One of the more remote regions on the North American continent is Kluane National Park, located in southwestern Yukon, 160 kilometres west of Whitehorse. It’s minimally accessible by car and has few hiking trails, most of which are near the outskirts of the park. The park’s backcountry is largely inaccessible except to rugged individuals who like to blaze their own trail. The best way to see Kluane’s backcountry is by plane (on a clear day). It’s a very beautiful but rough landscape, filled with tall peaks, roaring rivers and glaciers.
The town of Haines Junction is at the convergence point of the two highways that skirt Kluane National Park and Reserve, namely the Haines Highway heading north from Haines in the Alaska panhandle, and the Alaska highway heading east to west along the park’s northern border.
Haines Junction is a very small town, but it does offer the area’s main tourist services including motels, food, gas stations, banks and even a small (and quite good) bakery. There are no services available in the park. Kluane National Park and Reserve’s administrative center is in Haines Junction, as is the park’s main Visitor Center. A good place to start a visit to any National Park is at the Visitor Center, and that’s certainly true of Kluane.
The Center offers an informative but not exhaustive overview of what’s so unique about this place. Kluane is part of the world’s largest non-polar ice cap, in combination with the adjoining Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia and, on the American side, Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay National Parks. This region is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There are a number of displays that I found informative. For example, I didn’t know that 17 of Canada’s 20 tallest peaks are found in Kluane. Kluane National Park and Reserve is home to about 2000 glaciers and is one of the few regions in the world that contains glaciers that are in a pattern of surging, followed by retreats, followed by surges. No one really understands why, but this is a dramatic phenomenon.
You’ll see a few displays of some animals in the park, and a few pieces of interesting art. I really enjoyed the massive 3D topographic map of the park, partially because it allowed me to follow the path of the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers, which I’d be rafting in a few days.
Only one road provides access into Kluane Park and it is found about a half hour drive south of Haines Junction. The drive offers beautiful views of the outer Kluane Range.
It’s worth stopping at the park’s UNESCO plaque. Keep an eye open for wildlife, especially around dawn and dusk. You might see Dall sheep, mountain goats, caribou, grizzlies and black bears, wolves and, of course, deer and moose.
Kathleen Lake is only a few miles off the highway, but is pretty spectacular. It contains a day-use and picnic area and camping facilities, a boat launch, and a few hiking trails. The waters of the lake are crystal clear and the mountains are breathtaking. The tree line is pretty low this far north, so the peaks mostly show rock, snow and ice. There is no admission fee, but you’ll have to pay if you want to camp here.
An easy hiking trail at the lake is the accessible boardwalk of the Kokanee Trail, which takes you to a nice viewpoint. If you’re up for a challenge, a tough 5 km hike King’s Throne Trail ascends to a natural amphitheater formed by glacial erosion. It was a little more than my rickety knees wanted to tackle that day.
Entering the backcountry of Kluane is not to be taken lightly. Only experienced adventurers who are well equipped and trained should attempt it. If you go, expect that you’ll be on your own and help, if you can contact someone, will be a long time in coming. Use proper bear precautions.
And now, it was time for me to get ready for the rafting trip of a lifetime.
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