Whitehorse is a very unique provincial capital. There are no buildings above 8 storeys tall, it’s home to the world's largest weathervane, has a population of less than 30,000, and is known as the Wilderness City. I visited Whitehorse in 2019 while guiding canoe trips on the Yukon River, and I can’t wait to go back someday. The friendly welcoming atmosphere, thriving culinary scene, art and creativity everywhere you look, easy access to outdoor pursuits, and quirkiness of this small city truly captured my heart.
While I am not going back just yet, MHO Adventures is heading up there this summer! Two lucky guides who are paddling the Wind River get to stay in Whitehorse while preparing for their trip. While they might not get the opportunity to explore everything the city has to offer, we strongly encourage our clients who are also headed up there for a canoe trip, to take a few days to get to know the area. Here is a short outline of just a handful of the many activities that are waiting for you in Whitehorse.
If you find yourself without a vehicle in Whitehorse, not to worry. There is a ton of stuff to do that is walking distance from downtown. Let’s start with a classic… Museums. The MacBride Museum is right downtown and has an extensive collection of historical artifacts both natural and cultural. Indoor and outdoor exhibits showcase the pre-colonial history of the land, the Klondike Rush, modern day events, and so much more.
Not far from the MacBride Museum, right on the banks of the Yukon River, is the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Center. The visually captivating architecture of the Center will draw you in, and the knowledge within its walls will keep you there for hours. As you wander through the Center there are several different rooms and galleries showcasing the heritage and modern way of life of the Kwanlin Dün First Nations. If you plan your visit ahead of time you might be able to join one of the many programs and workshops that happen year round, from weekly sewing circles to moose hair tufting workshops.
While you’re strolling down the side of the Yukon River, you can visit the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site. This old paddlewheeler is one of the last steam-powered boats of its kind. Although it doesn’t see very much action these days, it lives on as a historic site to showcase what it was like back when these ships introduced a new way of life to the North. If you are visiting this site in 2023, don’t be too disappointed if you can’t go inside. Due to ongoing restorations you won’t be able to tour the inside of the ship, but there are still guided tours available that will take you onto the bow of the ship and give a detailed history of the paddlewheelers involvement in the province's recent history.
Now that you’re well versed in the history of Whitehorse, it’s time to see what this city has to offer in the way of art. Boy does Whitehorse deliver! It seems like there’s a gallery on every street you walk down. The North End Gallery, Anto Yukon, Arts Underground, Yukon Arts Center, Yukon Arts Center Public Art Gallery, Lumel Studios, and the Yukon Artists @ Work are just some of the galleries to check out. Among my favourites is the North End Gallery which is right across from the MacBride Museum. This gallery hosts all Canadian and Indigenous artists, with the exception of showcasing several Ukrainian artists to fundraise for humanitarian aid. So many wonderful pieces to look at and purchase, all representing life in the Yukon.
Another great gallery to check out is the Yukon Artists @ Work. This gallery is run by member artists and is a non-profit society. This means that artists are frequently there interacting with the folks who wander in, or can be seen working on their projects and collaborating with each other. It’s a great place to get to know the artists you are purchasing from. All the pieces in the gallery are handcrafted in the Yukon.
One place that I regretfully didn’t get to visit, but a friend of mine went to, is Lumel Studios. A glass blowing facility that has so much to offer. With a gallery full of handcrafted pieces available for purchase, you can also make your own piece. They do group events, school groups, and even WALK INS. You can work with your own piece of glass from beginning to end, experiencing what it’s like to be a glassblower. After your session, you return the next day to pick up your new masterpiece (it needs time to cool down).
Now that we’ve filled our brains with historical and cultural knowledge, our creativity levels are high, it’s time to fill our bellies. Whitehorse has a surprisingly robust culinary scene, and I say “surprisingly” not to belittle the northern city, but in a good way! When I went to Wood Street Ramen, I was not expecting to have the BEST ramen I’ve ever had. It was delicious.
Antoinette is a small restaurant run by Chef James, who is trained in a wide variety of cuisines from all over the world. This is clearly reflected in the menu, and will take you on a delicious culinary journey you’ll want to take over and over again. If culinary world travel isn’t on your mind, the Miners Daughter/Dirty Northern is a great pub style restaurant and bar with a fun atmosphere. With standards such as poutine, salad, and wings, they also have some mouth watering takes on classics like a bison burger and a wild Alaskan salmon burger. You really can’t go wrong with this restaurant.
