Prior to the arrival of European and North American traders, the Chilkoot Trail served as a trade route to the interior for the coastal Tlingit Indians.
Native control of the trail by the Chilkoot tribe of the Tlingit weakened in the latter half of the 19th century as the entire Tlingit trading system came under pressure from the Hudson’s Bay Company and American traders. By the 1880’s, the Indians were allowing prospectors and exploration groups to make limited use of the Chilkoot route.
It was the lure of Klondike gold that led thousands of fortune seekers to travel the Chilkoot Trail, rising from dockside in Alaska to Lake Bennett in Canada’s North. Although numerous routes to the gold fields were available to the stampeders, the Chilkoot Trail provided the shortest and cheapest way to the Klondike. Consequently, the Chilkoot attracted the majority of the gold seekers. So arduous were the conditions on the trail and in the Klondike, and so unprepared were the prospectors, that the North West Mounted Police sent to monitor the pass turned back anyone who did not carry a year’s worth of supplies.
The Klondike Gold Rush had an immediate and lasting impact on Western Canada and the United States. Seattle became a major staging point for fortune hunters headed north, a steady stream of rail cars doubled Vancouver’s size, and Edmonton’s population tripled overnight. The legacy left the Yukon with most of its present day settlements including Whitehorse, Dawson City, Haines Junction, Watson Lake and Carmacks.
Klondike fever left the route strewn with boots, shovels, picks, wagon wheels, pot-bellied stoves and other artifacts of a time long past. Unfortunately, like many of the Chilkoot’s treasures, they have been plundered over the years. Numerous items have since been distributed to various museums.
Today, the Chilkoot Trail is as demanding on hikers as it was on gold seekers 100 years ago. Summer weather and modern backpacks ease the strain, but adventure seekers must still be prepared for the challenges that mother nature dishes out. Even in the middle of the summer, a hiker needs to be prepared for just about any kind of weather at the summit, including snow. Today’s visitors aren’t rewarded with gold, but rather a hike through history. In fact, the Chilkoot Trail is the largest National Historic Site in Canada.
The entire hike takes from three to five days. The Chilkoot Trail is recommended for intermediate to advanced backpackers only. Hiking with a partner, or with a small group, is preferable. The maximum group size allowed is 12. The trail is isolated, strenuous, physically challenging and potentially hazardous. The glaciers, which surround the west side of the park, were instrumental in shaping the present landforms. The highest elevation along the trail, 1122 m (3680 ft.), occurs at Chilkoot Pass. Interesting geomorphologic features in the park include braided streams near Stone Crib and the alluvial fans at the south end of Mountain and Lindeman lakes.
Not only do modern hikers enjoy the benefits of a well-maintained trail, they also avoid some of the challenges the stampeders faced. For most backpackers, direction of travel over the Chilkoot route is not an issue – they want to follow in the stampeders’ footsteps, starting at the coast and ending at the headwaters of the Yukon River. Trekkers usually go from south to north; it’s easier and safer. The most famous, and the most dreaded, portion of the trail has always been the nearly 45-degree ascent that became known during the Klondike era as the Golden Stairs.
Climbing up the Golden Stairs is more of a cardiovascular workout, but descending this rocky slope places a much greater strain on knees and ankles, and is more treacherous, especially in wet, windy or foggy conditions. The timing of travel over the pass is also better for northbound hikers. Another factor is the weather. Almost all summer storms flow inland from the Pacific Ocean, blowing up the valley and over the mountains in a northerly direction. Therefore, no matter how bad it gets, if you’re heading north you can nearly always count on the wind and rain being at your back. This is an important consideration for the one-third of the trail that is above the treeline and fully exposed to the elements.
The trail is also extremely rewarding, with great natural beauty and spectacular mountain scenery as you climb through lush coastal rainforest to high country atop the pass. The boreal forest beyond attracts modern-day outdoor enthusiasts wishing to replicate this historic journey.
A world of recreational opportunities awaits, whether you’re a weekend adventurer or a trail-hardened backpacker. People who go out unprepared into this wilderness, however, don’t come back. Ignorance and arrogance in the face of nature are the surest ways of getting yourself killed. Come prepared, and enjoy the rich and varied wilderness, a place where people are scarce, but the exploits plentiful.
You also need to register at the ranger station located at the trailhead in Dyea, Alaska. Every person using and hiking the Canadian portion of the Chilkoot Trail requires a permit. Day hikers remaining on the US portion of the trail do not require a permit.
The Chilkoot area is subject to cool, wet weather during the visitor season (June to September). Strong winds blow through the valley all year long, and waterways are ice-free for about five months of the year, however snow can be expected at higher elevations in any season.
The Chilkoot Trail is maintained cooperatively by the Canadian and U.S. parks services – half in the U.S. and half in Canada. The trail is accessed from the town of Skagway, Alaska. By car or bus, Skagway is a scenic drive from Whitehorse on a paved road known as the Klondike Highway. Otherwise, access is by ferry or air from Juneau. The Alaska Marine Highway System, runs ferries from Bellingham, Washington, and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, up the Inside Passage to Skagway and Haines. Three local airlines fly daily between Juneau and Skagway. If you are not taking your own vehicle to Skagway, a number of local operators run shuttle buses or taxis to the trailhead at Dyea.
The White Pass and Yukon Railway, which was completed in 1900, runs an historic train in summer from Skagway up through the White Pass on the Canadian border and on to Bennet Lake. It also runs a hiker’s shuttle for those wishing to hike the Chilkoot Trail.
The Chilkoot Trail: The Ultimate Hike – by Dick Postma (A personal account)
For more information on hiking the Chilkoot Trail, contact:
Suite 202 – 300 Main Street,
Yukon, Y1A 2B5
Toll free for North America only: 1-800-661-0486.