GreatOutdoors.com Search

Hiking Historic Chilkoot Pass

Five days on the legendary Chilkoot Pass Trail, one of the premier backcountry routes in North America, inspires new respect for the physical stamina of the Klondike gold rush miners
By Peter Potterfield - July 1st, 2008

The rocky slope is dusted with light snow and coated with freezing rain. I take one more big step—slowly and carefully--and then another. Here, on the steepest part of this storied route, the next step is the only one that matters. These are the so called Golden Stairs leading to Chilkoot Pass, and a similar caution must have been the mantra of hardy miners who plied this cruel slope in 1898. Here, the most trying section of the long ascent climbs steeply up past the “Scales,” the historic rocky ledge where miners had to prove they carried the requisite weight of equipment and supplies to pass muster with the Mounties.

Both sides of the trail are littered with rusting relics, equipment the miners jettisoned out of exhaustion. Even today, the offal of their back-breaking burdens remains, strewn along the way, giving the trail an authentic aroma of human struggle. But these treasure seekers weren’t the first to use this great trail. One of the few glacier-free corridors through the intimidating Coast Range of British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska, the Chilkoot Pass had for centuries been a crucial trade route for the native peoples of the coast. And now it remains one of the most interesting backcountry routes in North America.
 
But even with the advantage of technical fabrics and lighter loads, my companions and I are finding the trail to be an honest piece of work. A final 400 feet, made more difficult by the cold, soggy white-out enveloping the peaks, at last takes us up to the legendary Chilkoot Pass--and into another country. We know we’re in Canada because the trail markers are different. And the thermometer at the Parks Canada warden station reads a chilly minus 2 degrees. We pile inside to make hot drinks and take a breather, glad to be at the top, even if there are still almost 20 miles to the end of the trek.
 
Working up to the pass that day got me thinking. For me, it’s terrain and scenery that drive my hiking itineraries. But in the same way the Anasazi ruins of southern Utah add a unique element to Southwest hikes, the artifacts left behind by those tough miners trudging from the Inside Passage to the gold fields of the Yukon add an irresistible Gold Rush component to the Chilkoot experience. 

It’s a reason to come. Those familiar pictures of heavily laden miners working up to the pass somehow resonated with me, and I knew I wanted to go see for myself. But that turned out to be easier said than done. I’ve had a lot of practice at figuring out logistics for a given route, but how do you do a hike that covers two countries, two provinces, one state, and presents some serious trailhead transportation issues?

 
Whitehorse, Yukon
The solution turned out to be Whitehorse. Even though it’s in a different province from terminus of the trail, and in a different country from the start of the trail, Yukon’s biggest city is strategically situated between both, and harbors plenty of transportation and trailhead options. Arriving here from Vancouver on Air North is the perfect set up for Whitehorse itself. Known as “Yukon’s airline,” Air North is relaxed, friendly, informal, and accustomed to operating in this remote region. 

Whitehorse is the defacto capital of a unique part of North America, where the Yukon, British Columbia and Southeast Alaska all come together in a convergence of borders. The geography makes doing the Chilkoot not just a hike, but a high-octane travel experience with unreal variety. Vast expanses of wild country, and a sparse human population, give the region an out-there feel. 

Situated astride the Alaska-Canada Highway, Whitehorse offers an oasis of civilization, and the best staging area not just for the Chilkoot Pass hike, but for other adventures in the Yukon, such as a canoe trip down the Yukon River, a trek into the Tombstone Range, or a climbing trip into the Cirque of the Unclimbables. Europeans have discovered Whitehorse, and now non-stop flights from Germany are making this Yukon city a hub for international wilderness adventure. 

The city pays homage to its gold rush heritage with historic hotels that date from the era, and the Yukon River steamer, SS Klondike, permanently moored at the riverside. I took a couple of days in town to get organized and learn something about the place and its surroundings. I found great day hiking out by Miles Canyon, and enjoyed the surprising civility of town. Whitehorse is full of travelers and hikers and off-season mushers, and boasts an array of lodging options, good restaurants, outdoor shops and sociable saloons. 

