There are few places that encapsulate Canada’s nickname “The Great White North” better than the country’s Yukon territory. Soaring mountain peaks blanketed in fluffy white snow, glaciers that soar higher than the clouds and ice-covered lakes surrounded by nothing but stillness help transform the Yukon into a winter wonderland. The spectacular scene proves irresistible for visitors from as far as Switzerland, Germany and Australia, who make the long trip up to the arctic to enjoy Canada’s winter playground—with some even choosing to skip their return flights home and stay for good.
Thinking of making the trip north yourself? Here are some of the fantastic winter activities you need to experience in Yukon, Canada.
It doesn’t get much more Canadian than a day spent dog sledding in the great outdoors. There are a number of companies in Yukon that offer dog mushing excursions, including the family-owned Cathers Wilderness Adventures headed up by Ned Cathers, his wife Mar and daughter Jennine, who just so happens to hold bragging rights as the youngest musher to ever enter the famed Yukon Quest race. The family owns 65 Alaskan huskies with names like Piccolo, Fiddle and Fife, and run trips lasting anywhere from half to a day to over a week.
Most excursions start out from the cabins along Lake Laberge, which is a 45 minute drive from Whitehorse. The spot isn’t hard to find, as the sound of dozens of barking dogs eager to hit the trails is impossible to miss.
After a quick lesson demonstrating how to get into the sled, braking techniques and how to steer the dogs (“gee” is left while “haw” will command them to turn right), it’s time to get mushing. Unlike many other operators, Cathers Wilderness Adventures allows guests to steer the sleds themselves, ensuring an authentic experience.
While the younger pups can hit speeds of up to 30 km/h, they usually coast along at half that pace meaning guests are able to sit back, relax and enjoy the view of the surrounding forests, mountains and frozen tundra. The only sound is dozens of paws crunching on the snow, as the sled glides through the fresh snow tracks.
Once hunger hits, it’s time to build a fire right in the snow (#Canada!) and warm yourself around it while roasting hot dogs or sipping on steaming apple cider or hot chocolate. Fill up, then jump back onto the sled and let the dogs do what they do best: run all the way home.
An even faster way to explore the great outdoors without having to do any work (because vacation) is to hop on a snowmobile and hit the open road. Half or full day excursions can be booked out of spots like Whitehorse and Haines Junction, where guests are outfitted with gear including that uber-important helmet before getting a demo about how to operate the sled and heading off into the backcountry.
Revving the throttle to hit speeds of around 30 miles per hour (or faster depending on how confident the group is), you’ll plow through deep, fluffy snow drifts, through thick forests of trees dusted with snow like icing sugar, and be treated to gorgeous view of mountain ranges such as the St. Elias Mountains or the aforementioned Lake Laberge. Some of the best trails are found near Haines Junction, an area that sees deep, fresh powder until as late in the season as May. Don’t forget to bundle up—the wind can be nasty when you’re driving that fast!
Northern Lights viewing
Now for the reason most people travel north— to try their luck at getting a glimpse of those sometimes elusive aurora borealis. The Yukon is one of the best places in the world to watch the green and purple lights dance across the sky, especially during the winter months, and there is no shortage of places to hunker down for the night and hope for a sighting.
One luxe option is Inn on the Lake, a gorgeous property on Marsh Lake that feels like home the moment you kick your shoes off at the front door. Able to accommodate 20-some people per night, the cozy property looks like a huge log cabin complete with numerous rooms boasting ensuites (try and book the master suite, complete with jacuzzi), a kitchen equipped with snacks and an open concept dining and living area perfect for mingling with other guests.
Other highlights include family-style meals prepared by a pro chef, an outdoor hot tub and a bar based on the honour system where you can serve up drinks yourself. Martha Stewart has even visited Inn on the Lake, which gives this spot the celebrity seal of approval.
