When I first started planning our Alaska trip, including Canada in the itinerary didn’t cross my mind. However, while looking at a map of the Skagway area, I noticed a road heading north across White Pass to Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory. We’d never been to The Yukon, so that was tempting. West of Whitehorse are the St. Elias Mountains. A large portion of the range is included in Kluane National Park. Kluane includes Mount Logan (19,551’), the highest mountain in Canada. That park borders Wrangell / St. Elias National Park, in Alaska. It also borders Tatshenshini - Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, which borders Glacier Bay National Park, in Alaska. The combined area, which covers more than 32 million acres, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The site contains the largest non-polar icefield in the world and includes some of the world’s longest and most spectacular glaciers.
From Kluane National Park it is possible to drive south back into Alaska at Haines. From Haines, it is easy to return to Skagway via a short ferry ride.
While studying the hiking options in the Yukon, I was reminded of an article I read years ago in Backpacker magazine about the Tombstone Mountains in the Klondike. At the time I was fascinated by that park. It is very remote, being several hundred miles north of Whitehorse and only a short distance south of the Arctic Circle. The mountains there are a beautiful black granite. Could we include them in the trip, too? If we did, we’d have to visit Dawson City, which is only a short distance away. It would be fitting, since we were hiking the Chilkoot Trail, following in the footsteps of the prospectors during the gold rush of 1898. Dawson City and the Klondike was their destination. It seemed appropriate to end our trip up there.
The Yukon was appealing for another reason. After three weeks in the rain forests of southeastern Alaska, we’d probably be weary of the rain. The summer climate in the Yukon is warmer and drier.
Ultimately we decided to rent a car (expensive!) and drive from Skagway to Whitehorse. From there we’d continue on to Dawson City and the Tombstone Mountains. After a couple of days of backpacking in the Tombstones, we’d double-back to Whitehorse and then drive west to Haines Junction. We’d spend a couple of days hiking in Kluane National Park before driving south to Haines. From Haines we’d catch the ferry back to Skagway. After returning the rental car, we’d take the ferry back to Juneau and fly home.
The drive from Skagway to White Pass featured some nice scenery despite marginal weather. We made it through Canadian Customs quickly. We passed through a small sliver of British Columbia and entered the Yukon Territory for the first time. We headed for Whitehorse and passed some beautiful alpine lakes. Unfortunately we drove through a monster thunderstorm and passed right by Emerald Lake during the deluge. Emerald Lake is considered the biggest highlight of this drive, and we completely missed it.
We made it through the storm and into Whitehorse. Whitehorse, with a population of 23K, is easily the largest city in the Yukon Territory. I’d made a reservation at the Robert Service Campground earlier that afternoon, and we headed straight there. The place was busy, so it’s good that I made the reservation, even though it was at the last minute. The campground is pretty nice, as it is situated right on the Yukon River on the edge of town. All of the campsites are walk-in, but they are spacious and comfortable. The only drawback to the campground is that everything other than the campsite (showers, WIFI, etc.) cost extra.
So far that day we’d backpacked 7 miles, taken a 2 ½ hour train ride, and driven from Skagway to Whitehorse. We were pretty exhausted. I managed to take a short walk down to the river, but that was the end of my energy. We went to bed shortly after dark.
We slept in a bit on Sunday. We woke to a surprisingly warm, sunny morning on my birthday. We cooked and ate breakfast at the campground and then drove around Whitehorse. There wasn’t a lot happening on Sunday morning. We picked up more groceries and hit Starbucks for a second round of coffee and free WIFI. Then we started the marathon drive up the Klondike Highway to Dawson City.
The drive was actually pretty boring. Early on there were some nice lakes, and we were close to the Yukon River at times. Mostly it was just rolling hills and scrubby trees for miles and miles. It is 330 miles from Whitehorse to Dawson City. The speed limit is 90KPH, which equates to 56MPH. I kept it closer to 90MPH. I couldn’t think of a single reason not to. There was nothing out there. We passed through a couple of villages (typically consisting of a single gas station) along the way, but otherwise we rarely passed another car. I suppose it would’ve been ugly if we’d hit a moose at 90MPH, but it would’ve been ugly at 56MPH, too.
Near the end of the drive we stopped at an overlook with a grand view of the Tombstone Mountains. We would be hiking in Tombstone Provincial Park the next day. That view had me itching to get on the trail. First though, we needed to visit Dawson City.
Dawson City is the second largest city in the Yukon Territory, with a population of 1,300. There is actually still quite a bit of gold mining in the area. It’s a neat little town, with lots of historic buildings. Before we explored it, we took the free ferry across the Yukon River. It’s an interesting ferry, as it only holds about 10 cars. On the far side we made the short drive downstream to the Government Campground. It looked nice, and at $12 per night, it was a lot cheaper than the private campground close to the ferry.
After setting up camp we walked back to the ferry and rode back across the river. We explored town on foot and had dinner at Sourdough Joe’s. The meal was ok. Then we walked to the Downtown Hotel for drinks. Our primary goal was to take the Sour Toe Challenge.
To complete the Sour Toe Challenge, you simply take a shot of liquor (traditionally Yukon Jack) garnished with a mummified human toe. The only requirement is that the toe must touch your lips. Yes, this is what people do for fun in the Yukon in the winter.
You can read all about the origin of the Sour Toe Challenge here: http://dawsoncity.ca/attraction/sourtoe-cocktail-club/
The only other rule is that you can’t swallow the toe. They get really upset when people do that. Yes, this has happened – more than once:
In case you’re wondering, over 60K people have done this. Here’s one more link just in case you can’t get enough:
Afterwards we walked over to The Pit for more drinks. There was a local cover band performing, and they weren’t terrible. Then we walked back to the ferry and on to the campground. It was a fun way to spend my birthday, but we were starting a backpacking trip in the Tombstone Mountains in the morning!
