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PUBLISHED: 4:59 PM on Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Chilkoot Trail treasure of a find

Photo by Rosie Milligan
  Nat Nichols crosses a suspended bridge while on the Chilkoot Trail.
Alaska's most historic gold rush trail is also one of its most scenic byways, bringing hikers from around the world to experience its glory.

However, beware of the Chilkoot's difficult terrain, unpredictable weather and back country isolation.

The Chilkoot Trail has been officially designated by Canada and the United States as a component of the Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park.

The trail crosses the international boundary between the United States and Canada and is co-operatively managed by the U.S. National Parks Service and Parks Canada.

The Chilkoot Trail is 33 miles long and starts in Dyea, nine miles out of Skagway. The trail finishes at Bennett Lake in Canada. At Bennett Lake the White Pass Railroad train stops for hikers and takes them back to Skagway.

It is also possible to hike back along the railroads to the Klondike Highway and hitchhike back.

The Chilkoot Trail passes through several different types of terrain. It starts in a southeast rainforest and travels along rivers and lakes ending in a different ecosystem.

Nat Nichols, a 23-year-old hiking enthusiast, enjoyed the variety of scenery.


Rosie Milligan Photo
  Author Rosie Milligan cooks on the Chilkoot Trail.
"It is amazing. I started out in a southeast rainforest and two days later was stumbling through sand in a Canadian dessert," Nichols said.

At the pass, crossing the summit from the U.S. side over into Canada, the elevation is 4,000 feet. Crossing over the pass features long snow fields, which must be safely traversed and huge rocks which must be climbed over with finesse and concentration. One wrong move could cause a rock to fall or slide down the snowfields. This is the "Golden Staircase" the miners climbed and the most difficult and dangerous section.

The 33 miles can take anywhere from two to five days and some true athletes even run it in a day.

There are nine campsites spaced along the trail, making it easy to decide how many miles to hike a day and where to rest.

The campsites include a warming shelter, bear-safe food storage, cooking areas, tent sites and sometimes an outhouse.

The campsites can hold up to 50 hikers a night and the camaraderie among the voyagers can make for interesting nightlife.

The best time of year to hike the Chilkoot is in July and August. By this time the snow has melted to a manageable level. Although the weather is more unpredictable in late summer, its worth having less mosquitoes around.

Often hikers hike in and out of different weather. The clouds change as fast as the terrain. It's important to be prepared for any weather, including snow, anytime of the year.

Open fires, firearms and metal detectors are prohibited. Dogs are allowed, but must be kept on a leash, which is challenging when scrambling along a trail.

Although the terrain is not extremely difficult, good physical condition is a must. Endurance is needed to carry a heavy camping pack and endure the challenging climate and terrain. Children and elderly often hike the Chilkoot but are well prepared and trained.

The trail maintenance is excellent. Strong bridges cross rivers with heavy currents and boardwalks cover swampy areas.

The years of foot traffic has left a very defined trail, easy to follow. Snow areas have orange guiding poles, cairns are built along the way and signs indicate the directions at intersections.

Bears inhabit the area and many precautions are taken to avoid a bear's association of hikers and food. Park rangers patrol the area and fine anyone who leaves food out or temps a bear with backpacker's food.

"As long as bears don't associate backpacks with food we don't have a problem," said Jacquelyn Lott, a National Parks Service ranger. "You're not allowed to have your packs more than an arms length away."

Wildlife fills the trail. Bird watchers may find it especially stimulating and with bears as the main exception, most of the creatures don't pose a threat.

The Chilkoot trail offers beautiful country through a historical perspective. I recommend it as one of the best backpacking trips in Alaska.

Permits must be purchased through Parks Canada. For more information on reservations, fees, trail conditions and trip planning contact Parks Canada at 800-661-0486 or online at www.pc.gc.ca.


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