By now, dear reader, you know how deep and life long my love of the Pacific Northwest is, being born and raised in Seattle. I also spent 7 years living in Alaska and have a deep love and connection to this place as well. I’ll be bringing in more in content about Alaska this year alongside the Pacific Northwest content (hiking, weekend and day trips, local and seasonal food) you already know from me! Skagway is a good starting point because it’s the first place I lived in Alaska and it’s also where Jay and I met! In this post, I’ll talk about how to spend a day in Skagway on your own if you’re traveling on a cruise ship and you like low key outdoor adventure and getting away from the crowd. If you’re in Skagway as an independent traveler, perhaps on your way to or from the Chilkoot Trail, this is good advice for you too! Skagway is full of quirky and lively Gold Rush history, lush gardens and spectacular scenery so there’s no shortage of fun and unique ways to spend the day on your own!
What to Expect on a day in Skagway
Skagway is very crowded and touristy in the summer (May-September) which is when you’ll be visiting. Skagway is not a good off season destination, though early May and late September are far less crowded, they come with less ideal weather (especially September when it is often very wet and cold). Overall, Skagway gets much less rainfall than other parts of Southeast Alaska at an average of 27 inches per year (less than Seattle at about 35 inches per year and less than half of what Juneau gets only 90 miles away). Skagway is rainshadowed by the mountains in Glacier Bay National Park (similarly to how Seattle is rainshowed by the Olympic Mountains), and while it is drier it is EXTREMELY windy, and there are a lot of overcast and rainy days even in summer! There are also many mornings with low clouds and fog. Skagway is a destination for most large cruise ships throughout the season and sometimes has as many as five ships in port, each one carrying far more people than live in town! As much as possible I’ll recommend places where you can get away from the crowd.
Perfect Day in Skagway if you like hiking (and want to hike right from the ship’s gangway!)…
If you’re in town on your own to hike the Chilkoot, you are likely getting in all the hiking you need! If that wasn’t enough hiking for you, you can add on one of these shorter hikes in town as well. Skagway has many wonderful hiking trails and several are easily accessible from the gangway of your ship or either campground or anywhere in town. Make sure to be prepared for rain! Check out my post about outerwear for the Pacific Northwest (which is also solid advice for Southeast Alaska). If you’re really dedicated, you could do all these hikes! This is the best way to get away from crowds in Skagway (especially Smuggler’s Cove).
Lower Dewey Lake (2 miles round trip, 500 feet elevation gain)
Lower Dewey is a hike I did several times a week when I lived there. It’s short (one mile each way) and a bit steep (500 feet in a mile) and a great place for swimming if you don’t mind some cold water! It’s a fairly large lake surrounded by forest. There is also a 3+mile trail that goes around the lake and is basically flat. About halfway up the trail there is a clear spot with a fabulous view of the cruise ship docks and downtown. To find the trail head, follow the road to Broadway (all roads from all cruise ship docks lead here), then go right with the cruise ships docks behind you (east) on 2nd, passing the Railroad depot. The road ends at the railroad tracks. Cross them, watching very carefully for approaching trains before crossing! After the tracks, turn left and follow the tracks a short distance to the trailhead on the right. The trail is mostly straightforward, when in doubt keep right at all potential trail crossings until you see the lake. If you want a longer hike, there are a number of options heading up from Lower Dewey. Stop in at the park service visitor center for more information and maps.
Smuggler’s Cove (4 miles round trip, 100 feet of elevation gain)
Smuggler’s Cove is a mostly flat 4 mile round trip hike from town to a lovely picnic spot around the point from the cruise ships and the bustle of downtown. Head into town and turn left (if the ships are behind you) on 1st. Turn left on main and follow it around the end of the airport and cross the footbridge over the river, following the trail left. You’ll soon come to some rocks to go up and down, and a picnic table and outhouse. This is Yakutania point and a fine spot to turn around for a shorter outing, with a view south towards Haines. For Smuggler’s Cove, continue to follow the trail as it angles right and through the forest to a quite and peaceful view with a picnic table (and no ships in sight!). This was another frequent hike for me to get away from town for a little bit.
