Last month I backpacked the Chilkoot trail through Southeast Alaska into British Columbia with 5 other girlfriends over 6 days. This is a yearly tradition: a girls only backpacking trip. It started a couple years ago when I realized that I’d only done outdoorsy trips with Jared, and wanted outdoor adventures I could own and plan myself. The first one was canoeing in Maine. It was exactly what I wanted and needed. This time, we decided on Alaska. It was somewhere none of us had spent much time, and a place we were really itching to explore. The first part of our trip about the side trips I talked about a couple days ago here, and today I’ll share all about the backpacking portion. Be prepared for way too many details and far too many photos.
I’ve always loved outdoor adventures but this trip with some of my very best girlfriends only solidified this fact even more: that these are my very favorite trips. I’d take them over luxury spas and beach vacations again and again. It’s made me a better, more grounded, stronger person coming home. The best kind of nature therapy! Here we go…
The Chilkoot trail was originally used by the indigenous Tlinget tribes for trade routes, and later became a popular route for gold seekers during the Klondike Gold Rush more than 100 years ago from Dyea, Alaska to Bennet, British Columbia. I talked a bit about it back on this post. Artifacts from the gold rush era are still found throughout the trail, and we were given strict instructions by the rangers to not touch the relics! The total mileage is 33 miles and about 3,000 elevation gain with 10 different options for campsites along the way. It’s a very popular and well maintained trail, so only 50 permits are issued a day (and have to be reserved several months in advance). Because there are so many well maintained campsites. Each had pit toilets, a shared warming hut (wooden cabin, some with wood burning stoves for warmth), picnic tables, and platforms for tents. It was backpacking, but we weren’t totally roughing it.
There are a lot of different ways you can plan your trip based on your group and travel schedules. Because we were wanting to take the fast ferry from Juneau to Skagway (which only runs 2x a week), and the Bennet train back to Skagway (a historic train ride back through a parallel gold rush trade route), we needed to do it in 6 days. Which was about a day longer than many other groups. This meant that we had one day of close to zero mileage. The mileage was split up in this order: 7.5 miles, 5.5, 7 (summit day), 2.5 (zero day), 6.5, and 4 (last day hiking to the Bennett train stop).
The famous section of the trail is the Golden Staircase (above) to the summit. Obviously we didn’t do it in the snow like the gold rush stampeders here, it’s actually a massive section of boulders all the way to the top where you’re welcomed into Canada at a warming hut.
Main problems are Alaskan mosquitos and bears (black bears and grizzly). Neither were a problem on the hike. We saw zero bears and the mosquitos weren’t as annoying as I had thought. I had bites all over (even through my pants!) but was a little oblivious to them, swatting at them every once in a while. They bugged some more than others. We did have to carry bear spray, used mosquito repellent, and I had a mosquito net (but didn’t use it once).
Getting ready physically
To train for this backpacking trip I mostly ran and did some hiking (but didn’t end up hiking as much as I should have). For a couple months I ran between 4 and 6 miles every other day and did a 30 minutes pilates workout on my off days. I did some trail running with my pack, but wish I had done another shorter trip with my pack and gear beforehand to make sure I was comfortable with everything. I felt like I was in fine shape for the hike and didn’t feel sore (which I was pleasantly surprised at!).
This was the trail center in Skagway where we had to check in with the rangers and register our permits before starting our hike the next day. They gave us some instructions on the trial conditions (avalanche warning was lifted the week before, hooray!), checked passports (since we were hiking through the border to Canada), and we watched a video about bear safety (bottom line: if a black bear attacks you fight back, if a grizzly bear attacks you play dead).
These selfies of Devon and I were the first in hundreds of selfies on the trail!
Packing up that day before was a little stressful. The grocery store was closed where we had been planning on picking up a few other food items and essentials like bear spray and propane (since you can’t fly with either of those items). Everyone had their own list of things they needed (for me it was fuel and cheddar cheese), and running around trying to find everything was a little crazy.
We had a google doc which listed personal gear that everyone needed (like sleeping bag, clothing, food), and group gear that people signed up to contribute (like 2 man tents, water filtration systems, jetboil stoves, first aid kit).
Southwest Alaska is a very wet climate and the temperature range from about 40-65 F. So, just a little colder than the bay area. The first two days of the hike are in a temperate rainforest called Tongass National Forest. The third day was a high alpine, the last 2 days were in a boreal forest. Because of this, there was a lot of wet weather gear we needed like compression dry sacks, non-cotton clothing, pack covers, rain jackets and rain pants.
