Gold in Them Thar Hills! Yukon hides treasures for the Wilderness Seeker
In 1896, people that were either brave or crazy, trudged through the Canadian wilderness to places in the desolate Yukon Territory in search of something valuable. Gold! After it’s discovery during the Yukon Gold Rush these folks forged wild rivers, froze their toes, ate modest dinners at quiet campfires, slept with the grizzlies, & experienced the midnight sun. All to strike it rich.
Today, even though the gold rush is over, there’s still some mining operations and a few folks hoping to see a gleam in a riverbed that will be their treasure. But there’s also something quite valuable in the Yukon mountains that will make one rich. It’s not gold. It’s wilderness. And unlike gold, this treasure won’t fluctuate with the market. It’s priceless. And it’s dwindling around the world. For anyone seeking a quiet refuge, a connection to our wild roots, an adventure, the Yukon is one of the last places to discover this wild & free spirit.
If you love forever views, glaciers, dramatic mountain peaks, colorful landscapes, this place will be your gold nugget of adventure. What’s even better is that it’s still young in its discovery, so there are plenty of claims to be staked. You could plan out some great route finding backpacking adventures and see scenery that few, if anyone, has ever gazed upon. Changing landscapes make this even more true. This is a place of change – seasonal, annual, climactic. Recently, a retreating Yukon glacier led to rapid melting ice blocks and subsequently a change in an entire southern Yukon river’s course. In fact, the river has practically disappeared. It would have been pretty neat to have hiked it years before the change and then just after. Unfortunately, we just made it up the summer after it occurred.
So, if you’re just getting started and need to do some panning to test the waters in this wilderness, here are some great hiking ideas for southern Yukon.
In the Southwest Yukon region, you’ll find adjacent lands in British Columbia and Alaska. This region is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which encompasses millions of acres to include Kluane National Park (Yukon), Tatshenshini Provincial Park (British Columbia), Glacier Bay National Park (Alaska, US), and Wrangel-St. Elias National Park (Alaska, US). Collectively, it serves as one of the largest international cooperative regions for protecting wilderness. And it makes a great place to start hiking in the Yukon.
So, let’s start at the most northward park and work our way south. Here are some hiking highlights and tips for getting the most out of this great region.
Kluane National Park is a favorite of ours. This is the part of the entire UNESCO region that is actually in the Yukon (although these are all adjacent landscapes only broken by invisible borders). It boasts a dramatic landscape, with the largest non-polar ice field in the world (just look at a map of the area and you’ll sort of get it), the second highest peak in all of North America (Mt. Logan) at nearly 6,000 meters, one of the most genetically diverse and dense populations of grizzlies (a good sign for their health), Dall sheep, moose, and other wildlife galore, and mountains upon mountains, views upon views, rushing rivers & turquoise glacial lakes. It also has a nice variety of options for hiking, everything from short day hikes to multi-day backpacking trails, to route finding options. There is a very nice visitors center at the park where you can find native First Nations history in a museum like setting, along with some geologic and ecological information about the park as well.
One of the most popular hikes here is Slims River West. You’ll find it on many hiking pages and likely get a recommendation from the visitors center. However, keep in mind, being that this is one of the most popular trails it can be busy. We’ve found the park was actually way less busy in spring than in fall. This was totally unexpected! Despite the fact that the far reaching tourists had headed south for the year already, local tourism was booming. Most folks appeared to be from Canada and on vacation here. So, an alternative to this busy trail is quite simple. It’s called Slims River East. What’s the difference? It’s considered a route, which means you’ll have to do some route finding along the way. But remember, since the route follows a river, this is quite an easy feat. This is the river that changed course! So, now you can (carefully) walk portions of the old riverbed. There are just some parts where you’ll have to walk on land to avoid the quick mud and possibly a few river crossings (or big streams well call them). If you’re looking for views, Kings Throne and Mt Archibald are the top choices. Kings Throne will be the more popular one. If you’re looking for solitude, try Alsek Valley. This less popular trail follows an old mining road. It boasts a lot of wildlife, especially grizzly bear sightings. It is more of a river valley hike, but the views are still vast and beautiful. These just aren’t the massive glaciated peak views of the other trails. You can walk along this road that turns to trail for however long you want to make it. It goes about 25 miles in and from there one could do more route finding to extend the trip.
If you’re interested in seeing 3D layouts of this super mountainous region, information about glaciers, native history, displays of Mt. Logan routes, and grab maps or free brochures on local wildlife, flower, mushroom, & insect identification (nice little guides to take along on your hike), check out the visitor center in Haines Junction, Yukon. A few tips or heads up: The visitor center does not at this point have waterproof topo maps. They have not so waterproof paper topo maps that you pay for. They do charge at the center for your overnight backpacking (not dayhiking), so you will want to plan a day hike or backpack ahead of time depending on that. There is no general park entrance fee, however. But come on, if you came here to be in the wilderness, you need to hike in there & go to the wilderness! Also, if you’re a geology buff like we are, you’ll want to ask the front desk for a Yukon geology map. They keep them tucked out of the main brochure sections.
Kluane National Park
About the other technically non Yukon but adjacent parks :
Tatshenshini Provincial Park
Tatshenshini is practically the south side of Kluane National Park. If you’re in the area, the drive alone towards Haines, Alaska is worth it, even if you don’t have time to hike. However, if you plan to hike, there are many hiking routes along this drive. Most offer huge rewards such as glacial views. What we like about this region is the open landscape. This makes it easier to watch for wildlife, especially grizzlies, versus thick frosted hiking. One of our favorite hikes here is the Samuel Glacier hiking trail. It is a relatively short backpack or moderate day hike at 14 miles length. It is very open landscape, with incredible mountain view’s. Several of these mountains are snow capped or glacial topped all year, making it inevitably gorgeous. If you’re like us, and you want a quiet trail to yourself, you might try hiking this on a cloudy day. We did so only by chance, as we were passing through, and saw only one other on the trail that day. Otherwise the trail is getting popular. Thus on a perfectly sunny day you’ll now probably find us elsewhere. But the end view of the glaciers is stunningly worth it on this one. Springtime also seems a bit less busy than late summer if you’re looking for a quiet retreat here. Beware, the trail may get a little damp in some spots, but there were no river crossings. You may just get your shoes a little squishy.
Glacier Bay National Park
Going a bit further south, past Tatshenshini in British Columbia, you will cross another border. This time, it’s a country border crossing because you’ll be entering into the US from Canada as you head towards Haines, Alaska. Unfortunately, Glacier Bay is only accessible via a plane or boat ride. If you’re like us and living on a budget that’s not really an option. So, if you can’t talk someone into taxiing you for free, you can drive to the end of the region past Haines into a park. Here, there’s a short trail to the end where you can hang out on a rocky cove and watch dolphins swim in real water while bald eagles soar above and a distance glacier at Glacier Bay breaks off a piece of ice. You might even be able to canoe or kayak over (it’s that close) but we haven’t tried it.
Yukon Melting Glacier: