THE GOLDEN ROAD
When we first decided to spend our summer in southeastern Alaska, there were just a handful of places that we had to visit. We wanted to visit Glacier Bay National Park, and I really wanted to hike Mount Edgecumbe on Kruzof Island near Sitka. The other compelling destination was the 33 mile Chilkoot Trail, which follows one of the routes used to get to the Klondike during the 1898 gold rush. Aside from its historical significance, the Chilkoot Trail offers spectacular scenery with rain forest, rugged mountains, glaciers, and alpine lakes.
The Chilkoot Trail was our first multi-country backpacking trip. The trail starts in the ghost town of Dyea, near Skagway, Alaska. At Chilkoot Pass it crosses into British Columbia, Canada. The trail ends at the ghost town of Bennett. There are no roads to Bennett, but the White Pass & Yukon Railroad passes through there. The train is the only realistic way to return to Skagway (unless you want to hike the trail twice). Unfortunately the train does not operate every day. That created some logistical challenges for our trip. Ultimately the Chilkoot Trail was the first part of the entire vacation that I planned. This was partially due to the need to reserve a permit well in advance.
We would start our hike on a Thursday morning and finish up in Bennett around mid-day on Saturday. Reaching Bennett at lunch time would be critical for a couple of reasons. First, the train back to Skagway was scheduled to depart Bennett at 2:10PM. We needed to be on it, as it was the only train on Saturday, and there were no trains scheduled on Sunday or Monday. Also, we had pre-paid for a luncheon at the Bennett train station prior to departure. We figured that a hot meal would be enjoyable after 3 days in the wilderness. Since we paid for it in advance, we didn’t want to miss it!
Most people take 4-5 days to do the hike. We planned to do it in 3, though really it would be 2 ½ since we had to be in Bennett for lunch on the final day. The Chilkoot Trail is advertised as a strenuous hike, but it is also popular with trekkers from all over the world. My guess was that it would no worse than a moderate hike for us. We should be able to handle 10-11 miles each day without any problem, and reaching Bennett around noon on the last day would be doable with an early start.
When I reserved our permit I booked us at the Sheep campsite on the first night and the Deep Lake Campsite the second night. That meant 12 miles of mostly easy hiking on the first day and 11 challenging miles on the second day. We would have a 10 mile hike the final morning, but that would be on the easiest stretch of trail. Most of that final 10 miles is flat or gradually downhill. We’d simply get up for sunrise (which comes very early even in late July) and get going.
We got up before 7 on Thursday and had breakfast in the Inn. We stored our luggage there, which was a bit excessive. We had a lot of luggage and they have a small closet. I felt a little guilty about that. I do wish we’d made do with less stuff on this trip.
Karl shuttled us over to the trailhead at 9am. We were the only hikers on the shuttle. Three girls were supposed to join us, but one of them got sick the previous day. They decided to reschedule their hike. All of the other folks on the trail had started a day or two earlier in order to catch the train back on Saturday. This worked out nicely for us, as it meant that the trail was much quieter than it would’ve been if we’d started a day or two earlier. The campsites we ended up at were the most popular ones though, so those areas were still busy during our trip.
It was raining when we got up on Thursday morning, but it had stopped by the time we reached the trailhead. Most of our hike was under overcast skies, although there was some partial clearing that afternoon. Karl took our photo at the trailhead before we headed into the woods. The first 12+ miles of the trail follow the Taiya River closely. The river starts at Chilkoot Pass and flows into the Taiya Inlet at Dyea. Early on we climbed steeply above the river. After crossing a ridge we descended back to it. The footing was awkward, and this first mile was pretty tough. Fortunately most of the rest of the first day was easy. Most of the first day was in the rain forest, with occasional views of the river. We crossed the river twice on bridges, and followed boardwalks through swamps several times.
The Chilkoot Trail is considered an outdoor museum. There are lots of artifacts and areas of historical interest along the trail. Early on we passed the remains of a cabin. There was a moonshine barrel out front, along with some tools and other artifacts. Later we had lunch at the Finnegan Point campground. We’d covered 6 miles that morning. A lot of hikers spend their first night here, before hiking another 6 miles to the Sheep campground on the second day. When I planned the trip I didn’t see any advantage to doing that. The first 12 miles are mostly easy anyway, and adding a day to the trip just meant carrying more food in a heavier pack.
