Paddling in Yukon's wilderness
Canada’s Yukon Territory is a wild, vast and sparsely populated area, home to a countless array of majestic rivers and scenic lakes. With crystal clear waters, fun-filled rapids, expansive pristine landscapes and iconic wildlife, it’s a true paddler’s paradise. Throw in incredible history, hiking and fishing along the way, combined with endless summer days, and it’s easy to see what makes it one of the world’s ultimate wilderness paddling destinations. Whether you canoe, kayak or raft, the Yukon literally has it all. From smooth paddles down gently meandering rivers, to exhilarating runs through mind-bending whitewater, and extended backcountry expeditions into some of the most remote corners of the planet.
Whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned paddler, you’ll find there’s something to suit every taste and skill level. There are certainly no shortage of operators in Whitehorse and other major towns, offering everything from easily accessible half or full-day paddles, to epic river expeditions of up to a month into some of the most spectacular and far-flung corners of the territory. To help get your bearings, we’ve profiled some of the Yukon’s very best paddling locations simply not to be missed.
The Yukon’s top paddling locations
These are some of the Yukon’s best known and most accessible rivers, where you can enjoy a classic river trip down relatively smooth waters, combined with fantastic scenery, wildlife, fishing and history along the way. If you’re a beginner or intermediate and looking for your first taste of wilderness paddling, these tried-and-tested waterways are the place to start.
The Nisultin River offers the perfect introduction for those new to paddling, or to the Yukon backcountry itself, including families with small children in tow. As one of the territory’s most southernmost rivers, located relatively near to Whitehorse, it’s easily accessible and ideal for shorter trips for those after a tantalising taste of what the Yukon wilderness has to offer. The river is mellow, meandering and very picturesque, offering plenty of chance to take in the magnificent scenery and spot myriad wildlife species along the banks as you paddle along, including moose, bears, beavers, wolves and plentiful birdlife.
Alsek & Tatshenshini
Combined, these two rivers offer one of the Yukon’s most iconic paddling experiences, encompassing everything from mesmerising glaciated valleys to stunning iceberg filled lakes, fascinating Arctic flora and fauna to a unique and intoxicating sense of escape. The Alsek winds its way through the stunning Kluane National Park, where you’ll glide seamlessly past some of the world’s most active glaciers, before meeting with the Tatshenshini which flows on into British Columbia, before terminating in the Gulf of Alaska. Passing several mountains along the way, such as the Goatherd, provides opportunities for memorable hiking excursions, wildlife encounters and extraordinary panoramic views over snow-capped peaks. Whilst these rivers are relatively sleepy in most places, they also contain some fast flowing rapids further upstream making them popular with rafters. In fact, the Upper Tatshenshini is home to some of the most exhilarating white-water in the world.
The majestic Teslin offers some of the most relaxed and scenic paddling in the Yukon, making it an excellent choice for novice and intermediate canoeists. The river is wide and gentle, ensuring an easy-going grade 1-2 trip with ample opportunity to view endemic wildlife as you float along smooth waterways, past sandy cliffs, gravel bars and numerous islands. You’ll find plenty of time to admire the gorgeous backdrop, snap some photos and do a spot of fishing to complement your camp dinner. There’s also a strong historical theme to this journey as the river follows the Klondike Goldrush trail, past the remnants of old steamers, abandoned cabins and intriguing rusted relics that dot the riverbanks.
If you’re a beginner still getting to grips with moving water, yet hankering after a true sense of adventure, a trip down the Big Salmon is the ideal choice. The river is mellow and the paddling relatively relaxed, but there are no compromises when it comes to the scenery, excitement and raw wilderness feel. Glide along a series of large pristine lakes, test your skills on some fun fast-flowing sections and navigate through the spectacular Pelly Mountains all the way down to the Yukon River. Opportunities for side hikes, exploring historical sights, fishing and wildlife spotting abound, making Big Salmon the perfect all-rounder for novice and intermediate paddlers.
