Hiking the Chilkoot Trail

Hiking the Chilkoot Trail is on a lot of peoples to do list, mine included. It has the famed history of being the trail that people took to the last of the worlds great gold rushes, to ‘The Klondike’. The trail hit its peak in 1898. More than 22000 people hauled more than a ton of supplies per person over the Chilkoot pass on route to the town of Bennett. From there they made their way by boat to Dawson City in the Klondike. More than 100 years later I follow in their footsteps by hiking the Chilkoot Trail.  Afterwards I’ll Canoe the Yukon River to Dawson City in the Klondike and pan for gold!

I arrived in the Alaskan town of Skagway on an overcast windy day. It was midday and I had the intention of starting to hike the Chilkoot Trail on the same day. A permit is required as only 50 people per day are allowed to cross the Chilkoot Pass, This is the international border between USA and Canada.

I didn’t have a permit or booking so I went to the Trail headquarters in Skagway and made a booking. There was still spots available for me. As the weather can play a part in this hike I noted that there was a weather window of a couple of days that should make crossing of the Chilkoot Pass a joy.

I didn’t want to be climbing the pass in bad weather so I needed to hit the good weather that was a couple of days away. The trail ends in Bennett a ghost town with a train station which picks up hikers and takes them off the trail, the train doesn’t run everyday so I had to time the end of my hike with the train schedule to get me back to Whitehorse where the rest of my gear was stored.

Chilkoot trail Skagway

Starting the Chilkoot trail in the town of Skagway, with a much lighter pack than in 1898

Day 1 – Dyer trail head to Finnigan’s Camp = 8km

I set off from Skagway under windy overcast skies and decided to walk the 15 kilometers from the township to the trail head at Dyer. I only got about 2km down the road before I was picked up by a friendly local.

My plan was to walk to the first campsite from the trail head called Finnegan’s Point Campground. The lift I received from the kind local ensured I made it in short time. The trail followed the Taiya River river. For the most part through lush coastal rainforest filled with Cottonwood, Willow, Spruce and Birch trees. Unusually high rainfall flooded the valley a couple of weeks prior to my trip which caused hikers all manner of discomfort as they trudged through water sometimes waist deep.

By the time I hiked through the area it was only just over ankle deep water that was left on the trail. No use trying to avoid it I just stomped right on through, wet feet and all. At one point the trail weaves through some beaver ponds that flood the low lying area, great job by the trail crew to make that section of the hike manageable.

Chilkoot Trail

Start of the Chilkoot Trail at the Dyer trailhead

Chilkoot trail

Hiking through the rainforest on day 1 of the Chilkoot trail

toad chilkoot trail

Toad on the Chilkoot Trail

beaver ponds chilkoot trail

Trail through the beaver ponds

After the beaver ponds and near my planned campsite at Finnegan’s Point I noted some large bear poo about 400 meters from camp. I camped there alone, all the other hikers continuing to camps further up the trail. I considered doing the same as I only walked such a short distance.

The camp was quiet and peaceful except for the mouse that tried to steal my food when I wasn’t looking.

Bear poo chilkoot trail

Bear poo near my campsite at Finnigan’s Point campsite

mouse chilkoot trail

This mouse tried to steal my food while I was cooking

Finnigan's Point Camp

Finnigan’s Point Camp

Day 2 – Finnigan’s Camp to Sheep Camp = 12km

The following morning I woke to discover that it had been raining overnight. My food was still safely inside the bear proof storage containers which are located at each of the campsites. It drizzled rain on and off most of the day, I didn’t bother about a rain jacket, it was so light.

I wanted to make it to a place called Canyon City which had remnants of the Gold Rush of 1898 but the bridge to the ruins was closed due to damage from the recent floods. I continued to Sheep Camp which is at the base of the Chilkoot Pass. This is a popular campsite. Everybody stays here on the night before attempting the climb over the pass.

During the evening the ranger came to the shelter and chatted about the history of the area and expected weather and conditions for the next day climb over the pass. He stated that there was an expectation of rain in the morning clearing by the afternoon. Sounded fine to me and as a result I planned to sleep in which is not recommended for most people as it can be a 9-11 hour hike to the next campsite on the Canadian side of Chilkoot Pass. I was sure I could do it in much less than that.