You can do the Chilkoot route entirely on your own, but I chose to work with Torsten Eder at Yukon Nature Tours. He saved me time and hassle by taking care of the hiking permits (no simple matter when your hikes goes through national parks in two different countries) as well as trailhead transportation and food and fuel. He can even provide experienced guides for those who wish. Because the trail starts in Skagway, Alaska, and ends at Bennett Lake, British Columbia, getting to the start and the finish can be a challenge. But Torsten is a master of Chilkoot logistics. He arranged for us to reach Skagway via a historic railway and for a float plane to pick us up at Bennett four days later. 

“It’s the best of both worlds,” he said. “You’ll get a sense of the country going by rail to the coast. And then you’ll get what amounts to a sightseeing flight on the way back to Whitehorse, when you're tired and ready for shower—and you’ll be back in town in time for dinner.” 

I’d be doing the Chilkoot with Stefan Wackerhagen, a German adventurer who has proven his mettle on a winter ski trip across Lake Baikal—the long way—and participation in the Yukon Wild dog sledding race. With us would be a British writer, Polly Evans, working on a story about Jack London. As a small, fit group, the three of us felt comfortable about shaving some time off the route. Usually done in five days and four nights, our plan was to do it with long days and just three overnight camps. 

The trail can be hiked in either direction, but almost every one chooses the west to east option, and for  good reason. Leaving from Skagway puts the steepest part of the trail, the Golden Stairs, on the uphill side. That may require better aerobic fitness for grinding up long slope, but for most that’s preferable to wasting your knees coming down. And since the weather on the Chilkoot can be seriously bad, by starting at the coast and working inland, most of the wind and rain rolling in off the Pacific will be at your back.

 
Skagway, Alaska
You can drive from Whitehorse to Skagway in a few hours, but we arrived in Southeast Alaska the historic way. Torsten dropped us off at Carcross, Yukon, where we caught the restored White Pass  & Yukon Railway for the ride over the mountains and down to Skagway. When this route was completed in 1901 (over a pass just south of the Chilkoot)  it made the arduous hike over the Chilkoot a moot point: miners could now simply take the train to the gold fields. These days, the restored railway is an excursion for tourists: the tracks climb up to the 3,300-foot summit before dropping down to sea level on the Inside Passage at Skagway in just 20 miles. 

Along with bus loads of tourists from the cruise ships that ply the Inside Passage, Stefan and Polly and I board the historic coaches for the scenic three hour trip up and over the pass and down to Skagway. Glimpses of the water from Inspiration Point let us know we are getting close, and soon we were disembarking at the railway station near the harbor. Here, we are in the very shadow of five huge ships idling at the piers. Skagway, with it’s restored Gold Rush façade, is a favorite stop with cruise ships doing the standard summer run between Seattle and Alaska. 

The population of town roughly quadruples during the ships’ four- or five-hour stopover, as the passengers pour down the gangplanks. Gold Rush saloons, replete with can-can girls waving from the upper balconies, give the place the feel of theater, or an amusement park, but it’s all about having fun. The streets are jammed with passengers enjoying the few hours they have in town. 

The three of us make our way through the throngs to pick up our permit at the National Park Service ranger station, which represents Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park on the U.S. side, and Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site on the Canadian side. The rangers tell us that a dangerous bear has been harassing hikers on the British Columbia side of the hike, and advise us to hook up with other hikers to make a larger group size. Duly noted. And, one more thing, the ranger says: high water from recent heavy rain and snowmelt has submerged several bridges on the Alaska side of the pass, so be prepared to wade. 

With our permits in hand, and our expectations of an easy trek somewhat dashed, we join the crowds along Skagway’s main drag for a beer and a look around. But, as if by magic, we suddenly have the town to ourselves; by dinner time, it’s just us and the locals. With a blast of the mighty whistles, the cruise ships pull out, and the town becomes a sleepy village once again. Torsten has arranged a five a.m. shuttle from town out to the trailhead for tomorrow morning, so Stefan and Polly and I grab an early dinner at a Thai place and head back to the Westmark hotel to prepare.

