Small Towns

Quaint & Quirky: Exploring Charming Small Towns on the Road to Alaska

Bright lights and big cities draw visitors like moths to a flame, but charming small towns offer more subdued rewards for those wanting to get off the beaten path and explore far away from the tourist crowds. The flavor of the people is a big part of rural travel. When the population dips below 4,000 residents, the attractions multiply.

Here are three itineraries to some of the most quaint, quirky, and lovely small towns on the road to Alaska.



Gold Rush Route BC

Rossland to Nelson to Revelstoke to Golden

Rossland

Day One—Rossland

Cross the border by taking US-395 120 miles north of Spokane WA. Rossland is a former gold rush era mining town, with indie shops and a Wild West atmosphere. The old mining trails have made Rossland a haven for mountain bikers. The town also lays claim to the true birth of flight, the “Flying Steamshovel” of 1902. More of a helicopter than a plane, and possibly more legend than fact, visitors will encounter the name all over the town. The Flying Steamshovel Gastropub makes a fine stop for hungry and curious travelers, and the historic pub also has rooms for the night.

Day Two—Nelson

Just one hour north, Nelson is Rossland’s artsy, bustling big brother. Situated in the Kootenays, the town makes a great home base for outdoor activities from skiing to hiking to kayaking. Over 350 classic gold rush buildings have been preserved for heritage, and many of these have been turned into quirky indie boutiques and galleries. Nelson lays claim to more artists per capita than any other place in Canada, so spend a lazy afternoon browsing the galleries and workshops, searching for that perfect souvenir. Turn in early, there’s a long drive ahead.

Railway Museum in Revelstoke

Day Three—Revelstoke

Follow the contours of the wondrous Arrow Lakes 150 miles and one short ferry ride ahead, to Revelstoke. Located amidst the Selkirk and Manashee mountains, “The Stoke” is a major winter sports mecca. As with many other active mountain towns, the population is young, fun, and groovy. Enjoy excellent burritos from taco trucks, go bowling while sipping Molsons, and sample locally sourced wines while dining on freshly foraged delights. The town emerged as an important junction linking the two sides of Canada during completion of the intercontinental railroad, so a visit to the Revelstoke Railway Museum will please train buffs.

Day Four—Golden

90 minutes to the northeast, Golden, BC lies at the nexus of the peaceful Columbia and the fast-flowing, glacier-fed Kicking Horse River. With six national parks to choose from in the area, outdoor wonders are unlikely to cease at any point during the visit. The small town has a plethora of great dining options; try Island Restaurant—it’s literally on an island in the river.

Take the gondola ride to the aptly named Eagle’s Eye restaurant at the Kicking Horse mountain resort. At 7,700 feet of elevation the restaurant purports to be the highest in Canada. On a clear day, you just might be able to see the Mount Temple above Lake Louise, just 60 miles away.

Rocky Mountain Route—Alberta

Three Sisters in Canmore

Day One—Waterton

234 miles north of Missoula, MT lies this historic mountain gem. Regularly included in the roundups of Canada’s most beautiful towns, Waterton is a tiny hamlet of 100 or so residents on a lake in a national park that all bear the same name. The legendary Prince of Wales hotel is a great place to stay or visit. Named to coincide with the visit in 1927 of the future King Edward VIII, the hotel still serves an excellent high tea. The wee village provides plenty of dining, shopping, and pub options amidst the natural splendor.

Day Two—Nanton

Two hours north of Waterton, Nanton’s nickname is “Tap Town” – the place where water was first bottled and sold in Canada.

Nanton boasts a number of unique travel attractions for a town of just over 2,000 residents. It is notable for its famous aviation museum, the Bomber Command Museum of Canada. The establishment shows off plenty of WWII-era planes, including the rare Avro Lancaster, one of only 17 in the world. During summer, Nanton is notable for its night rodeo on weekends. Stay the night and then enjoy some of the best antiquing in Western Canada. Nanton hosts an Antique & Art Walk, as well as something called the Parade of Garage Sales. Check the calendar for dates and times.

Day Three—Canmore

Two hours northwest of Nanton, Canmore makes for a quiet, unassuming stop before encountering the masses at the better-known towns of Banff and Lake Louise. The town provides easy access to many of the same gorgeous views and hiking trails as Banff. It’s also a fantastic place to bring or rent a bike—the Banff Legacy Trail links the two towns via a paved 14-mile dedicated path. In town Canmore is sleepy and picturesque, but with plentiful dining and sleeping options. Photo buffs will want to snap away at the Three Sisters mountain range—the three iconic peaks are visible from just about anywhere in town.

Gold Rush & Rocky Mountain Routes—Yukon

Whitehorse to Mayo to Keno City to Dawson City

Keno City Mining Museum

Day One—Whitehorse to Mayo

Yukon is the land of extremes, one of the reasons that committed travelers are so attracted. The historic Silver Trail offers an off-the-beaten-track experience in a landscape of placid lakes, rivers and mountain ranges. The road passes through prime moose habitat and offers an abundance of hiking and biking trails, many of which pass by old cabins and great fishing holes. If you’re heading to or from Dawson City, the Silver Trail is a great side trip.

Follow 250 miles of excellent road north of Whitehorse to reach Mayo, population 200. Aside from the outdoor splendor, Mayo is home to the extraordinarily eclectic Binet House Museum—the 1903 home holds everything from medical oddities to permafrost studies.

Weather buffs will enjoy a little-known fact about Mayo—it holds the record for the greatest difference in extreme temperatures in North America--a Yukon record high of 97 degrees in 1969 versus a frosty record low of -80 degrees set in 1947. Dress accordingly!

Day Two—Mayo to Keno City

A short (37 miles) gravel road leads to Keno City, population 20, named for the gambling game and the smallest community in Canada’s least-populous territory. Equal parts old-timer, mining community, and artists’ colony, be sure to drop into the Keno City Mining Museum to see photos and memorabilia from Keno City’s wildly colorful past. Also, walk or drive to Sign Post Hill for panoramic views of the valley and mountain ranges.

Chicken Creek Cafe in Chicken, Alaska

Day Three—Mayo to Dawson City

Picking up the paved road back in Mayo, continue 140 miles to Dawson City, population 1,375 and just 60 miles from the Alaska border. A whorehouse converted into a chic B&B; a cocktail featuring a mummified human toe; a winter festival that features axe throwing and chainsaw chucking—Dawson City proudly calls itself the Paris of the North. The Downtown Hotel is home to the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail which contains the aforementioned toe. Just remember, “Drink it fast or drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe.”

Bombay Peggy’s is the house of ill repute turned into swank digs. The inn has a restaurant, which serves as a focal point for the locals as well—while away an afternoon or two hanging out, saying hello, and listening to a crazy story or six.

Bonus Small Town—Chicken, Alaska

Continuing west from Dawson, and 45 minutes past the international border, those leaving Yukon will arrive in Chicken, Alaska, population seven. That’s right, seven brave souls reside year-around, although in summer the population reportedly swells to around 100. Calling itself the “last gold rush town in Alaska”, gold is still mined there to this day. There’s a liquor store, a plush outhouse, and of course—a saloon. The town earned its name when residents couldn’t spell ptarmigan, the Alaska state bird, going with the far easier Chicken instead. Can one eat actual chicken in its namesake town? Of course. The Chicken Creek Café is known for serving excellent chicken potpie.