ALASKA SUMMER 2015, PART 4: SKAGWAY
After returning from Sitka we spent one final rainy evening in Juneau. We ran some errands in preparation for the final two parts of our trip. First we’d take a ferry to Skagway. After spending a day and a half there, we would spend 3 days backpacking the Chilkoot Trail. The Chilkoot Trail is one of the routes that were used during the Klondike gold rush of 1898.
After finishing our backpacking trip we’d take a train on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad back to Skagway. Then we would rent a car to drive up into the Yukon. We planned to visit Whitehorse and Dawson City and hike in the Tombstone Mountains and Kluane National Park. We’d finish the trip by driving down to Haines, where we’d catch a ferry back to Skagway and on to Juneau.
Our final night in Juneau would be in a different hotel, close to the airport. That meant that we had to take all of our luggage with us. That was an unpleasant reminder of just how much stuff we’d brought. There is something to be said for traveling light!
The ferry ride from Juneau to Skagway started out rainy, but conditions improved as we went. By the time we reached our stop in Haines the clouds were beginning to break up. The final cruise up the Taiya Inlet was lovely, with views of mountains and glaciers and dozens of massive waterfalls cascading down the walls of fjord. As we approached Skagway I noticed that the mountains to the east were emerging from the clouds. I hadn’t originally planned to hike on our first afternoon in Skagway, but I’d learned not to pass up on good weather in Alaska. I quickly began planning a hike that would take advantage of the rapidly improving conditions. My pick was Upper Dewey Lake and the Devil’s Punch Bowl. The trailhead was in town, so it would be easy to access. However, the one way hike would be just over 4 miles, with 3,600’ of elevation gain. Ouch! Christy decided to skip it.
We were spending our two nights in Skagway at the Historic Skagway Inn. The inn was originally a whorehouse, back in the gold rush days. So yeah, I picked our accommodations just so I could tell people that we spent two nights in a whorehouse. There were some other advantages though. Our stay included a free pickup from the ferry, and a free drop off at the Chilkoot Trailhead in Dyea. That’s 10 miles away, and we wouldn’t have a car for this part of the trip. Free breakfast was also included, along with luggage storage while we were on the trail.
The owner, Karl, picked us up at the ferry and took us to the inn, which was maybe a mile away. The inn is quite nice, though our room was pretty cramped. All of the rooms are named after former employees, and we were in Kitty’s room.
Christy decided to spend the afternoon relaxing and poking around town. By the time we had everything situated it was 4pm, so I needed to get on the trail if I wanted to finish before dark.
I walked through town to the trailhead, which served as a pleasant warm up for the steep ascent ahead. A stout climb brought me to Lower Dewey Lake, which is in heavy forest 500’ above Skagway. This first section of trail was quite busy with hikers and tourists, as it is a fairly easy destination. The trail from there to Upper Dewey Lake is longer, steeper, and was much quieter. I only saw a few people after leaving Lower Dewey Lake.
The climb to Upper Dewey Lake was relentless. The trail followed cascading Dewey Creek, which was a nice distraction. I rarely hike for speed, but this was an ideal time for that approach. I’d gotten a late start, and I knew that Christy would be waiting for me for dinner. Plus, I wanted to make it all of the way to the Devil’s Punchbowl before heading down. I ended up doing the 3 miles (with 3,100’ of elevation gain) to Upper Dewey Lake in less than an hour and a half.
Upper Dewey Lake is quite scenic, as it sits in an alpine basin backed by rugged mountains and a small glacier. It is situated at treeline, so the views are nice, but there is still quite a bit of vegetation. Although it was somewhat cloudy, there was enough blue sky overhead to qualify this as some of the best weather of the whole trip. There are two cabins here. The nice one is available for a fee, and reservations are required. It is right on the lake. The free hiker’s shelter is back in the woods. I had a break and a snack on the deck of the nicer cabin since there wasn’t anybody around.
