The Chilkoot Trail is a 33-mile, 54-km hike from the coast of Dyea, Alaska to Lake Bennett in British Columbia. The Chilkoot Trail is unique in many ways and very challenging due to conditions and weather. In only 33 miles the hiker can go from the deep water tidal ports of the Skagway area to the headwaters of navigation for the Yukon river. The Chilkoot trail is not only historical, it is also full of great and diverse scenery. It is important to be fit and prepared for challenge. Yukon Ho!
The Alaska portion is part of the National Park Service, while the Canadian section is managed by Parks Canada. A permit is required and can be reserved in advance, or possibly at the Trail Center in Skagway, Alaska if the daily number of permitted hikers is not full. In Whitehorse, Yukon there is also a Parks Canada office- about 110 miles north from Skagway along the magnificent Klondike highway. Skagway is 9 miles away from the trail head via a road. There are shuttle vans to help you get there. A long term hikers parking lot is in Dyea located at a campground near the trail's start. The town of Skagway has small markets for food, but not in Dyea. The Mountain Shop on 4th street rents and sells camping gear as well as hiker's food. The Klondike Goldrush National Historic Park visitor's center is downtown on 2nd and Broadway and it is just across from the Trail Center where you can obtain trail info and permits. The Trail Center has both Parks Canada and NPS staff to help hikers prepare for the challenge. They will help you with permits and the border crossing logistics, transport, safety in bear country, minimum impact and leave no trace principles.
The hike starts in the coastal temperate rainforest and ends in the interior sub boreal forest. After crossing up and over the famed Chilkoot Pass (the border between USA and Canada), the hiker travels through the sub alpine and alpine zones. There are backcountry rangers and wardens patrolling the trail in the summers months from mid May to mid September. Trail crews also help maintain the route. In the spring time there can be considerable portions deep in snow. Avalanche conditions exist.
The Chilkoot trail is famous as one of the main routes for gold hungry stampeders during the Klondike Goldrush of 1898. People would travel up the Inside Passage to Skagway and Dyea, and then carry a required year's supply of food and gear, or "ton of goods", over the Chilkoot Pass and then finally arrive at Lake Bennett to build boats and float down the Yukon River over 500 miles to the Klondike goldfields in Dawson city. The trail's history goes back further in time as a trading route for Tlingit first nation peoples. Tlingit peoples still inhabit SE Alaska area and have a rich and proud cultural heritage and history.
To manage demand, and to prevent overuse and maintain the remote character of the trail, the U.S. National Park Service and Parks Canada allow no more than 50 backpackers to begin the trail each day by way of a permit system.
Both countries have full-time trail maintenance crews, ranger/warden stations, and have placed interpretive signs adjacent to notable historical sites and objects. There are well-designed backcountry campsites are found along the trail.
The hiking season (when rangers are on-duty and trail crew is on-site) varies, but usually begins in late May and ends in early September. Peak demand runs from June through August. Avalanche danger lingers into late May, as do large snow fields that slow progress, whereas September is associated with rain and colder weather.
Off-season, there are no fees and no services. Off-season hikers must be self-sufficient and accept full responsibility for their own safety.
The Chilkoot is also a challenging ultra-run. The fastest known time belongs to ultramarathoner Geoff Roes in 5 hours and 27 minutes.
The trail is accessible from Dyea, Alaska, or Bennett, British Columbia.
Dyea is part of Skagway municipality. Dyea is 10 miles (16 km) from the center of Skagway along the Dyea Road. The most common way to get to Skagway is by boat, whether cruise ship or Alaska Marine Highway ferry. It is also accessible by commuter flight from Juneau. Thrre is daily jet service to Juneau from Anchorage and Seattle.
Bennett is an abandoned town next to Bennett Lake. There are no roads into Bennett. Bennett is a stop on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad during the summer months. There is a train/bus service for hikers five days a week from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Bennett for US$100 (2020). The bus and train journey takes 6½ hours. To Whitehorse, there are flights from Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Edmonton, Calgary, and, seasonally, Yellowknife, Calgary, Ottawa, Frankfurt (Condor in summer), and Juneau.
The Chilkoot trail features a number of natural and historical sites as shown on the map. By following the numbers on the map from south to north, the hiker will go along the same route as the old prospectors. The trip normally takes three to five days, and to stay for the night, there are designated campground. The trail is roughly divided into three climatic zones: coastal rainforest, high alpine (above tree limit) and boreal forest. In the end it is connected to White Pass historical railway leading back to Skagway the modern port of the trail. In the following, the points of the map are highlighted with bold letters.
Coastal rainforest zone
The trail begins in Dyea, a ghost town and campground, 15 minutes from Skagway. From the trailhead, the route winds through coastal rainforest along to the Taiya River. The first campsite is Finnegan's Point. This stretch of the trail is in flat terrain with no substantial obstacles.
The trail becomes noticeably cooler after Finnegan's Point owing to cool air sinking down from snow and ice fields in the surrounding mountains. Numerous streams also cascade down the mountain sides. This stretch of the trail contains the least amount of visible artifacts. The next camp is Canyon City. Many hikers, especially those desiring a more modest pace or those who have had a late start, stop at Canyon City the first night. The shelter located at Canyon City houses many gold rush-era artifacts.
