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The Chilkoot Trail

August 17, 2012

Mysterious Chilkoot

The Chilkoot Trail has always been high on my dream hike list mainly due to its history (also because of the location). From 1896-1899, the Chilkoot Trail was the main artery leading poor disillusioned stampeders over the Chilkoot Pass to the Klondike gold fields. In 1899 a rail line was put in over White Pass and the trail was mostly abandoned until it received National Historic Site status and modern day hikers got the crazy idea that hiking the trail might be fun!

The Trail itself is approximately 53km (33mi) long and is usually done in 3 to 5 days. A few people run or speedhike it in one. I was hiking with a group of relatively inexperienced hikers, so the 5 day option was chosen. The logistics of getting to and from the trail are fairly simple, the hike is not exceptionally difficult (excepting the day you cross Chilkoot Pass), and the trail is really well marked, so I think it is an acceptable hike for people with limited experience. The only thing you have to keep in mind is that is does cross the US-Canada border, so you need a passport, the hiking season is kind of short, and there is a quota system, so you might want to book ahead.

I decided to do the hike at the end of July, as it is generally regarded as the best (least snowy) time of year to do so. That being said, there was more snow the previous winter than usual, so we still faced quite a bit of snow around the pass. My group was all Canadian, so we all flew into Whitehorse, took the bus down to Skagway, picked up our passes at the trail office, overnighted at a converted brothel and were dropped off at the trailhead the next morning by our innkeepers. Again, the hike itself is fairly simple but the trail end has the challenge of not ending at a road. It ends at Lake Bennett, where the Stampeders would have built boats to take them to the Yukon and fortune! A brave few modern hikers have recreated this part of the journey, but the rest of us have two options. Taking a scenic train ride OR the infinitely more awesome option of taking a float plane. The float plane is of course more expensive, but if you aren’t too budget conscious it is a reasonable option, especially for larger groups (up to six). And of course with the float plane option you have the advantage of being picked up whenever you want (pre-arranged of course, no phone service in Bennett) and not having to wait around for the train, which doesn’t come every day of the week. So yeah, my group went for the float plane pick up 🙂

I’ll divide the trail into three sections based on the three ecosystems you’ll find and assuming you are hiking the trail from Alaska to Canada (as most people do).

Section 1: Dyea (pronounced DIE-EEEE!) to Sheep Camp (18.98km)

This section is Pacific Northwest Coastal Forest. Most people will hike this in two days, staying in the Canyon City campground the first night and the Sheep Camp campground the second. It can be done in one if you are fit. Both campgrounds were very nice. Canyon City had a nice cabin with a porch and chairs! Sheep Camp had platforms to set your tents on (protip: bring extra rope to tie your tent to the platform).

The trail itself is a bit variable, one minute you’ll be climbing a hill, the next you’ll be heading back down the other side, with flat sections here and there. At the end of the day you gain about 300m total elevation in this section, but with the up and down it feels like more than that.

Section 2: Sheep Camp to Happy Camp (14.08km)

This is THE DAY. The day you cross Chilkoot Pass and enter Canada. You have to do it in one day as there are no campgrounds in between. It’s a pretty steady ascent to the pass (770m overall). Most of the morning you hike alongside a river/waterfall. The scenery is probably amazing normally, but we were literally hiking inside a cloud so it had a cool mysterious feeling. This day you hike out of the Coastal Forest and into the Alpine Tundra. You will very likely hit large snow patches here and hiking poles are heavily recommended.

The first thing of note you will reach is “The Scales”. It is very near the pass, though if you are hiking in a cloud as we were, you won’t be able to see it until you’re right at it. This is the point where the Stampeders had to weigh their gear to make sure they had enough supplies to be allowed entry into Canada. It is also the point where most people would get their first look at “The Golden Stairs” and would abandon anything they thought they wouldn’t need, so there are a lot of neat artifacts. This is where the modern hiker will learn that “The Golden Stairs” are actually just a big steep boulder pile. It is difficult for the unconditioned, but for me it was just super fun. I had a smile on my face the whole time and made it to the warm up cabin on top of the pass in about an hour. The warm up cabin isn’t heated, but it is still not a bad place to hang out and wait for the rest of your group. Here you can pat yourself on the back and know that the hardest part is over, but don’t stay too long because you still have 6.6km to get to camp!

It’s mostly downhill from here, but there were a lot of snow patches for us, so it’s slower than you might think. This is where our luck changed, the sun came out, our clothes dried off, and we could finally witness the beautiful mountain valleys.

Happy Camp was definitely a sight for sore eyes at the end of the day and is very aptly named. The tent sites here are on platforms as well. Though surprisingly there was no wood stove in the shelter.

Section 3: Happy Camp to Bennett (20.1km)

In this section you will leave the Alpine Tundra and cross into the Subalpine Boreal Forest. Most people do it in two days, but again you could do it in one if you are fit. The trail here is a bit variable, up, down, flat, but not overly difficult. It’s a really nice stretch of trail, but I don’t really have a lot to say about it otherwise. Just nice hiking. For us, the snow patches ended around Deep Lake. We stayed at Lindeman City and Bennett campgrounds. Both were nice, had wood stoves in the shelters, and had cool graveyards. Lindeman City has an exhibit (and a geocache!) at the Lower Campground, which is worth a visit. There you can get your Chilkoot Trail certificate.

Chilkoot Mosaic

Notes:

–          The National Geographic map for the Chilkoot Trail is really really nice. Not 100% necessary as the trail is pretty well marked, but if you love maps like I do, I recommend it.

–          As previously stated, hiking (trekking) poles are highly recommended. I was silly and didn’t bring mine, and ended up getting a new pair in Skagway.

–          Gaiters are highly recommended as well, there are a lot of small stream crossings in the Alpine Tundra where the water level can juuuust get above boot level.

–          There are bears in the area. A few people we were hiking with spotted black bears between Lindeman City and Bennett, but there weren’t any problems. Just use “common bear sense”.

–          If you’ve forgotten something that you realize you will desperately need on the trail, there are outdoors stores in Skagway (Mountain Shop) and Whitehorse (Coast Mountain Sports). I had to buy hiking poles, gloves, and a toque in Skagway because I somehow didn’t think I’d need these things on a snowy mountain hike? Kudos to the rangers doing the orientation who reminded me 🙂 Kudos to the rangers in general! They were all great!

–          For the rockhounds, there is a sweet rock shop in Skagway called the Back Alley Rock Shop. I was limited in only getting things I would carry across the pass (for the best!) and picked up two really nice necklaces.

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