There aren’t a lot of places where you can fish, hike, kayak, eat a great meal, drink a cold local brew, go to a national-quality performance, see several museums, and have great conversations with total strangers all in one day. But you can in Whitehorse. Nestled in a valley along a crook of the Yukon River, Whitehorse bills itself as “The Wilderness City,” and this small-town-cum-northern capital lives up to its name, offering both a rich northern cultural scene and a buffet of outdoor activities right within the city limits.
While there are certainly Yukon communities with more charm and personality (I’m looking at you, Keno), Whitehorse has size going for it. With a population of around 25,000 people, Whitehorse is not only the Yukon’s largest city, it’s the only city, and as such acts as the territory’s cultural and economic hub. With tons of festivals, including the Adäka Cultural Festival, Nakai Theatre’s Pivot Festival, and the classic Sourdough Rendezvous, there’s pretty much always something going on no matter when you visit.
Named for the Whitehorse rapids of the Yukon River—which European settlers described as looking like the manes of rushing horses, and which were subsequently submerged by the newly formed Schwatka Lake when the Whitehorse dam was built in 1957—the area has been occupied by First Nations peoples for time immemorial, and there are often Indigenous cultural events or workshops on offer at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre. History buffs will enjoy the many museums the city boasts, including The MacBride Museum, The Yukon Transportation Museum, and the Beringia Interpretive Centre. There are also many small art galleries, including Arts Underground and the Yukon Artists @ Work collective.
Food is something everyone in the ’Horse agrees on; this is a town that loves to eat and drink. A word to the wise, though—don’t believe anyone who claims to have “wild game” on the menu. It’s illegal to sell game here, and all elk, bison, boar, reindeer (domesticated caribou), and fresh-water fish professing to be “wild” is farmed. But that’s a good thing, because it allows for quality and food-safety control. If you really want to support local farmers and get a taste of the North, look for locally raised meats and fish, like Icy Waters Arctic Char, and locally-raised elk from Circle D Ranch. If you’re around on Thursdays, Whitehorse boasts the fabulous Fireweed Community Market (summer only) with local produce, crafts, baked goods, and meats, as well as wild-foraged foods, like teas and jams, which are easier to transport back with you.
Start your day by having a coffee and pastry at Baked Cafe. A local favourite, much beloved for its open seating and outdoor benches (as well as its rather large and buttery scones), this welcoming downtown spot is a favourite among both locals and tourists. Properly caffeinated, you can pop over to Kanoe People, located right along the Yukon River, for whatever outdoor activity floats your (literal) boat. They offer guided canoe/kayak tours and bike rentals; a unique and interesting way to both see and interact with the landscape. Alternatively, Sky High Wilderness Ranch has guided horseback or dog sledding tours, depending on the season.
If that’s a little too high-octane for you, why not have a picnic? If you’re on foot, there are lots of great spots to sit outside along the Yukon River, from Shipyards to Rotary Park on down to the historic S.S. Klondike, but if you’ve got access to a car you could swing up to Long Lake or Schwatka Lake, both of which are only about 10 minutes from the downtown core, with lots of spots to just chill out and enjoy the water.
In the evening, you could take in a play (Whitehorse has a half-dozen or so theatre troupes, not counting the great programing that often appears at the Yukon Arts Centre). If fine dining is your thing, Wayfarer Oyster House is one of the best in town. Finish up with drinks at popular nightspot The Dirty Northern Bastard or, if pints and karaoke are more your speed, The Boiler Room.
Open with “The Breakfast Club” at every local’s favorite dive bar, The ’98, which starts serving beers (or coffee and hot chocolate) at 9 am, and then pop across the street for a proper breakfast at long-time brunch hotspot Burnt Toast Cafe. If you feel like relaxing, you could drive out to the Takhini Hot Springs for a solid soak (best done in the winter months, when the hot water feels amazing and your hair freezes in wacky positions). While you’re out there, pop into Black Gilt Meats, for some artisanal craft jerky and salami made from locally-raised meat, and then get a coffee and a snack at the Takhini Gas Station (trust me) for some real local colour.
Alternatively, you could stay in town and go for a hike, as Whitehorse boasts many marked trails within the city limits. My personal favourite is Hidden Lakes, which offers great views and intersecting trails with varying levels of difficulty. If you’re going to head out there, bring some light tackle and fish a bit, as it’s well-stocked with rainbow trout and kokanee salmon.
In the afternoon, take a drive up towards Mount Sima (abour 15 minutes by car) and check out Deep Dark Woods and Winterlong breweries. Winterlong has a beautiful tasting room and killer locally-made bison pepperoni sticks, if you’re feeling snackish. Head back downtown for dinner. If you’re looking for something with spice, Antoinette’s is a local favourite. (And very queer friendly!) End your evening with a craft cocktail (or two) at Woodcutter’s Blanket, which is easy to spot (it’s crowned by two dueling moose) or stroll down to Riverside Convenience for a soft-serve ice cream and a walk along the river.
Not feeling the great outdoors? No problem! Why not take in the town with a snack-and-art walk?
(Total distance: approximately 5 km)
Start at Arts Underground to check out works by Yukon artists on Main Street.
Head down 4th Avenue to visit the Yukon Artists @ Work Gallery, then over to nearby Alpine Bakery for vegetarian-friendly lunch, including their delicious pizza and soups.
Pop over to Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters for locally-roasted coffee (they make a real Americano, with perfect crema) and then cross over to Northern Front Studio for more works by Yukon Artists and grab a treat (try the gingersnaps!) at Blackbird Bakery next door when you’re finished.
Cross over to the Millenium Trail and walk along the river to Lumel Studios, which offers glassblowing workshops, as well as a gallery, and then cross back onto 1st Avenue to check out North End Gallery. Still hungry? Alligator’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese food truck is usually parked in this area.
Getting thirsty? Pop into Woodcutter’s Blanket for a cold, locally-made brew before heading over to finish your day up at Mac’s Fireweed Books for works by local authors.