Skagway is journey's end for most visitors. For us, it is just the beginning, as it was for tens of thousands of stampeders who splashed ashore through icy water, racing for riches through the Yukon's uncharted wilderness. We're on the Klondike Trail and must cover a further 700 kilometres to reach Bonanza Creek, where four prospectors panned the yellow metal in 1896, sparking the greatest gold rush the world has seen. Many died during those two years of lunacy, trying to reach the frozen earth and gravel beds that gave birth to Dawson City, our final destination. Few were aware of the perils they faced. Some died in avalanches or from exhaustion as they manhandled supplies over the notorious Chilkoot Pass, more than 1,000 metres high, or the more treacherous White Pass. These routes provided the only access to the interior from Skagway and nearby Dyea. Once through, prospectors had to build boats and rafts for the 650km journey down the fast-flowing Yukon River, facing deadly rapids, sub-zero temperatures and grizzly bears. Many turned back and, of the thousands who made it to Dawson, only a handful struck it rich. Most arrived after a journey of many months to find gold-bearing land had been staked already by those who took the rich man's route, sailing all the way to the Bering Sea and up the Yukon River to the Klondike. Skagway looks much like it did in the gold rush days. The town's population of only 700 is swamped daily during summer by cruise-ship passengers, whose vessels berth not far from the boardwalks of the main street. We have arrived on the MV Kennicott, the poor cousins of those pampered passengers, but rich in experience nonetheless. The Kennicott, a vehicular ferry, plies the waters of the Inside Passage and is run by the Alaska Marine Highway System, whose boats are a lifeline for isolated communities in Alaska, calling at ports such as Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka and Haines. Backpackers curl up in their sleeping bags on the floor of an observation lounge, but we are lucky. We managed to book a 'roomette', which contains a couch that converts into bunk beds, and a little space for our luggage. Cabins are often booked up months in advance. Passengers queue for fast food, but it is inexpensive, and they can jump off at one of the ports of call and explore for a few days before continuing their journey on the next ferry. It's certainly no dream cruise, but is luxury compared with the conditions faced by Klondike prospectors, who paid well over the odds for a spot on any available vessel, mainly in Seattle, to take them and their supplies to Skagway. They faced cold, cramped conditions, often on boats that were barely seaworthy, and unimaginable difficulties after reaching the town. Most Marine System ferries set out from Bellingham, near Seattle, for the three-day journey to Skagway. We join the Kennicott at Prince Rupert, British Columbia. There is no casino, no swimming pool, cable TV or internet connection on board, but passengers get to see the same ice-capped mountains and awesome sunsets as those aboard the cruise ships, and receive free lectures on Alaskan wildlife and national parks. But the real beauty of taking the Kennicott is it arrives in Skagway in the early evening after the cruise ships have left. Passengers get the town to themselves. Accommodation is limited but there are some interesting historic guesthouses, including the Skagway Inn, which was a brothel in those early gold-rush days. We take a 30-minute walk out of town to the gold-rush cemetery, where crooked wooden crosses mark some of the graves. 'Soapy' Smith, a conman who duped naive stampeders into parting with their cash and was killed in a shoot-out, is buried here. One of his scams was a 'telegraph' office through which he claimed prospectors could inform relatives of their safe arrival. There was no telegraph line. Trekkers who book well in advance can follow in the footsteps of the prospectors, climbing the steep Chilkoot Pass. It is a protected historic site and is littered with discarded sleds and other memorabilia from 1897. Stampeders were not allowed to cross unless they had a tonne of supplies to see them through the tough months ahead. They worked in teams, shifting goods in relays, and it took several weeks to get everything over to lakes Bennett and Lindeman at the headwaters of the Yukon River. There are strict limits on the number of trekkers allowed to make the tough 53km crossing, which takes from three to six days. We decide to cross into the interior over the White Pass, another historic trip, aboard restored carriages on the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Railway. Many experts said laying a track through the pass was impossible, but dynamiting started in 1898 and it was built within 26 