 The Chilkoot Pass Trail
By first light, we’re on our way along Taiya Inlet toward Dyea townsite, what’s left of a bustling Gold Rush village that once rivaled Skagway for supremacy. We’re the only hikers in the van this early, and by 6 we’re at the Chilkoot trailhead. It’s marked by a simple wooden sign but there’s a certain gravity to it, even for modern hikers, given the epic struggle of those who plied this route so long ago. The good trail starts out along the Taiya River through a classic Alaskan old growth temperate rain forest. It's a beautiful walk. The river is barely in its banks following a week of precipitation so ferocious the park service had actually closed the route for several days. 

Less than two miles down the trail we change into sandals as the river comes up over a low, boardwalked section of trail. But the way soon climbs higher on the bank and we make good time in sunny weather on the dry trail, passing Finnegan’s Point camp before lunch. Most hikers camp here, or at Canyon City camp (at seven miles) for the first night. We’re shaving a day off this 33 mile route, and so we press on toward Sheep Camp (at 12 miles), doing two of the traditional stages in the first day. The miles go pretty quickly down by the river, but the final three miles up to Sheep Camp gain a thousand feet in short order, putting us high enough to see the peaks and glaciers of the Coast Range for the first time. 

Sheep Camp is a scene. It’s the final legal campsite before Chilkoot Pass, so everyone doing the trail camps here before the big elevation-gain day. A surprising number of international hikers are about, from Europe, New Zealand, and Japan, adding a cosmopolitan atmosphere to the Alaskan arboreal forest. Clearly, the secret of the Chilkoot Trail as a hidden gem of North American backcountry is getting out. The rangers here tell us the weather tomorrow will be miserable to dangerous, and reiterate their concern over the “bad bear” harassing hikers on the Canadian side. It’s a reminder we’re in a wild place, and despite the fact we’re hiking through national parks, we’re on our own going over the pass. 

Stefan, who has done the route  many times, rouses us for a pre-dawn start. After a quick breakfast, we face our first hurdle not 10 minutes from camp. A tributary of the Taiya is roaring over the footbridge, so we have to feel our way across the knee deep torrent and start working up the steep switchbacks toward the pass. The weather worsens as we go, gradually ascending into a dense white-out as we climb on to the rocks and scree slopes and icy snowfields  that make up the storied “Golden Stairs.”  Here the route is marked by six-foot high orange pylons, which would seem like overkill on a sunny day but are barely adequate in these conditions. A light snow starts to fall. I can barely see Polly, who is not 10 feet away.

 
The Canadian Side
We crest Chilkoot Pass (about five miles from Sheep Camp) and take an hour in the empty warden’s hut, just beyond the pass, to warm up and dry out. It’s a relief to be here, with most of the hard work over. The next four miles to Happy Camp is really the scenic highlight of the trip, aggressively alpine at more than 3,000 feet elevation. We traverse complicated basins and contour around lakes where actual ice bergs bob about. A large bear working up the hillsides across the creek ignores our presence. This is authentic wilderness, and even the low cloud and murk doesn’t detract from its hard beauty. The trail on this side remains high, with only minor ups and downs, and we arrive at the appropriately named Happy Camp by 2 o’clock. We celebrate over a long hot lunch in the cook hut before getting the tents up as other hikers begin to trickle in. 
 
The character of the Chilkoot route changes: it climbs steeply from sea level at Skagway to the pass, but from there descends only slightly over three days to 2,000 feet at Bennett Lake. That makes our third full day on the trail yet another long meander through fascinating alpine highlands, dotted with lakes, and cut through by deep gorges. This high up, the bunchberries and wild iris and columbine is just coming out. This is astounding backcountry, as dramatic as I’ve seen, yet always there are the reminders of its gold rush past in the form of artifacts and puzzling pieces of old equipment lying about. 

Of three possible camps east of Happy Camp, Stefan suggests Lindeman City, at the site of a once sizable settlement of miners. Here we find a quiet camp stretched along the shore of expansive Lindeman Lake, by far the biggest on the route so far. The "city" of course is long gone, only a ranger station and small historical exhibit remain. The warden based here is gone, somewhere out on patrol, but dire warnings of the delinquent bear posted in camp keep us vigilant (bear spray at the ready) as we prepare dinner. 

