I’m fascinated by what others may call some “seriously weird shit”. On a recent flight I watched a documentary about typewriters, and I once applied for a job because it would give me the chance to handle artifacts from the Canadian fur trade. I’m also devastatingly cool in case you couldn’t tell. One historical period that I’m curiously fascinated by is the Klondike Gold Rush. Couple that fascination with the serious camping bug I caught after our Banff/Jasper road trip, and you’ve got the makings of our next road trip adventure: the Golden Circle Route through the Yukon Territory and Alaska.
Our travel plan involved flying into Whitehorse, renting a car, and camping and hiking along the route. We had an eight hour layover in Vancouver, which we passed downtown with our favorite sushi and the Iowa/ISU game, before we boarded our express jet to Whitehorse. The flight to the capital of the Yukon Territory takes less than two hours and was full of people with hiking packs and lots of flannel, some of whom do a rotation in the mines every few weeks. Whitehorse Airport, much like the one in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, was tiny and its baggage carousels were decorated with two stuffed elk locking antlers. Once we collected our bags that were packed to the brim with our clothes and camping equipment, we picked up our rental and learned we got upgraded to a BEAST Ford Expedition Limited Max that came with massive trunk space. That would come in handy in case it was downpouring rain and we wanted to sleep in the car when front country camping. We had planned on camping that first night, but I got a freaking head cold the day before vacation so we opted to get a hotel so I could have another night to recoup.
We woke up the next morning to fall colors on the trees dotting the surrounding hills and what we thought was the smell of campfire, but later learned was from the wildfires raging in Stewart Crossing. We picked up our bear spray (you can’t fly with it, even if it’s checked), some last-minute camping supplies, and bought our camping permits at the only open place that was open on a Sunday morning. Despite being the capital of the Yukon, and having chain restaurants and stores like Starbucks and WalMart, Whitehorse still has that small outpost town feel, evidenced by the red fox who crossed the street in front of us when we were at a stop light.
We set off on the Alaska Highway towards Tombstone Territorial Park, listening to the “Klondike Gold Rush” playlist I put together on Spotify b/c we would quickly lose signal once we were out of Whitehorse. The hills and trees around Whitehorse were full of gold, green, orange, and the occasional red, leaves thanks to an unusually warm and long summer in the Yukon. The whole trip the high wouldn’t go lower than 50 degrees, unusual for mid-September. With the colors as they were, and the hills becoming mountains the further we drove, the more times we stopped to take photos because the views were just so incredible. It helped that the sun was shining and clearly reflected the fluffy clouds on the still waters of the lakes at the foot of the mountains. We stopped at a particularly scenic one and had our classic camping lunch of salami, mustard, and cheese sandwiches, which for some reason always tastes like manna from heaven.
The closer we got to Stewart Crossing, which we had to pass on our route, the thicker the air and the heavier the fire smell became, momentarily obstructing our views of the area around us. The sky cleared once we exited off the AK Highway onto the Dempster Highway, a gravel and dirt road that leads all the way to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. In the winter, the rivers freeze and you can continue the drive all the way to the Arctic Ocean. The ARTIC OCEAN. That’s how far north we were. We only passed a handful of cars, but the ones we did pass were completely coated with dust halfway up the bottom of their car. The gravel also does some serious damage to the windshields, and we got a crack in ours that first day. Fortunately, there was one already noted there when we picked it up, and insurance companies in the Yukon cover one windshield replacement every year because of the prevalence of ricocheting gravel.
We were above the treeline shortly after exiting onto the Dempster, and the mountains soared with jagged and colorful peaks similar to the ones of Patagonia, earning Tombstone Territorial Park its nickname, “The Patagonia of the North”. Everything around us was so stark, but the variety of rock colors and the orange of the bushes in the valleys below made for some jaw-dropping sights. We drove up to the Continental Divide before turning around and pulling over at an overlook to take pictures of our surroundings. An RV from Washington pulled up shortly after us, and an older guy peered out at the valley below with his binoculars. El had our camera out, and the old guy called over and asked if we had a telephoto lens, which we did. He then pointed to the valley and said, “Cuz there’s a bull moose walking in that valley down there”. Earlier on the drive, I had asked El if he could see only one type of wildlife on this trip, what would it be, and to no surprise he said a grizzly. He was slightly disappointed that we never saw one on our Banff/Jasper trip the year prior and was hoping to catch a glimpse in what was supposed to be the world’s largest concentration of grizzlies. I told him that I wanted to see a bull moose; we’d already seen four in the wild (two eating at the side of the road in Banff and two crossing the street in Newfoundland), but none of them was a massive bull. The fact that we were going to see one on our first day seemed something of a miracle. It took me awhile, even with the aid of the binoculars and El, the old guy, and his wife giving me verbal directions, but sure enough, there was a hulking bull moose with stark white antlers ambling around in the orange brush. That guy had some serious eagle eyes to have spotted him that far way.
