Crystal clear lakes, verdant pines and massive snow-capped mountains fly by as the train jiggles along the track from Skagway, Alaska to White Pass Summit. As a rule, I avoid waking up before sunrise, but the spectacular views make it worthwhile.
I sit in my padded seat, nose all but pressed against the window, as we chug past a cascading waterfall, the sound of rushing water almost drowning the train’s rumble. Trails of glittering spray spill down the rocky incline. The gushing water looks like white lace, which gives it its name: Bridal Veil Falls.
For me, the White Pass and Yukon Railway is an exercise in awe – and I’m not the only one. The route’s natural beauty attracts tourists from all over the world, who come on a three-hour excursion to the summit of White Pass, an elevation of almost 3000 feet above the ocean where our cruise ship awaits our return.
For folks in the Klondike Gold Rush, however, the railway was an essential part of the mining industry. The narrow-gauge route was built at the end of the 19th century and stretches all the way from Skagway through Whitehorse, Yukon to Alaska’s interior. The track operated until mineral prices crashed in 1982, taking Yukon’s ministry industry with them. These days, White Pass is Alaska’s most popular shore excursion, with nearly 400,000 passengers each season.
As I hang my head out the window in wonder, it’s easy to see why.
Other passengers’ conversations create a pleasant white noise around me as I drink in the scenery, not just outside, but in; the train’s vintage atmosphere feels like I’ve stepped into the past. There is a collective intake of breath as we enter a long, dark, pinched tunnel – and a collective release as we pass once again into the blinding sunlight.
Finally, we reach the summit. The panoramic view of lush green valleys and turquoise waters makes my breath catch; there’s a hush around me as everyone appreciates the scene. It’s easy to imagine, in that moment, that we’re the only people in the world.
All too soon, the train begins its descent back into Skagway. And, while I leave White Pass the same as I found it, I feel like I’ve taken a little piece of it with me.