Total Days Hiking: 5 / Total Distance: 56km / Total Elevation Gain: 2,892m
Ever since I came to the Yukon in 2012, I knew I wanted to go hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park when the park is painted with beautiful autumn colours. Tombstone Territorial Park is a 2,200 km2 protected area in central Yukon and is within the Traditional Territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. Situated above 64 degrees latitude, the park is well known for its rugged and remote mountain peaks and permafrost landscapes.
I left Whitehorse in late August with a friend and my lovely ’94 Corolla (Ursa) to start the 7 hour drive to Tombstone. To the surprise of some (but certainly not me!), Ursa tackled the Dempster highway like a champ — no flat tires or new chips in the windshield! The park campground was quite full because of the long weekend, but we managed to grab one of the last walk in sites and enjoyed an evening of hike preparations and a stroll along the nearby campground trail. The autumn colours were already out of this world, which made me excited for the days of hiking that lay ahead.
Day 1: Trailhead to Grizzly Lake
Distance: 12.08km / Elevation Gain: 881m
After a nice breakfast, we packed up and headed to the Interpretive Centre to register for our hike and go through our mandatory backcountry orientation. I was pleasantly surprised when the park ranger made me initial personal commitments beside the different Leave No Trace Principles, and I wish this was a requirement at all campgrounds. With another hiker in tow (a nice Kiwi guy who is now living in California), we set off on a drive to the Grizzly Lake trailhead to begin the journey.
The first couple of kilometers was fairly flat through the forest, but it quickly starts to climb up above the trees. I really enjoyed the beginning of this hike because I had the chance to do some trail building and maintenance on it three years ago when I worked as a Green Team Steward with the Y2C2 Program. We had been tasked with putting in water bars to help control the rain erosion on the trial. We also created a new section of the trail to re-route around an area that had already experienced too much erosion. This section of the trail is steep, so rain and hiker erosion is a common problem. It was neat to walk through these areas and see the water bars working, years later, and it was even more exciting to know that I was finally continuing on this trail further.
As we continued to climb, we passed some day hikers and a couple of pairs that were coming back from their multi-day hike. I enjoyed seeing these fellow hikers, though their wishes of ‘good luck’ made me wonder what we were about to get ourselves into!
It felt like we were climbing up and up. I felt quite fit, but hadn’t had to carry a big pack on any other trip this summer, so the additional weight made each step very noticeable. But my mind felt so content because the beautiful mountain views were emerging and I could see the lake that would be our home for the first night.
The trail was stunning, and the rocks and boulders were plenty. It took a little bit to get used to navigating over the boulders with a heavy pack, but I sure got plenty of practice developing a technique along this stretch. We started descending to the lake, passing marmot meadows and traversing the sides of mountains, and had to maneuver a creek crossing right before the campground. I thought the lake and mountains looked beautiful from high up, but now being at the base of them, they were truly larger than life!
Once at the campground, we set up our tent and then joined the other hikers at the cook shack. It quickly became a tradition to make a cup of soup first, to warm us up and tide us over, and then start on our dinner.
I was really fascinated by Grizzly Lake campground and the way that Yukon Parks has gone about managing the visitor impact on this incredibly fragile ecosystem. They have worked really hard to condense the visitor impact into a small area, using ropes to create paths and tent pads, and a path to the outhouse and cooking shelter. They have also installed geoblocks on the campground path, which allows smaller sensitive vegetation to continue growing. It was a fairly early bedtime because of exhaustion, and in preparation for Glissade Pass the next morning.
Day 2: Grizzly Lake to Talus Lake
Distance: 13.81km / Elevation Gain: 686m
I felt so content waking up in the fresh mountain air. We took our time in the morning and had a lovely breakfast of hot oatmeal and coffee, while soaking in the beautiful views. Packing up our gear, we knew what was ahead — Glissade pass. Just after leaving the campground (and crossing the creek again), you immediately begin to go up the steep pass. I could see the pass the whole time while at Grizzly Lake campground, so I felt I was mentally ready for this. I found the climb to be fairly good, with only a couple spots where I felt uneasy with my balance and the steep drop nearby.