Our plan for the Tombstone Mountains was an overnight backpacking trip to Grizzly Lake. It sounded like a scenic hike, as the trail is almost entirely above treeline as it follows a ridge to an alpine lake. From the campground at Grizzly Lake, short side trips to a pair of overlooks are possible. My plan was to do one of them on the first evening and the other early the next morning. It is also possible to launch an extended backpacking trip from Grizzly Lake, but we didn’t have enough time for a more ambitious trip.
Unfortunately Christy’s knee was sore and a little swollen following our backpacking trip on the Chilkoot Trail. She was reluctant to attempt the hike to Grizzly Lake, which the park describes as extremely strenuous. What if she hiked all the way there and her knee worsened? We decided to revise our plans. I would dayhike to Grizzly Lake while she grabbed a site at the car campground and toured the park in the rental car. That would be a 14 mile round trip with about 3,500’ of elevation gain for me. I would probably miss out on the side trips to the overlooks, but I would still get to Grizzly Lake and see all of the views on the way there.
We broke camp that morning, took the ferry back across the Yukon River, and headed out of Dawson City. After 30 minutes or so on the Klondike Highway we headed up the Dempster Highway towards the Arctic Circle. At one point we actually considered driving up there on a whim, but our research indicated that it would take at least a full day for the round trip. I’d rather spend that time hiking!
Christy dropped me off at the trailhead. Most of the Tombstone Mountains are trailess, but the Grizzly Creek Trail (which doesn’t follow Grizzly Creek) is an exception. In fact, it is possible to do a multi-day backpacking trip on decent trail starting with the hike to Grizzly Lake.
My hike started out in the woods near Grizzly Creek, but after 10 minutes I left both. The rest of the hike was above treeline. It was another warm, sunny day, which was startling after 3 rainy weeks in Alaska. I climbed steadily, and occasionally steeply, through endless meadows on Grizzly Ridge. Before long I reached the first overlook, which provides a view of Monolith Mountain – a stunning peak of black granite. It is surrounded by other jagged peaks. Grizzly Lake isn’t visible from that overlook, but it is from the second, higher vantage point. That overlook was a great place to stop for lunch. The Grizzly Creek valley sprawled out below me, while I enjoyed a straight-on view of Grizzly Lake and the incredible peaks surrounding it.
The climb to that point had been merciless, as I’d gained around 2,500’ in the first 3 miles. From there the hiking was much easier, although there were numerous talus fields to negotiate. That talus fields proved to be great places to look for marmots, pikas, and ground squirrels. The views of Grizzly Lake and Mount Monolith got better and better as I went. The last part of the hike was a steady descent down into the alpine basin holding Grizzly Lake.
I reached the lake in a little less than 5 hours. That doesn’t sound fast, but one guidebook I read suggested that the hike would take 9 hours one-way! The Grizzly Lake campground was a surprisingly busy place. I think there are 10 campsites there, and most of them appeared to be occupied. It was a bit startling seeing that many people in such a remote place. I shouldn’t have been surprised though. Grizzly Lake is the most popular hike in the park. Although it is a scenic location, the prospect of camping there didn’t excite me. That took the sting out of not backpacking it.
I hung out at the lake and debated doing one of the side trips. Ultimately I decided against it. The late afternoon sun was in a terrible place for photos, and I still had the 7 mile hike with another 1,000’ elevation gain for my return. Plus, Christy would be waiting for me. I’d given her a wild guess as to my return time. I instructed her to look for me at the trailhead at 8. If I wasn’t there, she could hang out at the campground and check on me each hour.
My return hike was faster and well-timed. I reached the trailhead at 8 to find Christy waiting for me. She had snagged a campsite that morning and then driven north on the Dempster Highway. During the drive she enjoyed some nice scenery and had spotted a moose and a bear. That evening we enjoyed a campfire and shared a giant burrito before heading to bed.
We were winging it on Tuesday due to our change in plans. Our original plan called for us to finish our backpacking trip with the hike out from Grizzly Lake. Since we’d bailed on the backpacking, we had the morning free. We didn’t have time for a long hike though, as we were planning on driving back to Whitehorse that afternoon. Our goal was to get to the campground at Takhini Hot Springs before the springs closed. Originally we’d planned to hit the hot springs on my birthday, but they had been closed for a private wedding.
The Goldensides hike seemed perfect. It is fairly easy, scenic, and just a couple of miles each way. After a pancake breakfast we drove a couple of miles up the Dempster Highway. On the way we stopped at a pulloff with a great view up the North Klondike River Valley all the way to Tombstone Mountain.
The hike was delightful. It was another sunny, warm day (our third in a row!) and the scenery was fantastic. We enjoyed wonderful views, scrambled around on some rock outcrops, and took time to smell the wildflowers. The Goldensides hike was the perfect compliment to my more ambitious trek to Grizzly Lake the previous day.
The drive back to Whitehorse seemed even longer, despite the fact that I was driving even faster. Along the way we noticed that some of the aspens along the highway were beginning to change color. Apparently fall foliage starts in the first week of August in the Klondike!
We picked up groceries in Whitehorse and then drove out to Takhini Hot Springs. We set up in the campground, which is small but very pleasant, before heading over to the hot springs. Although the springs are natural, they are essentially confined within a swimming pool. Although they aren’t a thrilling wilderness destination, the springs were still enjoyable. The 104 degree water was soothing after several weeks of hiking and kayaking. We also spotted a marmot cavorting in an adjacent meadow while we were enjoying our soak.
We had a late dinner that night, with grilled chicken, mac and cheese, and salad. Our late night wasn’t ideal, as the last big hike of our trip was scheduled for the next day.
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