Yukonomist: Attention Whitehorse campers!


Many Yukoners have fond childhood memories set in territorial campgrounds. Mom would load the battered camper onto the black-and-orange ex-YTG Highways crew cab. Dad would find the fishing gear and, just in case, load the cooler with hot dogs, Cheez Whiz and Wonderbread buns. Then the family would head to the lake, with parents counting kids and dogs in the backseat as the pickup chugged up Two Mile Hill.

Imagine the surprise if that family passed through a time warp around Mendenhall and arrived at Kusawa Campground nowadays. They would discover all the spots were taken up by urban professionals who had arrived early to get a good campsite and were now just wrapping up Friday afternoon Zoom conference calls.

When Conrad and its 35 new campsites opened in May 2016, it was the first new campground in 30 years. Over that time, Statistics Canada says Whitehorse’s population grew from 15,199 to 25,085, or 28,225 if you count the greater Whitehorse area.

According to the 2020-2030 Parks Strategy from YTG, now rebranded as YG and no longer driving orange-and-black trucks, there are currently 400 campsites within a two-hour drive of the capital. The region’s campgrounds range in size from nine to 59 campsites.

The 2021 Census says the greater Whitehorse population was 31,913 in 2021, while the City of Whitehorse estimates it was over 34,000.

There are now about twice as many Whitehorse residents per campsite as there were in 1986.

Even if not crowded by the standards of Japanese parks or Yosemite, everyone reading this paper probably has a story of not finding a spot to pass on those childhood memories to their kids.

Part of the reason Yukon campgrounds are crowded is that their fees are, in technical economics terms, a smoking hot deal. For $20 a night you can camp with your spouse, in-laws and as many kids and dogs as you can fit into your vehicle. It’s only $10 if you get your senior in-laws to buy the permit. The annual permit for just $100, $50 for seniors, is the best deal of all.

Parks strategists predict there could be demand for an additional 800 new campsites within two hours of town by 2030.

The Parks Strategy talks about building a new campground of up to 150 campsites within that two hour drive from Second Avenue and Main Street. The Yukon currently only has one campground, located in Dawson City, with more than 100 campsites. A new mega-campground will be more efficient to build and maintain than several smaller ones. It will also be large enough that it will have enough users to justify offering additional services, such as the nature walks that are so popular at Tombstone Park.

Everyone wants to know where the campground will go. And not just because they want to park their second vehicle there on Wednesday to save a good spot for the weekend. Highway lodge and gas station owners will see fresh revenue. And nearby property owners will be cringing at the prospect of noise and traffic.

If you were to float a surveillance balloon over Whitehorse and draw a two-hour-drive circle on the resulting map, you would see there were lots of possibilities. The area is, in fact, bigger than the country of Belgium. From west to east, anywhere from around Haines Junction through Squanga Lake to Teslin Lake. From north to south, from Carmacks through Fox Lake to Marsh Lake, Tagish Lake, Bennett Lake, Little Atlin Lake or beyond to Tarfu and Snafu.

Keen eyed users of GeoYukon’s mapping features will have noted a 1.1 million square metre land disposition marked “Parks and Campground” on the north end of Little Atlin Lake. However, the disposition dates from 1971 so it is by no means a sure thing this is the spot the Yukon government has in mind. Or indeed the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, in whose traditional territory the land parcel sits, or the nearby Taku River Tlingit First Nation.

A heartless, citified economist might point out that the quickest and cheapest way to solve the overcrowding problem would be to raise campground fees. However, it is important that camping be accessible to Yukoners of all income levels. And if fees were higher, we would just end up with more toilet paper flapping in the wind around Yukon gravel pits and side roads.

So it is a good thing the government plans to deliver a new mega-campground. We need it, and soon. The Liberal election platform back in late 2016 included a pledge to “expand the existing campground infrastructure” and the Parks Strategy came out in 2020. How many more summers until the new campground opens?

On top of that, if those parks strategists are right about future population growth and campsite demand, the government already needs to be planning a second mega-campground.

One challenge with a mega-campground is that it mostly benefits Whitehorse residents, while local community and First Nations people just get the extra traffic and noise. This raises the idea of contracting out management of the new mega-campground.

Why not let First Nations development corporations manage the campground, in return for some funding and a commitment to keep prices to $20 a night. The First Nation in turn could run a classic campground store for families who forgot the Cheez Whiz and firewood. More importantly, the campground could offer cultural activities and nature hikes for a fee.

Purists might not like it, but I can see modern Yukoners paying big bucks to connect their devices to the campground Starlink satellite internet system.

All of this would create local jobs and profits and provide a rationale for people to agree to a campground in their part of the Yukon, which would be a good thing, since the pressure on the current campgrounds will only keep growing as the population grows.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.