But beyond all that is its location: Marsh Lake is a great place for spotting the Northern Lights. Staff are happy to lend out things like flashlights and tripods, so you can make your way down the winding path to get onto the lake, where you’ll be surrounded by nothing but the stars gleaming out of a dark sky—hopefully replaced in time by the aurora borealis!
Those basing themselves in Whitehorse can still get in on the fun by booking an aurora viewing tour with a company like Northern Tales. Guests are picked up from their accommodations late in the evening, and shuttled about half an hour out to an area with charming lodges complete with wood-burning stoves and necessities like hot chocolate and cookies (you’re also welcome to bring along some ‘fun drinks’ of your own, if you catch my drift).
Gather around the outdoor fire pit as the dusky sky turns pitch black, then cross your fingers and hope for a show! The aurora can emerge as early as 10 pm and as late as pre-dawn, so there’s no saying when/if they’ll make an appearance. To pass the time, staff help guests get their manual camera settings in order (don’t even think about using an iPhone or your automatic setting—spoiler alert: you won’t capture anything!) and can also set up fun shots using light tricks.
Even if you aren’t lucky enough to see northern lights, a night spent under the stars swapping stories and roasting s’mores around a campfire still makes for a fun evening.
In the mood for a bucket list-worthy experience? Then add a glacier flightseeing tour over Kluane National Park to your winter itinerary. The experience will see you soar over thick clouds swirling around mountain peaks blanketed in snow, winding rivers, soaring glaciers and lateral moraines that look like highways in the snow. There is truly no better way to see the true beauty of Kluane than from above.
Companies such as Rocking Star Adventures operate private charters in cessnas that hold between three and five passengers, and depart from spots like Burwash Landing or the tiny airstrip near Haines Junction. Depending on how much you’re willing to spend (and how nervous of a flyer you are!), glacier flights last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours following a number of different routes.
For example, some trace the path of the Duke River Valley toward the Donjek Glacier and Kluane glaciers, while others will take you over brilliant Kluane Lake before making it to the non-polar icefields. There’s even an option to go all the way to Mt Logan, which just so happens to be Canada’s highest peak.
Watching the sun stream over the mountain ranges as massive glaciers loom in the distance is a spectacular way to soak in the Yukon’s natural beauty, guaranteeing that an afternoon spent glacier flight seeing will be a memory that stays with you forever.
Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous
If you’re planning a winter trip to the Yukon (which I hope you are, otherwise bravo for reading this much of the article!) try and time it for the annual Sourdough Rendezvous festival. The four-day event at the end of February brings Yukoners out of hibernation mode, and into the streets of Whitehorse which are transformed into a winter carnival.
Featuring zany events like a hard water canoe race (so basically skating with a canoe), axe throwing and a chainsaw chuck (seriously), the family-friendly festival also has free activities including a toboggan hill, snowboard park and snow carving that the public can vote on.
Animal lovers won’t want to miss the many dog-themed events including a pet parade, dog howling contest (hint: bring earplugs) and a dog pull, and there is also lots of free entertainment courtesy of groups like the iconic Snowshoe Shufflers, who have been performing at the festival for more than three decades.
As the entire event is a nod to the Klondike days, many of the evening events include a chance to don your best old fashioned outfits, which means suits for the guys and garters, big hats, big skirts and big boas for the ladies! If you don’t feel like bringing along an outfit, drop by Myrna’s Period Costume Rentals to get all dolled up.
And the rest…
Can’t make it up to the Yukon during Rendezvous, or dogs aren’t really your thing? Don’t worry, there still are tons of other activities you can try during your winter trip including showshoeing, ice fishing, fat biking and cross-country skiing. There’s even a ski hill about 15 minutes outside Whitehorse called Mount Sima, which has 10 runs and a vertical drop of over one thousand feet. Many lodges rent out equipment as well as heavy duty snow gear, and there are also a number of outfitters in Whitehorse who will help you make the most of your time enjoying the Great White North!
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Globe Guide explored Yukon in partnership with Yukon Tourism. As always, hosts have no editorial influence over articles.