Six days is a lot of food to bring, but there were water sources all along the way. To minimize the weight I had an Western Mountaineering ultralight sleeping bag , and used backpacking meals for dinner. For clothing I packed 2 pairs of shirts like these, 2 pairs of socks, 3 pairs of underwear, two pairs of leggings (one only to sleep in), a soft shell jacket, a thin patagonia jacket, a long sleeve wind shirt (the red one above that I wore every day ), and a rain jacket. My pack is an Osprey Aura 65 womens. It was a Christmas present from Jared. And I love it!! Joke is that it isn’t a question of what pack you have, but which osprey do you have. In addition to hiking boots, I also had a pair of Tevas for camp shoes (and yes, I wore them with socks). Others brought lightweight slip on tennis shoes or crocs.
Other things I packed were: a pack towel to clean off, toilet paper (only for the Canada side, the US side had toilet paper in the pit toilets), two charged external chargers, baseball hat, beanie, hiking poles (there were a lot of stream crossings), small waterproof sacks called zpacks, a book, a journal, 2 headlamps, a sleeping pad and camping pillow. My pack weighed 32 lbs.
The rangers required us to carry bear spray. I’d never used or carried bear spray before. We attached it right on our chest straps or in the side water bottle pocket. We sprayed it once on the first day to make sure we knew how it worked, but luckily didn’t use it again. It did make me feel better about being in grizzly country, especially at night in the tent.
Because I was concerned with my pack weight, food was all lightweight and calorie dense. For breakfasts I made oatmeal (using water in the jetboil stove). Snacks were things like snickers bars, dried fruit and trail mix. Lunch was sharp cheddar cheese and crackers, salami, tuna. Dinners were all Mountain House Pro Pack backpacking meals (the lightest weight, most vacuumed sealed brand). My favorites are beef strog, mac and cheese, chicken and dumplings, chicken and rice. Each was 2 servings (and yes, I ate both servings).
Drinks I loved: 3 in 1 coffee packets in the morning (from Trader Joes), and special cocktails like Kahlua Hot Chocolate and Rum Cider.
From left to right:
Diana- a friend I met in San Francisco who moved to Portland a couple years ago. Nurse and mother of two girls.
Mardi- my very first and best friend. We lived next door to each other when I was an infant and have remarkably not only kept in touch ever since, but have remained super close. Mardi lives in Boston, works in marketing and travels an insane amount.
Liz- (to my left). A friend from here in San Francisco. Pediatric nutritionist, competitive runner (doing a half iron man in just a couple weeks!), and mother of two boys.
Devon- Devon is one of my very best friends I met in college. She lives in DC, after spending more than a decade living abroad in places like Egypt and Kenya. She works in refugee resettlement.
Jen- a hiking friend I met through Mardi who lives in Vermont and is our official mountaineering expert. She dehydrates her own food and can set up a tent with fancy knots in 2 minutes flat.
Day 1: Skagway to Canyon City
Obligatory trailhead group shot. We flagged down a group of bikers to take our photo (thank you!)
The first day was 7.5 miles to Canyon City. There were beautiful steams we passed and bridges at every turn. It rained a bit on and off so we kept our pack covers on to keep things dry.
Gotta get at least one selfie while my hair is still clean!
Brand new boots doing great. In case you missed it, my decade old boots fell apart the day before we started the hike and I had to buy new ones.
We topped for lunch at this gorgeous creek with a glacier overhead.
When we arrived at Canyon City, there were already quite a few groups of backpackers there. Above is the warming hut. A really nice cabin where we cooked dinner and hung out in the evening. It rained all night, but luckily we stayed dry with the rainfly on our tent.
This is what the inside of the warming hut looked like.
Day 2: Canyon City to Sheep’s Camp
It was rainy most of the second day and the rainforest was stunning. Everything was covered in moss with high trees.
Crazy suspension bridge over a rushing river!
Consulting the map to get an idea of how far we are to Sheep’s Camp.
When we reached to Sheep’s camp, we had to dry everything out. That morning we had to pack up our tent wet, so everything was drippy. This camp had a huge structure and two smaller warming huts (one with a really cozy fire!).
Because conditions can vary considerably one day to another and we don’t have access to updated weather information, a ranger comes every evening to go over conditions for the group headed to the summit the next day.
Day 3: Sheep’s camp to Happy camp (summit day!)
This was the most exciting day. We weaved through more rainforest for a few miles before starting to do some significant climbing to the Golden Staircase, which was this bouldering section you can see below:
This is the start of the bouldering section
The bouldering part was so much fun. We put our poles away and had to use our hands to pull ourselves up for about 1000 feet of the climb.
Taking a rest towards the top of the first false summit.
Mardi and I at the top!
Made it to the first false summit!