We can’t forget the most important meal of the day… breakfast. I went to the same breakfast place I think every day while I was in Whitehorse and have no regrets. The Burnt Toast Cafe was my go to. The sausages were juicy, the bread fresh, maple syrup trustworthy (no table syrup here), and tons of breakfast and lunch options. My favourite breakfast item was the Croque Madame, highly recommend.
If you are looking to quench your thirst there are also a number of beverage options. I’m talking beers and malt whiskey. Yukon Brewing has it all; beers, small batch spirits, and malt whiskey made by Two Brewers. I took their brewery tour and got to sample a healthy variety of their beer selection, my favourite being the lemon lavender radler, perfect on a hot summer day. My biggest disappointment also came at this visit, when I found out I couldn’t get Yukon Brewing beer in Ontario. I’ve been dreaming of that radler ever since.
If you’re looking to explore the wilderness side of the “Wilderness City” there is no shortage of options. Paddling is extremely accessible in Whitehorse. Up North Adventures offers half day or full day, guided or self guided paddling experience, whether it’s in a canoe or in a kayak. But let’s assume you’re up there for a canoe trip in the first place… maybe more paddling isn’t on your agenda.
700 km of trail awaits you, all around the city of Whitehorse. I didn’t bring a mountain bike when I was up there, but it was quite easy to rent one from any of the bike shops in town. The Yukon River trail, Grey Mountain, and Mount McIntyre trails are all great locations to experience mountain biking in the Yukon. You can also download the Whitehorse Trail Guide app to make navigation of trails even easier.
Mountain biking was fun but a little hard on the tushy when you’re not used to it. After taking to the trails by bike, I decided to take to the trails by foot. Going out for a day hike is super easy in Whitehorse. I knew there was a whole network of trails around the city, so I started walking up the side of the Yukon River and just kept to the trail. It was great walking beside the brilliant blue river and I ended up at the Salmon Fishladder.
Not having a clue what a “fishladder” was, I entered the small interpretation center and was delighted to see that a fishladder is exactly what you expect it to be. Built beside the dam, it’s a series of cascading pools that allow fish to travel upstream around an obstacle. You can see the fish jumping from pool to pool and they even have an underwater camera so you can see the action from below the surface as well. This might sound underwhelming or uninteresting to you but I assure you it’s more entertaining than you would think. If you’re really not keen on fish, you should hike the Miles Canyon. This hike is the classic hike you’ll see photos of when you look up hikes in Whitehorse. It’s a beautiful 9km - 15km hike (depending on where you start) above the Yukon River, looking down into the rushing crystal blue water. Ripe for Instagram worthy photos.
If you find yourself with plenty of time to spare, and you want to explore beyond the town of Whitehorse, you can rent a vehicle and make your way up the Alaska Highway to Dawson City. The Alaska Highway is a historic motorway constructed during World War II with the intention of connecting the contiguous United States with Alaska. Previously known as a rugged road to travel, today it’s a cruisy highway that takes you through the heart of the Yukon. Dawson City is the perfect destination because it, much like Whitehorse, has its own unique personality. Like Whitehorse, Dawson City has plenty of paddling, hiking, and other outdoor activities to do, but I want to highlight the special experiences that Dawson City alone has to offer.
What better place to start than in the Sourdough Saloon. You might have heard of the, shall we say… delicacy, called the Sourtoe Cocktail. A shot, usually Yukon Jack, with a dehydrated toe dropped into it. Drink it down and you will become a member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club: “you can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have gotta touch the toe”. Mummified toes might not be your style, but you can still visit the Jack London Museum, Robert Service's cabin, go panning for gold, or check out the Palace Grand Theater or the Commissioner’s residence.
I want to underscore the fact that this is a drop in the bucket of all the activities you can do in Whitehorse (and Dawson City). I didn’t even talk about the horseback riding tours, hunting and fishing, golf, disc golf, or northern lights viewing. On top of that, what I’ve mentioned above is summer specific. If you are visiting in the winter there’s a whole other list of things to do (dog sledding!). We should all just be spending more vacation days in the Yukon to really appreciate this fascinating corner of Canada. I can’t wait to get back up there for some more top notch paddling, revisit the Burnt Toast Cafe, and experience all the things I missed on my first visit.