Hiking the Chilkoot Trail

The Chilkoot Trail is a 33-mile (53 km) trail through the Coast Mountains that leads from Dyea, Alaska, in the United States, to Bennett, British Columbia, in Canada. It was a major access route from the coast to Yukon goldfields in the late 1890s. Tlingit Indians used the trail as a vital trade route to trade for resources available in the interior from the Dene people. 

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 (from Wikipedia).

That was Day 1 for us and the beginning of the adventure! Here's a map of the whole trail, as well as a profile map so you can follow along!


As you might have heard, there was a bear situation on the trail when we left. The week prior, a black bear had broken into a staff cabin at Lindeman City and raided the fridge. They evacuated all the hikers from the trail and closed the trail for 5 days while they dealt with the situation. They had just reopened the trail when we started the hike (it is a very popular trail that requires reservations a long time in advance, so it was not an option for us to just wait it out) and 3 of the 9 camps on the trail were still closed, which would have made our last day a 13 miles (20 km) hike since we would have had to hike all the way from Happy Camp to Bennett (our last night was in Bare Loon, but it was closed at the time of departure). The other option was that they boat us out from Lindeman City to Bennett Lake.

They sent us out to the trailhead, after a long talk about bear safety, telling us that we would get updated about the situation at Sheep Camp and Happy Camp.

Signing the trail log.

There are lots of boardwalks over marshes on that first part of the trail. Some are slippery and bouncy and that not always so great when you are still getting used to having a big pack on your back!

First thing to do when you get to camp: put all the food, toileteries and anything that smells in the food cache. Second, write in your journal.

Then, set camp.

The cook shack at Finnegan's Point. Far enough from the tent pads and equipped with a wood stove.

The beautiful sand bar at Finnegan's Point with a view of Irene Glacier, a great place to relax!

JF was in a 2 person tent with Mathilde and I was with the twins in another tent. We talked late into the night about boys crush and first love in front of an audience of mosquitoes lined up in the roof screen, who were just waiting for one of us to need to pee.

I got up at 1 am under a light sprinkle. Our tent platform was surrounded by Devils Club and I was smiling to myself as I used my SheWee (that I like to call my Pee-Miss) and pee like a man, standing on the platform instead of having to put my shoes, go down the platform and crouch down in the prickly wet plants.

DAY 2: FROM FINNEGAN'S POINT TO SHEEP CAMP - 12, 6 km (7,8 miles)

We stopped at Canyon City on the way, where most people spend the first night (12 km from the start). It is a bigger camp with a nice log cabin with bunks and some artefacts from the Gold Rush. After Canyon City, the trail starts climbing steadily upward.

Pedestrian suspension bridge at Canyon City.

Fairies in the moss.

Snack break in the beautiful Alaskan Coastal Forest.

Filtering water along the trail.

The trail follows the Taiya River all the way to Sheep Camp.

Second night at Sheep Camp. Sheep camp is 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. A Ranger comes to Sheep camp every night at around 7 pm to talk about the day ahead and how to prepare for it. She had no updates about the bear situation. That night we met Charlotte, 7, and her dad who were doing the Chilkoot alone together. 

Doing laundry in the Taiya River.

DAY 3: FROM SHEEP CAMP TO HAPPY CAMP - 12 km (7,5 miles) but with an elevation gain of 2,500 feet over 7,7 km!

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. There are lots of artefacts there since a lot of people left things there and turned back or tried to lighten their load to make the final push...

No image better conjures the human drama of the 1898 gold rush than the lines of prospectors struggling over the dreaded Golden Stairs. As we climbed the golden stairs ourselves, all I could think was: people did that for gold, how crazy! Followed by: you know what’s even crazier: doing that for a holiday!

JF facing the base of the Golden Stairs. There are two false summits before you reach the actual summit.

We made it to the summit! And just like many women feel after childbirth and forget about it a mere few months later, once you make warm coffee and eat a bite, you're ready to talk about the next big trip, forgetting the grueling feeling you had just an hour ago, when you promised yourself you would never do that again...

The view from the Chilkoot Pass. USA behind. Canada ahead.

The trail wends its way by a series of alpine lakes: First Crater Lake, Morrow Lake, and finally Happy Camp.

And the beauty never stops. We walk and walk and walk, through snow and rocks, oohing and aahing all the way.

Lips of snow under the water look royal blue or turquoise. 

Happy Camp! Once you see it after one of many bend in the trail, you understand why it's called that way. You are so ridiculously happy to see it come into sight!

We got into camp at around 5:30 pm (we had left Sheep Camp at 6:30 am), granted, we took our time and lots of break, but it still is the longest day on the Chilkoot. Charlotte and her dad were not there yet and the Ranger who had met us at the warming cabin at the summit said Charlotte was struggling a lot after the Stairs. The Ranger had given Charlotte magic candies to eat along the trail and stickers to put on the trail markers. At 7, she called a meeting to let us know that Bare Loon camp was now open. We were exstatic! We could do the whole Chilkoot! However, we still had to be in groups of at least 4 adults, so many people had to pair up together, because there was no confirmation that the right bear had been shot yet. An man from Italy was not happy about the whole pairing/bear situation and was trying to argue in broken English with the Ranger. Since I speak Italian, I offered my help as a translator and got caught in an interesting arugument that went from Trump-is-the-new-Berlusconi to arguing that the bear was long gone and would not come back (because we know that Italian know a lot about bear behaviors...).

At 8:30, we were getting ready to leave camp to go meet Charlotte and her dad who were still not back to camp. Just as we were putting our wet shoes on, they walked into camp, looking exhausted. What a trooper that little girl was. I offered them to join us for tomorrow's hike since they could not walk alone and since I thought it would lift Charlotte's spirit to be with other children. The plan was for them to stop at Lindeman City and see if they could safely spend the night there with a ranger.

DAY 4: FROM HAPPY CAMP TO BARE LOON - 13,7 km (8,5 miles)

Breakfast inside the Happy Camp cooking shelter.

There are lots and lots of river crossing... Almost impossible not to get your feet wet... To the right: doing dishes.

Charlotte and Ron

Approaching Deep Lake Camp.

Bare Loon Camp, where we spent our last night on the trail. One of my favorite camps!

The girls even went for a swim!

DAY 5: FROM BARE LOON TO BENNETT - 6,4 km (4 miles)

Last day was only 4 short miles to Bennett Lake.

Bennett Lake!

We made it! We finished the Chilkoot. The renovated St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church is the only gold rush-era building still standing along the trail today. 

The trail station in Bennett, BC. As we get into the station, Mila, the Philipino woman in charge of cleaning the station, offers us a cup of warm tea and tells us all sorts of fascinating story about her life. As the girls and I step into the bathroom, we all have the same reaction as we look into the mirror. Ellie says it first: Ah! It's weird! I haven't seen myself in 5 days!

At the station, we found out through a ranger that Charlotte and her dad would be taken out by boat from Lindeman City. She was too tired to finish the trail.

A beautiful 2 hour train ride from Bennett, BC, to Carcross, YT.

We even made it in town in time for the girls bike meet!

To call the Chilkoot a trail is an understatement. For the tens of thousands of desperate gold rushers who followed it, the trail was a saga that forever changed their souls, and cost many their very lives.