Friday, September 17, 2010

Back in History on the Chilkoot Trail

My buffer time before starting my full-time, big-person job is coming to an end. As one last big hurrah, I made one more long road trip with Celine to Skagway, Alaska, to hike the historical Chilkoot Trail.

Honestly, the Chilkoot Trail wasn’t on my list of “places to go in Alaska”, mainly because I didn’t know much about it. But prompted by a decision to bike to Valdez, or hike the Chilkoot Trail, Celine and I decided to make the trek to hike the Chilkoot Trail and explore Southeast Alaska, and I’m sure glad we did. If I by some miracle get a 5-7 day break ever again, I can hop on my bike and go to Valdez.

Since this wasn’t really ‘my trip’ to plan, I didn’t exactly look at where Skagway was on the map. I knew we had to drive through Canada to get there, but it didn’t register how close we would be to Juneau, a place I’ve been ever so curious about since 2006 when I thought I had a chance of the Juneau office hiring me, but instead I got picked up by the Fairbanks office. As you can see, that wasn’t a bad thing to happen to me, as much has flourished in my life since then, but I still hadn't made it to Juneau.

Anyway, back to the Chilkoot. We drove the 13 hours to Skagway, surprised by how quick the drive was, and ended up trying to put the pieces of getting from point A to point B together. The trailhead was 9 miles away, we knew no one in Skagway, and the trail shuttles didn’t even answer their phones since it was a Sunday. This is when the ‘e’ for extravert comes in handy.

We’re at the local brewery, carbing up on mac ‘n cheese and beer the night before we planned on starting the hike, discussing tactics to get to the trailhead. The Park Service wasn’t able to help us much other than tell us that the train nor most shuttles were running since it was after season.. and that we shouldn’t take the cut off trail because there ‘may be a bridge out’ and ‘there are lots of animals on the trail right now’. There’s a reason they were telling us this, but I don’t feel like I need to blog it. It has to do with a popular route to hike out and the route being on private property which hikers aren’t supposed to trespass on, but where no one seems to care that you are there. We would know, because the train came by as we were hiking down said route, and the driver smiled and waved at us instead of pointing a gun at us.

ANYWAY! I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask our very kind waitress whether she knew how people got out to the trail and whether she (hint hint) would know anyone who may be able to help us. That responded in an ‘actually….’ As she walked across to the table kittycorner from us, and some smiles and nods and glances were exchanged with a couple about our age. They lived in Dyea, where we needed to go, and the trailhead was on their way home. One hour later, we were piled into their New York license plated car and off to the Dyea trailhead where we’d set up base for the night and start the trail first thing in the morning.

The trail, was, as expected, extremely developed. Normally this bothers me, but I took a look at this trail as a historical look into a movement prompted by money. Hundreds of thousands of gold-seekers hiked this trail on the way to Dawson City in 1898 and 1899, where they would hope to stake claims and make it rich. Along the way, there are ‘artifacts’ scattered.. and I put ‘artifacts’ in quotes because it’s basically rusty trash that was never cleaned up. Celine and I had a discussion about when some Fairbanks yards would become historical artifacts. I’m sure some in my own yard are working to gain that status!

We expected to see a lot of people along the way, even though it was past peak-season, but to our surprise there was not a soul to be found until we met Tim the Australian on day 3 near the end of the trail. We also didn’t meet any large furry friends on the trail either. The first day on the trail, the trail closely followed the Taiya River, so we were doing a lot of loud talking and noisemaking, though the river was still drowning out our voices. There were some signs of bears, but honestly, it seemed like there weren’t any more footprints and scat than there is on the trails in Anchorage. We were happy about that. And now, for some pictures...

Porcupine hanging out in a tree
Above, these buildings are every 6-8 miles for people to cook in so the food does not attract bears.
A super fun bouncy bridge going over to Canyon City historic site
Which I was disappointed to find out that there were no building there, but just an old rusty boiler. I was absolutely amazed that some of these areas used to house 20,000 people and have little sign left of any life or that a tent city had ever been there. Way to grow back, earth!
A couple of bear prints we saw on the trail.
Reaching 'The Scales' area of the trail
Now, we climb. The boulders were pretty tough.
And the summit!
On the other side of the summit, beautiful clear lakes are strewn across the valley.
There were places where we were dodging piles of leftover snow.
Camp spot by the river.
Our last night of camping on the trail, near the end. Lucky me got a cold while on the trail, so was feeling pretty wiped out this night.

