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White Pass Scenic Railway: How To Pick A Train Journey

The White Pass Scenic Railway is a popular tourist attraction in Skagway, for those on an Alaska cruise or arriving on a road trip. Each train trip offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

The White Pass and Yukon Route railway was originally built during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s. It has since become a historic landmark and a must-experience for Alaska visitors.

Train carriages are accessible to all travelers, and the heated cabins provide comfort in the off-season. Railway guests can select from several different route choices, each with its own unique scenery and travel experience. Whichever you pick, it provides a great way to enjoy a day in Skagway.

Riding the White Pass & Yukon Route scenic railway

Learn about the different train journeys to discover the best choice for your family. The decision may come down to affordability, excursion length, and desired sights.

History Of the White Pass Scenic Railway

The White Pass Railway is a narrow-gauge railroad that runs from Skagway, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. The construction of the railway was a massive engineering feat, with a total of 110 miles of track being laid down in just two years.

The construction of the railway began in May 1898, and the first train ran on July 29, 1900. It was built to transport people and supplies from Skagway to the gold fields of the Yukon.

Building as a narrow-gauge, allowed for tighter turns and steeper grades than a standard-gauge railway. After completion, the trains carried mail and other goods between Skagway and Whitehorse.

Essentially, it provided a lifeline for the people of the Yukon, and it played a crucial role in the development of the region.

A broken wooden trestle
A broken wooden trestle

Today, the White Pass is a popular tourist attraction, with thousands of cruise guests riding the train every year. The train ride offers stunning views of the Alaskan wilderness, including glaciers, waterfalls, gorges, and wooden trestles.

It has since been designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, recognizing its significant contribution to the development of the region.

Ticketing And Accessibility

A variety of fares and packages are available to suit different needs and budgets. The fares change based on the trip type and the purchasing source. Tickets are purchasable online, through the cruise line, or at the Skagway ticket office.

White Pass train at the dock
White Pass train at the dock

The round-trip fare for the White Pass Summit Excursion starts at USD 146 per adult and USD 73 per child (ages 3-12). The fare includes a 40-mile round-trip journey from Skagway to the summit of the White Pass, which takes under three hours.

The train has wheelchair lifts and accessible seating available on a first-come, first-served basis.  Onboard, there are accessible restrooms and assistance animals are permitted on the train.

Passengers with mobility impairments or other disabilities are encouraged to contact the railway in advance to discuss their needs. When purchasing a ticket through the cruise line, select an accessible option, which doesn’t incur an additional fee.

Guests who buy tickets through their cruise company board the train at either the Ore, Broadway, or Railway Dock.

Boarding the White Pass & Yukon Route train
Boarding the Train at the dock

Guests who buy a ticket online, board at the train station, a 15-minute walk north of the dock. Naturally, boarding first gives first pick of seats and carriages.

Route Choices And Scenery

Cruise passengers wanting to ride the White Pass Scenic Railway have several route options to choose from. Each offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.

White Pass Summit Excursion

  • Excursion length: 2 hours 45 mins

One of the most popular routes is the White Pass Summit Excursion. Expect the journey to take under three hours to complete. The trip takes passengers on a journey from Skagway to the summit of White Pass which has an elevation of 2,865 feet.

This roundtrip route travels into Canada, completes a loop, and returns to Skagway on the same track. We took this option and along the way, we enjoyed stunning views of glaciers, waterfalls, and mountain peaks.

Yukon train turnaround area
Turnaround area in the Yukon

With open platforms at either end of the vintage carriages, we could capture photos of the majestic mountains, railway trestles and tunnels without window glare.

This popular tour is sold by every major cruise line that docks in Skagway. Sometimes, it even sells out. Since this tour was only a few hours, we had lots of time to do another excursion afterward and explore Skagway.

Guests selecting this tour can choose the Legacy Club Luxury Railway Experience. Riders in the Luxury Club Car have a private guide who narrates the journey. They will enjoy appetizers and beverages during the ride.

Pros: Best suited for budget-minded travelers, families with small children who prefer a shorter journey. This route doesn’t require a passport since the train doesn’t stop in Canada.

Cons: The train has the same route up and back.

White Pass Railway And Klondike Highway

  • Excursion length: 3 hours 15 mins

Alternatively, this tour combines a train journey with a bus ride on the Klondike Highway. This journey takes a little over three hours.

While the road follows the tracks for a short way outside Skagway, they soon divide, offering different viewpoints. Those riding the train first, will board a shuttle at the summit for the journey back.

Railway trestle over a canyon
Railway trestle over a canyon

The narrated bus ride includes stunning views and famous landmarks. Viewpoints include Brackett Wagon Road, Dead Horse Gulch, Pitchfork Falls, and Tormented Valley.

