Skagway, the White Pass Railroad, and The Hike to Laughton Glacier

I didn't expect much from Skagway - and really, who could blame me? This town of 1000 residents which barely measures five city blocks square is pretty much the polar opposite of any destination I'd ordinarily choose to visit. There is no Starbucks nor any award-winning hotels or restaurants, just your run of the mill souvenir shops and a few eateries with a surprisingly good selection of local craft beer. And yet, Skagway is a prominent feature of nearly every Alaskan cruise itinerary, and to my astonishment it somehow managed to yield one of the greatest days of my entire life.

Laughton Glacier Skagway
The recipe for a remarkable day...

Skagway was founded as the first city in the Alaskan territory thanks to the boom of the Klondike gold rush. The town served as a stop-off point for prospectors who dared the treacherous hike into the Yukon in search of their fortune. The White Pass & Yukon Route railway was built to make the journey easier for miners, but by the time it opened in 1900 the gold rush was nearly over. Today, the railroad remains as the most popular tourist attraction in Alaska, carrying nearly 400,000 passengers across the historic and scenic pass.

Royal Caribbean offered about 78 different shore excursions in Skagway that included a trip on the White Pass railroad, but only one of them managed to peak our interest. Described as a 14 mile ride on the railroad combined with a 6 mile round-trip hike to the Laughton Glacier, we were sold on this excursion almost immediately. This despite my aversion to the word "hike."

Our chariot. All the cars have unique names, each representing a lake in Alaska.

We met the team from Packer Expeditions at 7am and set off on our adventure with only 10 other passengers from the three cruise ships in port that day. After climbing aboard an empty rail car, we were given the first of roughly 28 safety briefings, and were outfitted with our provisions for the hike. Inside the oversized fanny packs were bottles of water, candy bars, and other protein-heavy snacks, and we each took turns making sandwiches - all of which would be consumed by the end of the day. Naturally, I wasn't too keen on wearing a fanny pack, so I went with the "European Carry-all" method.

Soon, one of the engines for the White Pass railway hooked up to our group of cars, and we began the journey up the mountain. The ride was equal parts stunning and scary. The train hugs the Skagway River, offering some incredible vistas, however, if there was ever a time to institute a "don't look down" policy, this was definitely it.

This was a little tame by comparison to most.

After about 45 minutes, the train came to a stop near mile-marker 13, and basically ditched our group in the middle of the wilderness. As the train pulled away and the countless tourists waved and snapped photos of the crazies that had chosen to get off in the middle of nowhere, I couldn't help but wonder what I'd gotten myself into.

"Look Mildred, those fools are getting off the train."

That trepidation only intensified as we were given a set of metal spike thingys to put on our shoes, while also being briefed on what to do in the somewhat likely event of encountering a bear (Step one: get into a circle. Step two: scream). But I didn't have long to dwell on that fear, because before I knew it the group set off down the trail. As I turned to see the White Pass train climbing the cliff in the distance, it was clear there was no turning back now.

Laughton Glacier Skagway

The fear of not surviving this hike due to a cardiac event or being mauled by a bear was soon set at ease. To my surprise, the trail was actually relatively easy, and despite my lousy physical fitness, I was able to keep up quite easily. In fact, I led the group for a big chunk of the way, which had two key benefits: a) I picked up lots of interesting tidbits from our guide and b) I was in close proximity to the dude with the bear spray.

Laughton Glacier Skagway

But really, the scenery through the first portion of the hike was spectacular. It was a mostly wooded area that ran alongside the Skagway River and the sound of the cascading water combined with the evergreen smell in the air made for a nice introduction to the Great Outdoors. We made a few stops along the way, during which I played outdoorsman by drinking water right out of a stream, but before long the woods gave way to a rocky clearing and one incredible panorama.

Laughton Glacier Skagway

After soaking in the view, our guides and fellow hikers started stripping off some of their layers and took out their lunch, so we found a nearby boulder to set up shop and did the same. The snowcapped mountain in the distance along with its cascading glacier made the rather boring ham sandwich taste a whole lot better. I felt at peace, refreshed, and ready to take on the hike back, assuming that this was our turn-around point.

Laughton Glacier Skagway
Not a bad place for lunch.
We weren't even halfway.

As we continued onward, our guides cautioned that the trail would be a little rocky from here on out. In my opinion, "rocky" was a poor choice of adjective in this situation - "lunar" would have been more appropriate. For a guy that has never hiked a day in his life and has a hard enough time just walking on level land (thank you, duck feet) this was quite a challenge. But as I looked around, it was clearly a challenge for everyone, including our guides. We just took our time, stepped lightly, and kept up the climb toward the glacier that lay ahead.

Laughton Glacier Skagway
Nothing like a giant crack in the ground you're climbing.
Eventually, the rocks gave way to ice and snow and the hike got a little easier thanks to the spike thingys on our shoes. But the relief was short lived - the fear of breaking an ankle on the rocks was replaced by that of falling through a giant cavernous hole in the glacier ice.

Laughton Glacier Skagway
No way I was getting any closer.

Still, we pressed on, climbing a ridge that was surrounded on both sides by ankle deep snow and ice. Our guides asked if we wanted to call one spot the turn-around point, but a show of hands - including my own - voted to continue onward. Soon we were left with no choice, however, as the field of snow which stretched before us served as a wall - our guides fearful of what dangers the snow might hide beneath.

Laughton Glacier Skagway

We each found a boulder to call a chair, toasted with hot cocoa all around, and took in the breathtaking surroundings. Short of maybe the 7th tee at Pebble Beach, it was the most beautiful place I've ever been.

Almost as distinctive as the incredible sight were the creaks and cracks coming from the glacier. At one point a piece gave way opening up a waterfall that flowed for about two minutes. Our guides said it was the first time they had ever seen that in person. In that moment, it was impossible not to feel lucky - lucky to see nature at work up close, lucky to be on the ground and not in the helicopter that flew overhead, lucky to be alive.

When the hike began our guides warned that "every step in would mean a step coming back out" and it was now time to repay that debt. Although it went faster, the hike back down the slope was every bit as difficult. Especially once we reached the lunar terrain again, since the rocks tended to shift under foot as we stepped down with force. But alas, we all emerged into the wooded area without a single injury, which seemed like a minor victory for yours truly.

Enjoying some hot chocolate. The guy behind me had the right idea.

After nearly 7 hours, covering over 6 miles and climbing almost 2000 feet in elevation, we found ourselves back at the spot where the White Pass train had left us. Soon, the train horn could be heard echoing amongst the cliffs as our ride back to Skagway crept closer, marking the end of a memorable adventure that may never be equaled.

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