Last August I went on a Backpacking trip to Kluane National park in the Yukon. My two friends from high-school and I, along with our trusty guide, set out on the Donjek Glacier Route on a 12 day trek. Here’s my trip report for this incredible journey!:
Day 1 started off in Haines, AK. We had flown in the night before and stayed at the small motel near the guide office in order to get organized before setting out. The town is a really interesting place; only 1,800 residents who tend to grow long beards. Today, a large part of the Haines economy revolves around the cruise ships that come into town during the summer months.
The first morning we set out early and drove north from haines up to Haines Junction. Here we found the Kluane National Park visitor center. Most of the town was very small and quaint, but the visitor center was massive and super nice. We learned about the park and watched a video about bear safety (acting was not a highlight). We also picked up the necessary permit required to enter the park.
After driving past Kluane Lake, we drove up a small access road into the woods. The road was pretty overgrown and there were deep puddles we needed to cross. At the end of the road we found First Nation huts that were used for hunting. We set up camp next to the huts and proceeded to cook food and talk about the journey ahead.
Day 2 – Burwash Uplands
The next morning we packed everything into our packs that we would need on the trail. The weight was a little worrying at first! I would guess we had around 65lbs of gear on our backs.
We set off, continuing on the dirt road up towards the Burwash Uplands. Once we got closer, we turned off of the road and walked across the tundra. The ground was very soft and spongy with small puddles everywhere. It was not easy going!
After we reached the far side of the Burwash Uplands, we set up camp in the middle of the tundra and rested our weary legs. The mosquitoes were everywhere; I wish I had thought to bring a head net!
Day 3 – Warden’s Cabin
On the morning of the 3rd day we were greeted by a couple of caribou walking across the tundra a few hundred feet from our camp. Awesome!
We continued hiking across the tundra towards the river that would eventually lead us to the game warden’s cabin. This river had lots of rocks that required careful navigation in order to not twist an ankle.
As the river started to turn up into the mountains, we caught a glimpse of the cabin, giving us hope that we would be there soon. When we got close we set up camp a few hundred feet downstream from the cabin.
While our guide was cooking dinner, we set out to explore some of the large boulders that were on the hillsides surrounding the river. While we were walking around we caught sight of a couple of hikers who were also doing the Donjek Route. They stopped and chatted for 5 minutes before continuing on. This was our only contact with other people for the next 9 days!
Day 4 – Hoge Pass
We set out early knowing we had a big day in front of us as we would attempt to get across Hoge pass. After packing up, we set out up the river past the cabin towards an old mining trail. We followed this trail for most of the way up the pass. It was a little tricky at points when the rocks would slide as we stepped on them. Overall it was a fun climb, the views were really nice.
As we got towards the top of the pass, we could see dozens of Dall sheep on the mountains around us. We were jealous of their ability to gracefully trot across even the steepest slopes. At one point as we were coming over a small hill, we ran directly into a group of the sheep. They stared at us as we slowly circled around them, not wanting to get too close.
After reaching the top of the pass, we continued down a ridge on the far side. The views were spectacular!
The navigation at this point was very important. Most of the paths down from Hoge pass are too steep to get down without climbing gear. Thankfully we were able to find a few scree slopes that were easy to slide down.
We continued down a river that would eventually meet up with the Donjek River. We were not sure where the best camping spot would be, so we settled for a spot about a half mile up from the Donjek River.
Day 5 – Donjek River
On the morning of Day 5 it was raining steadily. We decided to hang out at our camp for a while to see if it would let up. By early afternoon it was slowing down, but still drizzling. After being crammed in the tent for the first half of the day, we decided to just go ahead and start hiking.
When we reached the Donjek River we had to decide what to do next. The traditional route involves walking along the hillside next to the river until getting towards the glacier. We decided to cross one of the small streams feeding the Donjek River and walk across the flat river bed sections that would lead us to the glacier. The river crossing was a little tricky (up to our waists!), but it was worth it to get to the nice flat area. We made up a lot of time here, which we needed to do after setting out so late.
After a few miles we reached the Terminal Moraine. The best way to describe the Moraine is to call it large hills of soot. When the glacier receded it left behind all of the ground up rocks and dirt that it had picked up initially. Walking across the Moraine is quite difficult, it is very muddy and our feet would often sink in to our knees.
After trudging through the Moraine for a mile, we made it to the other side where we set up camp next to a small river about a half mile from the glacier. By then it was getting dark out and we were all tired from the mentally and physically exhausting hike through the Moraine. Throughout the night we could hear the loud crashing sounds of ice breaking and falling off of the glacier into the river.
