People keep asking me for details about fun adventures, so I will post some of them here – starting with: hiking in Kluane National Park. Recently, I visited and hiked in Yukon Territory. I wouldn’t put this one into the “adventure” category – more like low-key, easy hiking but a fun trip in a beautiful area and well worth the visit.
I’d driven through and past the area a number of times over the years, usually en route to other exciting hiking or backpacking destinations, sometimes with my mom, who was also on this trip. We had always thought that Kluane Lake and Kluane National Park seemed to be worthwhile as a destination. Turns out, we were right. So this time, I flew into Fairbanks, met up with a friend and some family members, and drove to Haines Junction (HJ), in Canada.
One thing that really struck me was the significant increase in tourism in the area, especially including Canadians from other provinces. Whatever YT is doing to promote tourism, it seems to be working.
Super helpful park rangers!
There are two relevant visitors’ centers for hiking in Kluane National Park: One is in HJ (in the Da Kų Cultural Centre) and one is closer to Kluane Lake, near the mouth of the Slim’s River, the Thachäl Dhäl Visitor Centre. The park rangers were extremely helpful. The one we spoke to in HJ gave us all kinds of useful trail advice and saved us some money as well, noting how well the trails were marked and suggesting that we really did not need to purchase the topo maps, and instead gave us great (and free) printed trail descriptions of everything we were interested in. They were entirely sufficient for our needs.
Turns out, the ranger who helped us at the center in HJ was also at the Thachäl Dhäl one a few days later when we stopped in there on the way to one of our hikes in that area, and we were able to let her know that her previous advice had been right on target. If you go hiking or backpacking or… in this area, do yourself a favor and talk to these nice people!
Our trip: hiking in Kluane National Park
We divided up our trip into two halves, one consisting of hiking near HJ and one nearer Kluane Lake.
I’d mapped out a number of moderate hiking trails and routes for our trip. We ended up doing some of them and then also adjusting locally and selecting others. On our first hiking day, we drove a few miles/km south of HJ and hiked the Auriol trail, which is a 9m/15km round trip hike on a loop. The landscape varies and goes through mixed boreal forest and sub-alpine regions. Although we did this as a day hike, there is a campsite along the trail, for people interested in camping.
High wind area
One of the reasons we varied our planned hiking was the extremely high winds coming down from the mountains immediately to our south. It’s generally a windy area, and it happened to be a particularly windy week. I tend to like to climb up to high points, but climbing up on plateaus and hiking along exposed ridges didn’t sound all that enjoyable, so we adjusted our plan.
I’m endlessly fascinated by weather and especially by cloud formations, so I did enjoy this rotor cloud, formed in the high winds on the leeward side of the mountains.
Because of the wind, on the second day we stayed in the Alsek Valley, and hiked from almost directly from where we were staying, at Mt Logan Lodge, just outside of HJ. This would have been great for a fairly easy backpacking trip, as the trail goes along the valley floor for 32m/52km, although we only went in part of the way.
Mt Logan Lodge
I can highly recommend staying at the Mt Logan Lodge. The lodge was nice, convenient to where we hiked, quiet and beautifully situated. The new owners are fantastic and went out of their way to ensure we had a great time. If you’re staying there, make sure you also have your dinners at the lodge – Roxanne is a great cook. Yes, I also gave the lodge a great review on TripAdvisor, but I want to give them another plug here, because they are just that great.
Day 3 Hiking diversity – stay flexible
On the third day, we did a series of 3 very short but beautiful hikes, starting with the Rock Glacier trail south of HJ. Although the trail is short (about 1m round trip) and is easy to navigate, it does have some elevation gain. This makes it nice, because it starts with going through a marshy area (many thanks to whoever it was that worked hard to put in the boardwalk there!), goes through spruce and poplar forest, and then climbs up to the foot of the glacier (think rocks, not ice! you have to go deeper into the park to get to ice), with a fantastic view of Dezadeash Lake.
For the second hike, we drove north again to Kathleen Lake, and hiked for a couple of hours on the beginning of the Cottonwood trail. The entire trail would be a multi-day backpacking trip (leave that for another time…) up into the mountains. We enjoyed the relatively flat and protected (in the woods) part of the trail that went along the lake. That alone made for a nice hike, with minor ups and downs through the woods, and some lovely views of the lake.
This also would have been the start of one of my planned hikes, to and then up onto King’s Throne, which is supposed to be gorgeous but would have been extremely steep/exposed and therefore very windy, not to mention problematic for one of the members of our party, whose back was hurting. Next visit!
After that hike, we drove back to the lodge, collected our belongings, and drove toward Kluane Lake, for the second half of our week. Along the way, we stopped for yet another mini hike, the Soldier’s Summit trail, which leads to the site of the official opening of the old Alaska Highway in 1942. It was fun to see the photographs from those times – you can see the highway is now in much better shape than it used to be! Besides being historically interesting, the trail was nice because it climbs up about 300ft/90m and has a beautiful overview of the mouth of the Slim’s River.
I found this lookout to be particularly interesting, because just in the past few years, the landscape has changed dramatically: The course of the river flowing out of the Kaskawulch glacier changed, leaving part of the Slim’s River that is visible from there all silted up – on previous trips through this area, I remember there used to be lots of water there (hence the bridge!).