Our final day on the Chilkoot dawns sunny and bright, a welcome change from the gray and gloom we’ve been traveling through the past two days. We drop down from the alpine zone and into the boreal forest once again, trudging along now on sandy trails past Bare Loon Lake and on down to the terminus of the route at Bennett Lake. What was once the signficant community of Bennett has dwindled to one amazing 100 year old church, and a recently restored train station used by the White Pass & Yukon line. The elaborate church, built of local timber, serves as a reminder that, even way out here, the miners did not neglect their spiritual impulses.

No hiker finishing this impressive route will go home without a high Richter Scale memory of the experience. This is a special hike, one that delivers both on spectacular terrain and on the more intangible factors of  mood and vibe, all enhanced by its rich history. This is a route any hiker with a genuine bent to adventure will love.

Most of the backpackers finishing the route will settle in for a lunch, served banquet style inside the rebuilt station, and board trains for the ride back to Carcross or Whitehorse. Thanks to Torsten however, we’ll be traveling in style. Shortly after we arrive, we become the objects of envy as the bright red float plane from Whitehorse's Alpine Aviation appears over the horizon,  as if on cue, and splashes down on the lake. We load up the gear, clamber in, and take off over the mountains. On the way back we get a glimpse of  the expansive wilderness of the southern Yukon to Whitehorse. A look down at the alpine regions of the Chilkoot leaves us all with a nagging desire to come back. But we're also thinking that beer on the deck of the High Country Inn in Whitehorse is going to taste mighty good.

 Getting There
Whitehorse, in southwestern Yukon, the staging area for hiking the Chilkoot, can be reached by Air North from Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Fairbanks and other cities. (Europeans can fly direct to Whitehorse on Condor Air). Once in town, premier accommodations include the Gold Rush Inn and the High Country Inn; restaurants include Klondike Rib and Salmon for regional fare, Sanchez Cantina for home-made Mexican, and Giorgios for Italian. For hikers who choose to overnight in Skagway before starting the hike, the Westmark Hotel is centrally located.
 
 For information on planning the Chilkoot Pass hike or any other adventures in the region, Yukon Nature Tours offers multiple backcountry trips. Yukon Wild is a consortium of licensed wilderness tourism operators that offer guiding and adventure logistics throughout the territory. The Wilderness Tourism Association of the Yukon is a consortium dedicated to protect the integrity of Yukon Wilderness. Travel Yukon can help hikers plan their visit.
 
 

 


Comments

Chilkoot "08"

Did the trip in July "08" . Had a blast. I would recommend that before doing the trip do some reading on the whole event . I would suggest Pierre Berton's "Klondike" . It gives a great account of how quickly this movement was born and then how quickly it ended. Just doing the hike with out being intimate with the history only gives you one dimension of a three dimensional story. One other recommendation- if you can work it out, take your time. I did it in 5 days ( 4 Sleeps) and I still felt like I raced through it. I met a couple at our first camp ( Canyon City) who reported that her very athletically inclined brother ran the 33 miles in something like 14 hours and was back in Skagway that night. Big advantage here.... you wouldn't have to shell out for a camping permit.

Posted on June 10, 2009 - 10:12pm
by Bob T

Just read about this in Michener's "Alaska"

I just read about the Chilkoot Pass and the Klondike and Nome gold rushes in Michener's "Alaska." The descriptions of the miners making the trip up the golden stairs was vivid, but the photos really bring it to life and blow me away. Thanks for the description of the hike, which add to the richness of both the story and the true history.

Posted on March 21, 2009 - 8:32pm
by Chris

Chilkoot Trail

Thanks for the write-up. We are planning to hike the trail this June, so the details are quite useful.
John Wallack

Posted on March 10, 2009 - 2:41pm
by John Wallack

Your June Hike

John and other hikes - How did your June hike go & any trouble getting a permit ??? I am thinking of going in July 09
How long did you take to do the trip 3 nights/4 days or 4 nights/5days? I assume you took train back.
In the His write up the first day he did 12 miles to sheeps camp, is that what you did - Last did you stay in Skagway, how did you get to Skagway and how did you get to trailhesd. THANKS for any help

Posted on October 19, 2009 - 11:07am
by Gary Cothran

Chilkoot Pass a Possibility in My Future

Thanks for your informative story and great pictures! Jan

Posted on September 20, 2008 - 9:01pm
by Jan McKinley

Top Stories

 

© 2011 GreatOutdoors.com