Telling Alaska’s Story: Hiking the iconic Chilkoot Trail

Telling Alaska’s Story: Hiking the iconic Chilkoot Trail
Published: Jun. 21, 2022 at 12:16 PM AKDT
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SKAGWAY, Alaska (KTUU) - The 33-mile Chilkoot Trail attracted tens of thousands of prospectors at the turn of the 20th century, who sought fame and fortune in the Klondike Goldfields over 550 miles away.

The prospectors, known as “stampeders,” were required to haul one ton of food into Canada. Officials there were concerned about the risk of starvation and wanted the stampeders to have at least one year’s worth of food with them.

The backbreaking trip up a steep and snowy trail was once helped by a system of tramways, but the hazardous, and sometimes deadly journey, did not deter thousands of people seeking riches and the chance for a better life.

The Klondike Gold Rush, beginning in 1897, lasted just two years, but the trail has been preserved as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, which opened in 1976. The Chilkoot Trail is now known as “the world’s longest outdoor museum.” Artifacts from the gold rush sit alongside the trail that snakes its way up from a few miles outside Skagway over the 3,800-foot Chilkoot Pass to Lake Bennett in Canada.

The U.S.-Canada border reopened for overland travel last year for drivers at nearby White Pass, but it remains closed for hikers, meaning they’ve had to turn around before crossing the border in either direction.

Jacqueline Taylor-Rose, a spokesperson for the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, said that the trail border crossing has not been considered an official port of entry during the pandemic. Because of that, the railroad has not offered train services from the isolated Lake Bennett back to Skagway.

Taylor-Rose said that in the summer of 2023 that the railroad is planning to operate normal services to and from Canada, meaning the entire length of the trail should be able to open for hikers again. The Chilkoot Trail begins a short way outside the ghost town of Dyea. There are just a few reminders of the once-bustling townsite that has largely crumbled and disappeared into the surrounding forest.

The trail begins with a steep, slippery staircase up into a temperate rainforest. It levels off into a flat well-maintained path through towering coastal trees along the Taiya River.

In a normal year, the National Park Service says that around 3,000 people hold permits to camp overnight to hike the trail over 3-5 days. During the pandemic, and with the border closed, the number of permit holders to stay at several trail campsites has dropped to less than 100.

Currently, a majority of visitors hike down the first mile or two of the trail. Commercial operators offer guided tours and then float back down the river. For hikers who want to continue on, the National Park Service has a trail center in downtown Skagway that can give updated reports about trail conditions and overnight camping permits.

The trail after Sheep Camp includes the very steep and iconic Chilkoot Pass. As of last week, park rangers were advising caution as the pass was still covered in snow, creating a risk of avalanches.

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