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Hike of the Week: Chilkoot Trail

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This is a weekly series that highlights an outstanding day hike or backpacking trip. The goal is to inspire you to want to get out and see these places for yourself. I know for us, just seeing amazing photos and reading about a great hike is enough to get us motivated.

This week's hike is Chilkoot Trail, which leads from Alaska to British Columbia.

Why this Hike?

This historic trail takes you through scenic views and a border crossing. It traverses from Alaska to British Columbia, Canada along an old trade route once used by the Tlingit and Tagish peoples. If you're after a challenging backpacking trip with historical relevance and some amazing biodiversity, then Chilkoot is the way to go. This hike will take you from sea level coastal forests up to a high alpine territory and then ends in some gorgeous boreal forest. However, be ready for elevation, weather, and varied conditions along the way.

  • A total distance of 33 miles / 53 km
  • The trailhead is 9 miles out of Skagway, Alaska, and Lake Bennett in Canada has limited access, only through the Canadian Railway
  • Difficult to Strenuous conditions
  • The multi-day hike takes about 5 days but can be done faster
  • Ends with a strenuous summit day that will require a 9-mile uphill scramble
  • This is a popular trail and is only suited to summer hiking, as winter hiking is both dangerous and next to impossible.
  • Varied biodiversity and landscapes
  • Rich historical significance
Before you pack your bags, here are a few things to keep in mind:
  • The 6-12 hour scramble up the summit and pass are the biggest challenges for most backpackers
  • Only 50 permits a day are granted to backpackers, so make your reservation early on
  • Best time to travel is late June through August

How do I get there?

The start of this trail is in a small and remote town named Dyea, which is about 11 miles outside of Skagway, Alaska. If you choose to fly, you can book for Juneau, Alaska, and then either take a state ferry or a small plane to Skagway. Once you have reached Skagway, you can get to the trailhead or the Dyea campground through the Dyea-Chilkoot Trail Transport. When you have reached the end of your hike in Lake Bennett, BC, Canada you will need to have a train ticket purchased ahead of time. The train will take you back to Skagway.

Map

The following map outlines our recommended route.


Once you're at the trailhead, it's time to start the hike. Below, we have outlined our recommended route that will take five days to complete. You can definitely complete the trail in less time, but five days will give you plenty of opportunities to enjoy the scenery. You must camp in designated camping zones along the trail and sort out which campsite you want to stay in before you go. This trail is heavily used and has a short hiking season, so make sure to get to your designated campsite early on in the day, especially Happy Camp, as it is used by everyone the day they do the summit and pass.

    • Day 1: Dyea Campground to Finnegan's Point 4.8 miles (7.7 km)
    • Day 2: Finnegan's Point to Sheep Camp 7.0 miles (11.2 km)
    • Day 3: Sheep Camp to Happy Camp 8.8 miles (14.1 km)
    • Day 4: Happy Camp to Bare Loon 9.8 miles (15.7 km)
    • Day 5: Bare Loon to Lake Bennett 2.7 miles (4.4 km)

The last day of the hike is an easy three-mile trot, but make sure you leave yourself enough time to catch the train which usually leaves in the mid-afternoon.

Trail Description

The first day on the trail is fortunately not about distance, as you will only be clocking in about five miles to your first campground. The first day is marshy, and absolutely scenic, with lots of well-maintained bridges and boardwalks. When you get to the first campsite you may be pleasantly surprised to find wooden platforms that your tents are meant to go on. The surrounding terrain is not only damp but ecologically sensitive.

As you move on to day two, you will be walking a bit farther, all the way to Sheep Camp. As you go along, stop at Canyon City, which is a large campsite that some people stop at on their first night. It features nice log cabins that have built-in bunks, and also some neat remnants of the Gold Rush. Once you trek through Canyon City, you will start an upward climb that winds all the way up to to a nice suspension bridge. The scenery you see will be lush and green with plenty of fast-moving water. You walk along the river on the way to your second campsite, and because it is a short distance day, stopping for lengthy lunch is a great idea. Tonight will be the last day on the US side. It's also your last night to stretch and rest before a steep and strenuous ascent. Sheep Camp is huge and often filled because it is the last stop before the Chilkoot Pass. Be sure to get there early enough to score a good spot. Unlike some backpacking trips, there are plenty of rangers on the trail and in the camps, so don’t be surprised if you see one.

Day three is the big climb day. In only 4.8 miles you will be gaining over 2,500 feet of elevation gain. You start out the morning with the big climb in sight, at a place known as the Golden Stairs. The stairs and the pass are also known as The Scales, which is where freight would be weighed before making the final trip over the great pass. Before you push forward, it is a good idea to look at all the artifacts left behind to lighten their load. Just when you think you have gotten to the summit of the pass you will see a higher point. There are two false summits, each covered in snow throughout the season. Take a break at the first summit, as the climb in the snow is going to be taxing on your body. Once at the top, there is a summit shack with some more rich history to look into and offers you a bit of warmth. Your decent down the path will lead you through First Crater Lake, then Morrow Lake, with the snow disappearing as you go along. With the US behind you and Canada in front, you will eventually reach Happy Camp. Happy Camp is much like the others with a raised wooden platform to set up on, a cooking hut, and plenty of rangers.

Today is sweet relief after the pass climb, so you can take your time at breakfast. Once you hit the trail, you will walk around Deep Lake, and the campsite there, traversing a relatively even trail that wraps through rocky terrain. You will end the long but steady hike in Bare Loon camp, which will have the same amenities as the others. It is located on the Bare Loon Lake which has clear and still waters, that are suitable for swimming, but can be a bit chilly!

The last day of the hike is going to provide you some amazing views, mountains, trees, valleys, and lakes. You only have three miles to go till the end of the trail, where you will get a chance to see the renovated and historic St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. It was built in the Gold Rush era and stands today as a reminder of all those travels. The end of Chilkoot drops you off in Bennett, British Columbia. Be sure to get to the train station a bit early for some warm tea and a few treats.

What will I need?

The Chilkoot trail has a strong reputation for bears, of all sorts, to be present along the trail and campsites. Occasionally the trail and sites will be closed due to bear activity. An essential for your packing list is a bear-proof canister for your food and food scraps. As this is a pack-in, pack-out trail, you will want to make sure to have a big enough cannister for your waste as well.

As we mentioned, the weather on the trail changes rapidly, so you need to bring gear for rain, sun, and even snow on the pass! For more information on what to bring on your backpacking adventures, check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List.

Do I need a permit?

The Chilkoot Trail is wildly popular, so it requires early reservations. Before you get your permits, you will also need to know exactly what campsites you are after. If one of the campsites you wanted is booked, do not stress, a lot of campsites are near each other and require only minor alterations to your journey! You can find the reservation information on the National Parks Service website. 

Once you've booked the campsites, be sure to book tickets for the train as well. The train ride itself is gorgeous and very scenic. You can also pay a bit extra for a meal.

Resources

Chilkoot Trail Information via Canada
Train out of Bennett, BC

This is a quick backpacking trip with rich historical significance. With just one big climbing section in the middle of the trail, you are sure to get the exercise of a backcountry adventure while not being too difficult overall.

Have you done the Chilkoot Trail and want to offer any tips for others? If so, let us know in the comments below!

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