This blog is a repost from a former staff member too good not to share again. We hope it inspires you to plan your next adventure.
I was recently in Alaska with my Dad, with the sole purpose of hiking the historic Chilkoot Trail. Before our trip I read many posts online about the trail, attempting to prepare myself as much as I could. I wanted to know what to expect. Even though I found a lot of helpful information, it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. So I decided that while I hiked, I would write down the things I wanted to share about what hiking the Chilkoot Trail was actually like. If you’re looking for historic detail or travel tips, this probably isn’t what you’ll want to read. If you want to know what kind of terrain you’ll be hiking or how long each section of the trail takes, please read on!
We decided to hike the trail in 5 nights from Dyea to Bennett. The most popular set of campsites to stay at on a 5 day trek are Canyon City, Sheep Camp, Happy Camp, Lindeman City, and Bennett. This can definitely vary depending on many things, such as what time of day you get started on day one, or train schedules in Bennett. If you are staying in Skagway before the trek and don’t have a vehicle, TruMoore Services operates an easy van ride for hikers to get to the trail head in Dyea. It’s $20 per person, and can be easily booked online. At the end of the trail in Bennett, you have two options; a private seaplane, or the WhitePass Train from Bennett to either Skagway or Carcross/Whitehorse. That’s it for my quick recommendations, on to the trail!
Day 1: Trail head to Canyon City
This trail doesn’t ease you in to hiking, when you start, it’s all systems go! The trail immediately takes a treacherous climb upwards, winding through tree roots and rocks. All the way up, then all the way back down for two kilometers. The good news is, once you get back down, you’ve got a long flat stretch ahead of you. It’s not an illusion, it stays flat and easy with a few boardwalks here and there to navigate a marshy area labeled on maps as the ‘Beaver Pond’. This continues all the way to Finnegan Point Camp (km 8) which is a popular spot to stop for lunch or snacks. There’s a small cabin, a picnic table and it’s only steps off the trail. It took us about 2.5 hours to reach Finnegan Point, and it’s about 2/3 of the way to Canyon City.
When you leave Finnegan campsite, the trail follows the Taiya River shore for a little while. Only a few steps onto the trail after the campsite, be sure to look back out over the river. There’s a gorgeous view of the glacier coming over the top of the mountains on your left. All too soon the trail starts to climb again. It appear to level back out shortly after, but this time it IS an illusion. It doesn’t stay flat, but the ups and downs aren’t quite as extreme as before. You will cross a river with the water thundering down under the bridge, then follow a very rocky trail for a ways. This rocky trail then turns into a mine of small boulders to navigate. There’s a good kilometer or more of relatively flat but rocky trail. Be careful not to twist an ankle! This was around the time we started to get tired and sore, but if you’re not alert and careful you could easily get hurt with a misstep. This rocky terrain eventually gives way to some very muddy ups and downs over tree roots and slippery rocks again. Use caution and don’t rush, the camp isn’t around the next corner yet. Here’s your hint; during your decent from the hillside, you will come across a stone staircase leading down. This is it! This is the final stretch! Don’t start running, but when you reach the bottom of those steps, you’ll round the next corner and heave a breath of relief as you see the cooking cabin come in to view. You’ve made it to Canyon City! The tent-sites themselves are a bit further ahead, branching off both sides of the trail. Thre was a nice little campsite right on the edge of the Taiya River. For us, it was another 2.5 hours from Finnegan Point to Canyon City, totaling around 5 hours to travel 12.5km. This is our hiking pace, you could be a bit faster, or a bit slower. Everyone’s different!
This is a great opportunity to make some friends and be social. You will likely be seeing most of these hikers every night at camp, and every day on the trails. We found a family of 5 that lives not even an hour from my home all the way back in Ontario! This was also the place we met two people that we spent the majority of our time with for the rest of the trip! Not only hiking and at camp, but in Whitehorse after the hike, and we hope to stay in touch long after. Making camp a social setting can make for a much better experience along the trail.
From Canyon City, there is a short side trail over to the Canyon City Ruins. It’s a one kilometer trek each way, but it’s on flat trail and neat to explore. You’ll wander past an old oven, a steam boiler, remains of an old house and other small bits and bobs. This can be a nice little afternoon side hike once you’ve had a chance to set up camp and relax a bit, or you could wait until morning and visit the ruins as you head out.
Day 2: Canyon City to Sheep Camp
From camp to camp, this section of the trail is about 8 km. When you leave Canyon City, you again get a small illusion of easy trails with flat ground. Don’t be fooled! Not far past the turn to the Canyon City Ruins you will come across another stone staircase, this time heading up. As you begin to climb, it feels like it will never end as it winds its way up the mountainside. (I mean it, this one seems to go on forever). When you do finally make it to the top, take a moments break and check out the view while you have some water. You’ll get another amazing glimpse of a glacier peeking over the top of the mountain across the river. Now, I hate to say it, but the next 4.5 km is a grueling trek ascending and descending (mostly ascending) over the mountainside. When you finally come back down to the river, you’ll be happy to soon see the cabin of Pleasant Camp. This was our stop for lunch after about 2 hours of hiking, but there weren’t any picnic tables at the time. We wandered a path towards the river and found a great little ‘beach’ area to settle for our break.