A mile or so after Finnegan Point we reached the side trail to the ruins of Canyon City. Christy decided to wait while I did the 1 mile round trip to the former settlement. This was nice, since it meant that I didn’t have to carry my pack! The ruins included the remains of some cabins, an old stove, and a giant boiler. The boiler powered a tram that hauled gear, food, and supplies up to Chilkoot Pass. Use of the tram was expensive though, and most of the prospectors couldn’t afford it. They had to haul their supplies on their backs. Those prospectors had to make about 50 round trips to get all of their supplies over the pass.
I rejoined Christy and we continued up the valley. Another moderately difficult stretch of trail brought us to the Pleasant campground. There isn’t much here, and there wasn’t anybody around. Most hikers continue another mile to the Sheep campground, which is the last one before the pass. That is a more strategic location, but people that prefer to camp in solitude should consider the Pleasant campground as an alternative.
The final mile of trail to the Sheep campground was easy. Sheep is a big campground, and a busy place. We caught up to most of the hikers that had started on Wednesday here. Christy waited with our packs at the cooking shelter while I searched for a campsite. The campground was mostly full, but somehow the best site was available. It was at the far end of the campground, away from the other occupied campsites and close to the river. All of the sites at Sheep are on wooden platforms to protect the vegetation. I set up camp there and we stashed our food in the bear boxes.
It was late afternoon, but we suddenly had blue sky overhead. I was cautiously hopeful that the improving weather would last through Friday. That would enable us to enjoy the views from the alpine country around Chilkoot Pass. I wasn’t inclined to count on it though. The Sheep campground is located just below treeline. It was evening, but I still had a couple of hours of daylight. I decided to take a quick hike up to treeline to take in the views. Christy decided to skip it, opting for a nap in the tent. So, while everyone else in the campground was cooking dinner or relaxing, I hit the trail.
It took longer than I expected to get above the trees. Along the way I passed a huge pile of fresh bear shit, which was a nice reminder that I was hiking solo in the evening in grizzly country. Not long after leaving the campground I was treated to views of a series of waterfalls cascading down the canyon walls. A few minutes later a large glacier came into view high on the mountain above. I passed some cascades in the river, which had dwindled to the size of a large creek. A bit later I reached a tributary stream that looked difficult to rock hop. The sun was already down and the sky was beginning to get colorful from the sunset. I decided to stop there, as that spot featured a fine view back down the valley. Once the color faded I started back. I kept a fast pace on the return, and the typically long twilight meant that I was almost back to camp before it was completely dark.
I woke Christy up at 10:30 and we made dinner. We were eating when a ranger stopped in for a chat. She provided everyone with an overview of the trail ahead. To summarize, the climb to Chilkoot Pass would be a tough boulder scramble. There were several stream crossings where we would probably get our feet wet, and a couple of stretches of trail were still covered by snow. The hike down to the campsites on Lindenman Lake would take most people all day. Lindenman is the most popular campsite for the final night because it is only about 7 miles from there to Bennett.
After she finished we cleaned up, stored our food, and went to bed. We were determined to get an early start the next morning.
We were up at first light (5:15) on Friday morning. We left camp at 7:15 and followed the trail upstream. It wasn’t terribly long before we reached the spot where I’d enjoyed sunset the previous evening. It was an overcast morning, but the clouds were high enough that we could see the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and waterfalls. Although the visibility was decent it was chilly and there was occasional light rain.
I was taking photos and Christy got ahead of me. An errant trail marker caused her to get off the route. She rock hopped the river and started to ascend the wrong valley. I wasn’t sure what had happened to her. Luckily she realized her mistake and doubled-back.
