The Chilkoot Trail begins just before the bridge over the Taiya River at Dyea, nine miles northwest of Skagway. The first section of the trail traverses lush rain forests along the Taiya River. Artifacts from the gold rush litter parts of the path, including bits of clothing, rusting stoves, pulleys, cables, and old wagons.
At Canyon City, 7.5 miles from the trailhead, a short side trail and a suspension bridge across the Taiya River provide access to the remains of one of the settlements that sprang up during the rush to the Klondike. You’ll find a number of artifacts, including a boiler that powered tramways to haul supplies over the summit. Beyond this, the trail climbs steeply to another long-abandoned settlement, Sheep Camp (Mile 13), where a ranger is in residence nearby all summer.
Beyond Sheep Camp, the trek becomes far more challenging as the route takes hikers through a narrow valley before heading above tree line. Artifacts—including metal telegraph poles and pieces from an old tramway used to haul goods up the mountain—become more common as you climb past “The Scales” (Mile 16), where packers reweighed their loads and increased their fee for the difficult final climb.
Modern-day hikers start to wonder about their sanity at this point, since the infamous “Golden Stairs” lie ahead; the name came from the steps carved in the ice and the snow by the miners. During the winter of 1897–1898 thousands of prospectors carried their heavy loads to the 3,535-foot summit of Chilkoot Pass. Photos of men going up here in single file are still the best-known images of the gold rush.
Today, hikers struggle up this 45-degree slope with full backpacks. Snow generally covers the pass until mid-July, and can be waist-deep early in the summer. Avalanches can occur before early July, and avalanche transceivers are recommended. Ask at the Trail Center for current snow conditions and other hazards. A warming hut provides protection from the weather once you cross into British Columbia; Parks Canada wardens here check to make sure you have a permit.
After the challenging summit climb, hikers are rewarded with easier hiking and spectacular vistas (when weather permits), but it’s still a long distance to the end of the trail. Many hikers camp at Deep Lake (Mile 23), while others continue on to Lindeman Lake (Mile 26) for the night. A Canada Parks warden station and warming huts are at Lindeman. During the stampede, thousands of miners halted along the shores of this lake, quickly forming the town of Lindeman City. Here they built boats for the journey down the Yukon River to the Klondike gold fields. Reminders of the gold rush can be found in the countryside here, and a small cemetery marks the final stop for those who never made it to the Klondike.
Beyond Lindeman, the trail climbs a ridge overlooking the lake and then splits, with one path turning south to meet the Klondike Highway at Log Cabin, where you can catch a bus back to Skagway or Whitehorse. Those who continue straight at the junction will reach a pretty place called Bennett on the shores of Lake Bennett. Only one family lives here today, but hikers will enjoy exploring the log church built by the miners and a grand White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad depot. Most hikers end their trip here, catching the train back to Skagway.
Backcountry permits are required of hikers on the Chilkoot, and the number of hikers is limited. The combined U.S. and Canadian permit is C$54 adults, C$27 children. For trail information, maps (including an excellent Hiker’s Guide to the Chilkoot Trail), a listing of transportation options, and backcountry permits, contact the Park Service’s Chilkoot Trail Center (907/983-9234, www.nps.gov/klgo, daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m. June–early Sept.) in the historic Martin Itjen house in Skagway. You can also buy trail permits through Parks Canada in Whitehorse (867/667-3910 or 800/661-0486, www.pc.gc.ca/chilkoot).
Most permits are reserved months ahead of time (C$12 extra), but eight permits are reserved for walk-ins each day at 1 p.m. In July–August, folks without permits start lining up at the Trail Center by 11 a.m. to be sure of a spot. At other times you won’t have a problem getting onto the trail even at the last minute, but call the Trail Center for the latest situation.
Official campgrounds—most with tent platforms, outhouses, cooking shelters, and bear-proof food storage—are at nine sites along the Chilkoot Trail in addition to the one at the Dyea Trailhead; most popular are those at Canyon City (Mile 7.5), Sheep Camp (Mile 12), Happy Camp (Mile 21), Lindeman City (Mile 26), and Bennett (Mile 33). Campfires are permitted only at Canyon City and Sheep Camp. There are shelters with woodstoves at Canyon City, Sheep Camp, and Lindeman, but these are for drying out only, not overnighting. Everything along the trail dating from the gold rush—even a rusty old tin can—is protected by law, and there are severe penalties for those who damage or remove items.
Everyone entering Canada must clear Canadian Customs. If you come in along the Chilkoot Trail and do not speak to an official at either Whitehorse or Fraser, you should report at the first opportunity to either the RCMP in Carcross or the Immigration Office (open Mon.–Fri.) at the Federal Building in Whitehorse.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition