Camping in Kluane
Exploring Kluane National Park, Yukon
There is something about the Yukon that holds the imagination. Perhaps it’s the warm hue of its gold rush history casting an optimistic glow, or maybe it's the miles and miles of incomparable and untrammelled wilderness... there's just this palpable sense of excitement and possibility in the air. It’s a wild, rough, and unforgiving country, the kind that inspires self-sustained go-it-alone adventures, a kind of wild-eyed romanticism, and that maybe even inspires a bit of magical thinking. Before we knew it we were gazing out over the rugged landscapes, imagining setting off into the wilds and maybe even finding a few gold nuggets of our own, too.
Which is of course silly. We were headed to Kluane, a few hundred miles south of the storied Klondike gold fields, a place better known for bears and glaciers than self-made fortunes. We were there to camp, hike, and explore the park for national Get Outside Day. The only treasures in our future were some hard-won views of rugged mountains, and memories of warm-bodied well-spent days outside. But these have a richness all their own.
A central part of the binational UNESCO Kluane - Wrangell - St. Elias - Glacier Bay - Tatshenshini-Alsek park system, Kluane's spectacular glacier and icefield landscapes are home to some of the worlds most beautiful scenery. With many of the continent's highest peaks (including the epic Mount Logan which clocks in at a whopping 5,959 m [19,551 ft]), the world’s largest non-polar icefield, integral caribou and dall sheep habitat, aaaaand North America’s most genetically diverse grizzly bear population, it is handily one of Canada's most stunning and essential parks, where superlatives seem to pile up quickly.
Stocking up on groceries, we set out on the 2hr drive from Whitehorse. Our first stop was Haines Junction, a picturesque little town with hotels, gas, and a couple tasty restaurants, from where you can either head south to Haines, Alaska or east to Fairbanks. Over the next few days we regularly found ourselves in town for hot cups of coffee, a slice of pizza or two, and all the cinnamon buns we could eat at the Village Bakery.
Kluane has a great selection of hikes, many of them week-long expeditions deep into the backcountry. Focussing our attentions on the shorter day hikes, we set up a nice comfortable base camp on the shores of Dezadeash Lake from which to explore the area. Prone to ferocious winds, the lake changed colour every couple hours from dull gray to green-brown to a deep vibrant shade of turquoise blue that only looked more majestic the rougher the water got. It also made for a pretty nice swimming hole, with the water surprisingly warm for such a northerly glacier lake... but still perfectly refreshing after a long hot summer day.
The Auriol Trail
Our first hike was a relatively easy one called the Auriol Trail. We had read that this was a popular and essential local trail, short and sweet and not far from town. It's often used as a quick setting off point for longer hikes into the alpine, but we just hiked the main loop through the woods to a little backcountry camp. Without the the alpine extensions, the Auriol is around 15km and most of the inclines are pretty gradual. It was a hot sunny summer day though, and we still sweated buckets and downed all four of our water bottles. We were glad indeed to splash some ice-cold creek water on our arms and faces.
Most of the trail either follows a creek or stays in the brush, so we were extra careful about continuously making noise in case there were bears in the area. Kluane is prime grizzly and black bear habitat, and there are signs and reminders at most trailheads. We mostly just saw them from the safety of our car, but its always good to be make some noise to be sure. Bears are most unpredictable when startled, and bone-crushing strength, claws, and wild uncertainty are rarely a good combo.
But we didn't see any bears at all. Just some lakes and streams and mountains. The Auriol is a good looking little trail.
Sheep Creek Trail
For a more expansive view of the surrounding mountains, we recommend the Sheep Creek trail. Winding up into the mountains behind the Tachäl Dhäl Visitor Centre at Kluane Lake, Sheep Creek is a great place to watch the resident Dall sheep in the spring and fall. It's a 10km hike up above the ragged creek valley, with the option of an additional 5km on an unmaintained trail if you want to head up the ridge to the top of the mountain. It shares a trailhead with the Boullion Plateau and the stunning 5 day Slims River West trails, so there's plenty of reason to come out!
Sheep Creek offers sweeping views down the Ä’äy Chù (Slims River) valley, and you can just barely see the mighty Kaskawalsh glacier carving its way down through the mountains in the hazy distance. It's shorter than the Auriol but is substantially steeper, so plan on at least 3-4 hrs or so, more if you stop and take photos.
The King's Throne
One of Kluane's more popular day hikes, King's Throne dominates the view from Kathleen Lake looking for all the world like a volcano that blew its side off (or I guess kinda like a giant seat / throne?). The days prior, we weren't quite sure which mountain it was and were a little worried because they all looked steep and impossibly tall for a day hike, but thankfully the trail wasn't near as difficult as all that. It's still a long ardous winding trail up the scrabbly rocky slopes, but it's switchback city and the views make you forget your sweat.
The trail winds up and up to a cirque, which is where most people turn around, but again there's an unmaintained trail up the steep scree to the top. Either way you're in for some stunning views up and down the valley. And there's always the chance at seeing some wildlife, too: about halfway up we saw a big-eared black bear loping across the slopes below us, and clapped so it knew we were there. It paused briefly, looked up at us, then continued on its way uninterested.
Hoping to beat the worst of the midday heat, we set out in the late afternoon. You quickly leave the forest and start ascending bare open rocks, so try not to do it on a really hot day! But even on hot days the weather up top can be fickle, so at minimum pack a windbreaker, as you can cool off at the top really quickly.
With 3 days in the park, we barely scratched the surface of what Kluane has to offer. There are a multitude of longer expeditions to revisit and explore, but this time around it was really nice to just have some down time chilling at our campsite on Dezadeash Lake, too. There are few finer things than rolling out of your sleeping bag for a brisk morning swim, making a leisurely camp breakfast, or enjoying the mountain views with a coffee on the beach. It's backyards like this that make camping so great.
Big thanks to Coleman's Get Outside Masters program for helping make this trip possible