We followed good trail up to the scales, where goods were loaded onto one of the trams leading up to the pass. There isn’t much left of those trams except for some wooden support towers that are still partially standing. From there we followed good trail through patches of snow to the base of the Golden Stairs. The 1898 gold rush started in the winter, and the prospectors carved steps in the snow all of the way up to the pass. I imagine that was much easier than the conditions we had to deal with. Our ascent was up a steep pile of boulders. This would’ve been tough without packs on. I was carrying most of our gear, and the climb was grueling. My mysterious leg injury started squawking at me, too. We were part of the way up when I got the toe of my boot caught under a rock. I didn’t realize it, and tried to bring my foot up onto a rock. The upper part of my leg went as instructed, but the lower part didn’t. That hurt! I was afraid I’d seriously injured myself, but I was able to shake it off.
We took a break part of the way up to enjoy views back down the valley. The valley was filling up with clouds, but we were above them. Although the sky was overcast, the surrounding mountains were all still in view. Then we spotted a group of hikers with a dog below us. They were moving fast and they caught up with us quickly. They were an extremely friendly group of Canadians from Whitehorse. After chatting a bit, they asked us if we could keep a secret. Of course we can! They told us that they found out about a secret stash of canoes on a previous hike. They’d encountered a ranger who had let them in on the secret. They were going to check them out, and asked if we wanted to join them. Um, yeah!
We followed them off-trail through the snow. Before long we reached a gully that was full of ancient canvas bags. There must’ve been a hundred or more. Each bag contained lumber. Apparently the prospectors brought the lumber to assemble into canoes once they crossed the pass. Below the pass is a series of alpine lakes that eventually run into the Yukon River. The journey from Chilkoot Pass to the Klondike would be much faster and easier on the water! However, Canadian customs didn’t let the prospectors bring the lumber across the border. They would have to buy their boats once they got into Canada. Since the lumber was useless, the prospectors dumped it all in this canoe graveyard. It was fascinating.
We continued beyond the canoe graveyard to a lofty perch with a great view back down the valley. From here we could see all of the peaks and glaciers, along with a river of fog winding its way up the valley below. We took turns taking photos of each other and we thanked our new friends for letting us in on the secret.
We returned to the trail and resumed the climb. We passed more artifacts, including wheels from the old tram system. We also spotted a couple of ptarmigans along here. Some more boulder scrambling led to an old stone tower. Beyond was one more climb. We crested it, and reached the edge of an impressive snowfield. Ahead we could see the Canadian flag flying from the ranger station / customs office. Woohoo! We’d reached the pass! Just as we reached the Canadian border the sun came out. What a pleasant surprise!
We hiked over to the ranger station and dropped our packs on the porch. There wasn’t anyone there except for our new Canadian friends. The office has a woodstove, and it was wonderfully warm inside. We had lunch there before strolling through the adjacent meadow to the brink of a cliff. From there we had an excellent birds-eye view down to Crater Lake. Crater Lake is a true beauty, as it is dotted with dozens of small, rocky islands. It reminded me of Thousand Island Lake in the Sierra Nevada. Crater Lake features a beautiful backdrop of mountains and glaciers, too. The views from near the pass back down the Taiya River valley had been great, but this vista was completely different. It was more wide open and alpine. Between those two views, the hike had been extremely rewarding.
It was hard to leave the warmth of the ranger station. The sky was darkening to the south though. The weather looked threatening, so we decided it was long past time to get down off the pass. We descended through boulders, meadows, and snowfields to the shore of Crater Lake. The views along here were stellar despite the marginal conditions. We passed waterfalls and fields of wildflowers, while massive glaciers tumbled down the mountainsides surrounding us.
Crater Lake goes on and on, but we eventually left it behind. We descended along a river valley before reaching the Happy campsite at 6pm. Most hikers stay at Happy after descending from the pass. That wasn’t an option for us though, as Happy was too far from the end of the trail at Bennett to be realistic given our time constraints. We took a late afternoon break there and enjoyed a snack. We were both tired, but we only had a few more miles to go to reach the campsite we had reserved at Deep Lake.
We resumed our hike and enjoyed more nice scenery above Long Lake. We descended to the shore of Long Lake and then continued down to Deep Lake. The rain finally caught up to us on that final descent. This was no drizzle. It was coming down hard, and it was cold, too. It couldn’t have been much above freezing. We were worn out, and the weather was demoralizing. Fortunately our campground was just ahead. We reached it at 7:45.
