Tucked tight against the Coast Mountains outside of Skagway, accessible only by foot or train, sit two Forest Service public use cabins which are enveloped by surroundings which visitors say are nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Marc Scholten, with the Juneau Ranger District, has worked in the rainforests of Southeast Alaska for years. The outdoors shows on his tanned face as he talked about the pair of cabins — the Denver Caboose and Laughton Glacier structures — situated at about miles 5 and 14, respectively, out of Skagway on the White Pass Railroad.
“(It’s) beautiful country,” he said. “Near Laughton Glacier it’s all subalpine fir and if you’ve ever driven through White Pass with your window down, you can smell their fragrance ... it just blows you away.”
It’s likely details like these, along with sounds of the nearby East Fork of the Skagway River, the abundance of wildlife, plant life and the backdrop of the Sawtooth Range that draws visitors year round to this area.
In 1994, the New York Times featured the Denver Caboose purely for the unique aspects that took it from rail car to rental cabin. A subsequent article in the Boston Sunday Globe a year later followed one adventurous reporter on her journeys to both the caboose and the Laughton Glacier cabin. She wrote how refreshing it was to know her experience of “this wilderness would not come primarily through a train window.”
Indeed. But Juneauites have never been ones to experience much without giving in to the desire to get their boots dirty. And a trip to either, or both, of these cabins is definitely doable and a great way to escape the dredges of rainy weather no matter the season.
“There was a lot of thought that went into this caboose cabin,” Ed Grossman said. “There are quite a few little creative and innovative features that were worked into the design.”
Grossman, the Recreation Program Manager on the Juneau Ranger District, said it all began in 1993 when the White Pass Railroad gifted an old caboose to the Forest Service. Crews set to work gutting the narrow-gauge caboose and designing fold-away bunks, tables and chairs to fit neatly inside the one-room structure. At the end of the 1993 season it went online.
Today, the cabin, which rents for $25 a night, sleeps six and is equipped with an oil stove, table, stools, nearby outhouse and fire pit. Renters must bring their own bedding and cooking gear and No. 1 diesel fuel oil. Maximum stay is seven days from April through the end of October, and 10 days from November through the end of March. Fuel can be obtained in Juneau or Skagway before boarding the train or hitting the trail. Buyers must provide their own containers for fuel, and fuel consumption at the cabin is roughly one gallon per day with the stove set on the low setting. Fresh water is available at a nearby stream and should always be boiled or treated before drinking.
“You have to enjoy trains to stay there in the summer,” Grossman said. “They roar past many times a day, but are quickly gone. And once they quit for the day, everything is peaceful. However, renters must take a train when they are running as there is no safe parallel path.”
Users can ride the train for a fee payable to White Pass and get off at one of the scheduled whistle stops. It’s recommended to make reservations at least 24 hours in advance for train transportation.
But if trains aren’t a draw, it’s often that skiers, snowshoers and hikers walk in to the site on the railroad tracks in the winter.
The site offers views of the East Fork of the Skagway River and a trail to the Denver Glacier. Length is about 4.3 miles, and while it’s a bit brushy at present, Scholten, who recommneds planning for a full day at the caboose, said the hike is well worth it.
“Spend the day there because there’s the Denver Glacier (down the trail),” he said. “It’s one of the prettier glaciers I’ve seen.”
Laughton Glacier cabin
Nearly 16 miles up the track from Skagway is the Laughton Glacier cabin. This panabode-style cabin is was built in 1972 and is located near the Skagway River. Hop off the train at one of the scheduled whistle stops and hike the short 1.5-mile trail into the wilderness to get to this simple cabin.
Scholten recommends getting back on the train after visiting the Denver Caboose and spending one, maybe two, nights.
“Visitors can hike up to Laughton Glacier,” he said. “In 2006 crews did an extensive overhaul on the trail and it’s used frequently.”
In recent years, crews opened up the view from the cabin and Scholten said “when the nearby creek is really rolling, you can hear the boulders just ripping down the creek.”
The structure sleeps six and has many of the same features that one will find at the Denver Caboose, including an oil stove.
In recent years talk filtered through the news of one or both of these cabins being decommissioned. Grossman said that was a result of low use numbers, which have recently rebounded slightly.
“We know (the Denver Caboose is) being used a lot in the winter,” he said. “And when we talked about it being decommissioned people started coming out of the woodwork. For now, we are keeping it. We hope to get the word out to make it more known. Our goal is to increase the use of these things because they are pretty unique and they are kept well. But it’s expensive to keep them.”
In 2010 the Denver Caboose was rented 39 nights and in 2009, 27 nights. The numbers at the Laughton Glacier cabin are similar. In 2010 it saw 38 rental nights and 43 in 2009.
“These numbers are pretty similar, so when they are being rented, (users) are probably renting both,” Grossman said.
When it comes to logistics, Grossman admitted it may seem challenging at first to get to this pair of cabins.
Scholten recommends just going on foot and taking one of the fast, morning ferries from Juneau to Skagway. There will be four or five trains a day, so users will have to get the schedule for the whistle stops. Schedules are kept well, and a schedule will be provided to users when tickets are purchased.
“The walk from the ferry terminal to the White Pass office is a quick walk,” he said. “You could avoid an overnight stay in Skagway by catching one of the frequent trains headed up the track and do a whistle stop up the tracks. There’s no question that it takes a little research, logistically, to make the trip happen.”
But it is doable and the best time to visit is in mid-June.
• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneau