Where’s the Best Hiking Under the Midnight Sun?
I'm planning on heading up north this summer to do some hiking in Alaska and the Yukon. Where should I go?
Call me biased—I’ve lived in the Yukon for three and a half years now–but I don’t think it gets much better than hiking in Alaska or its Canadian neighbor. Sure, there are bears and vicious flies, but there are also glaciers, mountains that haven’t been named yet, and a serious dearth of people, not to mention near-24-hour daylight. If you want solitude, this is the place for you.
That said, be prepared to be self-sufficient: As a general rule, you’ll be on your own, without cell service, ranger patrols or vehicle access if you get in a jam.
The Chilkoot Trail
Based on the path taken to the Klondike by gold-seekers in 1898, the Chilkoot is the region’s classic multi-day backpacking route. Starting in the old Gold Rush town of Dyea, the trail climbs steadily from sea level to the apex of the Chilkoot Pass, where it crosses the international border into Canada and meanders through an alpine moonscape before ending at another ghost town on Lake Bennett, near the B.C.-Yukon border. Expect to take about three and a half days to make the 33-mile trip.
Administered jointly by Parks Canada and the National Park Service, the Chilkoot Trail is well-marked and ranger-patrolled, making it a good option for hikers who aren’t comfortable finding their way along the North’s sketchier routes. There are several maintained campgrounds along the trail, each with tent pads, cooking shelters, and bear lockers. Only a small number of hikers are allowed over the pass each day throughout the Chilkoot’s short (late May to mid-September) season, so you’ll want to make a reservation.
Lake Clark National Park
Only two of Alaska’s eight national parks are accessible by road. Lake Clark isn’t one of them. The fly-in park is located on the upper end of the Alaska Peninsula, across Cook Inlet from the Kenai, and it’s a go-to destination for hikers in the 49th state. If you’re short on time or patience, a small network of day hiking trails leaves from the visitor’s center in Port Alsworth. Backpackers can find plenty of challenges in the park’s trail-free backcountry. Take your pick of alpine tundra, glacier travel, or coastal routes, and bring a map and compass.
Kluane National Park
Enormous, glacier-covered Kluane National Park occupies the southwestern corner of the Yukon Territory, with Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park to its west and Glacier Bay to the south, and the Alaska Highway skirting much of its northeastern boundary. The interior of the park is an icefield, with Mt. Logan, the second-highest peak in North America, at its heart. But the fringes of Kluane are more accessible.
One of Kluane’s best multi-day trips is the Slim’s River trail, accessible from the Tachäl Dhäl (Sheep Mountain) visitors center on the Alaska Highway. As the name suggests, the main body of the trail follows the braided Slim’s River through a wide valley fenced in by mountains. It’s a two-day out-and-back with an optional third day loop up Observation Mountain for big glacier views. Most of the trail is marked and maintained, though some routefinding is required, and there are several creek crossings. The Observation Mountain loop is an unmaintained route. When I did this hike on a sunny July weekend, I saw only five other people—equal to the number of grizzlies I spotted along the way.
Denali National Park
Like Lake Clark, Alaska’s most famous park is largely trail-free. A small selection of short trails branch off from the park’s single 90-mile road, which is accessible only by shuttle bus during most of the peak season, and there are trailheads at the visitor’s center, Savage River, Eielson, and Wonder Lake. Beyond that, you’re on your own.
If you’re at loss for where to start, the NPS suggests riding the shuttle bus the full length of the road and hopping off at your chosen spot on the return trip. Denali’s backcountry rangers can also offer help and suggestions.