The Top of the World Highway connects Dawson City, Yukon to Tok, Alaska. While most roads traveling through mountains wander through lower elevations, this 187 mile highway winds along the top of the mountain range for a truly breathtaking drive literally on top of the world. The views are amazing: Bare green mountains roll in all directions for hundreds of miles into the distance; looking down, you can see clouds floating deep in the valleys below. Unlike most highways, which follow valleys in mountain ranges, this mostly gravel narrow road winds its way along the top of the range, giving you exhilarating views and a unique scenic drive where the views just go on and on forever.
Yukon Highway #9 (now Top of the World Highway) began as a pack trail out of Dawson City shortly after the gold rush. It serviced sixtymile and neighboring gold creeks. The trail was gradually improved and became known as Ridge Road (a very appropriate name). In the 1930’s the road was extended to the border and from there to Chicken. In the late 1940’s Alaska’s Taylor Highway gave all these communities road access to the outside world by way of the newly completed Alaska Highway discussed in an earlier post.
The name isn’t completely arbitrary–For most of the ride you drive along the peaks and crests of mountains and hills, leaving you a view of the valleys below. It is also one of the most northerly highways in the world at these latitudes and the Little Gold/Poker Creek border crossing from the Yukon (Canada) to Alaska (USA) is the most northern international border crossing in all of North America.
The Top of the World Highway isn’t always accessible. You may only use it if U.S. Poker Creek and Canada Little Gold Creek customs stations are open and the George Black ferry across the Yukon River is operating, and both the ferry and customs depend on the weather. The George Black ferry is part of the Yukon Highways and Public Works Dept. and it is a free service to travelers. The ferry transports fuel trucks and other commercial vehicles, RVs, passenger vehicles and motorcyclists to/from the Top of the World Highway. It is a drive-on/drive-off single deck ferry. When winter weather settles in, and the Yukon River begins to accumulate ice, the ferry ceases operation and the Top of the World Highway closes because it is unmaintained for snow.
It was a beautiful and frequently white-knuckle drive along the nearly 100 mile gravel road from the George Black Ferry in Dawson City to Chicken. For this driver it wasn’t so much the bumpy dirt/gravel road but more the narrow sections with soft shoulder and drop-offs deep into the canyons below. I kept to the middle of the sometimes single lane (two way) road and just hoped that no vehicles (including other RV’s or semi trucks) came from the opposite direction. Luck must have been on my side as it wasn’t until I was down on the flatter and wider section that I saw those semi-trucks.
It was time to recover from the drive and spend a few days in the fun and quirky town of Chicken Alaska.
Chicken was once the mining hub for the Fortymile district, it was the second town ever to be incorporated in Alaska. In 1886, ten years before the Klondike Gold Rush, gold was discovered on Franklin Creek and the community of Chicken was founded. In its glory year, Chicken boasted a population of around 400. Now, it ranges from 50 in the summer to 6 in the winter. You can still run across miners working the nearby hills, hoping to find that elusive pay streak. Most use suction dredges but there are still a few placer miners working claims.
“A small town is a place where there’s no place to go where you shouldn’t.” – Burt Bacharach
Surrounded by vast wastes of mining tailings, muskeg and black spruce forest, Chicken is still a popular stop for travelers curious about one of the Last Frontier’s last surviving gold towns—and, of course, its quirky name. It’s the world’s only city that owes its name to its founders being incredibly self-conscious about their bad spelling. Chicken, Alaska was founded in the 1890s by prospectors mining for gold on the nearby Fortymile River. The settlers survived their harsh first winter by chowing down on ptarmigan, a local grouse that’s now the Alaska state bird.
The grateful townsfolk decided to call their new home Ptarmigan—but turn-of-the-century miners weren’t exactly famous for their accurate spelling (in their defense, “Ptarmigan” isn’t an easy word to spell).
Not wanting to screw it up and be the laughingstock of the territory, they instead named the town “Chicken”. The town has no electricity, no phones, no Internet (or very sparse), no mayor, no city council, no pavement, and no central plumbing.
The name stuck and so has the community, despite an up-and-down history of mining in the district and a somewhat sporadic influx of visitors depending on the highway conditions. Today, there is a lot more to Chicken than appears from the roadway. One of the first things you notice is the giant metal chicken. Owner Mike Busby says the chicken was named “Eggee” and it was created as a gift to Chicken Gold Camp by a high school shop teacher and his classes. “Eggee” is made out of recycled high school lockers and was hauled 600 miles on a trailer from Homer, Alaska to Chicken. The delivery was made just before the Chickenstock MusicFest in 2009 and remains an icon in the community.
Hike to an abandoned dredge as well as tours of the Pedro Dredge (mentioned in a previous post), a chance to wander around the townsite and explore as well as an opportunity to meet some of the great residents (there are only about 7 that live there year-round). I visited the Chicken Post Office and had the pleasure of meeting Robin the postmaster (she also drives the ambulance and helps provide medical assistance when needed). We had some great conversations as she shared information about their community and we discovered we had a common history in seasonal work with the National Park Service in Yosemite.
My visit to Chicken was timed to coincide with the summer celebration of northern music and culture on top of the world at the 11th Annual “Chickenstock Music Festival”. Over 1,500 people, including workers and volunteers, represented a record number this year to the 131-year-old Chicken Gold Camp. Fifteen bands, mostly from Fairbanks, performed all day on Friday and Saturday.
“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.” – Billy Joel
The gold camp was crowded with tents and RV’s and provided more than enough room for attendees of all ages, families and lots of dogs.
Tents were stacked in around the Pedro Dredge and the massive chicken sculpture.
‘Chickenstock’ debuted in 2007 with the Last Frontier Bluegrass band entertaining an audience of chicken-lovers with tunes like “Sitting on Top of The World” and “Wild Bill Jones”. For eleven years now, Chickenstock has been accompanied by a gathering of mostly Alaska but over the years attendance has grown to representation from all over the world.
The music was foot tapping, fun and went on until the wee hours of the morning as it never really got dark overnight. My favorite was also a crowd favorite “Cousin Curtis” played while hundreds danced and enjoyed the rocking’ music.
“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” – Bob Marley
Saturday afternoon, sugar coated marshmallow chicks were dropped from an airplane making passes over the crowd in the annual Peep Drop.
And of course each day there was the obligatory “chicken dance” with just about everyone participating.
“When people start dancing, they dance like they don’t know they are doing it.” – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
The visit to Chicken is one that I will remember and one I recommend to anyone visiting Alaska. It is small towns and their wonderful residents that make traveling so awesome.