Editor's note: In the fall of 2021, our good friends and gear testers Brian and Sasha embarked on a one-year sabbatical from their careers and hit the road in their van named Rhino (with their dog named Otis). The goal: to go wherever the wind blows, with their bikes, skis, climbing gear, and running shoes in tow. The following is the third entry in a multi-part series titled "A Year on the Road."
Brian and I had spent four days hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park the previous summer on a trip that just scratched the surface and whet our appetites for more. Throughout the past year, we dreamed of returning to see the classic spires and tundra in their autumn glory. Dubbed "Canada's Patagonia," Tombstone lies within the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in nation and is now administered jointly by the territorial and First Nation governments. The park comprises 2,200 square kilometers (around 850 sq. miles) of dramatic, pristine wilderness, including high tundra, jagged peaks, and a diverse array of flora and fauna.
Given our year of anticipation, we were disappointed to discover that we would not be able to get the reservation required to enter the park. The Yukon Territorial Park reservation system requires that hikers stay at the first site—Grizzly Lake—before ascending and descending Glissade Pass to the remaining two sites. There is of course significant merit to this requirement, as hiking over the pass and to Divide Lake in a single day could be challenging and unsafe, particularly if the weather proves uncooperative. If Grizzly Lake is fully booked however (as it was when I attempted to make reservations), there is no way to reserve spaces at either Divide or Talus Lakes.
But our disappointment turned to joy when some fine print shed light on an alternative: if campers choose to fly rather than hike into Talus Lake, Yukon Parks will override the system and allow bookings. Without hesitation, I called Transnorth Helicopters, who had no issue flying all three of us in (Brian, myself, and our dog Otis). A new plan was hatched: we would land at Talus Lake and travel the route backwards over Glissade Pass, to Grizzly Lake, and back to the trailhead.
On the day of our flight, typical of autumn weather rolled in, and a blanket of mist hung in the valleys around Dawson City. We spent several hours waiting for it to lift, though time passed quickly as we chatted with one of the pilots, Troy, about his extremely interesting and harrowing past in the Australian military (including surviving three helicopter crashes!).
When it was deemed safe to do so, we loaded the helicopter and climbed in. Otis briefly looked out the window as the helicopter lifted off but quickly curled up next to me and slept for the duration of the flight. Though the mist did not lift entirely, the views from the helicopter revealed brilliant yellow poplars and a bird’s eye view of the dredges before making way for the scarlet autumn tundra surrounded by jagged syenite spires. This was the view we’d wanted to see and the raison d’être for this adventure. Clouds hugged the peaks, forcing our pilot, Nathan, to fly low through the valley so he could spot the blue-painted rocks that marked the designated landing spot.
After touching down, we set out in the drizzle, pitching our tent as the skies began to clear and the surrounding mountains slowly revealed themselves. According to some other campers who were staying to warm themselves before moving on, it had rained without pause for the previous 36 hours.
Before long, another couple arrived at camp, and we delighted in our shared experience as the clouds continued to lift and the lighting became more dramatic. A couple by the name of Jim and Hannah had arrived at this point, and the four of us were the only ones in this magnificent location. Before bed, we made a pact that if one of us noticed Aurora Borealis during the night, we would wake the others. True to his word, at about 3 a.m., Jim roused us and we were treated to a spectacular display. Rather than take pictures, Brian and I chose to simply “oohhh and ahhh” and enjoy the show of dancing lights. We’d both seen weak displays in the past, but this time, the skies were completely aglow, framed on all sides by mountains. Otis quickly grew bored and went back to bed; Brian and I watched for at least an hour as the shimmering greens and faint mauves danced across the night sky before the frigid temperatures forced a retreat to our tent and warm dog.
We awoke to bluebird skies—which of course dismayed the photographer in Brian—but I personally was relieved to have clear weather for our hike over Glissade Pass to Grizzly Lake. As we slogged up the steep pass, Otis, always eager to be moving as fast as possible, acted as a slight towrope for whomever held his leash. The frozen scree was welcome as we recalled how difficult the loose steps had been the previous summer. When we arrived at the bustling Grizzly Lake campground, a few of the campers were anticipating Otis’ arrival and were eager to know how his paws were. For the record, Otis is probably part mountain goat, and his hardy paws were in perfect condition. Nevertheless, he enjoyed the celebrity-like attention as we settled into our home for the night.
On our way out, it was impossible not to stop for photographs as the carpet of red and orange foliage made the view more spectacular than we could have dreamed. Two days earlier, a grizzly had charged hikers as they hiked this stretch from the aptly named Grizzly Lake, so we loudly re-wrote the call letter alphabet using animals. “Albatross-Baboon-Coyote-Deer…” Despite the desire to linger, we continued along our descent. Once at the parking lot, our shuttle arrived to drive us back to the hangar where our van, Rhino, was waiting. Though we’d had big plans to go out on the town in Dawson City, we instead enjoyed a quick dinner and returned to the comforts of the van as we anticipated the next leg of our adventure. The Dempster Highway awaited.
Thing to Know
- Backcountry sites for Tombstone Territorial Park must be booked online through Yukon Parks' Backcountry Reservation System.
- Be sure to print your permit beforehand, as park rangers do check.
- You are also required to complete a mandatory online orientation and quiz. Pre-COVID, the orientation was in person at the Tombstone Interpretive Centre, but it's important to verify current requirements before setting out.
- Dogs are allowed but must be kept on leash and cannot carry food.
- Be prepared for all possible weather, regardless of when you hike. We’ve visited in July and September, and in both cases, we experienced varied weather conditions.
- If you’d like to see Aurora Borealis, opt for September. By contrast, in mid-summer, you might want eye masks, as it is light through the night.
- If you rent a car and plan to drive to the trailhead, be sure the vehicle can be driven on the unpaved Dempster Highway. You can also take the Husky Bus shuttle, operated by The Klondike Experience.
- Tent pads are raised, waffled plastic platforms. On our first trip, we learned the hard way that tent pegs are useless and zap straps are key. Extra guylines are also recommended. The platform also allows wind under the tent. Good sleeping pads are a must!
- Bear canisters are required while camping in Tombstone (and all backcountry sites in the Yukon). They can be rented in Dawson City if you do not have your own.
- Bear spray is also essential. If you are flying, be aware that you cannot fly with bear spray or camping fuel. Bear spray can be rented in Whitehorse or Dawson City, and fuel can be easily purchased. Coast Mountain Sports in Whitehorse is an excellent shop for needed gear.
- Though we had none in September, if you are planning to be in the Yukon earlier in the summer, be aware that the mosquitoes and black flies are numerous and relentless.