As soon as I reached the top and saw the other side, I wondered how on earth we were suppose to go down that thing. My friend had hiked this trail before and confirmed that the impossibly steep looking scree ahead was truly the way. Working up the courage (and after a long photo/snack break), I took that first uneasy step onto the scree. As soon as my foot touched the scree, it immediately slid down about a foot. This was all new terrain for me, so it felt quite nerve wracking at first. But once I started to realize my foot was only ever sliding so far, I was able to get a comfortable movement going and actually started to enjoy glissading down the pass. Glissade pass was much easier than I had thought it would be, but about twenty minutes after finishing, it started to snow, and when I looked back, the entire pass was blanketed with a fresh layer of snow — talk about good timing!
We carried on the trail, which was quite straightforward. There were some large boulder sections to scramble over and a fairly tough spot where the trail was rerouted around a recent mudslide. At one point, I could hear a Collared Pika and my whole mood bounced into immediate joy. I have always wanted to see one! And sure enough, sitting right on a rock about 5 meters away was a pika!
The sky started to open up as we were approaching Divide Lake, and my gosh, the mountains and autumn colours were truly stunning. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I started to wonder if I had made a mistake not booking a night at this campground, but I was reassured that it would continue to get better and better. How is that even possible? It was a neat feeling standing there at the bottom of those ragged mountains because they are the same mountains you can see from the Dempter Highway at one of the park pull out spots. I had stood at that pull out many times dreaming about what it would be like to be closer to them, and now there I was, standing right below them in awe.
After another climb out of Divide Lake, we got to some dense rock scrambling sections, and were joined by a August snowstorm. I certainly knew that we would likely encounter snow while on the trail, as seven years in the Yukon has taught me that it can snow any day of the year, especially up in the mountains. I personally love snow, so I was quite excited to hike in the fresh snow.
While we were boulder scrambling in the mini blizzard, we ran into one of the park rangers that makes rounds in the backcountry between the campgrounds. He warned us that there was a ‘winter storm’ coming in the next couple of days.
The skies opened up again once we were approaching Talus Lake, and I immediately was overcome by tears. It was the most beautiful landscape I had ever seen and I felt overwhelmed by this and glad we were staying there for two days. I felt truly grateful that places like this still exist in the world, and that my body was strong enough to take me there.
We made our way into camp and saw a couple familar camper faces. We could see another cloud front moving in fast, so we quickly set up camp. It could not have been more than three minutes after our tent fly went up that it started pouring with rain. And the rain continued and continued. We were all huddled into the cook shack most of the evening, eating to stay warm. The kiwi had an inReach device with satellite weather and confirmed to us what the park ranger did, that a huge winter storm was making its way here in two days time. He was debating to leave the next day (a day early) in fear of being stuck out there, which made us a little nervous, but we decided to wait to see if the forecast would change. It continued to pour, but at one point the sun peaked out and lit up the tombstone mountains in the most spectacular way, and everyone slowly crept out of their tents to enjoy the incredible view.
Day 3: Day Hike around Talus Lake
Distance: 5.01km / Elevation Gain: 272m
It was a cold and soggy night, and my sleeping bag was not adequate for the temperature that it had dipped down to, so I wrapped my legs in my down coat. We heard that it dipped to about -10C. But it was a new day (and still raining), the coffee and hot cereal were brewing, and we were determined to make the most of it.
We decided that we were going to explore around the left edge of the lake and just have a fun and relaxing time doing so. We hiked up, in the pouring rain, navigating around the rocks. Getting a good footing proved to be quite a challenge as the rocks were covered in lichen, and the rain made them very slippery. There were often large gaps between rocks (with about five foot drops), but many of them had lichen covering them, so it felt like we were navigating through a slope of lichen crevasses.
Our hike was quite a lot of work and I don’t think I have ever been that wet before, but we were rewarded with beautiful wild berries (blueberries, cranberries and mossberries) and the steep mountain peaks kept slightly emerging from the clouds. Once at the top, we knew we were standing at the base of the mountain, but it had started snowing, so it was hard to see. Coming back down to camp was much trickier to navigate, and the rock scrambling seemed even worse. But we made it back to camp, had a lovely dinner, and fell asleep for the night around 5pm!
