Finding Adventure on the Chilkoot Trail

Discovering a historic challenge in the north.

The Chilkoot Trail winds its way through 53 kilometers of wilderness from the coast of Alaska, across the US-Canada border and into British Columbia. Along the way, it passes through lush costal rainforest, traverses the rocky Chilkoot Pass, skirts stunning alpine lakes and crosses rugged tundra.

Aside from the spectacular scenery, the Chilkoot has a fascinating and storied past. Over the course of centuries, it has morphed from an important indigenous trade route to a central vein of the Klondike Gold Rush to a world-class backpacking experience.

I first heard about the Chilkoot from my aunt, who hiked it years ago. The trail worked its way to the top of my wish list because it had it all: it was remote, challenging, beautiful, and historically significant.

And yet, I almost didn’t hike it. The more I read about the trail, the more self-doubt crept in. Loose rocks, gnarly roots, steep inclines, the infamous Golden Stairs where hikers scramble on all fours up and over massive boulders – the Chilkoot is no joke.

Could I do it? I wasn’t sure.

But as my research continued, that compulsion, which undoubtedly drives many an adventure, took over – that simple desire to walk the ground which lies beneath those little dotted lines on the map.

So, after much training and preparation, my partner and I set out from the trailhead on a mid-August morning for our five-day adventure along the Chilkoot.

And an adventure it was.

We faced muddy trails, driving rain and sleet, sore feet, and crippling fear (well, on my part, at least). We climbed the Golden Stairs soaking wet and nearly hypothermic. A veil of fog robbed us of the panoramic views from the summit.

I’ll admit, we were miserable for a good portion of the hike.

But we also spent those five days continually in awe of nature, fascinated by history, and learning what we were capable of. By the time we reached the end of the trail, the Chilkoot had undoubtedly earned its place as one of my all-time best life experiences.

Interested in what it’s really like on the Chilkoot?

Here’s what you can expect…

Day 1 – 12.5 KM

Trailhead to Canyon City Campground

Highlights included eating lunch at Finnegan’s Point with views of the Irene Glacier, crossing swamps on snaking boardwalks, and miles of walking through towering trees.

Biggest challenge: a climb directly from the trailhead quickly initiates hikers.

Canyon City Campground
[/media-credit] Crossing a suspension bridge into the historic Canyon City area.
Photo: National Park Service

Day 2 – 8.4 KM

to Sheep Camp

Visiting the Canyon City Ruins, where rusting stoves and boilers stand as monuments to the gold rush city that once existed there, stood out as a highlight. As did criss-crossing the rushing water of the Taiya river on suspension bridges.

Biggest challenge: the constant ups and downs of the trail make you work for your miles.

Sheep Camp
[/media-credit] Rangers give daily local reports from Sheep Camp.
Photo: National Park Service

Day 3 – 12.1 KM

to Happy Camp 

While difficult, this day stands out as the most awe-inspiring due to feeling small among the soaring rock walls. Reaching the summit also brought total elation and climbing into the clouds felt like an out-of-this-world experience.

Biggest challenge: the Golden Stairs, a steep ascent to the trail summit, along with the overall length of the day. We hiked 11 hours in driving rain, cold wind and fog.

Golden Stairs
[/media-credit] Climbing through the foggy clouds on the ‘Golden Stairs’.
Photo: National Park Service

Day 4 – 13.7 KM

to Bare Loon Lake 

Hiking through incredible and diverse alpine terrain and back down below treeline made this my favorite day on the trail. We also enjoyed relaxing in our lake-front tent site at the picture-perfect Bare Loon Lake campground.

Biggest challenge: covering that distance on tired legs feels never-ending.

Bare Loon Lake
[/media-credit] Lakeside tenting site platforms at Bare Loon Lake.
Photo: Parks Canada

Day 5 – 6.4 KM

to Bennett

The sweet sense of accomplishment upon reaching Bennett was the definite highlight of the day. But taking in the mountain landscapes while looking out over turquoise alpine lakes on the way there didn’t hurt. The scenic train ride from Bennett to Skagway is a perfect end to the trip.

Biggest challenge: slogging through sand on the final approach to Bennett seems like one last cruel joke from the trail.

[/media-credit] Scenic mountain views leading to Lake Bennett.
Photo: National Park Service / S. Millard

Do This Hike

The Chilkoot is a rugged, remote wilderness trail with primitive campgrounds and no services. Backpacking experience is highly recommended.

Most hikers take 3-5 days to do the trail, though some intrepid trail runners have completed it in a single day.

Limited permits are available from June-September. You can pre-purchase your permit through Parks Canada.

The trail starts at Dyea, Alaska, which is little more than a campground these days. Hikers most often stay in Skagway prior to their trip.

The trail ends at Bennett, B.C., which is accessible only by train and float plane. Don’t forget topre-book your return transportation.

Remember your passport; the trail starts in the United States and crosses into Canada.