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  • Writer's pictureRoy Thomas

Chilkoot Trail, a Golden Opportunity

The Chilkoot Trail is a walk through history.

A pre fab boat frame from about 120 years ago sits ashore near Deep Lake
The ghostly remains of an 120 year old boat frame. The first stampeders cut down the forest to built boats to float the Yukon. It wasn't long before the trees were gone and pre-fab boat kits were hauled into the wilderness.

The first Yukon Gold was discovered in 1896, after that first haul of wealth reached Seattle it wasn't long before the whole world was abuzz about riches of the north. Stampeders from the States, from Argentina, Australia, Germany, England and various other points around the globe headed for the Klondike Gold Fields. For most, that journey formalized once they reached Seattle. Seattle, still rebuilding after the devastating fire of 1889 was a willing host for those steamship bound dreamers. It wasn't long before Seattle was bustling with supply houses and steamship companies at the ready to provide services to the Territory of Alaska and the Yukon gold fields of Canada. To this day Seattle remains a hub of supply and transport for Alaska. It was only fitting that we began our Chilkoot Trail journey in Seattle, the gateway to Alaska.

The Seattle unit of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park was the perfect place to begin our exploration of the footsteps of gold seekers who went before us. This interpretive center is host to an amazing display of historical artifacts, interpretative displays as well as rotating exhibits and is well worth your time. An added bonus is that admission is free. Be sure and check out the 30 minute video which will give you a good understanding of the history and events that led to the Klondike Gold Rush.

One of the unexpected treats of our visit to this center was a display of art by Daphne Mennell who was the artist in residence in 2014 along the Chilkoot Trail. It wasn't until after hiking the trail that I truly appreciated her magnificent paintings of the journey.

Another don't miss opportunity at this center is the free one hour walking tour of the downtown area. This tour offers an opportunity to acquaint yourself with the history of downtown Seattle and how it relates to the gold rush. During your visit to Seattle be sure and stop by one of the eating and drinking establishments that allow you to enjoy some great food and drink in the exact locations where the original gold seekers partook.

If you still are hungry for Seattle and Gold rush history be sure and book a spot on the Seattle Underground Tour.

Lower level store front would have greeted the prospectors with necessary gear.

A luxury offered up in the city.

We chose to stay at an Airbnb right in the heart of downtown to maximize our time in the great city of Seattle and to enjoy being in the very locations where the gold rush started. Even today businesses in Seattle celebrate and commemorate the events of the late 19th century.

Of course being in the Puget Sound region of Washington State means seafood. We took an opportunity to enjoy some waterfront dining at the Crab Pot Restaurant.

Of course no visit to downtown Seattle is complete without a trip the the Pike Place Market. Be sure and stop into the Pike Brewing Company and enjoy a sample flight of beers.

We also enjoyed a visit to the newly remodeled Space Needle which now includes glass floors and walls. The view is priceless and includes a look at the vibrant modern waterfront where the steamships once berthed before heading north.

We averaged 10 miles a day in downtown Seattle. Seeing the sights on foot is our favorite pastime. Coffee shops, breweries, museums, shops and restaurants all make Seattle a special place for on foot living. With our time in Seattle done it was time to head north.

For our trip north we intentionally booked a 6 hour layover in Sitka, AK. Sitka is my hometown and the city where we met.

In our walking around Sitka we came upon another important historical site. This is where she said yes almost 25 year ago.

From Sitka it is a short flight over to Juneau. We overnighted with old Kodiak friends, who now live in Juneau and headed to the ferry the next morning.

We were greeted in Skagway by monster cruise ships.

Skagway can play host to as many as five large cruise ships.

We enjoyed our cabin in the woods staying at the Skagway Bungalows.

After a good nights rest we headed to the trail center to complete our orientation and pick up our trail permit.

The rangers from Parks Canada and the National Parks Service were very helpful and informative. Important trail updates and current weather forecast were displayed on the blackboard.

After orientation we enjoyed The Days of 98 Show.

After enjoying the show we headed out to pick up bear spray and fuel for the jet boil stove. The airport had both items available for us. Bear spray and stove fuel cannot be transported on airplanes as a result it is often available for free at the Skagway airport.

Once we had the last of our gear we stopped at the grocery store for a few fresh items to add to our menu and waited for the shuttle out to Dyea. We traveled out to the Dyea Campground with Dyea-Chilkoot Trail Transport. The one way fare runs $20 per person.

The Dyea Campground is just one fourth of a mile from the beginning of the Chilkoot Trail. We set up camp and then set out for an afternoon walk.

Our walk took us to the Slide Cemetery. On April 2 1898 dozens of stampeders were killed in a Palm Sunday avalanche. It is a somber place and a memorial to the hardships and risks that those seeking Klondike gold faced.

After our walk we enjoyed dinner, filtered water for the morning, and stowed our food and other items in the easily accessible bear lockers. This type of locker is provided at each of the campgrounds along the trail.

Throughout the evening I enjoyed watching a trio of sap suckers work over the trunk of a tree near out campsite. When the sap suckers would fly away the yellow jacket hornets would buzz in and feast on the sap made accessible by the birds. These types of symbiotic relationships are found throughout the natural world and are fascinating to watch.

After a good nights rest we enjoyed breakfast and began our journey along the Chilkoot Trail.


Dyea to Canyon City

Day One- 8 Miles

Excited and ready to begin

The trail starts out with fairly level with a riverside meander. It isn't long however before you are greeted by Saintly Hill, a steep climb that gets the blood pumping and brings you up and through some stunningly beautiful temperate rain forest.

After Saintly Hill the trail drops back down to the river. Crossing a steel framed bridge brings you across the river and the trail serpentines through a series of beaver ponds. The engineering of these remarkable rodents is impressive. Some of their dams holding back two or three feet of water in acre size ponds.

