CANADA'S YUKON TERRITORY has a population of 41,000, of whom 25,000 live in the capital and largest city, Whitehorse. The rest of the Yukon, an area larger than California, has just 16,000 people. Those numbers give a sense for what hiking in the Yukon is like. Like neighboring Alaska the Yukon is mostly uninhabited wilderness, and most of that wilderness is so remote as to be inaccessible to casual, or even not so casual, hikers. The best-known hiking is in Kluane National Park, less than 2 hours drive west of Whitehorse, and in the Tombstones and along the Dempster highway up toward the Arctic Circle. The scale of the landscape and the sense of remoteness, even in these relatively accessible locations, is mind-blowing and matches anything I've seen in North America. This page, based on a 2010 trip I took with my brother (check out his photos from our Yukon trip), describes the handful of Yukon day hikes and short backpacks that we tackled. These were genuinely amazing hikes, and I'd love to return for more!
The front range in Kluane is impressive, but the ice fields and truly amazing scenery lie further back. Several day hikes lead to the top of relatively modest peaks that offer overlooks of the park interior. One of the easier and better-maintained options is the hike to Sheep mountain, which starts at the Thechàl Dhâl trailhead just off the highway. It's a straightforward out-and-back trail, with a mellow start that's followed by a stiff climb up the open slopes of the mountain. There are good views almost from the start, which only improve as you climb higher. As with all Kluane hikes, you want to watch out for bears, though we saw nothing except paw prints during our time in the park.
From the top, there are outstanding views in all directions. To one side, you have Kluane Lake, to the other, a view straight down the Slims River valley to the Kaskawulsh glacier and high peaks beyond. Observation mountain - the destination of Kluane's best-known backpacking trip - is the flat-topped mountain just right of center in the image above. Back in 2010, when we did this hike, the Slims was quite an impressive river, in places almost filling the valley floor. Today, the Kaskawulsh glacier has receeded and drains into an entirely different valley, and the Slims valley is almost dry. The view is no doubt still spectacular, but different!
We returned the way we came, but there are informal trails that allow you to make the hike into a loop if you wish. Sheep are commonly sighted on their namesake mountain, but we didn't see them at anything like close range.
The Slims West route to Observation mountain is the premier hike in Kluane, and it's the one that brought us to the Yukon. We turned back short of either the summit or the edge of the plateau - which give the best views of the Kaskawulsh glacier - but it was still an incredible hike. The video below gives a decent impression of what it's like (with the caveat that the Slims river is now essentially non-existent). In brief, it's a hike with two distinct parts. The first part is a 14 mile (22.5 km) stretch along the west side of the valley to the Canada Creek campground. We did this in one moderately long day. It's basically flat, there's a clear trail most of the way, and no difficulties with navigation. The only potential obstacle is the crossing of Bullion Creek, which, depending on the water level and your comfort level at crossing glacial creeks, might be anything from trivial to dangerous and impassable. Doing the hike during a dry spell in August, we had no problems crossing the creek at the location where it meets the trail.
The Canada Creek campground, from where the photo above was taken, is hard to top. It can be windy and dusty here, so camping in a sheltered spot is sensible. Even if you don't go any further, an out-and-back to the campground would make for an excellent short backpack.
Continuing, Parks Candada's advice is to cross the multiple channels of Canada Creek on a bearing roughly towards the toe of the glacier, before turning right to follow the creek up to its confluence with Columbia Creek. Past the confluence, it's about half a kilometer up the Columbia Creek drainage before you reach the base of a steep but relatively straightforward route up the slopes of Observation mountain. The informal but defined path peters out on grassy slopes as the gradient lessens, and from there many routes lead to a view of the Kaskawulsh glacier. Most hikers either head straight to the summit, or follow the contours of the plateau around the mountain for a closer view of the ice. Depending on the route, it's a day with about 12 miles (20 km) and maybe 2000-4000 feet of climbing.
The Slims West hike lived up the lofty expectations we had in advance, and remains the best hike that my brother and I have completed. We found the park staff to be particularly helpful, and their advice definitely trumps any now decade-old advice I could offer. One tip though: don't underestimate the difficulty of day hiking to the summit of Observation mountain and back from a base at the campground. It's not that far, but there's a lot of elevation gain, two time-consuming and possibly difficult creek crossings, and no real trail. You shouldn't get off route... but we did and backtracking ate up the time quickly!
The only maintained trail in the park leads to Grizzly Lake. It's a wonderful and only moderately strenuous 14 mile hike out-and-back to the lake, which we tackled as a one night backpack. The camp site at the lake is excellent, though even in mid-summer it was cold getting up at sunrise for photography! Reservations and bear canisters are required.
Parks Canada's Kluane National Park page, and the Yukon's webpage for Tombstone Territorial Park, provide more details about visiting the parks. Yukon hiking is probably the best online guide to hikes throughout the Yukon.