Close to the Canyon City campsite are the Canyon City ruins. Canyon City was a tent city during the gold rush and its ruins—building foundations, a large restaurant stove, a large boiler—are still visible. The ruins are accessible by crossing the Taiya River by suspension footbridge.
After Canyon City ruins, the trail diverges away from the river for the first time as the river disappears into a small canyon (Canyon City's namesake) and climbs up valley wall, traversing sub-alpine forest. For many sections of the trail, old telegraph and tram wires are exposed adjacent to the trail. For the gold rush prospectors, this section of the trail was one of the most difficult. In winter, when the Taiya River was frozen, the gold rush stampeders could easily travel up the ice highway; however, in the summer this segment was described as "the worst piece of trail on the road, fairly muddy with many boulders and with some short, steep ascents and descents in and out of small gulches."
The next landmark is Pleasant Camp. There is an informational trail sign at the original site of Pleasant Camp, a quarter mile before the present Pleasant Camp campground. Pleasant Camp marks the reunion of the trail with Taiya River and serves as a lightly used, small campground. From Pleasant Camp the trail is fairly flat and weaves through forest and over small creeks.
The trail next comes to Sheep Camp, the last campground on the American side of the trail as well as the final resting stop before the trek up Chilkoot Pass. It is the largest of the campsites on the American side of the trail.
After leaving Sheep Camp and before the U.S. ranger station, the trail passes through a large avalanche chute. The slide has wiped out all previously existing forest and leaves a young brushy and alder-dominated landscape. A short distance after the ranger station is a small museum of gold rush-era artifacts in an old cabin. Soon after leaving the cabin the sub-alpine forest slowly yields to a treeless alpine landscape that allows a grand view of the rapidly narrowing Taiya River valley. As the trail climbs in altitude, its path becomes more improved, often demarcated by yellow markers planted in snowfields.
High alpine zone
Within sight of the pass, and at the base of the "Golden Stairs" (the long difficult incline that leads to the pass), are The Scales. The Scales were a weight station where freight would be reweighed before the final trek to the pass. Often, Native packers would demand higher packing rates. The Scales also hosted a small tent city, including six restaurants, two hotels, a saloon, and many freighting offices and warehouses. The imposing Golden Stairs also prompted many would-be prospectors to turn around, often leaving behind their required ton of equipment. Because of this, and the snow's preserving properties, artifacts are prevalent at this altitude, including many remnants of wooden structures.
After The Scales is the final push up to the Chilkoot Pass: the fabled Golden Stairs. The Golden Stairs acquired its name from the steps that prospectors painstakingly carved into the snow and ice of the pass and has retained the name ever since. At the pass proper, at the Canada–US border, is a warming cabin and part-time Parks Canada warden station. Occasionally, if a party is making poor time, the warden or U.S. ranger will offer the warming cabin as an overnight shelter so to not risk the group from being caught in the barren and exposed alpine landscape between the pass and Happy Camp. There are also many artifacts scattered about the Golden Stairs and ridge lines surrounding the pass, including a cache of intact (canvas, wood, etc.) prefabricated boats on the southeastern side of the pass.
Stone Crib is situated a half mile after the pass. Stone Crib served as the terminus of the Chilkoot Railroad and Transport Company's aerial tramway, a huge rocky counterbalance for the tram. This function is still apparent today with the wooden structure well preserved by the snow.
The trail wends its way by a series of alpine lakes: First Crater Lake, Morrow Lake, and finally Happy Camp.
Boreal forest zone
The trail continues to pass another couple of lakes—Long Lake and Deep Lake—before crossing tree line. Adjacent to Deep Lake, and amidst tree line, is another campground. The Canadian half of the Chilkoot Trail, in the rain shadow of the Coast Mountains, is much dryer, and pine forest, first appearing at Deep Lake, readily contrasts to the more lush temperate rain forest on the U.S. half before Chilkoot Pass.
After the trail passes Deep Lake, the outlet river runs parallel to the trail for a short distance before entering a small canyon. Many boat and boat-related artifacts are visible in this area. The trail continues at a gentle decline until the turquoise-colored Lake Lindeman comes into view and the trail concludes its descent to the Lake Lindeman campground, the headquarters of Canadian trail operations.
The trail climbs a steep bluff after Lindeman and offers an expansive view of the lake and surrounding forest. After Lake Lindeman, the trail passes Bare Loon Lake and the Bare Loon Lake campground.
The trail diverges after Bare Loon Lake. One branch continues to Lake Bennett and the tracks of the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad. The other branch, the Log Cabin cut-off, connects with the Klondike Highway, but was closed by Parks Canada in 2010.
Bennett consists of a campground, a White Pass and Yukon Route depot, several houses (all private property) belonging to White Pass employees or First Nations (Indigenous) citizens, and the only gold rush-era building still standing along the trail today, the renovated St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. Pilings from bygone piers dot the lakeshore and an assortment of cans and other metal artifacts are scattered throughout the woods.
Bears are the primary safety concern in the park. It is very common for hikers to encounter them. Firearms are not permitted on the Canadian side of Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park. Almost all parties take bear spray and/or bear bangers as repellents, but most importantly both sides of the park mandate smart bear practices. It is required to stow food in bear-safe locations.
Weather and terrain also pose a challenge to hikers. There are few risks in the forest regions of the trail, however once the trail climbs into the alpine, weather and the elements pose more of a concern; the same does vertigo.