Chilkoot trail

Rainforest stream on the Chilkoot trail

chilkoot trail

Still a bit of light drizzle as I hike

mushroom chilkoot trail

Many mushrooms growing by the side of the trail

rainforest chilkoot trail

Well it is a rainforest

Day 3 – Sheep Camp to Lindeman City = 22km

Overnight it rained on and off. I woke in the morning and was in no rush to open my eyes and get moving. When I opened the tent to look at the sky above I discovered patches of blue sky amount the clouds. That spurred me into action as that was better than the predicted morning rain.

When I packed my tent and headed to the cooking shelter I discovered that everybody had already left for the pass with the exception of the 4 Alaskan women that I first met at the trail office in Skagway. I filled myself with calories in the form of oats and coffee and set off on the 800 meter climb from camp to the top of the Chilkoot Pass.

The weather was calm and more and more blue sky appeared the further up the trail I went. I passed the spot on the trail where disaster took the lives of at least 70 Klondike Gold Rush Stampeders. It was on 3rd April 1898 when an avalanche tumbled down the mountain shortly after Sheep Camp. Their dreams like many others at the time ended without any gold in their pockets.

It didn’t take long before I reached a place known as ‘The Scales’. So named because the paid help would haul the huge loads to this area for an agreed price per pound. The goods would be re-weighed and prices re-negotiated when the hired help found they were carrying more than they agreed. It was also the last flat area of land to rest and top up on water before the climb up what is called ‘The Golden Staircase’. The final steep climb to Chilkoot Pass and the Canadian border.

Most gold rush seekers during the gold rush climbed this pass with over 1 ton of supplies that would see them through a year in the Klondike. It took most people 3-4 months to complete the hike and as many as 40 trips up the pass. Most climbed the pass in spring time snow in order to make it the Lake Bennett at the end of the trail with enough time to make a boat from whatever timber they could find and get their supplies to Dawson City in the Klondike. What an adventure it must have been then, as it is now.

The scales looking towards the Chilkoot pass then

The scales looking towards the Chilkoot pass then

The Scales looking towards the Chilkoot Pass now

The Scales looking towards the Chilkoot Pass now

Discarded in 1899 and laying on the side of the trail

Discarded in 1899 and laying on the side of the trail

Also discarded in 1899 and left on the trail

Also discarded in 1899 and left on the trail

From the scales the trail moved to a mix of late season snow patches and mixed boulder fields which were all at an angle of near 45 degrees clinging to the slope. I was fortunate to have clear weather, with no wind unlike the climbers a day ahead of me. They suffered through cloud, sleet, rain, slippery rocks and low visibility. One unfortunate hiker slipped on the rocks using her head to break the fall.

Climbing the Golden Staircase in 1898

Climbing the Golden Staircase in 1898

also climbing the Golden Staircase in 1898, just try to imagine

also climbing the Golden Staircase in 1898, just try to imagine

Climbing the 45 degree angle slope of the Golden Staircase on route to the Chilkoot Pass

Climbing the 45 degree angle slope of the Golden Staircase on route to the Chilkoot Pass, the photo can’t capture just how steep it really is!

I made it to the Chilkoot pass and continued into Canada and a small hut for a rest and warm drink. I was surprised that I was the first person there. It took me just under 2.5 hours to climb to the pass. I was told that the next campsite was only 1 hour away so I planned to keep moving past that camp and onto Lindeman City camp. It was not part of my original plan but I had lots of energy and was moving quite fast over the terrain.

View down the valley from the top of the Golden Staircase, most hikers see cloud, rain and 10 meters visibility. Was I lucky or was it good planning?

View down the valley from the top of the Golden Staircase, most hikers see cloud, rain and 10 meters visibility. Was I lucky or was it good planning?

Top of the Chilkoot pass looking into Canada and a small shelter to rest

Top of the Chilkoot pass looking into Canada and a small shelter to rest

After lunch I descended from the pass to Crater Lake through several patches of icy snow and continued for the rest of the day down the valley. Trees and lakes started to make  appearances when I wasn’t gazing up above at the many hanging glaciers that seem to have only a limited time left before they melt away and become a thing of the past. I was alone at Lindeman Lake camp until a couple arrived around 8.30pm.