These sections of wide flat track give you a chance to recover and relax between the numerous ascents and descents on this trail

At the five mile mark you come to Finnegan's Point. This campsite and warming shelter shows the greatest level of disrepair along the trail. Few people camp here as Canyon City is the preferred destination for day one of the hike.

Water features abound in this temperate rain forest and bring a feast for the eyes and ears along the way

There is a brief but steep descent before you arrive at Canyon City

Canyon City's warming shelter is a welcome site as you wrap up day one of the journey. We chose a riverside tent site and set up our tent.

While camping at Canyon City take the time in the evening to visit the historic Canyon City site. The massive boiler generated steam to power a tram that hauled goods up and over the pass.

The bridge to the historic Canyon City was in need of some serious repair. New boards were staged just out of view for crews to start that process. The park crews do a fantastic job of maintaining trails, bridges and facilities.

Canyon City to Sheep Camp

Day two- 5 Miles

Distance wise this is a pretty short day. There are lots of ups and downs as you traverse the edge of the valley following the rivers path. Nearly every day on the path starts with an early steep uphill. It can be a bit discouraging but I like the steep starts as they quickly warm up the legs and the lungs for the rest of the day.

A hanging glacier hugs the mountains across the valley

Much of the forest scenery through this section looks like the perfect setting for a fantasy adventure story.

Lichens of various types, textures and colors were abundant on the trail

From Canyon City onward the number of artifacts along the trail increases.

The trail is has a constantly changing foot bed. From soft forest track to glacier scoured bedrock.

At this point the narrowing of the river becomes more evident and as we continue up the gradient of the stream will quickly steepen.

Pleasant Camp is another nice respite along the way. This is another campsite that does not get much use. It includes some delightful sites and is in better condition than Finnagen's Point.

Devil's club is one of my favorite Alaskan plants. In the spring you can practically see the leaf growth from day to day. Don't grab hold of one of those stalks or you will quickly learn how the plant got its name.

Sheep Camp was a welcome site and our anticipation of going over the pass began to build as we set up our tent.

Most of the campsites are outfitted with platforms. Some short bungees looped at both ends are helpful for setting up your tent on the platforms.

Sheep Camp to Happy Camp

Day Three- 8 Miles

This is the big day. The night before we attended the ranger briefing at the warming shelter. The briefing covered important current trail conditions and a nice summary of Chilkoot Trail history. We were going over just two days before the end of avalanche season so we were advised and encouraged to be on the trail by 5am in order to be over the pass and passed the stone crib before the afternoon temps increased avalanche risk. The day started out overcast and we hiked into the clouds. Once over the pass we hiked down into better weather on our way to Happy Camp.

Our journey took us right into those clouds

A preview of what was to come. We crossed this talus slope along the side of the canyon going over the pass we would be climbing up a slope like this.

The footbed is ever changing on the Chilkoot Trail

It wasn't long before we transitioned into the alpine with the flora changing rapidly

There is a pass up there somewhere

Just 24 hours earlier the stream required a suspension bridge to walk over, at this elevation you could step rock to rock and not get your feet wet. I have seen photos of this crossing that look a lot more challenging during wetter or warmer weather.

Trail markers make their appearance, in this terrain and weather we were thankful for them

Upon reaching the scales we took a break for some water and to recharge. The are many artifacts to be viewed at the scales. Be sure and take some time here to take it all in. I lover the detail on the ironwork from the late 19th century.

The Golden Stairs!

The ranger told us to trust the guide poles. We didn't have a lot of choice. Often the visibility was so low that we were climbing pole to pole, only able to see the next one along the way.

These artifacts mark one of the three false summits.

If you are wanting to understand the meaning of the word tenacious take a look at this delicate flower. In the harshest of weather and the in the bleakest terrain this beauty pushes up, endures, and blooms in unrelenting circumstances.

The Summit!

Oh Canada!

We spent and hour in the warming shelter here, celebrating the accomplishment of reaching the summit and resting up before the trek to Happy Camp.

At this point the journey the Chilkoot Trail changes socially. Prior to crossing over the summit most of the groups of hikers kept to themselves and exchanged pleasantries along the way. Once the summit was accomplished the commonality of the challenge broke through the barriers of communication allowing far more social interaction on the other side. This was in great contrast with our experience with the El Camino de Santiago where the commonality of the pilgrimage opened up opportunities for connection from the very first day.

The markers change shape on the Canadian side but maintain their importance. Crater Lake is outlined in the distance.

Really happy here but the fatigue is setting in.

From the pass to Happy Camp it is four miles. This two mile marker is a bit discouraging. At this point we were pretty exhausted. Not only was the pass taxing on the hiking legs it also involved a full body workout, bracing and climbing over boulders. At this point along the journey we were ready for rest.

Not far now

Happy Camp! yes I am happy, and thoroughly exhausted.

Happy Camp to Bare Loon Lake

Day Four- 8 Miles

Due to frequent encounters with human habituated bears it was recommended that we hike in a group of 4 or more. Buoyed by the success of the previous day we ambled along at a quickened pace on our way to Bare Loon Lake. Bare Loon proved to be one of the most scenic of campsites along the way. Our stay there included a refreshing dip in the lake.

At Lake Lindeman you can pick up a certificate of completion for walking the trail.

Bare Loon Lake to Lake Bennent

Day Five- 4 Miles

A leisurely final day there is a long stretch of walking on sand near the end that take some extra energy out of you. we arrived early and watched the northbound train stop and go loaded down with tourist. We caught the same train on its southbound run back to Skagway.

After the scenic train ride back to Skagway we once again boarded the Alaska Marine Highway and headed south. The Chilkoot Trail was a golden adventure.

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