After returning home, I took out a bunch of maps and studied the terrain, to see where the river used to flow and where it now goes. That turned up some interesting conclusions: Drops of water from the Kaskawulsh glacier used to flow through the Slim’s River and into Kluane Lake, and from there further north to drain in the Yukon, and ultimately into the Bering Sea (northwest Alaska).
I don’t know whether the glacier’s retreat was fast or whether it was slow and then suddenly crossed a dividing line where the volume was no longer sufficient to flow into the Slim’s. Regardless, the impact was sudden, in one season: Heading straight out from the glacier, the water would run into another mountain, so has to turn either left (Slim’s) or right. Now it turns to the right and drains towards the east and becomes the Kaskawulsh River, which very definitely does not reach the Yukon. Instead, this river drains further to the southeast, flowing into the Alsek, and reaches the Pacific via the Gulf of Alaska.
This one “little” change dramatically altered not only the local landscape but also shifted by many 100s of miles where glacier finally meets ocean. Butterfly effect… OK, maybe a retreating glacier is a little bigger than a butterfly’s wings, but the idea is the same!
My research was confirmed in this newspaper article from 2016 (the year of the change), the author of which came to the same conclusion.
Hiking in Kluane National Park: Kluane Lake area
For the remaining 3 nights, we stayed in a motel in Destruction Bay, a small settlement at Kluane Lake, because it was much closer to the trailheads we wanted to go to in the last couple of days of hiking. Before getting there, we made one more interesting stop at Congdon Creek Campground right on the shore of Kluane Lake. This campground was “overrun” (according to the description we’d heard) by grizzlies. While it was still open to regular RV camping, if you wanted to camp by tent, you had to pitch your tent within a special enclosure, created by a tall and electrified fence. Of course, we had to go visit it and see.
Unfortunately, in my curiosity I forgot to take a photograph of the enclosure. We did see several tents inside the enclosure but no one around them, so we couldn’t chat with any of the campers to find out if they’d seen any grizzly activity during their stay there. I wonder what kind of dreams you might have, while sleeping there?
Sheep Creek and Bullion Plateau
On our remaining two days of hiking in Kluane National Park, we started near the Thachäl Dhäl Visitor Centre and hiked the Sheep Creek trail and (sort of) the Bullion Plateau trail. Both trails start off at the same trailhead. Sheep Creek trail turns to the right, up the side of Sheep Mountain (Thachäl Dhäl) and winds its way along the valley along the side of the mountain. There’s a bit of climbing – on a 6m/10km round trip hike, there’s about 1,400ft (or 430m) of elevation gain.
Descriptions of the hike claim one can see the toe of the Kaskawulsh glacier, but we did not. It’s possible that we were so enthralled by the views in one direction that we missed the piece of glacier looking in another direction. There was a particularly nice overlook at the trail’s end, where we had lunch, overlooking Forty-eight Pup Creek. (We tried to find out whether Pup meant anything in this context, because we had a hard time imagining 48 pups in one litter, but we never did find any explanation for the name!)
On the last day, we first went past where Bullion Plateau trail branches off (which is also past the Sheep Creek trail turnoff) and hiked further along the valley initially, crossing two streams along the way. We had been told the second stream in particular could be tricky to cross later in the day and that several parties had been stranded on the far side of the stream, when they crossed one way and then could not return due to the higher water levels later in the day. So we crossed the one, turned back at the second one, and then hiked back to the Bullion Plateau turnoff. By that time, it was too late to do the entire Bullion Plateau trail, but we still managed about 2/3 of it, with beautiful views along the way.
For future reference, if one wants to do some cross-country hiking (off trail), it is possible to turn Sheep Creek + Bullion Plateau into one big loop, starting on one trail and finishing on the other. This was not the day for that but I would recommend trying it (assuming you are adequately prepared).
Despite the name of this trail / mountain (Sheep!), we saw none. That was disappointing but maybe not too surprising, as it was not quite the right time of the year for them to be in that valley. We also did not see any bears (grizzly or black) on the entire trip and generally saw surprisingly little wildlife. That’s not altogether bad as I’m not crazy about seeing grizzlies up close and personal.
On some trips, I see them, on others I don’t. I did wonder whether the increase in tourism in this region played a role (we saw other hikers on each day of this trip), or whether it was the fact that we hiked in a group of 4, or it was simply coincidentally one of those times where there were none. I wished for seeing a bear or a moose or something on the drive back to Fairbanks at least, but nothing! Oh, well – we saw plenty of beautiful scenery, interesting plants, and some birdlife. That was enough!
Do your own hiking in Kluane National Park!
The area takes some time to get to (I’d recommend flying into Whitehorse rather than Fairbanks, unless you have other reasons to go to Fairbanks, as I did), but I highly recommend it for fans of hiking in beautiful mountainous scenery. If you’re thinking of visiting and hiking in this area, please feel free to drop me a note and I’ll be happy to share more details. Being a technophile, I even have GPS tracks from our hikes, even though there was no practical reason to save them.