The Chilkoot Trail from Skagway, Alaska, to Bennett Lake on the Yukon/B.C. border has been called the “meanest 32 miles in history”, but it also features some of the most beautiful country in Canada’s north. The centerpiece of the Klondike Gold Rush International Historic Park, it was crossed by thousands of stampeders seeking their fortune after gold was discovered near Dawson City in 1896. Today, for students of Canada’s great northern heritage, this trail symbolizes the courage, endurance and struggle of the men and women who pioneered the north and who have given us the Yukon experience that we can all enjoy today.
For outdoor adventurers worldwide, the three-day ( or more) hike of the Chilkoot Trail is “a must do”. My friend, Dave, and I had hiked most of the great trails of Canada’s Rocky Mountains and after reading the story of the 1896-1898 Gold Rush in Pierre Breton’s excellent book, The Klondike Fever, we couldn’t wait to experience the steep climb up to the Chilkoot Pass for ourselves.
We flew to Whitehorse and, after a night in a welcoming Bed & Breakfast establishment, rented a car and drove to Skagway, Alaska, where we camped for the first night near the old Dyea town site. Next day, we followed a line of school children struggling with heavy packs as we began the initial steep climb through the trees high above the Taiya River. Soon we passed the remnants of an old sawmill, the first of many heritage artifacts from the days of the Gold Rush, which line the route to this day
By early afternoon, we had arrived at Canyon City, where we paused to investigate an old steam boiler and cooking stoves in the ruins. Continuing through boulders and broken ground dotted with wildflowers, we headed on towards Sheep Camp, which we had chosen as our campsite for the night. We were now moving higher into magnificent mountain scenery, with glaciers and roaring waterfalls on both sides of the valley. Tomorrow we would begin the steep climb towards the Pass, featured in the historic photograph of the long line of stampeders climbing the golden staircase in the snow towards the highest point of the trail. From this point onwards, we would be mostly above the tree line, crossing permanent snowfields and jumbled talus slopes.
Next day, we soon passed other artifacts along the trail – wooden tomb signs, wagon wheels, downed telegraph lines, rusting saw blades and remnants of an old tram used during the Gold Rush for hauling loads towards the summit of the pass – and began to climb the steep boulders and snowfields towards the narrow gap in the ridge that represents the international boundary and the entry into Canada. Passing bundles of collapsible canoes that had been dumped there at the turn of the century, we descended more snowfields around Crater Lake, still covered in ice in July, and entered the steep-walled canyon leading down into Long Lake. Dropping down into the trees and heading towards our campsite at Lindeman, we were leaving behind the snow and enjoying the warmth as the sun broke through the clouds above our heads. Next day, we would traverse along the shore of the lake, passing rotting remains of old wooden boats towards the shell of the Presbyterian Church at Bennett, where we could connect to the White Pass and Yukon Railway that would deliver us safety back in Skagway.
The Chilkoot Trail is one of the great hiking experiences of Canada. Nowhere else can one experience the sense of history and marvel at the fortitude of the people who travelled this route to the Klondike more than one hundred years. It’s preservation as a historic site is a testament to the pioneers who explored the magnificent Yukon and opened it up as a welcoming place for visitors today.