Friday, July 22, 2016

Denver Valley Hike

On Day 4 of our cruise, our ship made a scheduled stop at the Port of Skagway. For our excursion that day we chose to do the Denver Valley Hike, with the thought that this could be our only chance to ever go “hiking in Alaska”. Additionally, this excursion included a ride on the famous White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.

The excursion began with a van ride along the Klondike Highway up to White Pass (elevation 2865 feet), which also marks the border between the U.S. and Canada. From there it proceeds down to Fraser, British Columbia where we would board the train. While creeping along towards White Pass we spotted a cinnamon-colored black bear meandering just off the side of the road. After arriving in the tiny town of Fraser, located at Mile 27.7 on the track, we passed through customs and finally boarded the train. From the railroad depot we could see several rugged mountains towering towards the north, some of which were located in the Yukon Territory roughly 20 miles away.

From Fraser the train headed south towards the Denver Valley Trailhead, located at Mile 5.8 on the track, where it would drop-off our hiking group before continuing down to Skagway. Along the way the historic railroad route traced portions of the “White Pass Trail of 98”. In some spots you can still see remnants of the original path used by thousands of gold rush stampeders during the late 1800s, which would become “the largest gold rush the world has ever known”. 

The 67-mile White Pass & Yukon Route was built in only 26 months. It’s now designated as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, as it was considered to be an impossible task to build. Tens of thousands of men used picks and shovels, as well as 450 tons of explosives, to blast through the towering mountains.

Our hike began from the old White Pass caboose at the trailhead. This refurbished 1960s era caboose is now rented out by the Tongass National Forest for overnight stays. Hikers, skiers and snowshoers can use this unique accommodation as their basecamp while exploring the Denver Valley area.

The Denver Glacier Trail more or less follows the East Fork of the Skagway River. It begins by traveling through a second growth forest, but eventually enters an old growth temperate rain forest. The deeper you proceed up the valley, the lusher and more enchanted the forest becomes.

For the most part the route travels along a moderate grade. As you climb higher the 7000-foot Sawtooth Mountains will become visible on your left. During our mid-June hike we saw several varieties of wildflowers along the trail, including dwarfed dogwood and foam flower. Both the trees and the forest floor were covered in ferns, lichens, moss and fungi. Devil’s club is likely the most dominant species growing along the forest floor, while western hemlock and Sitka spruce dominate the canopy, some of which are estimated to be 1000 years old.

This glacially-carved valley, deeper than the Grand Canyon, is also home to bears, moose and mountain goats – though we didn’t see any.

For lunch we stopped along the banks of the river where we enjoyed good views of the Sawtooths towards the north. Given how slow our group was moving, I asked one of the guides how much further we were going to go. She indicated not much further due to time constraints. I then asked if we could split into two groups, with one going faster than the other in order to cover as much ground as possible. She was in complete agreement with this plan. In fact, I wished I had approached her with this recommendation much earlier, as we could’ve covered even more terrain. With a total of four guides on our trip, this accommodation was not an issue in anyway.

While our group consisted of only 15 hikers, the guides can handle up to 25 per trip. After lunch, our group of "fast" hikers proceeded at a much brisker pace in order to reach Denver Falls, our final destination of the day. We estimate that we hiked roughly 2.2 miles to reach the falls, and probably climbed about 600 feet along the way.

Speaking of lunch, here’s another insider tip. The lunch provided by our tour guides was quite pedestrian – in other words, just plain. Although Holland America states that you shouldn’t take food off the boat, we saw no evidence that they ever check, or care, on any of the excursions we did. For this particular excursion I would definitely bring a much tastier sandwich from the boat if I were ever to do this tour again.

After arriving back at the trailhead we noticed a mother grouse and her newborn chicks hiding underneath the caboose. After waiting several minutes the last train of the day finally came by and took us back to Skagway. Once in town we promptly beelined over to the historic Red Onion Saloon and ordered a couple of Moose Drools.

All in all it was a nice hike. But to be honest, most of the major national parks in the lower 48 have far more scenic trails than this one. We were really disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity to hike all the way to Denver Glacier. This likely would’ve made this a great hike.

I should mention here that mosquitoes weren’t really an issue for us during our hike. Although we did see a few, and declined the use of Deet which was offered to us by our guides, we had no problems with Alaska’s “state bird”.

I should also point out that we attended a Klondike Gold Rush program on the last full day of our cruise. The program was absolutely great. However, I really wish that Holland America would’ve offered this program before our visit to Skagway. Moreover, I wish that they would've posted a video of the presentation on their website, which may have possibly influenced my decision on which excursion to take while in Skagway. If the Klondike Gold Rush is of any interest to you at all, I would highly recommend doing a little research up front in order to learn more about this historical event so as to make the most of your time in Skagway.

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