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Canada 150: Wild Frontiers and Unforgettable Nature in the Yukon

This year our national neighbors to the north celebrate their 150th anniversary and we’ll be celebrating with them as they do. Each month we’ll focus on one part of their magnificent country and share it with you. From the sky-high trees and brown bears in British Columbia to the kitchen parties and codfish-kissing in the Maritimes, our toast to Canada will give you well over 150 reasons to make this the year you take the trip. This month we’re exploring wildlife highways and creative cocktails in the Yukon.

Canada 150: Yukon

Of Canada’s three northern territories, Yukon is the one most likely to suit travelers who are looking for a mix of gold rush fever fun and incredible wildlife adventures. The territory that bridges British Columbia and Alaska has been an American favorite for generations thanks to the iconic Alaska Highway that runs through it, but the Yukon is much more than a drive-through destination. Come see the place where vast forests resemble the ones you’ve seen on Canadian travel posters for generations and where the landscape is both harsh and full of promise.

The Cities: Dawson City and Whitehorse

With a population of about 36,000 people, Yukon is hardly bursting at the seams. The small communities and solitary outposts that dot the vast landscape are made up of memorable characters and four-legged wonders. If what you’re looking for is a bustling city, your best shots will be in Dawson City or Whitehorse, and even there you’ll need to use a bit of imagination.

Relive the days of the Gold rush in Dawson City

Gold was first discovered near the Klondike River in 1896 and once word got out, prospectors began the long hard trip to riches. The trip north wasn’t an easy one and Dawson City was built for much the same purpose that it exists today: to provide travelers with some fun along the route. Not all that fun was legal. Dawson City developed a “you can do anything there” reputation attracting gunslingers, profiteers, and barkeeps alongside the miners themselves.

Today the city retains much of that feel but keeps—for the most part—on the right side of the law. You’ll still find the clapboard buildings, swinging saloon doors, and opportunities to try your luck panning for gold, but more often travelers are families coming through in RVs.  Geocaching, stargazing, informative tours, and interactive experiences can be found at this stop smack dab in the middle of the Dempster Highway—Canada’s only all-weather road across the Arctic circle. Adults looking for fun can pop into the iconic Downtown Hotel where a real human pickled toe at the bottom of a rum-based beverage must touch your lips if you want the honor of being named an honorary local. Or spend an evening at Diamond Tooth Gerties to get a taste of the dance hall saloon life of the past.

Find serenity in art and nature in Whitehorse

Yukon’s capital city sits at the crossing of the Klondike and Alaska highways—the territory’s two most prominent roads—but don’t expect skyscrapers and four-lane traffic. The city is simple and surrounded by a natural paradise. This is the forested Canada you’ve dreamed about.

Within the city limits you’ll find a mix of locals who’ve come from around the world. Locals will tell you: No one ends up in Whitehorse by accident. You choose to come here.

Among those who are here now, are those who were here first: Fourteen First Nations’ communities call the area home and ancestors have been doing so as many as 10,000 years before the gold rushers found it. You can get to know them better through their contributions to many facets of the city, including their art. Totem poles (including the 36-foot-high healing totem meant to assist former Aboriginal Residential school residents) and the exhibits inside the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre are only the beginning.

Ready to see some wildlife? Animal lovers may spot caribou, moose and fox, but to catch them all in one place visit the Yukon Wildlife Preserve.

Why Now is the Perfect Time to Go

The Weather: Yukon’s summer season comes to an end this month, and with the beginning of falling temperatures (expect it to top out at about 69 degrees this month) comes a brilliance in the forests that is well worth the trip.  You can expect about 17 hours of sunlight per day this month—a big difference from the five to six hours per day you’ll find in January.

Nature: By the end of this month, the tundra landscape will be changing colors and everything from bright yellows to deep crimson reds will completely transform the look and feel. Tombstone Territorial Park off the Dempster Highway is one of the many places you can witness the colors, all dramatically set against a black granite backdrop and with the bonus of incredible wildlife viewing.

Alaska Highway 75: 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Alaska Highway. Originally built to help America protect itself during World War II, today the route is a popular holiday drive. Visit and you’ll be impressed with the way communities along this BC/Yukon/Alaska corridor have managed to preserve their history.

Festivals: Both Yukon Discovery Day and Klondike Gold Discovery day are celebrated on the third Monday in August. You’ll find one of the biggest celebrations in Dawson City and can expect fun for all ages.

Miles Canyon: Gold rushers would have had to navigate the winding Yukon River Pass to get to their prize in the Klondike; today you can approach it with less at stake.  A suspension bridge built across the Canyon in 1922 means hikers can take advantage of an extensive network of year-round trails in the area.

Why It’s Great Other Times of Year

The Northern Lights: The darker it gets in the Yukon, the more likely you are to see those shimmering neon lights streaking through the skies above. The rewards are greatest in deep winter, and some great hotels will wake you to make sure you don’t miss it.

Hot springs in cool temps: The Takhini Hotsprings mineral springs are great any time of year; but in the winter, the mineral-rich pools become a sought-after activity by visitors and locals alike. A dip in the pool and a dip in the snow is the thing to do.

Winter done right: When you live in a place where heavy snow and plenty of ice are an annual event, you learn to embrace it. Will it be dogsledding behind a team of trained huskies or snow festivals that have you dancing in the crisp air (Try the Frostbite Music Festival)? Will you give snowshoeing a try, perfect your ice fishing or try fat-tire biking for the first time? Whatever you choose, Yukon locals will teach you how to make the most of the season.

If You Go Don’t Miss …

An aerial view: The territory stretches over a slice of land twice the size of Great Britain. From above—in helicopter or sea plane—you’ll get a deeper appreciation of the serpentine roads that slice through forests of spruce, pine, and fir.

The National Park

Kluane National Park

Kluane National Park is a pristine natural gem with an abundance of bald eagles, caribou, and bears (both black and grizzly). 8,500 square miles of protected land, a snow-capped mountain that rises 19,525 feet above the largest non-polar icefield in the world, and glacial lakes that glisten in the sunlight make it bucket-list worthy. Come to hike, bike, raft, and camp. You’ll find experts at the area’s two visitor centers primed and ready to help you along. A mix of interactive exhibits and hands-on activities mean you can spend an hour or a day. Both are open into September.

Visit Kluane National Park and Reserve Visitor Centre or Thachäl Dhäl Visitor Centre for details.

Remember: National Parks and National Marine Conservation Areas are offering free admission all year as part of the celebration of Canada150. Request your free park pass here.

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Heather Greenwood Davis is a lifestyle journalist and a National Geographic Travel columnist. Follow her on Twitter @greenwooddavis or keep up with her family’s adventures on GlobeTrottingMama.com.

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