Tim, our one and only trail buddy, hiked out with us to Log Cabin.A train came by while we were walking along the tracks!

At the trail end, an older couple was stopped to let their dog out of the car. They offered us a ride back to Skagway, as we were 2.5 hours early for our ride. We timed it just right to meet up with my friends Carrie and Paul from Juneau.

Couldn't have asked for better weather in southeast Alaska. Next step, to Juneau!


Transam9297 said...

Great blog on your Chilkoot Trail hike. I'm heading up from Seattle via bicycle and ferry and plan on hiking mid Sept. Was wondering how difficult it would be to get back to Skagway at end of hike (train stops running Sept 2 this year!)...any thoughts on hitchhiking from highway back to town?

Julie said...

Hi Transam! We were planning to hitchhike when doing this hike, but were lucky and were offered a ride from folks who were already stopped taking a look at the tourist signs. Are you hiking out next to the train tracks via the cutoff trail? the NPS will tell you to not take the trail, but I had some friends hike the trail earlier this year and had no problem on the cutoff. The creek crossing can be a bit tricky if the water is high (it was not for us, but it was for friends of mine in June - I'd imagine due to spring runoff). The end of the trail is in Canada, so just remember you have to cross the border.

That being said, I am not sure how long you will have to wait for someone to pick you up, but it is possible, and is done by others as well! Have you figured out how you are getting to Dyea? (trailhead)

Transam9297 said...


Thanks for the good intel. I had read about the closure of the cutoff trail and how they have removed bridges for the stream crossings!
Someone told me about another trail called the Notch trail that doesn't show up on maps.

No plan to get to Dyea yet. Figured I try to hitch from town or pay someone a couple bucks for a lift.

Looks like you had great weather on your trip. When exactly did you go?

One last question... do you know if the warming/cook huts stay open after the "official" season ends (9/8/11 this year)?

In case you were interested I attached a link to a Blog I did biking through australia several years ago...for some reason it doesn't link through my screen name?


Julie said...

Dean - we went around September 15-17th. I keep my blog posts relevant to whenever the trip actually was. It WAS gorgeous -not a cloud most of the time!

Yes - those warming huts and all of the cabins along the way were open when we were there, a couple weeks post-season. There was no one at the border station on the trail so we just had to check in with the border station on the way back to Skagway.

Thanks for the link - I will check it out when I get a chance later!

For reference, the Taiya River is the one which runs parallel to a lot of the Chilkoot trail. Check this site out before embarking on your trip:,1,1,1,1,1,1,1%22

The trail can block off parts of the trail during flood stage - I'm not sure what level exactly affected the trail, but maybe the NWS in Juneau can help you, or the NPS. Good luck!

ggoldie said...

Thanks for this great blog! We are headed out soon, arriving in Skagway on Sep 9, and I have just found the dire warnings from Parks Canada about the cut-off trail, so I am relieved to see it does not seem to be as serious to cross the creek.

Julie said...

Hi ggoldie! I hope that I am not leading you astray. There is a tree that is down over the creek that you can cross on. It's not easy but you can do it. You will only need to use the tree if the creek is too deep to wade across. Good luck and be safe!

ggoldie said...

well my friends all really want to see Bennett, so it looks like we are hiking out to it anyway, plus the water levels are quite high and rain is forecast. We are considering a float plane pick up at Bennett, only $175 each, rather than a 16km hike down the tracks. How did you find hiking on the tracks? A couple of other friends have said this is torture?

Julie said...

ggoldie - honestly, I can't remember if the train tracks were bad which either means, a) it was horrid and I erased it from my memory or b) it was hyped up worse than it was. If I recall correctly, it took maybe 4 or 5 miles of walking on the tracks until it began to bother me and I do remember being happy when it was over. I imagine everyone is different. The float plane sounds fun. :)