Several readers have requested advice about hiking the Chilkoot Trail.
The Chilkoot is a 33-mile hiking trail from Alaska to Canada that an estimated 70,000 gold prospectors used during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898. Most of the prospectors left from the boomtown of Dyea and hauled a literal ton of gear to survive a year in the Yukon, as required by the Northwest Mounted Police. The remains of the scales used to weigh these supplies can still be seen near the top of the Chilkoot Pass, which marks the international border.
Remnants of The Yukon Gold Rush
Artifacts of the gold rush line the trail in what is claimed to be the world’s longest museum. It’s also an international park, spanning the US-Canadian border.
Tim and I hiked the Chilkoot last year. It took considerable advance planning.
Hikers need permits and reservations. Only fifty hikers are allowed to start each day during the short hiking season from June first to early September. The permit allows you on the trail; the reservations are for the designated campsites. Permits sell out.
We started in Skagway, where we reported to the Chilkoot Trail Center to check in and register, watch a movie about bear safety, and tie our permits to our packs. The trail ends at Lake Bennett, in Canada, so we had to show our passports when we picked up our railway tickets for the train back. Then we took a shuttle to Dyea, now a ghost town, where the trail actually starts.
We planned a four night, five-day hike. With eighteen hours of daylight, we had ample time to hike from point to point and then relax in camp. The camps were outfitted with tent platforms, a warming tent and cooking/eating shelter, water, wash pit and privy. They also had bear boxes, where we stored our food at night.
The week we were on the trail, we were the only hikers from the Lower Forty-eight. Others were from northern Alaska or western Canada. We were also the only hikers not carrying bear spray, and the only hikers disappointed not to see any bears.
Compared to hiking the rocky goat trails that ascend the mountains of the northeast, the Chilkoot was a super highway: smooth, wide paths up a gentle grade until we came to the infamous Golden Staircase our third day out. Climbing the stairs and crossing the pass is challenging for several reasons: elevation gain; loose stones, avalanche risk, and hype.
The Golden Stairs
The day’s hike begins with 2,500 feet of elevation gain in three miles, from Sheep Camp to the top of the pass.
The first two miles rise gently along a beautifully built trail that brought us above tree line, with cinematic views of the valley below. Once past the crumbling scales, however, the trail turns rocky, and the rocks are unstable. I picked my way across the wobbly ground, intent on not breaking my ankle. (Been there, done that.)
Then we reached the snowfield, where footing was only marginally easier. It was June twenty-eighth, and there was snow right up to the Golden Stairs.
The stairs themselves were snow-free, but enveloped in fog, and much worse than the weather.
First of all, the stairs are not steps but a steep, loose tumble of rocks, most of which wiggle when touched. I waited for Tim to get well ahead of me, so I’d be less likely to be killed if he accidently pried one loose as he floated up to the top. I also tried to ignore how much fun he was having while I concentrated on testing each hand- and foot-hold, trying to keep three points of contact with the earth, something I learned in college, when I thought rock-climbing was fun.
Summiting was like childbirth: once I summited, I didn’t think the climb was so bad.
The landscape on the Canadian side was surreal: we were in a treeless, sub-arctic wilderness of snow. Orange flags planted in the snow marked our path, and signs warned us every time we were about to cross an avalanche zone.
We lost altitude nearly as swiftly as we gained it, descending into alpine terrain covered with tiny blooms of heartbreaking beauty. And then we were at Happy Camp.
We’d attended the Rangers’ talk at Sheep Camp the night before crossing the pass. In an effort to keep hikers safe, National Park Service Rangers described the hike in detail, carefully laying out all the dangers, none of which they could control. They could, however, urge us to an early start so that we would traverse the avalanche zones as early in the day as possible to take advantage of colder, firmer snow.
Following orders, we rose at 4 am and were on the trail by 4:30. Just a week past the solstice, it was already light when we set out.
The Rangers’ advice was good, but delivered with a heavy hand.
People forget that driving a car is the most dangerous activity most of us engage in – and something we rarely think of as risky. Hiking the Chilkoot is a less common experience, and possibly less risky. But only about 2,000 hikers do it each summer, so it’s rare. I’m really glad to be among the few who’ve walked through history, hiking the Chilkoot Trail.
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