Most of the campsites along the Chilkoot Trail have cooking shelters. Deep Lake is not one of them. Deep Lake is near treeline, too, so there wasn’t much natural shelter, either. When we arrived it was pouring, and the prospect of pitching the tent and cooking dinner in the rain wasn’t appealing. Our other option was to continue a couple more miles down to the Lindenman Lake campsite. That is a bigger campground, with a cooking shelter that is heated with a woodstove. Hiking a couple of additional miles wasn’t appealing, but the lure of the shelter and the woodstove was too much to ignore. Plus, continuing to Lindenman meant a shorter hike out on Saturday.
Those final miles were a downhill slog in the rain, but it was worth it. We reached Lindeman at 9:30, shortly before dusk. The ranger had been right – it had taken us all day. We were on the trail over 14 hours. We’d taken a few breaks, but most of that time had been spent hiking. The heated cooking shelter was as wonderful as advertised, and the rain stopped just before we arrived. It was delightful sitting in that heat, and we were even able to dry out our clothes somewhat that night.
I found a decent place to pitch the tent that wasn’t underwater, and we went to bed shortly after dinner.
The hike out was pretty easy, despite sore legs. There were some ups and downs above Lindenman Lake, which is quite pretty. The weather was decent on Saturday, with mostly overcast skies but no rain. We passed the last campsite at Bare Loon Lake, which had also been quite busy the previous evening. Due to the train schedule, everyone had camped at one of those two sites the final evening.
The final mile or two was quite sandy. We finally reached a nice view of Lake Bennett and strolled into the ghost town. There isn’t much left of the town, except for a restored church and the train station. The train station features two dining rooms – one for cruise ship tourists that had come in on the train that morning and one for hikers. Obviously the railroad doesn’t want those people to be intermingled, because one group tends to be stinky. There’s nothing worse than the overwhelming stench of perfume while you’re trying to eat lunch!
The hiker’s dining room was overflowing. We had to wait for someone to leave to get a seat, but nobody seemed interested in going back outside. A few other hikers came in after us, and we spoke to one of the servers. Eventually somebody made an announcement and some folks cleared out. We enjoyed a nice meal of hot stew (beef and vegetarian) along with rolls, pie, and lots and lots of really great coffee. I had requested a gluten-free meal for Christy in advance, and they had made the veggie stew without gluten just for her. That was really nice, and for $10 each we definitely got our money’s worth! I think I drank $10 worth of coffee. I also got two rolls and two pieces of pie since Christy couldn’t eat them.
The train ride was fun. Two of the train’s cars were designated for Hiker Trash, while the remainder was set aside for tourists. The first part of the ride, up to White Pass on the British Columbia / Alaska border, was pleasant. We passed an endless string of alpine lakes, but the views were only marginal due to the overcast conditions. The most exciting moment during this part of the ride was seeing a black bear. It was only the second bear we’d seen during the trip.
After a brief stop at White Pass we began the long, slow descent to Skagway. This part of the ride was extremely scenic, with mountains, glaciers, and canyons, and waterfalls on all sides. At one point we could see all the way down to the valley to the Taiya Inlet. We passed through at least one tunnel and crossed numerous trestles, too. I rode on the platform at the back of our car for most of this section so that I could get photos.
We pulled into Skagway right on time, at 4:45. That was a relief, as I had to pick up the rental car from Avis before they closed at 5. Missing that would’ve thrown a monkey wrench into our plans for the final week of the trip. Unfortunately we had to endure a passport check on the train before we could disembark. Luckily they made that quick. I jogged the 2 blocks to the Avis office while Christy waited at the train station.
I got the car with minutes to spare and drove back to the station to pick Christy up. Then we returned to the Skagway Inn and picked up our luggage. We stopped at the Skagway Recreation Center to take showers, picked up groceries, and had dinner at an Indian Restaurant. Then we headed out of Skagway, back towards White Pass and the Yukon. During the gold rush of 1898, the prospectors spent months hiking and canoeing to the Klondike. We were going to drive it in a day!
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