You’ll be happy to hear that the trail from Pleasant Camp to Sheep Camp is a welcome relief after all the ups and downs of the morning. You’ll cross an awesome suspension bridge over some rapids, and meander through the woods for the last 3.5 km. The path stays relatively level with a few ups and downs. Definitely much easier than the morning hike. The part of this section that I enjoyed was the peacefulness that this forest provided. Moss covers the majority of the ground around here, and it really absorbs the sounds. It was amazing to take a minute to sit and relax and listen to how quiet it was. Before you know it, the signs and buildings for the Sheep Camp Rangers Station are popping out of the woods on your left. The camp itself is about 0.8 km further along, but you will be welcomed by many little huts and tent platforms soon enough. It took another 2 hours to reach Sheep Camp after lunch, for a total of 4 hours to travel 8 km. Sheep Camp also has a large shelter full of picnic tables which makes for a very social and relaxing afternoon and evening with your new made friends! There is a Ranger talk every night, so that they can inform hikers of any conditions or warnings about the trail ahead. They advise an early start to summit day, because it can take anywhere from 6-12 hours to get to Happy Camp.
Day 3: Sheep Camp to Happy Camp – Summit Day!!
We hit the trail by 6am, as recommended by the Rangers. The first half of day 3 is going to be almost all up hill. Enjoy the hike winding through the forest, and watch as the ecosystems slowly change as you continue throughout the day. Again, remember to take the time to look back. There are some amazing views of the mountains rising behind you. We took picture after picture as we climbed. It wasn’t difficult making good time between Sheep Camp and the Scales, but after that your pace will slow considerably. There are a lot of interesting artifacts littering the ground around the Scales and on the way up to the summit. Take pictures for memories, but you’re not allowed to touch these. Once you’ve made it to the Scales, it’s time to put your trekking poles away. You’re going to need your hands to help you scramble up the boulders of the pass. Be sure to follow the markers to keep you on track. We had a beautiful, clear day and could see the top when we started, but it can be very foggy which would make it difficult to see from one marker to the next.
There are 3 false summits before you are actually over the pass. The first is the one you can see from the Scales. When you get there, you’ll pass a small old engine that was likely used to power the tramway back during the gold rush. From there, you will be able to see the second false summit. We had to climb a patch of snow and rock to make it to this one. Be careful of falling rocks while you climb. We saw and heard a few tumble down the passage behind us. From the top of the second false summit you will see a plaque on the top of the next peak of rocks. The trail veers to the right of this sign and over the third false summit. Keep your eyes open, this was the area we saw a few mountain goats on the rocks near by. Now you should have you’re first glimpse of the true summit! We had a large patch of snow to cross to get to it, but when you see those diamond orange markers on the other side, you know you’ve made it! Those markers signify the Canadian side of the pass. Take a few moments to take some pictures, because once you make your way to the shelter, you wont want to climb back to the pass for pictures you may have missed. This is your last view of Alaska, and your first view of British Columbia. A little ways ahead on the left you’ll find the Rangers cabin and the warming shelter for tired, cold hikers. The view of Crater Lake when you come over the pass is absolutely breathtaking, and the photo ops continue throughout the day. It is highly recommended to stop at the summit and warm up, take in some snacks. Getting to the summit took us 5.5 hours for the 5.7km climb. In the shelter, there are post cards that you can fill out, writing to yourself. Write notes on how you feel or what you think and address it to yourself! One year from that day, that post card will be mailed back to you. (I can’t wait to get mine back next year!)
As awesome as it is to summit the pass and relax, you’re unfortunately only half way to Happy Camp. The next few hours and kilometers are not as tough as your morning climb, but it feels long. You’re hiking as far as you can see from the pass and then some. There’s some more rocks (to descend this time), intermittent with large snow patches. Be careful transitioning from rock to snow and back, it’s possible to break trough the snow around those edges. Gorgeous Canadian scenery surrounds you. I definitely stopped to take a lot of pictures along this stretch. Soon you will start to notice small bits of the greenery coming back to the landscape. There are a few creeks to cross, but the water didn’t get to the inside of our boots. I wish I could tell you sooner than later, but I can’t… Eventually, you will come over the crest of a hill and off in the distance you will see the roofs of the cabin and bathrooms at Happy Camp. You’re still about 0.8 km away, but it’s fairly easy hiking from that point. This camp is aptly named, because boy are you ever happy when you finally get there!
It only took us about 2.5 hours to reach camp from the Summit. The 12.1 km day took us a total of 8 hours. The Rangers said that a good estimate of the time this day will take is the total time it took you to get from the trail head to Sheep Camp (including breaks). Our total was 9 hours, and we finished Summit Day in 8 hours.