As one of the longest rivers in North America, the Yukon offers pretty much everything a paddler could want, whether it be leisurely half-day paddles or multi-day camping expeditions. The river is fairly fast-flowing, yet wide and flat, making it appealing to beginner and intermediate canoeists or kayakers. Over the centuries, the Yukon River served as the main aquatic highway for First Nations, early settlers and gold rushers and so is peppered with fascinating historical relics, including old telegraph stations, steamers, cabins and even a restored settlement at Fort Selkirk. Taking a guided tour down the river will enable you to hear and share in fascinating stories of adventures gone by. Complimented with a spectacular backdrop of rolling mountains and rich wildlife sightings throughout, this is one wilderness paddling experience not to be missed.
More experienced paddlers looking for thrilling rapids and deep immersion into the spectacular Yukon wilderness will want to head for the exhilarating rivers of the Peel watershed. This group of 6 or so tributaries, including the Snake, Wind and Bonnet Plume, all terminate at the Peel River that continues northwards into the Arctic Ocean. This collection of rivers flows through one of the most pristine and isolated mountain boreal ecosystems on Earth. Accessible only by float plane, these remote adrenaline-addled rivers offer ultimate white water thrills and a true wilderness experience to rival no other.
Board a floatplane and be transported to the dramatic and awe-inspiring MacKenzie Mountains, home to the lively Snake River. This waterway is ideal for intermediate canoeists comfortable with grade 1 to 2 and occasional grade 3 rapids. A full length trip down the river stretches 500km, taking over 3 weeks and providing an unparalleled adventure into the heart of the Yukon wild. Expect epic canyons, spectacular hiking along endless ridges, close-up encounters with grizzlies, moose, Dall sheep and wolverine, along with idyllic evenings spent camping out under the midnight sun.
Also winding through this vast northern wilderness is the Bonnet Plume, one of Canada’s premier white rafting rivers and also one of its most technically challenging. With rapids ranging from grade 3 all the way up to a heart-pounding grade 5, this is the place to come for challenging adrenaline-fuelled runs that will test the skills of even the most experienced paddlers. Amid all the thrills and spills, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, fishing, wildlife spotting and admiring the breath-taking scenery - that is if you have any energy left over at the end of the day!
Journey through a stunning subalpine landscape of deep canyons, plateaus, wetlands and rolling mountains as you navigate the Wind river. Featuring grade 1 to 3 rapids, this is a great excursion for entry-level paddlers looking to gain a taste of the remote Yukon backcountry at its best. Starting in the serene McClusky Lake, you’ll meander along impeccably clean and clear waters, navigating fun riffles and tight corners as you go. A wealth of captivating wildlife species, from bear to caribou and eagles can be spotted along the river banks or during the countless opportunities for hiking. The Wind is also the most accessible of all the Peel rivers, without comprising on the scenery or sense of adventure.
Beyond the rivers
If flatwater is more your thing, the Yukon is also home to a vast array of scenic lakes that seem purpose-built for wilderness paddling. Huge, clear and flat-out smooth glacier-fed lakes offer endless kayaking and canoeing routes with stunning views at every turn. If you fancy taking a break from all the paddling, drop a line into the water and sit back and admire the scenery whilst you wait for a delicious fresh catch. Alternatively, don a pair of binoculars and scan the banks for bear, moose and wolf, or take to the alpine and hike up ridges for mind-blowing views over the territory.
Lake Laberge is the most famed of the Yukon’s lakes. Made famous in Robert Service’s poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, this vast expanse of water is the ideal wilderness kayaking spot. Emerald Lake, notable for its intense green-blue colour, is located along the South Klondike Highway and perfect for a laidback paddle overlooking wonderful views of the Grey Ridge Mountain. Meanwhile, accessible roadside gems such as Frenchman, Chapman and Frances Lakes, allow you to dip in and out of wilderness paddling with ease.