What to Do in Skagway Alaska On a Cruise Port Day
Skagway Alaska is one of the most popular cruise ports in Alaska and while it is a town - the area is also a National Park known as the "Skagway: Gateway to the Klondike". This is due to the port's proximity to White Pass where thousands of miners would journey on their way to the gold fields. Today though, the town of Skagway is a fun place to go and explore both the rich - and sordid! - gold rush history as well as the amazing natural beauty offered by the surrounding territory. What makes this all even more unique is that Skagway was one of the original Alaskan cruise ports - dating back to 1923 so there's that history and culture as well!
Of the three ports we visited on our Alaskan cruise (including Skagway as well as Juneau and Ketchikan), Skagway was clearly the one for history buffs. While all of the ports we visited offered an amazing view into the tough and rugged nature of Alaska's history (and present), Skagway was special for me. I think this is because I've been a fan of Charlie Chaplin's 1925 movie, "Gold Rush". While we didn't get a chance to actually take the White Pass railroad to see the landscape up there, Skagway had everything you'd need to feel like you could step back in time to the gold rush days.
White Pass Railway Rotary Snowplow No. 1
While there are tons of excursion ideas too, Skagway is a great place to visit and simply just walk around too. There are pocket parks, unique shops - for guys as well as the ladies, food ranging from elk jerky to fry bread. There's also these two trains positioned just before you get into the downtown area from the cruise ship docks. If you've ever wondered how the railroads up there could clear the feet of snow that fall ... this is how. The giant rotary snowplow dates back to 1899 and supported by two helper engines, could push through up to 12 feet of snow that sometimes covered the tracks. It was retired in 1965 but was used as recently as 2001 for a ceremonial demonstration.
Today though, it makes a great spot to take a photo and admire the sheer power of both engineering and determination that allowed the frontier to be tamed.
Walking Around Skagway
Since Skagway is actually managed by the National Park Service, the downtown area feels very 1890's gold rush era authentic. While there are modern amenities, some businesses established to service gold miners still exist here such as the Red Onion Saloon and it's "Brothel Museum". In the 1890's this building was the classiest dance hall and saloon in Skagway and the bordello upstairs featured 10 cribs where men could enjoy the company of a beautiful lady. Today though, they offer brothel tours led by madams who share a bit of history and stories about what life was like for men and women back in those days.
Throughout the downtown area though, I was surprised to find a great mix of shops ranging from the typical cruise port businesses such as Diamonds International as well as antique shops, outfitters, and places to grab a snack.
Panning For Gold (and more!) With Alaska 360 Experience
While there was no gold found in Skagway, it was the gateway to the yukon gold fields. We'll have a larger post about the Alaska 360 Experience, but if you are looking for a fun experience learning how to pan for gold, testing yourself to see if you can withstand -40 degree Alaskan winters, or learning about dog sled racing then this is a great place to visit.
I even got some shiny stuff to take home with me!
Days of '98 Show with Soapy Smith
In any other city anywhere else in the country, this show might be laughed off as a work of fiction but not surprisingly the story of Soapy Smith told through the Days of '98 Show is more history than fiction. Jefferson Randolph Smith came to Skagway in the fall of 1897 as a con man and ultimately a gang leader that controlled Skagway. Despite his less reputable side, he worked to present himself as an upstanding member of the society including building Skagway's first church, establishing an "Adopt a Dog" pgram and even appeared together with the Governor of Alaska. Unfortunately for him, members of his gang robbed the wrong man of $2,800 in gold dust and ultimately was shot trying to break up a mom out for justice.
In 1923, with the advent of tourist cruises to Alaska the local residents decided to create a show about the real-life events during 1998. The show was a hit then ... and it continues to be a fun way to learn about Skagway's history. It has been running continuously for nearly a century and is a must do activity when visiting Skagway.
Skagway Street Car Tours
Again dating back to 1923, the Skagway Street Car has a rich history of transporting the original cruise ship visitors around Skagway, including President Harding. Today, the Skagway Street Car Company provides historic sightseeing tours with costumed conductors around town as well as Summit Tours to the Canadian Porter and other options as well.
White Pass and Yukon Route - Railway Tour
This is probably the most popular excursion that you can take when visiting Skagway. The trains even come right down to the different cruise ship piers so it's super easy to get on if you don't want to walk. Different railway tour excursions are offered and every cruise ship is going to offer their own package as well. Options range from the Summit Excursion to a visit to the Fraser Meadow by steam train. You can even purchase a hiking pass enabling you tackle the famous Chilkoot Trail and then ride home in comfort. That's probably not a great fit for visiting on a cruise ship since you don't want to miss sailaway, but gives you a reason to come back and spend more time in Skagway!
Eating and Drinking in Skagway
There are tons of places to eat in the town area but we had a great lunch at Skagway Fish Company where we enjoyed tasting fresh caught Alaskan halibut. Later in the day we also enjoyed relaxing with some craft beer at Skagway Brewing Company.
Photos of Skagway Alaska:
While there are many options for excursions beginning in Skagway, Alaska here are some photos of what we did in the town itself.
- Written by James Hills
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