Added by Matt Hosford
Distance: 68 km roundtripElevation gain: 1900 m (6200 ft)Duration: 3 daysTons of wildlifeGlaciersGreat panorama views of the St. Elias Range
This trip is within the Kluane National Park and Reserve. The park is neighboured by BC’s Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park and Alaska’s Glacier Bay / Wrangle St Elias National Parks to cover roughly 110 000 km2 of some of the last truly untouched wilderness on this planet.
The park is very rugged with only a small portion of it accessible. Many of the peaks remain unclimbed and some still unnamed. The majority of the park is either glaciated or mountainous and on any given day, you are much more likely to bump into a bear than another human.
The trailhead is about 75 km (46.6 mi) north of Haines Junction along the Alaskan Highway. From the parking lot, the campsite at the top of Slims River is 23 kilometers (14 miles). 6 km (3.7 mi) of it is on an old gravel road and with the exception of the last 5 km (3 mi), the trail is pretty flat which helps you get through the 23 kms pretty quickly. There are a few swampy sections that you have to go through and depending on the recent rain conditions these places may be too muddy to cross and will require you to navigate along the valleys edge to get around.
At the first creek crossing, Bullion Creek, we had trouble finding a spot to cross. The water was flowing quickly and it was almost waist high in some sections. Note to self: Do not attempt to throw your boots across the river. I tried and failed miserably and ended up swimming down the river to retrieve them!
This area is home to many bears and our trail was full of bear tracks. It’s good practice to yell out and clap your hands every now and then. Especially when entering heavily vegetated areas and when the wind is against you. (Bear bells are not mandatory. I see them as bells to let the bears know that dinner is ready :P)
The hike up the Slims is beautiful in itself. The 'U' shaped valley is so massive; at least 2 km wide. The flat river runs slowly and the braided channels inside crisscross and break away from the glaciers' snout all the way down to Kluane Lake. The large mountains hanging above the valley are without vegetation, which expose various colours inside the layered rock as if they had been painted.
The final 5 kilometers of the hike is undulating and you’ll be hiking up and over steep headlands. Although they are not that long, after 18 km (11 mi) with packs, any elevation gain is a son of a bitch. It is on these headlands that you get your first real view of the Kaskawulsh Glacier and the surrounding valley. It is beautiful and it only got better as you near camp.
Once you reach the end of the trail you have two options to camp. Down near the water or up on a bluff. We chose up on the bluff as the views were better and there were less mosquitoes.
There is no real trail from the camp to the top of Observation Mountain so some research beforehand would be wise. The first half of this route is navigating across a braided river system. This requires crossing multiple rivers, most of which are small enough to jump over.
Once through the river system you should find yourself next to Observation Mountain. This side is too steep to climb so the route takes you up the river valley (Canada Creek) and then left at Columbia Creek. There are cairns that begin near Columbia Creek and can be followed all the way to the beginning of the accent section. This is roughly the halfway point (one way) but there is still the majority of elevation gain left. We did not find a lot of water sources after this point so it would be a good idea to stock up before starting the climb.
The route from here is pretty steep for 2 km (1.2 mi). Watch your step on some of the ridges as they are pretty narrow. The terrain mellows out and vegetation replaces the rocks as you make your way onto the plateau. From here you can go straight along the plateau for 3 km to a lookout or you can turn left and climb another 350 m (0.2 mi) or so to Observation Mountain. If you've already come all that way, why settle for the lower lookout?! Continue up the more mellow terrain for another hour; each step reviles more and more of the massive Kaskawulsh Glacier. Look out for mountain goats! They're everywhere here.
The Kaskawulsh Glacier is incredible. A number of glacier filled valleys converge to combine at least 4 glaciers that I could count into a single 4 kilometer wide ice mammoth. Each one is separated by lateral moraines, rocks that are push to the sides and dragged down with the glacier. It almost looks like a highway rather than a glacier. To the left you can see theterminus of the glacier. A dark mess of dirt and ice.
Head back down in time the way you gave and make sure to give yourself enough time to get back with some light. We were surprised to see that the creek was totally unrecognizable on the way back. My GPS tracker had us in the exact spot that we crossed earlier that morning but the afternoon snow melt had raised the river significantly. Something to take note of...
- Trailhead: 61 00'18" N & 138 33'08" W
- Observation Mountain: 60 49'30" N & 138 42'06" W
- Overnight camping gear (tent, sleeping bag, etc.)
- Water filter
- Sandals for river crossings
- Clothes for warm and cold weather
- Bug dope
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