Length of stay: 4 days
Visited: August 2023
Kluane National Park and Reserve is located within the Saint Elias Mountains in southwestern Yukon. It is home to the largest non-polar icefields in the world, contains some of the tallest mountains in Canada and features an abundance of wildlife. It offers a variety of hiking trails, a few different options for camping and other opportunities to explore the park’s rugged interior.
Day 1: St. Elias Lake
After spending the past four days driving along the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek to Haines Junction, we arrived at Kluane in the early afternoon. We stopped at the main visitor centre to check into our campsite and inquire about the trail conditions. We were eager to stretch our legs after spending a lot of time in the car over the last few days and wanted to go for a hike.
To ease into things, we opted for the St. Elias Lake Trail (7.6km round trip, rated moderate). It’s located near the southern edge of the park, about 60km south of the visitor centre. There was one other car in the parking lot when we rolled up to the trailhead. The path follows an old gravel road to a sub-alpine lake nestled between the mountains.
The first section of the trail winds up and down a series of rolling hills through the forest. We passed the other pair of hikers shortly after starting. Typically we enjoy having the trail to ourselves, but somehow being so remote and in bear country, made it all feel a bit eerie. This portion of the trail was rather uneventful, but provided a few glimpses of the mountains ahead and of a variety of mushrooms on the forest floor.
After the 2.4km marker, the trail opens up to a sub-alpine valley and the views become more interesting. The vegetation had started to change colour and it felt like the beginning of fall. Near the end of the trail, there’s a turnoff for a small backcountry campground which consists of four tent pads and an outhouse. It looked like no one was camping here today. Along the shore of St. Elias Lake there’s also a fire pit and seating. This seemed like a good spot to take a break.
On the return journey we encountered another pair of hikers, which gave us some reassurance that we weren’t completely alone out here. Once we wrapped up our hike we headed to our campsite at Kathleen Lake campground. It’s a relatively small campground with 38 sites, five of which are oTENTiks. We’ve stayed in these before at a few other Canadian national parks so naturally we were curious to test one out in Kluane. But let’s be real, we just wanted a bit more comfort while camping.
An oTENTik is a mix between an A-frame cabin and canvas tent. It consists of a single room and comes fully furnished to accommodate up to six guests. Inside there are three sleeping platforms with mattresses. There’s also a table and four chairs, solar-powered lighting and a wood-burning stove. Outside there’s a picnic table which was enclosed with a bug shelter, a fire pit with two chairs, and a bear-resistant food storage locker.
The oTENTik sites are all walk-in only and are located a few hundred metres from the parking lot. There’s also an outhouse and portable water located at the parking lot since there is no plumbing or running water inside the oTENTik, as well as unlimited firewood. In addition, each oTENTik contains their own wagon to help lug your gear in.
We made a couple of trips back and forth from our car before settling in for the evening. We then got started on dinner, which we ate at the picnic table outside. As the sun began to set, it started to cool off, so we headed indoors.
Day 2: Sheep Creek
We planned to stay in an oTENTik for the next two nights, but we weren’t able to book the same one for all three nights. After eating a late breakfast, we packed up our stuff and headed out. Our game plan was to head to the northern section of the park, which involved driving a bit further along the Alaska Highway past Haines Junction to the Thechàl Dhâl Visitor Centre.
As we neared the visitor centre, the landscape changed drastically from open meadows to sand dunes with even better views of the mountains. This section of Kluane is characterized by dry and cooler weather from its close proximity to the icefields.
We stopped at the visitor centre, which contains a few small exhibits about the land and its relationship with the local First Nations. After inquiring about the trail conditions, we set off for the trailhead for Sheep Creek Trail (10km round trip, rated moderate). This involved driving on a gravel road for a short stretch. Once reaching the parking lot, we got our daypack ready and continued along the road for a few hundred meters on foot. The first turn off is for the Sheep Creek Trail.
The trail begins by meandering through a pine forest. The path is sandy and involves a gentle incline, which progressively gets steeper. At the 2km signpost, we got our first glimpse into the valley and glacier plain below. This provided great motivation to keep going.
It was a steady slog uphill the side of Sheep Mountain. Once we were above the treeline, the views of Slims River Valley just kept getting better and better. There were a few rolling hills before the terrain levels out just after the 3.8km marker. We even felt a bit of a breeze, which was a nice relief from hiking in the full sun.
The trail then follows the rim of the ridge to a point that juts out, providing a panoramic view of the surrounding area. There was a bench at the end by the 5km marker, but the spot was in full sun. We decided to just start heading back to find something better in the shade to take a break.
Ther hike back down took about half the time to climb up. The trail was mostly in full sun until we were back in the forest. Overall it took us three and a half hours to complete the trail. On the way back to Kathleen Lake, we stopped at the other visitor centre in Haines Junction to refill our water bottles and check into our second oTENTik. We’d be staying here for the next two nights. We then made our way to our site to get settled in and to relax.
