hiking in the yukon

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Kaskawulsh glacier, Kluane National Park
Kaskawulsh glacier from the lower slopes of Observation Mountain

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!

Sheep Mountain, Kluane National Park

Trailhead: Thechàl Dhâl (Sheep Mountain) trailhead parking lot, Kluane National Park.
Distance: 15km (9 miles), 1100m (3,600 feet) elevation gain.
Seriousness: Grizzly country, but otherwise this is a straightforward, if steep, hike.

Slims River valley from Sheep Mountain
Looking along the Slims River valley from Sheep Mountain

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.

Slims West trail to Observation Mountain, Kluane National Park

Trailhead: Thechàl Dhâl trailhead.
Distance: 22.5km (14 miles) one-way on trail to the Canada Creek campsite, then about 19km (12 miles) of trail-less route out-and-back from the camp to Observation Mountain. If going to the summit, count on about 1300m (4,200 feet) of climbing.
Seriousness: Not to be under-estimated. There will likely be other hikers on trail and at Canada Creek, but there are two potentially tricky creeks to cross and no trail past the Canada Creek campsite.

Canada Creek campsite, Slims River, Kluane
Twilight at the Canada Creek campsite, Kluane National Park

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!

Other Kluane backpacking options: The Slims West trail is sporadically closed to hiking due to bear activity, so it's useful to have a Plan B. A route leads along the eastern side of the Slims valley, though from that side it's not easy to attain a high vantage of the glacier. The other main long trail is the Cottonwood trail, which is an 85km (53 miles) partial loop in the south of the park. This one doesn't appeal so much to me - it's a trip into remote wilderness but it lacks any singular sight to match the Kaskawulsh glacier. If all of these options sound pretty tame, and you have a week to ten days to spare, then you'll want to check out the Donjek route to the Donjek glacier, described by Parks Canada with some understatement as being "for wilderness enthusiasts".

Auriol trail, Kluane National Park

Trailhead: 7km south of Haines Junction on the main highway.
Distance: 15km (9 miles) loop, with 400m (1,300 feet) of elevation gain.
Seriousness: A moderate day hike, with no special difficulties. The trail can also be the starting point for longer, more difficult, and more spectacular routes into the alpine.

Just a few miles outside of Haines Junction, the Auriol trail makes for a pleasant moderate loop through the Kluane front-country. It makes for a good half-day hike. We tackled it in the afternoon after driving to Haines Junction from Whitehorse. The trail itself does not clear the trees, and by Yukon standards it's nothing remarkable, but it still makes for an enjoyable trip.

mountains in Kluane National Park
Kluane front range
Auriol trail, Kluane National Park
Kluane's Auriol trail

More ambitious off-trail options are possible. From the bridge at roughly the half-way mark you can head up the creek toward the Auriol bowl that nestles below the peak, where a rather impressive icy lake lies hidden. We didn't try that, so I can't say how tough it is.

Grizzly Lake, Tombstone Territorial Park

Trailhead: On the left, 58.5km along the Dempster Highway.
Distance: 23km (14 miles) out-and-back to Grizzly Lake, with 800m (2,600 feet) of climbing.
Seriousness: An easy-to-moderate backpack, along good trail. You will be camping in bear country, and as road-accessible hikes go this is about as remote as you can get.

Tombstone mountains, Yukon Territory
Hiking toward Grizzly Lake in the Tombstones

Hikes in Tombstone Territorial Park start off the Dempster highway, a nearly 500 mile-long unpaved route that connects the Klondike higway in the Yukon to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, crossing the Arctic Circle en route. The Grizzly Lake trailhead is only 35 miles from the start of the Dempster, but that's still 340 miles from Whitehorse and remote by any reasonable standards. Dawson City, home to the Klondike Gold Rush during the 19th-century, is the only nearby town. The Tombstones are sometimes compared to Patagonia, and while that's a bit generous the dark granite spires, and lack of vegetation this far north, make for a unique and spectacular North American hiking location.

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.

Grizzly Lake campsite, Tombstone Territorial park
Camping at Grizzly Lake

Grizzly Lake can be the start of longer hikes into the Tombstones, with Divide Lake and Talus Lake being (relatively) popular destinations. If I return to the Tombstones, Divide Lake would be at the top of my list. We hiked in mid-August, but if you're willing to gamble a little with the weather an early September visit might be better for both Fall tundra color and opportunities to see the aurora.

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.