History Comes Alive on Alaska’s Chilkoot Trail
As the day tapers into the prolonged twilight of an Alaska summer evening, a dozen backpackers busy themselves with making dinner. Metal doors squeak and slam on heavy-duty bear lockers as bags of dehydrated chili and lasagna materialize. Stoves click to life, their flames whispering under titanium pots. One group plays cards at a picnic table; another passes a cardboard box of red wine.
There are nine campgrounds along the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, which starts in Alaska just outside of Skagway and marches north into British Columbia.
Long used by Tlingit tribes, thousands of gold rush stampeders hiked these “meanest 33 miles in history” between the fall of 1897 and the spring of 1898, hoping to stake their fortunes in the harsh, frozen north.
Each was required to bring a year’s worth of gear and supplies — weighing up to one ton — as they trudged toward the Klondike, making the harrowing passage even more daunting.
Images of bent-backed hikers lumbering up the steep slope to Chilkoot Pass are ubiquitous throughout Skagway and were immortalized on commemorative Alaska state license plates. The experience has become as iconic as the gold rush itself, serving as a rite of passage and even the setting for romance. The experience has become as iconic as the gold rush itself, serving as a rite of passage and even the setting for romance.
The Gold Rush
While intrepid prospectors braved avalanches and frostbite, today’s trail is a different experience, jointly managed by the U.S. National Park Service and Parks Canada. Thanks to lightweight, modern gear and helpful park rangers, visitors can undertake a relatively manageable hike through Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and camp where stampeders erected canvas tents and temporary log cabin cities of saloons, supply stores, barbershops and restaurants.
On August 16, 1896, four prospectors pulled the first flakes of gold from Bonanza Creek (previously known as Rabbit Creek) in the Yukon. The discovery ignited a stampede, with tens of thousands of people attempting to reach the Yukon. An economic depression fueled extreme desperation; many left behind jobs and families to sprint north. Even the mayor of Seattle resigned to search for Klondike gold.
In the frenzied early days of the Klondike Gold Rush, the Chilkoot Trail was the most common route to the Yukon gold fields. From the Skagway area, prospectors could hike over the Chilkoot Pass and meet the headwaters of the Yukon River at Bennett Lake, build a boat and float more than 500 miles into the Klondike.
Of the estimated 30,000-40,000 people who reached the Klondike, only 4,000 found gold. Far fewer turned a profit. Most who got rich were already in the area when the first prospectors hit pay dirt. Others made their fortunes selling secondary services to the prospectors, scratching businesses out of the frozen earth. The entire undertaking was largely folly, but that hasn’t stopped the Chilkoot Trail from enduring as a beloved pastime.
Nature and History
Today, most hikers start a few miles outside of Skagway in the former Dyea townsite and hike north into British Columbia. Coastal Alaska’s fern-filled rainforest peters out near the Golden Stairs, a steep maze of massive boulders hikers must scramble up until they reach Chilkoot Pass and the Canadian border. From there, they traverse alpine lakes in a wildflower-strewn valley walled by glacier-draped mountains.
Most people take between three and five days for the journey, but it’s also popular with ultra-runners who push through in a single day.
As they hike, the story of the Chilkoot unfolds in copies of diary entries stashed in trail shelters and warming huts, on interpretive signs posted along the route, and through countless artifacts strewn along the trail: shoe soles, nails, bits of glass, unidentifiable scraps of metal, the rusted skeleton of a boat. It all amounts to a 33-mile-long open-air museum.
Along the way, hikers might encounter beavers, moose, salmon, black bears and coastal brown bears (remember to always keep a safe distance). The Chilkoot’s northern terminus is Bennett Lake, where hikers can catch the White Pass & Yukon Route train for the scenic ride back to Skagway.
For many, the accomplishment and camaraderie are the most enduring memories. The Chilkoot has become a rite of passage for hikers, including families with young children. Hikers look after each other and shepherd less experienced friends and family on the adventure, especially along the 7.5-mile stretch from Sheep Camp to Happy Camp that can take 8 to 12 hours to complete, including the Golden Stairs climb. Stronger hikers help those who are struggling, and park employees on both sides of the border keep an eye on everyone’s progress.
“It’s unique because you have these set camps, and often people are on the same itinerary,” says Aric Baldwin, facilities manager at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. “It’s always so cool to have perfect strangers in Dyea (who you’ll see) down the trail, and they are best friends. They’ll keep in touch.”
That unusually cooperative spirit likely transfers to the hikers from the U.S. and Canadian park rangers, who collaborate on projects and training through an agreement that has sprouted lasting friendships and transnational romances.
Baldwin met his partner, Stephanie Ryan, during a co-training session when they were both backcountry patrollers on opposite sides of the border. They stayed in touch through letters ferried back and forth over the pass by other rangers, and took turns hiking to each other on their days off.
Jason Verhaeghe, the park’s head of interpretation and education, has hiked the Chilkoot a dozen times since 2007. Last summer he came across a headstone he’d never seen before just off the trail.
“It’s just really special that it has something new to offer every time, no matter how many times you’ve done it,” Verhaeghe said.
He’s well acquainted with the romantic side of things, too. He proposed to his wife at the top of Chilkoot Pass, and they have two daughters: Finnley, named in part after an area of the trail called Finnegan’s Point, and Avelyn, named for a subalpine flower called aven.
“The Chilkoot Trail is a magical place that changes people’s lives in ways they’re not expecting,” Verhaeghe said.
Know Before You Go
Remember to bring the right identification and border-crossing documents for entering Canada (rules vary for adults and children). Overnight hikers on the Chilkoot Trail from June 1 through September 13 must register for a permit through Parks Canada.
Visitors can also day-hike from Dyea, a few miles outside of Skagway. Rides to and from the trailhead can be arranged through Dyea Chilkoot Trail Transport.
Several guided trips are available to visitors, including cruise ship passengers. Hike and float tours are popular: After a short hike on the Chilkoot, board a raft and float on the Taiya River back to Dyea.
The White Pass & Yukon Route scenic railway starts in downtown Skagway and chugs over White Pass, through British Columbia and into the Yukon. Enjoy dramatic high alpine scenery and Chilkoot Trail stories while riding in vintage railcars. The railway also offers scenic trips to and from Bennett Lake.
History buffs can explore exhibits and participate in ranger-led programs at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park visitor centers in Skagway’s historic White Pass & Yukon Route depot and — a bit closer to home — in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood.
–Written by Megan Hill, who completed the Chilkoot Trail over five days in 2019. She has hiked and backpacked hundreds of miles around the Pacific Northwest, including summit climbs of Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.