A young ranger had pulled up and chatted with us while she made a note of the wildlife sighting on her clipboard. While we were talking and watching the moose below, El walked down to a further lookout and called out that there were even more moose. We all scrambled down to see where he was looking, and sure enough there were two female cows a few hundred feet away from the bull. But they had company: another bull moose. The first one we saw started making his way towards the cows, and the ranger was telling us about how bulls’ antlers shed their velvet in mating season. Well, guess what time of year it happened to be? “This is gonna be good”, she excitedly told us. Once the two bulls locked eyes, they made their way to each other while the cows were like “Deuces. Not sticking around for this.” and quickly moved out of the way. The bulls locked eyes, lowered their heads, and ran straight at each other. Because we were above the treeline, and the area around us was so stark, the sound of those antlers clashing echoed through the valley. I’ll never forget that sound, but I honestly don’t think I can describe it… other than it sounded like two pairs of antlers clashing. They only head butted once, and the bull whose territory had been invaded quickly took off. Day one, and we already got to see something few people get to see. Talk about a helluva start to the vacation!
We thanked the Washington couple and chatted with the ranger for a bit; she recommended some hikes and that we check out the visitor center, since it was the last day of the season. We decided to follow her advice and got the gold star treatment because it was an hour before closing, and we were the only ones there. Because of the huge cruise ship buses that come all the way from Skagway to Tombstone, the ranger on duty said that they get up to 500 visitors a day in the summer. Despite it only being mid-September, winter comes early this far north, and evidence of things shutting down for the season abounded throughout our trip.
We were staying at Tombstone Mountain Campground for the evening, and I have to say it was one of the more scenic places we’ve camped. The weather was in the mid-fifties, it was still sunny, and the water in the North Klondike Creek rushed closely behind us. We did a short hike along the creek and took in the views of the mountain in the background. We were joined at dinner by a curious and bold little bird who hopped on our table, hoping to get some crumbs from the rolls we were having with our soup. Sorry, bud, when it comes to bread, I don’t share. That wasn’t the only wildlife who joined us at dinner. We heard a rustling in the leaves nearby, where a little field mouse was enjoying its own meal. Talk about a dinner with some serious Cinderella undertones.
We turned in pretty early and despite the really heavy rainfall that pounded our tent overnight, I slept a solid ten hours thanks to the NyQuil I took to put a “nail in my head cold coffin”. There was fortunately enough of a break in the rain in the morning for us to pack up camp and have some breakfast while getting warm in the car. It had gotten down to 4 degrees Celsius overnight, and El and I were both freaking freezing after folding up the cold wet rainfly.
The Grizzly Lake Trail was just nearby, and the rain had stopped entirely by the time we got to the trailhead. We started the hike around 8am, and the first 2km were over tree roots but almost entirely flat. After that 2k though, the trail showed no mercy. The climbing took us shortly above the treeline and on the rock trail that would take us the rest of the way to the ridge. The terrain reminded us of our Avalanche Peak hike in New Zealand, but the mountain and brush colors were something uniquely their own. It wasn’t that difficult of a hike under normal circumstances, but my lungs felt like someone had blown fire into them on account of my cold, and it took us much longer to make our way to the ridgeline. The weather cooperated for the most part, only briefly sleeting once we were at the top. Despite this, we were both completely soaked at the end because our waterproof jackets trapped in heat like we were a baked potato wrapped in foil.
The hike wasn’t all grind and sweat though. The mountains around us were absolutely stunning, the trail was pretty well maintained, and at one point a little marmot came out to say hello. When we were near the top of the ridge, El spotted an Inuksuk stone man crowning the top of a huge hill and holding court over the surrounding mountains. We accidentally wandered off the trail by a quarter mile at one point, but had invested in a GPS which led us scrambling over some big rocks to get back on track. Once at the top, we walked along the spine of the ridge for a bit before taking a break and enjoying the colors of the mountains around us. In the distance was Grizzly Lake, still another couple of hours away, so we decided that the view we had was good enough and made our way back to the car. The whole hike took us 3 hours and 50 minutes and seemed to be just the cure for my cold because I felt great when we got back to the parking lot. That is, once I got into warm dry clothes.
It was only day two of our road trip, and the Yukon had already given us spectacular fall colors, bull moose fighting, and a stunning cold-curing hike, but we were to learn that there was still so much more to come. Next up: Can-can shows at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s and a whiskey sour with a mummified toe garnish in Dawson City, home of the Klondike Gold Rush…
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