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Exploring Tombstone Territorial Park
Yukon’s Tombstone Territorial Park is one of the best-kept secrets of the North, protecting a remote and rugged wilderness of jagged peaks, stunning arctic tundra, gorgeous alpine meadows and abundant wildlife. Despite its relatively low profile, this “Patagonia of the North” boasts world-class mountain scenery and wilderness hiking, making it a must-do for all outdoor enthusiasts visiting the Yukon.
The park was established in 1999 following a land claim agreement with the native Tr’ondek Hwech’in people. It lies entirely within their traditional territory and a visit provides a fantastic opportunity to visit unique historical sites and learn more about the centuries-old cultural and hunting practices of the local First Nations.
Tombstone is also notable for its concentration of diverse ecosystems, ranging from boreal to alpine and arctic, all home to a fascinating and varied collection of flora and fauna not commonly found at this latitude. Wildlife lovers will be thrilled at the abundant sightings, including black and grizzly bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, wolves and marmots. The park is also home to a unique array of birdlife (numbering almost 150 species, including the formidable gyrfalcon), along with Beringian insect species found nowhere else on the planet.
The diversity of habitats, flora and interesting permafrost landforms make exploring the park a real treat. At the southern end, you’ll find lush boreal forests following endless river valleys. As you gain altitude or latitude, this gives way to treeless tundra characterised by amazing rock formations, sparkling lakes and towering peaks. A particularly stunning time to visit Tombstone is during the wildflower season in late August, when its meadows come ablaze in a dazzling carpet of yellows, oranges and deep crimsons, perfectly complimenting the grey, blue and green shades of the mountain landscape. The early autumn is another great time to visit as the leaves start to turn and there are plenty of tasty wild berries that can be foraged.
There’s no better way to appreciate the breath-taking beauty of this northern mountain wilderness than by embarking on a hike through its vast backcountry. In fact, Tombstone is home to some of Canada’s most challenging and rewarding off-trail hiking, virtually unmatched for its scenic splendour. Before profiling some of Tombstone’s top hikes, here’s a quick practical overview of what to expect when planning a trip to this remote wilderness.
Located a six hour drive north from Whitehorse, the Yukon’s capital, Tombstone is situated in the heart of the Ogilive Mountains and characterised by its isolation and untouched landscape. This far removed from civilisation, it pays to be relatively self-sufficient, especially if you’re planning a multi-day hike into the wilds. Even if you’re just driving through and stopping briefly at the various landmarks, you’ll want ensure you have a couple of spare tyres handy and plenty of gas. The nearest settlements you can pick up supplies are Dawson City (about an hour to the south) and Eagle Plains (another 370km north). Also bear in mind that there is no mobile service in the park.
In terms of hiking, Tombstone principally consists of very remote off-trail hikes over some quite challenging terrain. With very few established trails, the park is particularly suited to seasoned hikers with backcountry experience. Multi-day hikes will require confidence with map reading and navigation, wilderness first aid skills, as well as strong shoulders that can withstand carrying heavy packs over several hours. Having said this, Tombstone is also accessible to a range of different ages and abilities. The Dempster Highway cuts right through the park, enabling visitors to reach some spectacular viewpoints with ease. There are also a number of highly recommended short hikes of just a few kilometres, offering amazing scenery, incredible photo opportunities and memorable wildlife encounters, with trailheads accessible right from the highway.
Backcountry hiking and camping are permitted anywhere in the park. In fact, Tombstone is rather unique in that you’re actively encouraged to hike off the trails. Relish the freedom to pick virtually any mountain you fancy, then venture into unchartered territory and discover what surprises lie in wait. If you’re camping out in the wild, you’ll need to carry a full pack with all the necessary supplies. There are three designated backcountry campgrounds at Grizzly, Divide and Talus Lakes (open from June to September), along with a couple of car camping sites near the park entrance.
Upon arrival, you’ll want to head straight for the Tombstone Interpretive Centre which provides everything you could want for a wilderness adventure, from trail maps and camping permits, to expert advice from the friendly staff, along with the latest updates on trail, highway and weather conditions. There are also interpretive displays on the park’s history, geology and ecology, a gift shop, library and cosy tea shop, along with a schedule of special seasonal events and a range of guided walks and programs on offer.
