Kluane Country is the pocket of southwest Yukon on and around a scenically stunning 491km stretch of the Alaska Highway from Whitehorse to Beaver Creek at the border with Alaska. Kluane (pronounced ‘Clue-ah-nee’) comes from a Southern Tutchone Aboriginal word meaning a “place of many fish”. Indeed, the area teems with fish, particularly at Kluane Lake, the Yukon’s highest and largest stretch of water. Today the name is associated more with the all-but-impenetrable wilderness of Kluane National Park, a region containing the country’s highest mountains, vast icefields and the greatest diversity of plant and animal species in the far North. The park’s main centre is Haines Junction, at the intersection of the Alaska Highway and the Haines Road. Although motels and campsites dot the Alaska Highway, the only other settlements of any size are Destruction Bay and Burwash Landing on Kluane Lake. Alaska/Yukon Trails as well as Alaska Direct buses ply the length of the Alaska Highway.
KLUANE NATIONAL PARK contains some of the Yukon’s greatest but most inaccessible scenery within its 21,980 square kilometres, and for the most part, you’ll only see and walk the easterly margins of this UNESCO World Heritage Site from points along the Alaska Hwy (no road runs into the park). Together with the neighbouring Wrangell-St Elias National Park in Alaska, the park protects the St Elias Mountains, though from the highway the peaks you see rearing up to the south are part of the subsidiary Kluane Range. Beyond them, largely invisible from the road, are St Elias’s monumental Icefield Ranges, which contain Mount St Elias (5488m) and Mount Logan (5950m) – Canada’s highest point – as well as Mount Denali (Mt McKinley; 6193m), part of the Alaska Range and the highest point in North America; these form the world’s second highest coastal range, after the Andes. Below them, and covering more than half the park, is a huge base of mile-deep glaciers and ice fields, the world’s second largest non-polar ice field (after Greenland) and just one permanent resident, the legendary ice worm. Yet global warming is taking its toll on the ice fields, with levels dropping by approximately 1.8m a year.
Unless you’re prepared for full-scale expeditions, this interior is off limits, though from around $200 you can take plane and helicopter tours over the area; information on guided tours is available from the Whitehorse and Haines Junction visitor centres.
At the edge of the ice fields a drier, warmer range encourages a green belt of meadow, marsh, forest and fen providing sanctuary for a huge variety of wildlife, including grizzlies, moose, mountain goats and a four thousand-strong population of white Dall sheep. These margins also support the widest spectrum of birds in the far North, some 150 species in all, including easily seen raptors such as peregrine falcons, bald and golden eagles, together with smaller birds like arctic terns, mountain bluebirds, tattlers and hawk owls.
Trails offer the chance to see some of these creatures., but the only campsite within the park accessible from the highway is at Kathleen Lake; there is hotel and camping accommodation along the Alaska Hwy.
Kluane has only fifteen maintained trails but experienced walkers will enjoy wilderness routes totalling about 250km, most of which follow old mining roads or creek beds and require overnight rough camping. Several signposted day and multi-day hike trailheads can be accessed from the highway, each mapped on pamphlets available from Haines Junction visitor centre, where staff also organize guided day-walks during the summer.
Six trails start from points along Haines Road, immediately south of Haines Junction. The path nearest town (7km south) and the most popular walk is the 15km round-trip Auriol Trail. The trailhead for the classic King’s Throne walk (5km one-way) lies 27km south of Haines Junction. It’s fairly steep, but offers spectacular views of Kathleen Lake; continue past the maintained trail to the summit of the mountain to be rewarded with views of the ice fields. The well-maintained Rock Glacier Trail, 50km south of Haines Junction, is a twenty-minute jaunt to a view of Dezadeash Lake. For a longer trek, the Mush Lake Road route (trailhead 52km south of Haines Junction) is 22km one-way and part of the 85km of the Cottonwood Trail. North of Haines Junction, paths strike out from the Tachal Dhal (Sheep Mountain) visitor centre on Kluane Lake. The Sheep Mountain Ridge (11.5km) is a steep, hard slog, but offers good chances of seeing the area’s Dall sheep. The longer Slim’s River West Trail (22.5km one-way) is a difficult hike but lets you see the edges of the park’s ice field interior. Backcountry permits ($10/night) are required for those planning overnight or multi-day hikes; register at the Haines Junction or Tachal Dhal visitor centres, where you can also pick up a mandatory bear-proof food canister.
About 17km north of Haines Junction and just outside the park boundaries on the Alaska Hwy, the Spruce Beetle Walk is a 2km interpretive loop trail taking in a patch of forest devastated by the spruce beetle. Thriving in the recent balmier winters, these persistent little borers operate like a slow motion forest fire and have infested and killed an estimated forty percent of the mature spruce trees in Kluane Country since the early 1990s. Look out for red pine needles – a sign of infestation; grey trees without needles have already succumbed.