Day 4: Happy Camp to Lindeman City
A nice easy day after summit day, though we had a lot of wet equipment from an overnight rain. Camp was engulfed in cloud when we woke. We had a late start, just taking our time in the morning knowing it was a short day. The trail starts out a bit rough, following a very narrow, rocky edge along the river. The winds were high and the gusts that caught our packs could easily throw your footing off. The trail is difficult footing enough, the extra obstacle of wind made it a bit tricky to navigate. It’s less than a kilometer of this terrain before the trail cuts up into the hill beside you. Switchback after switchback all the way up the still rocky path. Up and down over the rocks. For me, this was one of my most miserable moments of the journey. Cold and windy, the ground still wet and slippery. Nose running, legs burning, too warm with the rain jacket on but too cold without it. Hiking uphill on uneven footing on top of all of that just had my mood way down. Eventually the sun poked through the clouds which made it much warmer. Around the same time, we finally came over the crest of the rocky hillside to see Deep Lake and the downhill trail to the campsite at the head of the lake where we planned to have lunch. As miserable as I may have been up to this point, it only took 1.5 hours to travel this short 4 km section, and my mood definitely improved. This was a beautiful location to relax for a lunch break.
Between Deep Lake and Lindeman City it was recommended to travel in groups of 4 or more due to bear activity. We met up with a few fellow hikers and friends to continue on. It’s about 4.8 km for this stretch of trail, but it’s easy walking and only took our group about 2 hours. Mostly level or downhill trail, a bit rocky as it follows the shores of Deep Lake. You will reach an old boat frame on the side of the trail, then follow along the cliffs of a gorge. The continuous slow decent on flat paths makes for a quick, easy journey down to Lindeman. You will come to a fork in the path at Lindeman, since it has an upper and lower area for camping. Lower is closer to the Rangers Station and the trail to Bennett for morning, but Upper has more campsites. We stayed at lower, and it seemed to be more popular. A lot of hikers came in looking to settle for the night, but had to turn around and head to upper to find a campsite. If you’re early in the pack for the day, I definitely recommend the lower sites. But if you know you’re near the back of the days groups, it’s probably better to head straight to the upper campsites and save yourself the trek down to lower and then back to upper. The lake offers a beautiful view, and with it being a short day (3.5 hours total) it gives you lots of time at camp to dry things out, relax, socialize and wet your feet in the cool water. If you’re brave enough, maybe even a polar dip! We had two young teenagers at camp that night who took the plunge!
This lower campsite also had an interpretive center tent set up full of pictures and historic information about the trail. There were a few board games to play, and a small library of books that could be used for the night and returned before you leave. There is also a stack of certificates that certify you hiked the trail. Take one, write your name and take it home for bragging rights.
Day 5: Lindeman City to Bennett
You’ll be used to this terrain by now. After a brief hike out of camp, the trail begins to climb up rocky and muddy mountainside. This lasts for about 2.5 km before you finally reach the top and get some great views. We thought this was a good spot for a short break, not realizing that Bare Loon Lake Camp was not much further. Push a bit further (downhill now) and you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful campsite with sheltered picnic tables for a lunch break. At this point we were still traveling as a group of 6 due to bear activity. It was a quick 2 hour hike to Bare Loon, and the location is worth a good little break to take in the scene. We made friends with a baby squirrel while we ate. This section of the trail also had a lot of Moose scat. We didn’t get to see any Moose, but they were definitely in the area.
Past Bare Loon Camp, the trail winds its way up and down through rock and mud for a few more kilometers. It’s fairly easy hiking and before you know it you’ll come across a small cabin in the woods. There is a sign on the door that tells hikers they can rest and warm if necessary, but to leave it clean with the doors closed when you move on. Once you’ve passed the cabin the trail turns to a sandy path (yes, sand!). It’s almost like walking through a small desert with forest not far off to the sides. From the cabin to Bennett is about 2.5 km, entirely on this sand. There’s not too much elevation change, but walking through loose sand is not as fun as you may think. It’s hard trekking and makes the calves burn. Before you know it, you’ll crest a hill and see the tops of buildings at the bottom. There’s a beautiful lookout to the left, marked with signs right before you head down. This is the home stretch! Down that hill and into Bennett! You’ll see the old church, and from here its a right turn down to the train station, or a left turn down to the campsites. Beautiful sites with plenty of space and more amazing views with lots of artifacts scattered along the beach. It was around 2.5 hours to reach Bennett from Bare Loon, totaling day 5 at 4.5 hours for 11.3 km. WE MADE IT! The sense of accomplishment is a great feeling. We stayed the final night here at Bennett, spending one last night with our new friends before catching the train to Whitehorse the next morning.
What an amazing trail! What an amazing experience! Building lifelong friends, lifelong memories with my Dad, I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. The weather was great, the scenery was gorgeous, if anyone is even thinking of doing this hike I definitely recommend you do! I hope this helps give you an idea of what the hike will be like.