Where the wild ones are

The wildest hiking in North America is surely to be found in Alaska and northern Canada. There are plenty of challenging hikes in the mountains and canyons of the lower 48 states too, of course, but in most cases the difficulties owe a lot to either the length of the trail or the need for technical climbing or canyoneering skills. In the icy north, by contrast, the sheer remoteness is such that only a handful of hikers tackle even the easiest non-technical hikes in some of the region’s National Parks.

My own experience in Alaska and northern Canada is limited to day hikes and short backpacks in Alaska and the Yukon. In the course of planning those trips, however, I’ve read of plenty of other hikes that piqued my interest. Here are five that – although I may never get around to them – look like incredible adventures that could be tackled by mere mortals with appropriate planning…

Kluane’s Donjek Route

Kluane National Park, in Canada’s Yukon, is a park I’ve actually been to. With my brother we hiked the park’s most popular trail, the Slims West route to Observation mountain. The scenery was outstanding, the level of adventure (mostly arising from the unbridged crossings of glacial creeks) significant but manageable, and it remains the best hike I’ve done to date. The video below (refresh the page if the embed isn’t visible) gives a taste of the terrain.

The Slims West trail, however, is not even close to being the most adventurous thing to do in Kluane. There’s exceptional rafting on the Alsek river, while staying on foot the Donjek route to view the Donjek glacier may well be one of the best backpacking trips in North America. The route is only about 60 miles, but it’s recommended to plan for 8-10 days in the wilderness. There are no major technical difficulties, the main challenge is the remoteness and the need for careful route finding in the trail-less portions of the hike.

The Goat Trail, Wrangell-St Elias National Park

The day hikes out of McCarthy in Alaska’s Wrangell-St Elias national park have been on my to-do list for many years. Going beyond those, there’s what looks to be an excellent short backpack that crosses the Root glacier and returns to town via the Kennicott glacier. That looks doable, but I’d want to have more experience on the ice than I have right now to feel comfortable planning it. Easier in some respects (though not in others!) is the The Goat Trail, probably the best-known longer hike in the park. It’s a fly-in / fly-out route between two bush airstrips that looks to access spectacular scenery, and which for the most part is relatively easy. There are, however, some potentially tough creek crossings, along with the route’s signature difficulty of a scree slope traverse that requires finding the right trail to accomplish safely. I’m confident we could do this hike, though it would be a step up in challenge compared to anything we’ve done up to now.

McGonagall Pass hike, Denali National Park

The closest you can get to Denali along the park road is near the Eielson visitor center. If the weather is favorable – often it’s not – a short hike to the top of the ridge above the visitor center affords an amazing vista of North America’s premier mountain.

Denali from the Eielson Ridge

Denali from the Eielson Ridge

It’s hard to see that view and not want to get closer! It doesn’t even seem that hard. From the visitors’ center, it looks like you could simply hike down to the valley bottom and climb up the other side to get a better view. There’s no trail, however, and experience elsewhere in Alaska and the Yukon makes me think that such a plan is likely foolhardy… it’s almost certainly much harder than it looks! Instead, the accepted route to better Denali views is the hike to McGonagall Pass, which starts from the end of the park road near Wonder Lake. The McGonagall pass hike is featured in one of the those arbitrary-but-amusing lists of best hikes in the world, and I might well have tried it already but for one obstacle – it requires fording the McKinley river. The McKinley is no mere creek but rather a major glacial river, and one can find entertaining but sobering web accounts of the difficulties it presents. At the very least this is a trip that would have to be planned around the times of year when the crossing is most feasible.

Llewellyn Glacier overlook, Atlin

The Llewellyn glacier is the source of the Yukon river, and to really stand tall on Facebook it’s possible to traverse the Juneau icefield from the Alaskan capital all the way to Atlin. That, however, counts as an expedition rather than a hike. Visiting the toe of the glacier is altogether easier – it’s a couple of hours boat ride on Atlin lake plus less than a mile on a trail to the vicinity of the glacier’s terminus. Apparently water taxis can be hired in Atlin to facilitate this trip, though more detailed information is somewhat sparse. What I’d like to do, however, is not merely to see the glacier but rather to hike to the prominent overlook on the ridge above the trail. I’ve seen photos from this spot, which is amazing, but have never been able to find out whether the climb is easy or hard. If it’s doable, combining a couple of nights camping in the area with a day hike to the overlook looks like a great trip.

Akshayuk Pass, Auyuittuq National Park

Heading even further north, there’s Baffin Island. Polar bears mean there’s not a lot of hiking you can even consider doing independently on Baffin Island, with the possible exception of the Akshayuk Pass hike (at least the out-and-back inland section). As these things go this trip is fairly easy to organize – requiring only planes to Iqualuit and Pangnirtung followed by a boat ride along the fjord to the start of the hike. Numerous trip reports are available, and the main difficulties appear to be the changeable weather and (as usual) glacial creeks that need fording. The Baffin Island scenery is stunning.

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