Icy patches on the descent from the pass

Icy patches on the descent from the pass

Rusting on the side of the trail

Rusting on the side of the trail

Typical scenery on the Canadian side of the trail

Typical scenery on the Canadian side of the trail

Long Lake

Long Lake

Cooking dinner inside Upper Lindeman cabin

Cooking dinner inside Upper Lindeman cabin

Lindeman CIty in 1898

Lindeman CIty in 1898

Lindman Lake now, slightly different angle

Lindman Lake now, slightly different angle

Day 4 -Lindeman City to Bennett = 11km

The last day was an easy stroll to the end of the trail at Bennett. I ran into Britta a girl I met at the Whitehorse parks office. She was a day ahead of me on the trail.

The train station at Bennett was my ticket off the trail. Historically this was the staging point for the people heading to the Klondike to make their boats and begin the journey on Lake Bennett then onto the Yukon River to Dawson City some 800km away. They waited here until the spring ice melted on the lake. The town was quite big in the day including a church that is still standing.

In 1899 the railway reached this area and few crossed the Chilkoot Pass. Now hikers like myself take to the trail to emulate the Gold Rush seekers of 1898. Now the numbers are much smaller with only around 1500-2500 people a year making the pilgrimage every year. In 1898 there was 22000 people crossing the pass!

For most of the trail I walked alone and reflected on what a journey and adventure the gold seekers had all those many years ago. Most ended with nothing and some found the journey so overwhelming they just packed up and returned from where they came. Some settled and explored the area and became the citizens of The Yukon and Alaska. I have so much more to explore!

Less than 24 hours later the same train I was on crashed / derailed with several people taken to hospital!

An edited version of my adventure on Chilkoot Trail appeared in the third issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine. Check it out!

Bennett railway station

End of the Chilkoot trail at Bennett railway station

Bennett railway station

Bennett railway station

bennett

The ghost town of Bennett now

chilkoot trail

The way to the Klondike, by boat

11 Responses

    • BikeHikeSafari

      Thanks for the support Rae, glad you like reading about it. Hope you are well, will be quite a while before I’m down your part of the world, I’m loving the adventures in the northern latitudes.

      Reply
  1. Albert Johnson

    Great story and photos, thanks a bunch. I was going to hike this, leaving Phoenix, Az. Running to catch my flight in Phx and somehow badly sprained my ankle. Went ahead and boarded, hoping my ankle would be okay, but alas, it wasn’t. Hiked 50 yards on the CT. Trying to get inspired to have another go at it.
    Was there plenty of water along the way, all the way??
    Thanks again for the tremendous narrative!
    AJ

    Reply
    • BikeHikeSafari

      That’s hard luck. Yes plenty of water, no need to carry much water. You will be in Alaskan rainforest at the start of the trail, very different from the Sonoran Desert.

      Reply
      • Albert Johnson

        You’re an Aussie?? Haha, makes me wonder how you even HEARD of the Chilkoot Trail; most Americans haven’t these days.
        Who took the photo you walking across the one lane log bridge? How cold did it get nights?

      • BikeHikeSafari

        I’m a keen hiker so have heard of most of the well known best hikes of the world. The photo of me hiking the bridge was taken by myself. The camera was placed on a log, I then ran back for the action shot.

      • Albert Johnson

        You’re an Aussie? Haha, how’d you hear about the Chilkoot Trail? Most Americans nowadays never heard of it. 😉
        Who took the photo of you crossing the one land log bridge? How cold did it get nights? G’day mate, cheers!
        AJ

  2. Albert Johnson

    40F not bad at all; thanks! So then you MUST have your eye on the Appalachian Trail? My cousin, a friend and I did 50 miles of it through the Great Smoky Mts in 5 days and it is awesome as well. We saw boxing deer and bear among the beautiful smoky scenery.
    You’d love it!

    Reply
    • BikeHikeSafari

      Well, there’s a saying. You can hike one trail or three trails but not two. In reference to the 3 long trails in USA. I hiked the PCT last year, I’ll hike the CDT this year, so I guess I must hike the Appalachian trail in the future. Time will tell.

      Reply

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