly day impeding visibility.
I would recommend it as one of Alaska’s best family-friendly excursions for all ages. However, one of the families sitting near us in our car was a dad, his three girls, and their grandparents.
For them, it was not a cheap excursion at USD 600-700. If you are traveling with kids and your budget is very tight, it may not be within your price range.
The first part of the drive follows the train tracks but at a lower level. You’ll enjoy spectacular views of Pitchfork Falls. This excursion crosses into Canada, so you’ll need a passport to show at the border.
Alternatively, if you prefer a self-guided tour or you’ve done the train route, consider renting a vehicle and driving to the Yukon from Skagway.
I look forward to taking the train journey in a couple of years when we cruise again to Alaska. Next time, we’ll take the longer trip that combines the train journey with a road trip.
This would include traveling through the towns of Fraser and Bennett in British Columbia.
As a Canadian, it would be an adventure to cruise from Vancouver to Skagway. Then board a train back to Canada, visiting Carcross and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.
I hope my experience has encouraged you to consider this historic train ride on your next Alaska cruise. I promise you will not regret it and be sure to bring your camera!