Lower Reid Falls (4 miles round trip, minimal elevation gain)
This hike to Lower Reid Falls goes through town (follow Alaska or Main to avoid the very crowded Broadway) to the Gold Rush Cemetery and beyond to the falls. Use extreme caution as you are reaching the end of town, you will cross the main road that becomes the two lane highway out of town as well as the train yard. Follow the gravel path to the cemetery from the Gold Rush days and wander through to the trail on the far side which goes a short distance through the forest to Lower Reid Falls.
Perfect day in Skagway if you like history…
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
Skagway became a boom town during the Klondike Gold Rush at the very end of the 19th century. Many buildings from the era have been preserved as the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, which also includes the land around Dyea at the start of the Chilkoot Trail and the Cadillac Hotel in Seattle (Seattle played a key role in outfitting and transporting miners on their way north). Start at the visitor center which is close to the cruise ships docks in the train depot at 2nd and Broadway. They can show you where all the historic buildings are and let you know about the ranger programs happening that day, a fabulous free option to learn about Skagway’s colorful history!
Red Onion Saloon
The Red Onion is not for everyone, but it’s a fun way to experience some full color Gold Rush History. It’s loud and crowded but also lots of fun! Employees are in period costume and they have tours of the haunted (historic) brothel upstairs, as well as walking tours around town. You can get drinks and food here too!
Best Tour in Skagway
I know this post is about doing a day in Skagway on your own, but Skagway does have a lot of awesome tours! My personal favorite is the summit excursion on the White Pass Railroad. The views are amazing, the history and engineering are fascinating and you get to experience the interior and high mountains that you wouldn’t otherwise see on a day trip. I mention this because it’s a half day tour, so you could absolutely do this tour and still fit in a hike. If you are on a cruise, book this excursion through your ship. If you are an independent traveler, I highly recommend this tour (and if you’re doing the Chilkoot trail, this is really the only way to return in my opinion!). You could do the summit tour or you could do a train ride and hike described below.
Where to Eat and Drink
You can get a quick coffee and pastry at the White Pass Depot or Bites on Broadway. If you’re looking to sample some local beer, try the Klondike Brewing Company or Skagway Brewing Company (also has food). Olivia’s bistro serves lots of local food (including using ingredients from their garden) and the Skagway Fish Company at the end of the Railroad dock is wildly popular. Alaska is crazy about ice cream! Join the habit for ice cream and other treats at the Kone Kompany.
Getting Around Skagway
Everything that I’ve described here you can walk to from the cruise ship docks or anywhere downtown. Strolling around town is a good way to get a feel for the history (especially if you start at the park service visitor center). There are lots of shops, some are the standard cruise ship town chains, but there are also more unique ones, like my favorite, the Skaguay News Depot, a bookstore, and the Alaska Geographic bookstore. In general I’m not big on shopping but do you see a theme?! I love bookstores! Also don’t miss the absurdly large rhubarb bush I mentioned here.
If you do get tired of walking there is a bus service during the summer that will take you around town anywhere you want to go!
If you get lost at anytime, just ask an employee of any business how to get back to your ship (just tell them the name of it) and they’ll point you the right way. Make sure not to get distracted, lose track of time and miss your ship! They will leave you behind, not a fun way to end your day in Skagway!
Ideas for another day in Skagway if (you’re lucky and) you have more time
Dyea was a bustling boomtown for the last three years of the 19th century during the Klondike Gold Rush. It is fascinating to see a place that has changed so dramatically in one century. It’s a peaceful and quiet place 9 road miles from Skagway. You can camp here in the park service campground for $10 a night. It’s fascinating to explore on your own or with a ranger. This is also the trailhead for the Chilkoot Trail and a good location for a day hike too. To get to Dyea, check with the visitor’s bureau for companies that will drive you there (make sure to let them know if you want to return as well, if you are visiting Dyea but not through hiking the Chilkoot).
Hike by train at Denver Glacier
A unique Skagway experience is to get dropped off by the train at one of the hiking trails such as Denver Glacier Trail. If you are in Skagway on a ship, it’s likely that your ship will offer a guided hike on this trail. Independent travelers can book this directly through the White Pass Railroad. The Denver Glacier trail has a caboose at the flag stop where the train picks you up and drops you off (you can also rent this from the US Forest service!). If you do this, make sure you have a map and the other 10 essentials and that you have a reliable way to keep track of time so you don’t miss the train going back to town! The entire trail is about 8 miles round trip with about 1000 feet of elevation gain, but make sure to go by time and turn around in time to catch your return train!