No image better conjures the human drama of the 1898 gold rush than the lines of prospectors struggling over the Chilkoot Trail, a 53km path over the Coast Mountains between Dyea, Alaska, and Bennett Lake on the BC border south of Whitehorse. Before the rush, Dyea was a small village of Chilkat Tlingit, who made annual trips over the trail to trade with the interior Dene peoples. The Chilkat jealously guarded access to the Chilkoot Pass (1122m) – the key to the trail and one of only three glacier-free routes through the Coast Mountains west of Juneau. Sheer numbers and a show of force from a US gunboat opened the trail to stampeders, who used it as a link between the Pacific Coast ferry ports and the Yukon River, which then took them to Dawson City’s goldfields.

For much of 1897, the US and Canada disputed the pass and border until the Mounties established a shack at the summit and enforced the fateful “tonne of goods” rule. Introduced because of chronic shortages in the goldfields, this obliged every man entering the Yukon to carry a tonne of provisions. Though it probably saved many lives in the long run, the rule caused enormous hardship: weather conditions and the trail’s fifty-degree slopes proved too severe for pack animals, so men carried supplies for as many as fifty journeys. Many died in avalanches or lost everything during a winter where temperatures dropped to -51°C and 25m of snow fell. Still, the lure of gold was enough to drag 22,000 men over the pass.

Preparation

Today, most people make the fantastic journey across the mountains by train, car or bus from Skagway to Whitehorse. This route runs parallel to that taken by the restored White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad (mid-May to mid-Sept daily; train from Skagway to Carcross or Fraser BC, then bus to Whitehorse; US$129 Fraser, US$189 Carcross; t 1 800 343 7373, w wpyr.com). Alaska is an hour behind the Yukon and venturing into the US requires a valid passport.

More and more people are hiking the old trail, which Parks Canada has laid out and preserved. Its great appeal lies in the scenery, natural habitats (coastal rainforest, tundra and subalpine woodland) and the numerous artefacts (old huts, rotting boots, mugs and broken bottles) still scattered about. The trail is well marked, regularly patrolled and generally fit to walk between June and September (expect snow throughout June); most hike it in three or four days, heading south to north. Dangers include bears, avalanches, drastic changes in weather and exhaustion – there’s a 12km stretch for which you should allow twelve hours. There are three warming huts en route but these aren’t for sleeping in, so you have to camp at the nine sites along the trail: no backcountry camping is allowed. Pick up the Chilkoot Trail map ($6) from Skagway’s Trail Center or Whitehorse’s Parks Canada office.

Reservations and permits

The number of hikers crossing the Chilkoot Pass into Canada is limited to fifty per day, of which 42 places can be booked in advance (8.30am–4pm; t 867 667 3910, t 1 800 661 0486). The remaining eight places are offered on a first-come, first-served basis after 1pm on the day before you start out. Outside July to mid-August a reservation may not be needed. Order an advance information pack (same number, w pc.gc.ca/chilkoot; or from the government offices, 300 Main St, Suite 205, Whitehorse; Mon–Fri 8am–noon & 1–4.30pm).

You don’t need a permit for day-hikes on the US side, but you do for day-hikes on the Canadian side, if you’re hiking the full length of the trail or spending a night. Hikers need to go to the Chilkoot Trail Center in Skagway on Broadway at 2nd Ave (late May to early Sept daily 8am–5pm; t 907 983 9234) to pick up or buy a permit and sign a register, and note that permits that are reserved and not picked up by noon on the day the trip is to start will be cancelled. Bring identification (a passport or enhanced driver’s licence for North Americans; a passport for everyone else); you may be required to deal with Canadian customs at the Chilkoot Pass ranger station, but you’re more likely to do so at the Alaska–Canada border post at Fraser or in Whitehorse.

Transport and supplies

Dyea-Chilkoot Trail Transport (t 907 617 7551) offers shuttle bus service from Skagway to the trailhead at Dyea, 14km northwest of Skagway. Normal hours are 9am to 6pm, but transfers as early as 4.30am can be reserved with advance notice. Fare is US$30 for one, but US$15 each for two or more people.

The trail finishes at Bennett, where you have a number of options. You can walk the 12km to the highway at Log Cabin; there’s a marked short cut off the trail which avoids Bennett but there is no signage once you reach the railway tracks; further, the tracks are off-limits and Parks Canada is enforcing this regulation, so note there is no transport available from here. Alternatively, you can catch the daily service run by the WP&YPR railroad from Bennett to Whitehorse, Fraser or Skagway; or return to Skagway from Carcross.

Besides the usual hiking equipment, also bring 9m of rope to help sling your food and any scented items over the bear poles at each campsite.

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