Summer is the traditional tourist season in Alaska. One national park site in the state attracts far more recreational visitors than any other. Can you guess which one?
Last year, when NPCA surveyed its supporters on the national park site they most wanted to visit anywhere in the country, Denali National Park and Preserve got far more votes than any other park. But it turns out this classic destination is not the most popular park in Alaska. Three other factors make a huge difference in visitation: location, location, location.
Since the mid-1990s, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park has had significantly more recreational visitors than any other Alaskan national park site, and it owes much of its popularity to its prime spot in the borough of Skagway. This small port city with a year-round population of roughly a thousand people sits on a small inlet that is part of the Inside Passage, a popular route that cruise ships take through the islands of Alaska and British Columbia. These ships bring hundreds of thousands of tourists to a dock just a few blocks away from the park’s visitor center where they can experience the history and charm of this former gold rush town.
“That gives us tremendous opportunities to connect the stories and the resources of the Klondike Gold Rush and Skagway with a very large and increasingly diverse and increasingly younger audience,” said Ben Hayes, chief of interpretation and education for the park.
The park offers a well-preserved window into a brief, bustling time in Alaska’s history that captured the imagination of the country. In 1896, several local miners found gold along a tributary of the Klondike River, triggering a rush of roughly 100,000 hopeful prospectors in the following few years. These seekers, known as “stampeders,” headed north, mainly from Seattle, San Francisco and other West Coast cities, to encounter difficult treks and mining conditions in the region’s wild permafrost. Most stampeders never made it to the goldfields, returning broke after months of arduous pursuit.
The National Park Service manages 23 historic buildings in the Skagway Historic District, eight of which are open to the public, including a visitor center and museum, a traditional homestead, a saloon, a junior ranger activity center, and the recently restored Jeff. Smiths Parlor Museum, one of Alaska’s oldest museums. (Jefferson “Soapy” Smith was an outlaw who organized cons on unsuspecting gold rush prospectors until he was shot to death in 1898. His former headquarters is now filled with historic artifacts and curiosities — “truly interesting, remarkable stuff,” according to Hayes.)
Maintaining these buildings is no small feat for the Park Service. Stampeders hastily constructed them without foundations in the fervor to strike it rich, and they require assiduous care and maintenance. These structures represent the heart of the park and the interpretive experience, and staff have recently created virtual tours of four of the most popular buildings. Park rangers also offer popular walking tours of the Skagway Historic District and nearby Dyea, another former gold rush town.
For those who want to spend more than a few hours at Klondike Gold Rush and experience more of the region’s character, Hayes recommends hiking or backpacking on the Chilkoot Trail. This trail, which he refers to as “the longest museum in the world,” is one of two historic routes that the gold prospectors took to get from the towns to the goldfields. Many of the items the stampeders cast aside are still on the side of the trail, allowing visitors to see an odd collection of artifacts where people left them over a century ago, from shoes to tin cans to pieces of shacks and campsites. It’s also breathtaking, varied terrain.
“This trail is one of the most beautiful, amazing experiences you could have in Alaska,” said Hayes. “It is a journey of 33 miles, 16 in the United States, the rest in Canada, that we manage together with Parks Canada. You start in the temperate rainforest of southeast Alaska. You climb about 3,500 feet to Chilkoot Pass and you’re in the alpine ecosystem, and then you descend a bit to the headwaters of the Yukon River and boreal forest. It’s spectacular.”
Ready to update your bucket list? Learn more about Klondike Gold Rush on the Park Service website.
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About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.