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Miles Canyon on the Yukon River - Whitehorse, Yukon

All modern photos were shot by Murray Lundberg

A Guide to Whitehorse

    The most dramatic natural feature near Whitehorse is Miles Canyon, where the Yukon River has cut its way down through a flow of basaltic lava. The lava flowed from a vent approximately 8 km (5 mi) to the south, between Golden Horn and what is now the Mount Sima ski hill, about 8.5 million years ago.

    The dramatically constricted flow of the river through the canyon caused fish, salmon in particular, to pool above and below it, and the first people in the area started taking advantage of that thousands of years ago. Tools found nearby have been dated to 2,500 years ago, but people have probably been fishing and hunting there for 8-9,000 years, arriving shortly after the glaciers retreated from the rich valley.

    By the time U.S. Army Lt. Frederick Schwatka arrived with his exploration party in 1883, First Nations people and prospectors had a well-worn trail along the canyon's rim. The first prospectors knew the canyon as Grand Canyon, but Schwatka named it after General Nelson A. Miles, who from 1881-85 was Commander of the Department of Columbia, which included Alaska.

Barnes Bros. & Smith, Miles Canyon pilots, 1899     During the Klondike Gold Rush, the North West Mounted established a post above the canyon, and all boats were stopped there for inspection. Only boats and people who the police felt could get through the canyon safely were allowed to continue - others had to put their gear on one of two wooden tramways that were built around the canyon. For much more information about Canyon City, see From Trail to Tramway - The Archaeology of Canyon City

    The canyon has always been a popular attraction for both Whitehorse residents and visitors. In 1922, the 85-foot-long Robert Lowe Suspension Bridge was built across the narrowest and most dramatic part of the canyon. It is commonly understood to have been built by the federal government, but in a 1973 company newsletter, the White Pass & Yukon Route claimed to have designed, paid for, and built it - see that article. It was named after a pioneer Whitehorse businessman and politician; as well as being a major promoter of the bridge project, Robert Lowe was involved with some of the Whitehorse copper mines, owned the Commercial Hotel, was elected as the Whitehorse representative to the Yukon Territorial Council in 1902, and in 1909 became Speaker of the Council.

    When the Whitehorse power dam was built in 1957-58, Schwatka Lake was created, and water levels through Miles Canyon were raised about 10 meters (33 feet).

    Two roads, one on each side of the Yukon River, provide access to Miles Canyon. On the south side, the Miles Canyon Road is paved and gets you to a parking lot just meters from the canyons edge, but is closed in the winter. The Chadburn Lake Road on the north side is gravel, and gets you to hiking trails leading to the canyon, as well as to a short trail to Canyon City.

    There is an extensive network of trails in the Miles Canyon area that are used year-round. "Enjoying Whitehorse Trails" is a 28-page guide to the main trails (pdf format, 1.9 MB). The Yukon Conservation Society runs regular guided hikes to Canyon City as well as special hikes on various natural history subjects.

    Although it doesn't show the trail system, an interactive map of the Miles Canyon area will help you explore the area.

Click on each photo to greatly enlarge it.

Running an empty raft through Miles Canyon during the Klondike Gold Rush
Running an empty raft through Miles Canyon during the Klondike Gold Rush (at that time, it was often written using the Spanish form Miles Cañon). This photo is on one of the interpretive signs at the canyon today (Yukon Archives, Forrest collection, 80/60 #6).

The Mexico Weekly Ledger (Mexico, Missouri) published a colourful story by Edward Lakenan on August 14, 1898, about running Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids. Read it here.

Running Miles Canyon during the Klondike Gold Rush
A Guide to the Yukon published in 1947 gives a colourful account of riding through Miles Canyon and Whitehorse Rapids on a lumber scow.

At the downriver end of the Whitehorse and Squaw Rapids, boats were re-organized, gera dried out when necessary, and in a few unfortunate cases, those who didn't survive were buried. This camp, located where the F. H. Collins Secondary School now sits, would be the start of the city of Whitehorse.

The main body of this interpretive sign at the canyon parking lot reads:
"Miles Canyon Basalts
    The basaltic lava exposed by Miles Canyon originated from a low volcanic vent approximately 8 km to the south
[between Golden Horn and Mount Sima]. This lava flowed into the Yukon River valley about 8.5 million years ago. Drilling near Whitehorse rapids shows that the layer of lava reaches 110 meters thick. Only the top 10 meters of this layer is currently visible at the bridge. Prior to the building of the Whitehorse dam in 1959 [actually 1958], the water level was about 10 meters lower, exposing much more of the lava.
    The Yukon River generally flows through glacial deposits in this part of the Yukon. These silts, sands and gravels are soft, allowing the river to meander from side to side in the valley bottom, sometimes splitting to form braids. This meandering and braiding effect slows the river current. In comparison, the basalt rock here in the Canyon is much more resistent to lateral erosion and does not allow the river to meander. This channels the water and increases the velocity significantly.

Robert Lowe Suspension Bridge across Miles Canyon
In 1922, the 85-foot-long Robert Lowe Suspension Bridge was built across the narrowest and most dramatic part of Miles Canyon. Possibly designed by Bert Paterson, who was in charge of the wharves at Whitehorse, it was opened by Governor General Lord Byng on August 13th that year, during an official visit to the Yukon that also saw him visit Mayo and Dawson City. In a 1973 company newsletter, the White Pass & Yukon Route claimed to have designed, paid for, and built it - see that article.

Tour boat MV Schwatka in Miles Canyon on the Yukon River
For more than 50 summers starting in 1960, the little MV Schwatka travelled back and forth through Miles Canyon on 2-hour tours. This photo was shot in August 1990.

A video taken from a little power boat running downstream from Canyon City through Miles Canyon to Schwatka Lake (11:16 - opens in a new window).

The sign in this photo shot at the site of Canyon City reads:

"Canyon & White Horse Rapids Tramway Company.
  Norman Macauley, a 28-year-old businessman from Victoria, British Columbia came here from Dyea in the fall of 1897. He hired eighteen men to build a tramway for horse-drawn cars that could carry freight and small boats about seven kilometers from the top of Miles Canyon to the bottom of Whitehorse Horse Rapids. The tramway took twenty-one days to build and was in full operation in 1898 during the main rush of the Klondike stampede.
  These reproduction tram cars are parked next to the site of Macauley's stable. You can still see the building depression and a difference in vegetation marks the manure pile. Piles of thin wire bound the hay that was brought in as feed for the horses.
  Look carefully along the tramway route for a series of holes where material was excavated for the tramway bed. Depressions in the bed mark the location of now rotted ties that leveled and supported the log rails.

While it's all but impossible to recognize the origin of many sections of the tramway trail, on others the signs of the tramway are still fairly obvious, though things have changed a fair bit since this photo from August 2001.

At the Yukon Transportation Museum,

Unless otherwise noted, photos are ©1997-2019 by Murray Lundberg.