Since I’d made great time to Upper Dewey Lake, I decided to continue on to the Devil’s Punch Bowl. I had a little trouble following the route, as I lost it in a maze of boulders on the ridge above Upper Dewey Lake. Once I regained it the rest of the hike was easier. I strolled up a grassy ridge overlooking the Taiya Inlet and the town of Skagway, which was 3,600’ straight down! Clouds were billowing up out of the fjord to race across the mountains. The best view though was back across Upper Dewey Lake. As is often the case with alpine lakes, the best views are from above them. Even better, the entire ridge I was on was blanketed in delicate golden flowers. I did a lot of rock hopping to avoid trampling them. Those flowers were the only vegetation, as this ridge is well above treeline.
I walked over to a perch where I could look down on the Devil’s Punch Bowl. It is a neat little tarn in a rocky defile. It was getting late, and I didn’t see any advantage to scrambling down to the shore. I took a break there before beginning the hike back. I took my time and savored every view back down to Upper Dewey Lake. From there, I kicked it into overdrive to get back down to Skagway.
We had dinner at the Skagway Brewing Company, which was excellent. Christy was pleased that they had quite a few gluten-free options, which is unusual for a brewery. I was pleased that they had a really good IPA. Afterwards we retired to Miss Kitty’s room. My original plan for Wednesday was a killer hike up AB Mountain. That one requires climbing 5,000’ in 5 miles! Unfortunately the weather forecast looked marginal. Instead, we planned to explore around Skagway.
We slept in a bit and enjoyed a nice breakfast at the inn. Then we walked downtown and took care of some errands. We picked up our tickets for our train ride back to Skagway, from the end of the trail at the ghost town of Bennett. Then we stopped in at the Parks Canada office to pick up our backpacking permit. The Chilkoot Trail is unusual in that half of it is in the United States and the other half is in British Columbia, Canada. The trail crosses the border at Chilkoot Pass, and there is even a Canadian customs office there. The Canadian Parks System handles all of the permits for the Chilkoot Trail.
After that we stopped at the visitor’s center which features a small museum. We even watched the movie to gain a better appreciation for the historical significance of the trail we would be hiking. During the gold rush, the stampeders each made about 50 trips to carry adequate supplies over Chilkoot Pass. Most of them went in the winter, too! Once in Canada, they traveled the rest of the way to the Yukon by boat. The towns of Dyea and Skagway sprang up overnight to serve as bases for the stampeders. There isn’t much left of Dyea, but modern-day Skagway owes its existence to the gold rush.
Here is some background info: http://www.nps.gov/klgo/learn/goldrush.htm
The park website also has information about historic Skagway: http://www.nps.gov/klgo/learn/historyculture/skagwaydistrict.htm
We spent all morning in town. Skagway is crazy from mid-morning through mid-afternoon due to the daily influx of tourists from the cruise ships. There were 3 cruise ships in port while we were there. We found Skagway to be much more enjoyable early in the morning, and in the evening after the tourists scurried back to their lairs.
After a nice but busy lunch at the Red Onion Saloon we took a short hike out to the Gold Rush Cemetery and Reid Falls. Along the way we passed by the White Pass and Yukon rail yard so I could check out the trains. I had a great view of AB Mountain from here, which was lost in the clouds. It looked like I’d chosen wisely.
The Gold Rush Cemetery features the grave sites of many of Skagway’s most famous and most notorious citizens. My favorite was Jeff “Soapy” Smith, who was an outlaw and con man, before he was killed in a gun fight. More info is available here: http://www.nps.gov/klgo/learn/historyculture/upload/GOLD-RUSH-CEMETERY.pdf
The cemetery was interesting, and Lower Reid Falls was definitely worth seeing. Afterwards we walked back to Skagway. Christy decided to do a little shopping while I did another short hike out to Yakutania Point and Smugglers Cove. This is another hike that is easily accessible from town.
I walked down past the airport towards the dock and then crossed a footbridge over the Skagway River. From there I followed an easy trail out to Yakutania Point, which features nice views of Taiya Inlet and the surrounding mountains. The clouds had lifted somewhat, making for a pretty ending to an otherwise overcast day. I continued on around to Smugglers Cove and scrambled a bit on the rocks there. Smugglers Cove offers similar views. From Smugglers Cove it is possible to continue on up AB Mountain, but I didn’t have time for that. Instead I headed back so that we could get organized for our backpacking trip. That evening we had dinner at the Skagway Brewing Company again. We headed to bed early, as we would be getting an early start the next morning.
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