I’ve done the bus ride too. Since the road runs at a lower altitude, I saw waterfalls, not visible on the train which runs higher up.

Pros: A better option for travelers who want different views on the journey back to Skagway.

Cons: Guests need a passport to cross the border on the Klondike Highway.

Bennett Scenic Journey

  • Excursion length: 8 hours

For those with extended port time in Skagway, the Bennett Scenic Journey travels into the heart of the Yukon. Passengers enjoy a 40-mile journey from Skagway to Bennett, British Columbia, then onto Carcross for a total journey of 67.5 miles.

This route follows the original Klondike Trail and offers a glimpse into the history of the gold rush era. Since this trip takes eight hours, the USD 265 ticket includes a boxed lunch and a 45-minute break at the 1903 Bennett Station. Do note, the train provides half the journey and a bus the other way.

Passing another train
Passing another train

An eight-hour train tour is best suited to adults, those who love train rides, or railway enthusiasts. Pick from one of the shorter routes when traveling with little ones.

Pros: You’ll see more of the Yukon and it’s a great option for those who love train journeys. Gluten-free and vegetarian lunch are available upon request.

Cons: Not the most affordable option and requires a passport. Since it takes eight hours, guests may not have time to explore Skagway. This train journey is not wheelchair accessible.

Other Routes

Those who want to hike in Skagway have the option to use the train to reach remote hiking areas. The train offers drop-off and pick-up on Tuesdays and Thursdays to trailheads that access Denver and Laughton Glaciers.

Tickets must be purchased in advanced and avialability is limited.

Key Landmarks And Views

The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad often makes the list of the best scenic train journeys globally. After my experience on a hot day in July, I couldn’t agree more.

We had to remain seated as the train slowly left Skagway. Nearby, we saw the train yard that services the cars and engines, and the Gold Rush Cemetery which we visited by ebikes.

Traveling over a wooden trestle on a train
Traveling over a wooden trestle

As the train climbs towards the White Pass, mountain peaks, waterfalls, and deep valleys enhance the journey. The wooden trestles were a highlight for me. Standing on the outer platform, I could see the other end of the train curve along the track.

Dead Horse Gulch is a key landmark. Sadly, around 3000 horses died making the journey to the Yukon. As we rode along, we learned about the history of the railway and the people who built it, as well as the gold rush era that brought so many people to the area.

My husband, Brian and I picked the last carriage which was a great choice. The outer deck area was larger, allowing more guests to join for picture-taking. Once guests have chosen a carriage, they cannot move to another once the train moves.

Onboard Amenities And Services

The vintage rail cars are painted army green and are named after lakes and rivers. Lake Finlayson, Lake Tincup, and MacKenzie River come to mind.

The train is equipped with all the amenities needed for a comfortable journey. The coaches are heated and have large windows, allowing everyone to take in the scenery. However, we didn’t find the seating very comfortable. There are also restrooms on board for your convenience.

Inside the vintage railway car
Inside a vintage railway car

We traveled in July when the temperature hit 83F. While the train cars have heaters, they don’t have air-conditioning. So, when visiting during a hot month as we did, select the early run to avoid the hottest part of the day.

The shorter journeys include bottled water, but no food or the ability to purchase some, unless traveling in the Luxury Club Car. So, pack snacks, especially if you’re traveling with children.

Best Time To Go

The White Pass Railways operates in conjunction with cruise ship arrivals. So, cruise guests that arrive in April, have the option to book a tour. It takes the railway two months to clear the track of snow to begin running.

View behind the train
View behind the train

Guests who travel in April or late September or early October, may witness the area covered with snow. In July, we still saw a small amount of snow at the White Pass.

Ideally, the best time to ride the train is from May to September. During this time, the weather is mild, and the scenery is at its most beautiful.

Each cruise ship is assigned a separate train, with two departures. During busy time, they may offer three runs. Since fog can impede visibility in the off-season, an afternoon trip is preferred.

During hot weather, we opted for the morning run to avoid the midday heat. It gave us time to explore Skagway afterward and rent e-bikes from Klondike Electric Bicycles to travel beyond downtown.

Those who have done the journey once will tell you they’ll gladly go again. Us included! If you’re traveling with a large family, and it doesn’t fit in your budget, rent a car and drive the Klondike Hwy to the Yukon instead.

While the reason for the initial railway’s purpose has gone, it’s transitioned smoothly into a tourist attraction. And thankfully, I was one of its happy riders.

Overall, the White Pass Scenic Railway is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Skagway. Whether you’re a history buff, a nature lover, or just looking for a unique and unforgettable experience, this railway has something for everyone.