Day 3: Failed Attempts and Shorter Trails
We woke up the next morning to cloudy skies, which was a first for us since entering the Yukon. But at least it wasn’t supposed to rain, especially since we had an ambitious hike planned for the day. After eating breakfast, we got straight to it.
We planned to hike the King’s Throne Trail (10km round trip, rated moderate). The trailhead can be accessed from a connector path in the campground (which adds at least another 600m one-way) or by driving there. Typically we’re all about the steps, but we opted for the shorter option since we figured it would be a strenuous hike already.
For the first couple kilometres the trail follows a wide path through the forest that was once an old mining road. It’s relatively flat, but a bit rocky. There are two turnoffs for the Cottonwood Trail on the right, but we kept straight to continue along the King’s Throne Trail. After the second junction, the path narrows considerably and becomes rougher in terms of the terrain. It’s also a steady ascent up the side of the mountain with a few steep sections.
The trail then reaches a clearing through the trees. From here on out the path consists of loose shale rocks. And this is where the real elevation begins. We huffed and puffed our way up a few switchbacks to the bench which provides a nice viewpoint of Kathleen Lake. But after this point the path becomes much steeper. After a few more switchbacks, I made the executive decision to call it quits. Being six months pregnant has really affected my balance and I didn’t quite trust my footing. Better safe than sorry.
And so we took a break at the bench to drink some water and eat a snack before heading back down. We then returned to our oTENTik to come up with an alternative plan for the afternoon. After eating lunch, we were ready to hit some of the easier trails. We started with the Rock Glacier Trail (1.6km round trip, rated moderate). The trail follows a boardwalk through the forest to the toe of a rock glacier. The path then weaves up the rocks to a few benches overlooking Dezadeash Lake.
Along the trail there’s a series of signs that provides more information about the landscape. The rock glacier here is considered inactive. But when it was active, the rock mass was much higher. As the ice core underneath melted, the rock mass stopped moving and gradually settled to its present level, which has remains stable for centuries.
On the way back to the campground we stopped to hike the Kokanee Trail (0.4km round trip, rated easy), located in the Kathleen Lake day-use area. The path follows a boardwalk along the shore of the lake. There are a couple of signs at the trailhead to explain that kokanee salmon are found in Kathleen Lake, a rarity since its land-locked. They likely evolved from sockeye salmon that migrated to the lake from the Pacific Ocean.
We returned to our oTENTik to relax for the rest of the afternoon and started a fire since it was getting windy and a little chilly outside. Even though the wood stove is small, it’s quite efficient and doesn’t take much to warm-up the place. In fact, it got a little too warm and we had to open all the windows at one point.
This sure beats sleeping in a tent.
Day 4: Auriol Trail
It was 0°C when we woke up the next morning. This made it a little tough to get out of our sleeping bags. But we started a fire in the wood stove to help warm things up. We then braved the cold to boil some water for coffee and tea and made some breakfast. At least the sun was shining.
We retreated back inside to play a few rounds of cards before packing up and heading out. We had one more hike planned for our last day in Kluane, the Auriol Trail (15km loop, rated moderate). The trailhead is located just south of Haines Junction. There were a couple of cars in the parking lot already when we rolled up just after 9:30am.
The Auriol Trail is a lollipop trail. It was first created to serve as a community ski trail prior to when the park was established. As such, the first stretch of the trail follows along a wide path. It’s relatively flat, but there are a bunch of roots to watch out for. At the 2km marker, the trail branches off to form a loop.
At the junction we turned right to hike counterclockwise around the loop. The trail narrows, but continues to weave through the mixed boreal forest. It’s a gradual climb to reach the meadows, but there are a few viewpoints of Haines Junction along the way.
Once above the treeline, the path weaves through an open meadow and provides a nice view of the Auriol Range. The path narrows even more, but it’s relatively flat and pretty easy to navigate.
At the 8.5km marker there’s a creek that intersects with the trail. It took us a bit to realize that we were supposed to cross the creek to continue onwards. This is where it helped to have hiking poles as the water level was pretty high and some of the rocks looked a bit unstable. K decided to just take his hiking boots and socks off and cross the freezing water barefoot.
Once we crossed to the other side, we came across another pair of hikers which provided some reassurance that we were going in the right direction. They warned us that we’d have a couple more creek crossings coming up. It wasn’t too bad, but I imagine the creek crossings can be pretty sketchy earlier in the season with all the snow melt.
After passing the backcountry campsite, the path follows along the river. But then we reached a point where it looked like the river had started to claim the trail. We were able to cling to the sides to keep our shoes dry.
The next section weaves through an open meadow, passing a few marshy areas and a pond.
The path then weaves through the forest towards the initial turnoff for the start of the loop. From this point we only had a couple kilometres to go and the path was relatively flat. Overall it took us just over five hours to complete the trail.
From there we headed back to Whitehorse to more fully explore the city.