Day 6 – Glacier Day Hike
After hiking with our packs for 4 days we decided to leave them at the campsite and hike down to the edge of the glacier. Getting to the glacier wall involved crossing back across the Terminal Moraine. Luckily, this was a bit easier without the packs on.
The Glacier face was pretty incredible to behold. It stood probably 150 feet tall at points, and in spots where the wall had recently broken off, it was possible to see the deep blue color of the interior ice. As we were walking along the side of the Donjek River in front of the glacier, large sections of the wall would crumble into the water below, sending a small tidal wave towards the opposite shore.
A small part of the glacier was on our side of the river and so we were able to climb around on it and drink some of the fresh glacier water.
Day 7 – Donjek Valley
For Day 7 we traveled along the hillside opposite the glacier. It might have been possible to get to the top of Expectation pass, but we decided to make it a short day and camp at the bottom of the pass, so we would be set up for the climb the next day. The hike offered some great views of the glacier and the surrounding mountains.
Day 8 – Expectation Pass
On the morning of the 8th day we were excited to get over the second mountain pass of the route. Expectation pass involved a pretty straight forward 2000 foot climb up to the top. On the way to the start of the climb we were able to find a few game trails that we followed for a mile or two.
Once we started the climb I started to have IT band issues in my left knee. It became quite difficult to climb up a mountain without a left knee! Luckily our guide knew some good stretches to help me get my IT band loosened up. We pushed onward.
The climb involved some bushwhacking at first, but it quickly turned into scree and small rocks. Towards the top we were able to see some Dall sheep hanging out on the top of the mountain. Once we got to the saddle, it was starting to rain and the clouds were looking very dark. We quickly cooked some food and got back to the tents to rest our legs.
Day 9 – Atlas Pass
In the morning it was drizzling, but we ate breakfast and set out towards Atlas pass. In order to get to Atlas pass we had to walk down a small river 2000 feet, climb back up 2000 feet on the other side, and then climb back down 2000 feet to our final camp spot for the day.
The journey down the river in the rain was perhaps the most mentally challenging part of the trip. The river was surrounded by steep rock slopes on both sides, and the rain had caused the water to run high. It was very slippery and we had to watch our step for most of the way down.
As we climbed back up towards the top of Atlas pass, we passed some snow on the side of the tail which was pretty neat. The final push up to the top took a lot of energy!
As we climbed up the last few feet, the saddle of the pass dropped away and we were presented with an unbelievable view.
We carefully navigated down the scree slopes on the other side of the pass. Half way down we came across a spot of grass known as “Hole #9”, which was a flat spot of green grass in the middle of the rocky hill. A little further and we were at our camp site for the night. We relaxed after what was probably the most challenging day of the trek.
Day 10 – Duke River
On day 10 we continued down the valley until it met up with the Duke River. Normally groups will cross the Duke River and continue on the other side. We had heard in advance that the river was unusually high at this time of year, so we were not able to cross. Instead we headed along the river back towards the Burwash Uplands.
As much as we would have liked to walk down the nice flat river, our guide suggested we hike back up the hill a little bit. This was because the river would not be cross-able, and the cliffs on either side might not be climbable. Reluctantly we started to bushwhack our way up the hill.
After a few miles we came to a good spot to set up camp along one of the smaller rivers feeding the Duke.
Day 11 – Bushwhacking
To get back to the starting point, we needed to continue bushwhacking through the hills near the Burwash Uplands. We continued for a few miles before breaking onto the tundra once again.
From here it was a straight shot back to the dirt road that we traveled on day 2.
Once we reached the First Nation huts we took off our packs for the last time and relaxed. I wandered down to the Duke River and found a nice eddy to take a quick dip in. The water was a bit cold for me! Later that night some of the First Nation hunters came back. They were very friendly and told us about how they were out hunting moose for the day.
Day 12 – Journey’s End
The final day! We got up in the morning and packed our gear into the van to start the journey back. We made sure to stop in Haines Junction to sign out at the visitors center. By this point we all were badly in need of a shower and we were noticeably more dirty than the other people in the visitor center. We stopped by a food joint in town and I tried a caribou smokie. It was a little bit gamey, but after 12 days of camp food, it was delicious!
After we got back to Haines, we went to check out the Bamboo Room. We ate some tasty locally caught Halibut and sipped on some locally brewed Spruce Tip Ale from Haines Brewing Co. Our first real meal back at civilization!
And so our journey was at an end. Overall it was the experience of a lifetime and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking to challenge themselves with the harsh yet breathtaking wilderness of the Yukon!