There were some significant snowy sections we walked across at the top. We probably walked at least a couple miles through snow.
We reached the summit (and made it to Canada!). We were lucky, this was the first day in a couple weeks that the fog had lifted on the summit for a relatively clear day. Often the Golden Staircase is covered in fog, and really cold.
Being welcomed by the Canadian Ranger.
Prettiest pit toilet location!
On the other side of the summit, in Canada, were these beautiful alpine valleys and lakes. It was stunning!
Mountain glamour shot!
Working our way out of the alpine and into the grassy fields close to Happy Camp.
Such a happy sight! We were pretty wiped out by the time we got to Happy Camp
Setting up tents at happy camp, drying out mattresses and clothing.
Happy camp cabin!
Pit toilets at Happy Camp
Liz using our water filtration system straight into the jet boil (while wearing a mosquito net hat)
This is the Canadian side’s system of cleaning your dishes. Any debris that falls into the colander has to be packed out in your trash bag.
Cooking and eating food down by the river.
Sunset at Happy Camp (sunset is at 11pm up there!)
Day 4: Happy Camp to Deep Lake
This was our ‘zero day’. It was only a 2.5 mile hike to Deep Lake campsite, so we spend most of the morning at Happy Camp until about 1pm. There were some early arrivals of people who had already hiked the 7.5 mile summit when we were leaving. It was really nice to have a relaxing day. We had some great talks. Love these girls so much!
Deep Lake was stunning when we arrived! Perched up above a beautiful wide river, bridges, foggy mountains etc. All the feels.
I alternated between sleeping in Mardi’s 2 man backpacker tent, and Jen’s 3 man tent. Jen’s was nice for the space, but Mardi’s was fun because we’d play Sufjan’s Planetarium album at night.
Here was the shared group picnic table where we cooked meals and chatted with fellow travelers.
This was the approach to the Deep Lake campsite (I’m standing on the picnic bench area). Stunning!
There was an artist in residence, Virginia Midford, who gave us a little drawing workshop in one of our tents. She’s from the Yukon (above is her self portrait).
Day 5: Deep Lake to Bare Loon
This section of the hike from Deep Lake to Bare Loon had had the most bear sightings in recent weeks, so we were on guard with our bear spray!
At Lindemann City where we had lunch they had a little tent with registration for completing (almost) the Chilkoot and some historic photos and relics. There were actually relics all along the trail like rusty wheels and old tools. Very cool!
I loved this. Animal sightings board! FYI the last bear sighting was over a week ago. My favorite question was at the bottom of the card where it asks how confident you are that you saw what you claimed. Good question! Half the time I’m like, I THINK that was woolly mammoth???
Stopped for lunch in Lindemann City but couldn’t leave out packs alone for a second, ya know, because we were BEAR AWARE.
The lakes here were so pretty!
We made it to Bare Loon camp! We were there by 1pm or so. It was nice to have a whole afternoon to relax. I took a nap in Jen’s tent, and we went…
…skinny dipping in bare loon lake! It was cold but getting cleaned up felt SO nice. Oh man, I want to teleport myself back here!
At Bare Loon there was a platform high up on the hill that we gathered on that evening. We had picked up a trashy novel at the ferry depot in Skagway and took turns performing dramatic readings of the most…interesting parts of the book. It was hilarious.
From left to right: Devon, Liz, Diana, Me, Mardi (Jen was napping)
It rained at least once a day, often at night so we always had to set up the rainfly (Jen’s tent is the one on the left).
More pretty pit toilet locations at Bare Loon! In Canada they didn’t have toilet paper and we underestimated what we needed. By this evening we were begging fellow travelers if they could spare a square.
Day 6: Bare Lone to Bennett
After a short 4 mile hike (some through sand), we finally made it to Bennett to catch the 2pm train!
We had a couple hours before the train came. Naps, lunch (so sick of tuna by this point), reading, card games, and happy dances!
Here comes the train!!
We had the option of pre-ordering a meal for the train! Real food! Oh man, fresh fruit tasted so good.
The 2 1/2 hour train took us back to Skagway on an alternative gold rush trade route called the White Pass. It wound through more breathtaking mountains and lakes just on the other side of the mountain from where we hiked. Such a cool way to end the trip! This train is a major tourist destination for cruise ship passengers, but they put all the smelly backpackers in our own car as so not to disturb the others- HA!
We had to have our passports on hand to show the customs officials once we entered back into the US from Canada.
I was so sad for this trip to end. Honestly, I could have spent dozens more days in the wildnerness with these girls. The best kind of trip. THE BEST. Excited for our backpacking adventure next year…brainstorming ideas now. Any suggestions???