Day 4: Talus Lake to Grizzly Lake
Distance: 13.86km / Elevation Gain: 616m
I woke up cold. Unzipping the tent just a little, it was clear that the rain overnight had turned to freezing rain and snow. Stepping out of the ice covered tent was magical though, because all of the mountains were blanketed in snow and it looked even more beautiful than before. I was sad that we would have to leave, especially as the rain had stopped, but I could see a huge front slowly moving in and figured that might be the start of the highly anticipated winter storm.
Walking out the same trail we came in, the views were much different, and the snow really contrasted beautifully with the autumn colours. It was fairly easy walking and as we were approaching Divide Lake again, it seemed like the snow had not made it to that point yet as the ground was free of snow. We headed down to the cook shack to prepare a snack (my snacks always consisted of smoked salami, goldfish crackers, a couple baby bells, and an Endurance Tap gel), but no sooner had we taken off our packs, than it started snowing heavily. We only spent about half an hour at Divide Lake trying to stay dry in the cook shack, but the amount of snow that came down with that passing cloud was quite impressive. Suddenly everything was coated in snow and it was truly beautiful.
Making our way out of Divide Lake, we both were a little nervous and curious to see what the state of Glissade Pass would be. It is famously very hard to climb, and we were hoping the snow hadn’t made it to that area yet. But it had.. The pass was completely covered in snow. I stocked up on beautiful fresh creek water, and then we headed to the bottom of the pass, mentally preparing for the trip.
There was nothing easy about this climb. Every step I took in the snow made me slide down and not being able to see the rocks underneath made for an additional challenge as it was clear days earlier that there were large boulders that could come crashing down. So I kept my distance and together we slowly made our way up the pass. At certain points (especially at the top) there was easily around two feet of snow, so the trek was long and exhausting. But we made it, and feeling exhausted we made our way down the other side and into Grizzly Lake campground for the night.
Day 5: Grizzly Lake to Trailhead
Distance: 11.89km / Elevation Gain: 437m
The final day of the hike was bittersweet for me. I had accepted a job in the Northwest Territories (Yellowknife) and knew that this would be my last day hiking in the Yukon for quite some time. We were in no rush to leave the backcountry, and the cold weather certainly didn’t motivate us to leave our sleeping bags. We just had the coldest night of the trip (apparently it had dropped to -12 degrees C) and everything was frozen — even our boots that we had in our tent overnight. I was glad to see that we still had numerous packs of instant coffee remaining, so we enjoyed multiple cups and then packed up to head back to the trailhead.
Once we started on the trail I warmed up quite fast, which was a welcome reprieve from the night before. I really enjoyed this hike out as the cold weather had pushed the autumn leaves into full colour and it was a much different view than the one we had hiking in. At a certain point we could see the forest below us, which made me realize we were on our final stretch. It started to rain again on our decent back into the forest and that heavy rain would continue for the rest of the hike and throughout the night back at the territorial campground.
Leaving the trail and seeing the Grizzly Lake trailhead sign was a strange but great feeling. It felt so wonderful to finally be able to do the hike I had been dreaming of for so long, and it truly was an incredible physical and mental journey. Even if it was colder than I thought it would be, not too many people get to see that area in the snow, so the ever changing landscape always brightened my heart. We later found out while we were back at the territorial campground cook shack that Yukon Parks were no longer issuing permits this season for Divide Lake and Talus Lake campground because of the snow. Our timing truly could not have been better!
This trip truly was an incredible journey for me and sparked an even deeper love of the Yukon and desire to protect our beautiful and wild landscape. I feel so alive and motivated when I am in the mountains. This feeling is so strong within me that I knew as soon as I landed in Yellowknife a couple days later, I needed to come back home to the Yukon where my heart belongs.
- Endurance Tap (15% discount code: fuelthenorth)
- Garmin Forerunner 25 watch
- Patagonia hiking boots, pants (happy hike studio pants), down jacket, and tops
- Socks (Icebreaker, Smartwool)
- Arc’teryx raincoat, windbreaker, and tops.
- Osprey backpack
- Icebreaker base layers (tops and tights)
- Lululemon tights and sports bra
- Marmot Sleeping bag (Angel Fire)
- Black Diamond hiking poles
- MSR Tent (Hubba NX)