One of the best reasons for coming to Skagway is the historic and surprisingly scenic 33-mile Chilkoot Trail. During the gold rush of 1897–1898, what had once been an Indian route from the tidewater at Dyea to the headwaters of the Yukon River became a trail for thousands of men and women. Today, the trail is hiked by several thousand hardy souls each summer, along with a few insane wintertime trekkers.
The western portion of this route lies within Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, while the eastern half is managed by Parks Canada as Chilkoot Trail National Historic Park. All hikers crossing the border must clear Canadian Customs, so a passport is required.
A minimum of three days and nights (but preferably 4–5) is needed to hike from Dyea to Bennett over 3,246-foot-high Chilkoot Pass. This is no easy Sunday outing: You must be fit and well prepared. It is best to hike north from Dyea rather than south from Bennett since this is the historic route, and a descent down the “Golden Stairs” can be dangerous.
You will be above the tree line and totally exposed to the elements during the 11 miles from Sheep Camp to Deep Lake (the hardest stretch). Weather conditions can change quickly along the trail, and hikers need to be prepared for strong winds, cold, low fog, rain, and snow, even in midsummer. Because of the rain-shadow effect, the Canadian side is considerably drier than the Alaskan side. Mosquitoes and other insects are an annoyance, and snowfields linger between Sheep Camp and Happy Camp well into the summer.
Despite these challenges, for scenery and historical value the Chilkoot Trail is unsurpassed in Alaska and western Canada.
Flora and Fauna
The vegetation changes from coastal rain forest up the Taiya Valley to alpine tundra as you approach the pass and rise above the 2,700-foot level. On the drier Canadian side you’ll find an open boreal forest of alpine fir and lodgepole pine. Although black bears are often seen along the trail, there has never been an attack on a hiker. Help keep it this way by storing food and garbage properly.
It took each would-be miner an average of three months and dozens of trips back and forth from cache to cache to pack his required ton of supplies into Canada. By the spring of 1898, three aerial tramways were operating on the Chilkoot. The thousands of stampeders stopped at Lindeman and Bennett, built boats and rafts, and waited for spring break-up, which would allow them to sail the 900 kilometers to Dawson City along a series of lakes and rivers.
When the ice broke up in May 1898, some 7,124 boats and rafts sailed from the shores of Lakes Lindeman and Bennett. Royal Canadian Mounted Police records show 28,000 people traveling from Bennett to Dawson in 1898. Ironically, by the time they got to Dawson every claim in the Klondike was already staked. By 1900, the railway had opened from Skagway to Whitehorse, and Dyea and the Chilkoot Trail became ghost towns.
Getting to Chilkoot Trail
Several Skagway companies offer drop-off services ($10) from town for hikers heading up the Chilkoot Trail. Best known is Dyea Dave’s (907/209-5031, www.dyeadavetours.com), but similar services are available from Frontier Excursions (907/983-2512 or 877/983-2512, www.frontierexcursions.com).
The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad’s Chilkoot Trail Hikers Service (907/983-2217 or 800/343-7373, www.whitepassrailroad.com) provides a shuttle late May–mid-September from Lake Bennett (the end of the trail) to Fraser ($50) or Skagway ($95). The schedule changes each year, so check to make sure a train will be there once you reach Lake Bennett. Make advance reservations since space is limited. Meals are available at the Bennett station.
Although most hikers choose the train, some prefer (or have no option because the rail bus is full or the timing doesn’t work out) to hike out along the railroad tracks from the Lindeman area to Log Cabin, where they catch a Yukon Alaska Tourist Tours (867/668-5947 in Whitehorse or 866/626-7383, www.yatt.ca) bus, or get a ride with Dyea Dave or Frontier Excursions for $35; advance reservations are essential. A final option is to fly by floatplane from Lake Bennett to Whitehorse via Alpine Aviation (867/668-7725, www.alpineaviationyukon.com).
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition