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The Chilkoot Trail: Planning the classic Canadian hike, Part 1

White Pass and Yukon Railway
White Pass and Yukon Railway
Inga Aksamit

The original Klondike gold rush trail is a classic hike that attracts history buffs and appeals to experienced wilderness backpackers. The Chilkoot Trail is unique in that half is on the American side of the border, while the other half is on the Canadian side, requiring hikers to carry passports. Divided not only by an international border at the 3,500 foot apex, but by differing topography, the American side receives all the drippy, misty, drizzly, wet weather the Northwest can throw at it. Green and lush with towering cedars and sturdy Sitka spruce it stands in direct contrast to the drier and colder Canadian side, full of great slabs of granite and gurgling streams feeding a growing chain of crystalline, azure lakes that form the headwaters of the mighty Yukon River.

The start of the Chilkoot Trail
Inga Aksamit

The crux of the hike is the ascent over the 2,500 foot Chilkoot Pass at the midpoint (and international border), a steep shale slope requiring the use of arms and legs to surmount large boulders. This section can take between an hour and several hours depending on the strength and stamina of the hiker.

The popular Chilkoot Trail, originally hewn out of the rock by the rugged, indigenous Tlingit, is a true wilderness experience with primitive campsites and no services, but it’s one that is shared with other hikers during the relatively short summer season of the northern latitude. The park service limits the flow of hikers to 50 per day at the start of the trail near Skagway, Alaska. The hike is moderately difficult but any strong hiker can enjoy it. The best months are July and August, as less snow and fewer mosquitoes will be encountered. After August snow flurries can be expected and in winter much of the trail is gripped in ice and snow.

This is trip that requires quite a bit of advance planning. Getting there and back will likely involve a lengthy series of steps, depending on the origination point, and permits must be obtained.

Hike logistics
The hike starts in Dyea, Alaska, near Skagway (), and ends at Lake Bennett, BC for a total distance of (one way). Services at Lake Bennett are limited to the White Pass and Yukon Railway station. Most hikers take the train back to Skagway from Lake Bennett, but there are other options (see Part 2).

Campsites
Camping is only allowed in designated campsites on this heavily traveled trail. Planning is required as campsites must be identified at the time the permit is obtained. The hike generally takes between three and five days depending on the pace. Taking five days allows for alternating between approximately four and eight miles a day, except for the crux day, which will be a long 8.7 miles no matter what. Some like to take an extra day in Lindeman Lake on the Canadian side to explore the museum and rest.

Notes on specific campsites:
U.S. side:
The choice of campsites will be dictated by the initial start time and most hikers skip every other one. An early morning start on Day 1 lends itself to staying the first night at Canyon City, which is the second campsite on the trail. Finnegan’s Point, the first campsite on the trail, will be welcome after a late afternoon or evening start.

The second night almost everyone sleeps at Sheep Camp as it is the only option in order to get a very early start before summiting over the Chilkoot Pass. Rangers will prevent hikers from tackling the summit if they arrive at the base of the summit too late in the day due to avalanche danger, and to prevent weaker hikers from getting too late a start to be able to get to Happy Camp in daylight. Hikers should plan to get to the base of the summit by mid-day as there are still many miles to go. Most arise around 5 a.m. at Sheep’s Camp to try to get on the trail by 6 a.m.

Canadian side:
Happy Camp is always crowded as it’s the first campsite after the summit. Deep Lake, just 2.5 miles beyond Happy Camp, is beautiful so it is worth pushing a little further, if at all possible (for some it is not, due to exhaustion).

The day after crux day, when most hikers desire an easy day, it is worthwhile to linger at bit at Lindeman Lake, an easy, relatively short hike from either Happy Camp or Deep Lake. There is a ranger station and a small museum with books, photographs and artifacts from the gold rush era. It is a large area on the shore of large Lindeman Lake, with two beaches, a pioneer cemetery and plentiful tent sites. Many elect to stay at Lindeman Lake, while others press on to Bare Loon Lake.

Bare Loon Lake has a very limited number of campsites but is the one of the most pleasant and yes, loons make their mournful cry at dusk. The few campsites are perched on large slabs of granite on the edge of a small, pretty lake with a view of dramatic mountains in the distance.

Most hikers arrive at Lake Bennett and take the train back the same day, but for those that want to stretch out the trip and savor their last night in peace it is a pleasant place to camp among the ghosts of the Klondikers, who impatiently waited here for the ice to melt so they could continue their journey to the gold fields in the late 1800s, and is usually deserted in the evening.

For more information on travel logistics, permits and planning, see related article, The Chilkoot Trail: Planning the classic Canadian hike, Part 2 and Inga's Adventures blog.

To read an account of the hike, see "Bear Encounters on the Chilkoot Trail" in Travel Stories From Around the Globe, also available at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Information:

National Park Service, Chilkoot Trail
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway

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