Driving on Top of the World

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Do you know about Top of the World Highway? The rugged journey through gold mining history makes a fun addition to your Alaska Highway road trip itinerary.

The trip requires leaving the Alaska Highway at White Horse, driving the Klondike Highway to Dawson City before catching a ferry ride across the Yukon River. You’ll catch back up with the Alaska Highway at Tetlin Junction. This itinerary is known as the Klondike Loop.

Our experience driving Top of the World Highway

On a misty, September morning, our Ram truck climbs Yukon Highway 9—also called Top of the World Highway—after crossing the Yukon River on the George Black Ferry out of Dawson City. Soon Alan and I are riding a crest of bronze waves on a sea of mountains that roll onto one another as far as we can see through the clouds and mist. We truly are driving on top of the world.

A rainy day on a dirt road in Alaska
It’s a misty day at the top of the world.

Boomer travel tip: Crossing on the George Black Ferry is free but avoid peak traffic times. The wait can be as long as 3 hours on a busy summer morning when trucks and tour buses have priority.

When Alan and I read about Top of the World Highway in The Milepost (current version here), we looked at each other and said, “Sign us up.” Adding the side trip to our Alaska Highway road trip proves to be a wise decision even though our day’s drive along the scenic road is a rainy one.

Watching for wildlife at the top of the world

Bird sits on top of a truck sideview mirror
This bird is really curious about us.

The mostly unpaved highway travels the crest of the mountains through miles of Yukon and Alaska wilderness. As Alan negotiates a road that winds above the timberline, I keep a lookout for the Fortymile Caribou herd, which remains elusive to us on this trip.

There are plenty of pullouts for camera stops and a couple of rest areas that provide pit toilets. At one stop, three gray birds swoop into a group of small trees in the rest area when they see us enjoying a mid-morning snack.

The birds are quite bold, landing on the truck mirrors and also flying toward us. I think they would have flown into the vehicle if we had left the window open.

Crossing the U.S.-Canadian border 

Approximately 65 miles from Dawson City, we cross the U.S. (Porter Creek)-Canada border (Little Gold Creek) and receive the same stern welcome that U.S. citizens receive whenever returning home. As Alan hands over our passports, I gaze out the window at the housing provided for the border personnel and wonder what it must be like to live in total isolation at the top of the world.

The US-Canada border crossing is open from May 15 to early October (or late September if the snow arrives early). The U.S. crossing is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Crossing into Canada, the hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. But it’s best to check at the Visitors Center in Dawson City to confirm as hours are subject to change and there are no phones at the border crossings.

The rain makes the going muddy on the U.S. side of Top of the World Highway (also known as the Boundary Spur Road on the U.S. side). And the road construction doesn’t help matters.

I find it sad to see this adventuresome road being widened and civilized. But, then again, Holland America tour buses travel this road practically on a daily basis as they ferry cruise passengers on a land excursion that includes Dawson City.

Changing road names at Jack Wade Junction

Red, orange, yellow and green fall color on Top of the World Highway in Alaska
Fall color on Top of the World Highway

At the Jack Wade Junction, a spur road turns off to Eagle (an adventure we will be taking next time) and Top of the World Highway officially becomes the Taylor Highway. Eventually the road construction ends as the road winds down from the crest and follows several creeks that are also gold mining streams.

Boomer travel tip: Never trespass on a gold mining claim. To pan for gold on your own, arrange an outing with Chicken Gold Camp & Outpost or with outfitters back in Dawson City.

Small dredges, mine tailings and ramshackle camps along the river provide the evidence of active gold mining. Actually the entire area is mined for gold with many private and non-private roads veering off the Top of the World Highway into the wilderness.

Stopping at Downtown Chicken for a cookie

False front buildings with a western feel in downtown Chicken, Alaska.
The sun comes out at Beautiful Downtown Chicken.

At the town of Chicken, we have three choices on where to stop for lunch, provisions and fuel. Our choice—beautiful downtown Chicken—proves to be a delight. While Alan and I wait for chili and a sandwich, and debate about which baked good we’ll be sharing for dessert, the talkative cook tells us about life in Chicken.

According to him, there really is gold to be mined. “I find some every time I go out on the creek,” he tells us.

And tasting owner Susan Wiren’s chocolate chip cookies are as good as gold to us. The delicious cookies ensure our return to Chicken some day. They’re that good.

Finishing the drive on the Taylor Highway

elk standing in red fireweed
Is this an elk or a reindeer? You tell us.

Back in the truck, the journey continues along the Top of the World (now Taylor) Highway. Here the land shows signs of damage from a forest fire.

The Taylor Complex Fire of 2004 burned 13 million acres of trees. But it’s not all devastation. The fire created habitat for willow and birch trees plus huge displays of fireweed.

About this time, the only animal that we see on the drive runs across the road in front of us. Since Alan is driving, I’m the designated photographer.

Grabbing the camera, I zoom in as the animal bolts across a red field of fireweed. He stops to look at us and I snap the shot. We still haven’t decided if it’s a deer or reindeer (we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a caribou as there is no scoop to his antlers).

Finishing the Klondike Loop

Top of the World Highway is also part of the Klondike Loop. Alaska Highway travelers who take the side trip—like we did—up the Klondike Highway from Whitehorse to Dawson City, returning back to the Alaska Highway via Top of the World Highway, experience road trip adventure at its very best.

So what did we think of Top of the World Highway? It’s beautiful, even in the rain, offering a chance to drive through remote areas of the Yukon Territory and Alaska.

The road is not as narrow or treacherous as we had expected, but I wouldn’t want to be driving it in a large RV. And, unfortunately, the improvements being made are taking some of the adventure away.

But, then again, how adventurous can a road be if tour buses are driving it? Alan and I suspect that the true adventure is driving the spur road to Eagle, which is definitely on our list for next time.

Scratch those itchy travel feet!

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