Top hikes in Tombstone
Most of the shorter hikes in the park are found in the vicinity of the Interpretive Centre with trailheads conveniently located near the roadside. If you’re looking to gain a sweeping overview of Tombstone’s majestic landscapes without the added strain of carrying a full pack, here are three routes not to be missed.
Goldensides is one of the most popular trails in the park. At 4km it can be easily completed within a couple of hours, making it perfect for those passing through and looking for a leisurely walk offering a stunning 360 degree perspective over the area. The route follows a short ridge over easy terrain with clear trail markers. You’ll be greeted with amazing views of the park’s major landmarks, including Tombstone Peak, Mount Chester Henderson and Mount Monolith extending into the distance. There are also fantastic vistas across the North Klondike valley which rises up into dramatic mountains and ridges to the west. Also be sure to keep an eye out for bears or moose prowling along the ridges and valleys below.
Grizzly Creek Trail
This 3km route extends along Grizzly Creek towards the Mount Monolith Lookout. Whilst it’s short, the terrain is fairly difficult so be sure to come prepared. The trail begins in a mature boreal forest and includes sections of wooden boardwalk and stairs to help you navigate the boggy terrain. You’ll pass a couple of creeks before the landscape widens out and starts to climb steeply up a slope covered in lichen, dense willow and scrub birch. Following the strenuous ascent, you’ll be rewarded with a mind-blowing panorama over Mount Monolith, Grizzly valley and Cairnes valley. From here, you can head back or continue on to Grizzly Lake.
North Klondike River Trail
This is one of the least physically demanding trails in Tombstone, whilst still offering varied landscapes and superb views. Starting from Tombstone Mountain Campground it’s a leisurely 1.6km stroll through classic Tombstone terrain. The trail weaves through deciduous forest lining the North Klondike River, climbing gradually into scrub birch. You’ll be met with wonderful views over the surrounding mountain peaks, before descending to re-join the river. There is often overflow ice along the trail well into summer, making it a great place to cool off before returning to the campsite. As with many trails, you can also expect plenty of wildlife encounters en route, including birdlife, insects and ground squirrels, along with larger mammals.
For one of the most popular extended hikes in Tombstone, journey along the park’s only established backcountry trail to Grizzly Lake, with the option to continue on to Divide Lake and Talus Lake, all three of which are serviced by campsites. It’s a magnificent three to five day backpacking adventure to one of the most scenic spots to be found in the Yukon. Here’s an overview of what to expect on this classic hike.
Grizzly Lake Trail
It’s an 11km, 6 hour moderate to difficult trek to reach Grizzly Lake, with a strenuous elevation gain of around 2,600ft, after which you’ll be rewarded with stunning panoramas over some of the park’s most dramatic landscapes. Following a short section through the forest, you’ll climb a steep ridge, traverse large talus slopes and admire picture perfect views towards Grizzly valley and Mount Monolith. At the end of the ridge, you’ll descend into an alpine meadow criss-crossed with bubbling creeks and home to a lively population of marmots. Navigate boulder fields, grassy slopes and Grizzly Creek before arriving at the lake nestled amidst an entourage of black granite pinnacles. It’s possible to hike out and back in one day, especially with long daylight hours, but most hikers choose to camp out and make the most of the spectacular surrounds. There are also multiple side trips you can do from Grizzly Lake, including Mount Monolith, Grizzly Pass and the Twin Lakes viewpoint.
After overnighting at Grizzly Lake, you can press on further into the mountains to witness yet more scenic splendours. Make your way up and over Glissade Pass (300m elevation gain) towards the crystalline waters of Divide Lake (a 6km hike), that serves as the headwaters of the North Klondike Valley. On top, take in awe-inspiring views of Mount Monolith, then follow the trail down scree slopes, past waterfalls and across grassy meadows before reaching the lake. Divide Lake is another memorable overnight camping spot set amidst jaw dropping peaks and jagged skyline ridges. There are plentiful side hikes you can do from here as well, including Axelman Lakes, Mount Frank Rae or Talus Lake.
Continuing for a further 6km will take you past a series of beautiful alpine cirques to Talus Lake, where you’ll finally be met with a fantastic close-up of the iconic Tombstone Mountain, along with new vantage points on the other surrounding peaks. Upon reaching Tombstone pass (1,542m), traverse open tussock tundra and admire breath-taking vistas over a string of picturesque lakes. It’s then just another couple of kilometres of descent before reaching the campsite and the hike’s endpoint at Talus Lake.