months. Before the railway was blasted through, prospectors often took months to get their supplies over. The pass is lower than Chilkoot, but the route was more deadly. At Dead Horse Gulch 3,000 packhorses are buried, driven to death in the frantic race for gold. Many prospectors admitted defeat and turned back for Skagway, but thousands managed to make the crossing, and the track they took is still visible from the train, winding ever upwards in the mist. There are graves too, where rail workers died trying to push the line through. They perished in landslides, from disease and in dynamiting mishaps. The White Pass Railway, which climbs nearly 1,000 metres in 30km, was extended to Whitehorse, about 170km from Skagway, and within a few years of the gold rush sternwheelers would steam out of Whitehorse for Dawson City. The train leaves Alaska and enters Canada at the summit of the White Pass, and a few kilometres beyond, at Fraser, we alight, board a bus and go through customs before heading on through majestic scenery to Whitehorse. There, on the banks of the Yukon, we collect a hire car for the journey of about 500km to Dawson City along the lonely Klondike Highway. It follows the overland trail of those bygone days and passes historic gold-rush sites along the river. The capital of Yukon Territory, which is vast and sparsely populated, Whitehorse has a population of about 25,000, but has much to offer, including the chance to step back in time on the S.S. Klondike, one of the sternwheelers that plied the Yukon River in those heady gold-rush days. You can also hire a canoe and paddle downriver to Dawson. For long stretches, the river wends away from the Klondike Highway into wilderness. Wrecked sternwheelers still poke from the water. It's not a journey for the faint-hearted. Kayakers must camp on the riverbanks, and the Yukon is bear territory. Even driving to Dawson City from Whitehorse is memorable. Traffic is light and the largest settlement on the route is Carmacks, which has a population of about 400 and was once a fuelling stop for sternwheelers. It is named after one of the four men who made the discovery at Bonanza Creek, George Washington Carmack. Visitors don't need signposts to know they have reached the outskirts of Dawson City. The road cuts through mountains of rubble that testify to the lust for gold: let no stone go unturned. A wilderness where First Nations people once fished peacefully for salmon was turned into a moonscape, and it still is today. The Native Americans were driven out and, a few years after the first wave of prospectors had panned and shovelled for gold, men with powerful financial backing had heavy machinery brought in. They drilled through the permafrost and hacked at the hillsides. Today, small mining operations are still finding gold. Amid the rubble, overlooking the Yukon River, Dawson City lives on, a town in a time warp. With its boardwalks and streets of mud, it is a national historic site. At the height of the gold rush it was a bustling, tough guys' town of 30,000. Today the population is only about 3,000, and many of the buildings have been restored. Grab a goldfields map and head to Bonanza Creek, or step aboard Dredge 4 in the Klondike Valley. It is nearly the size of a football field and eight storeys high. Assembled in 1912, its iron buckets once scooped out up to 24 kilograms of gold a day. Back in Dawson City, hire a Walkman at the information centre and take a self-guided tour around the historic streets. Visit Diamond Tooth Gertie's gambling hall and watch the cancan dancers. Cruise-ship passengers may have tamed Skagway, but Dawson still has a rough, frontier edge. At the Downtown Hotel, you'll find customers drinking 'sourtoe' cocktails. Raise a glass to celebrate reaching the end of the Klondike Trail, but be warned: there's a preserved human toe in the bottom of the glass. Down the fiery liquor, being careful not to swallow the toe, and join about 15,000 others who have done so to become members of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. Useful information: Berths on Alaska Marine Ferry Service can be booked online at www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/ . See www.whitepassrailroad.com for White Pass and Yukon Railway schedules and booking. Trekking the Chilkoot Trail: contact Parks Canada, which has an office at suite 205, Main Street, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, tel: 867 667 3910; e-mail: email@example.com . To kayak from Whitehorse to Dawson City, contact Kayak Yukon: www.kayak.yk.ca . Norcan, near Whitehorse Airport, is a reliable vehicle-hire company. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org . Bellingham can be reached from Seattle or Vancouver. Air North ( www.airnorth.yk.net ) flies from Vancouver to Whitehorse.