Glacier parks

Glacier parks
Photo in the Public Domain.

Kluane / Wrangell-St. Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek comprises a mountain landscape shaped by geologic and glacial processes.

These four parks in the Yukon and Alaska offer combined marine, coastal, wild river and high mountain scenery with minimal extent of human modification. They hold over 200 glaciers, including some of the world’s largest and longest. Wildlife is abundant too, with a healthy population of grizzly bears.

Community Perspective: Glacier Bay is regularly visited by large cruise ships and good views are had from there. Tsunami describes an unforgettable journey on smaller boats and small airplanes, while J_neveryes explored Kluane by doing rewarding day hikes from Haines Junction.

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J_neveryes

Canada - 04-Mar-24 -

Glacier parks by J_neveryes

"One to two hours, my ass!" I grumbled about the young Parks Canada ranger who had told me that Thechàl Dhâl (Sheep Mountain) Route was just an hour or two additional hike from the end of the Sheep Creek Trail.  I huffed and puffed as I had to stop every 20 steps or so up the mountain in order to catch my breath.  "I better see some freakin' Dall sheep on this mountain," I angrily muttered to myself as I slowly made myself upward.

Getting to Kluane National Park, Yukon, Canada

Located in the vast wilderness of Yukon, Kluane is a massive 22,013 km².  Its grand landscape is jaw-droppingly stunning with intimidating mountains, spectacular glaciers, raging rivers, and impressive wildlife.  Parks Canada manages the park with Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. 

Most of Kluane is either inaccessible or can only be explored through backcountry adventures.  Although a smaller portion, it is thankfully also possible to experience the wonders of Kluane through the "front-country", i.e., either by the Haines Road (Highway 3) or the Alaska Highway.  

I travelled to Kluane by first flying into Yukon Territory's sleepy capital Whitehorse (population 28,000).  After couple of days in Whitehorse, I drove to a small village of Haines Junction (population 688), where there are a few motels.  Haines Junction would be my base for exploring Kluane.  During my time in Kluane, I went on three hikes: (1) Auriol Trail, (2) King's Throne Trail and Route, and (3) Sheep Creek Trail and Thechàl Dhâl Route.  Please note that Parks Canada uses the term "trail" to denote a path that are well-marked and maintained and "route" to denote a path that are neither marked with signs nor maintained in any manner.  Routes, according to Parks Canada, are merely "suggestions".  

Auriol Trail

One of the easier hikes in Kluane, this 15 kms loop trail goes through a boreal forest and then into the subalpine.  A "You are in bear country" sign welcomed me early in the hike.  Although there was very little elevation gain, I had very good views of the Auriol Range.

King's Throne Trail and Route

This hike remains one of the few hikes in my life that I decided to stop short of my initial goal. 

The first 2 kms of the hike was fairly flat with very gradual elevation gain.  The trail then more steeply progressed up the mountain until I hit an amphitheatre of rocky ridges.  The King's Throne Trail ended at this point (elevation 1,280 metres), but the King's Throne Route continued upwards to the mountain's summit (elevation 1,990 metres). 

The route was rocky and often loose.  As I got closer and closer to the summit, the route also hugged the edge of the mountain, which meant that I needed to focus on each step.  The elevation gain was fairly steep for the lungs of this office worker.  The views though!  As far as my eyes can see were other snowy mountain peaks and pristine lakes below. 

As I climbed higher, the ridge became narrower and narrower, and the wind became fiercer and fiercer.  With such strong winds, my cautious self felt inclined to hike certain parts of it on my fours, as I used my hands to support myself on this loose rocky route.  As I looked ahead, it was not clear to me how much further I had to go to get to the summit and the already narrow ridge appeared to be even thinner further up.  I decided to turn back.  Down the same rocky route, rather than my lungs, my knees gasped.

Sheep Creek Trail and Thechàl Dhâl Route

Kluane is home to high densities of white Dall sheep, and the uncreatively named Sheep Mountain is your best chance to see them.  For this hike, I first stopped at the Thechàl Dhâl Visitor Centre for information.  My plan was as follows: First, hike the Sheep Creek Trail and then switch over to the Thechàl Dhâl Route.  Finally, enjoy the Dall sheep, which I hoped would not be Dull sheep.

A young Parks Canada ranger told me that the Sheep Creek Trail is an one-hour hike.  The Thechàl Dhâl Route would be a mere additional hour or two from the Sheep Creek trail end.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the hike would take less time than I thought (not that I was particularly worried about the time considering that Yukon has 19 hours of daylight in the summer).

The Sheep Creek Trail portion of the hike was taking me longer than what the Parks Canada ranger had told me, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt as most people recollect the difficulty of an endeavour as less than what it was actually, once they complete it. 

Similar to the other Kluane trails, the scenery on this hike was fantastic, especially as the fluffy clouds sat almost impossibly low to the ground, perhaps trapped by the moutains.

The Sheep Creek Trail ended abruptly and fairly unceremoniously at around the 5 kms mark and every hiker who were also on the trail turned around at this point.  I, on the other hand, started to look for the Thechàl Dhâl Route because an hour or two more of hiking to see the Dall sheep seemed like a small investment.

I struggled on this Sheep Mountain.  Firstly, this was a route, which meant that I either followed faint paths of previous hikers or just made my own.  Secondly, the clouds that so prettily sat low were now interfering with the visibility as I climbed up the mountain.  At some points, I could only see few metres ahead of me.  Thirdly, it was steep.  I had to break down my hike into small goals (“Just make it to that pile of stones”) to make it psychologically manageable. 

This was not an hour or two hike.  As I hiked for hours - with no other soul in sight - I vowed to never, ever, believe a Parks Canada ranger ever again.

But then, the clouds cleared.  And with a ray of sun, a Dall sheep also appeared.  Then two more appeared in view.  One was laying down, relaxed but alert.  He then serenely rose up and majestically urinated.

After taking few photos of the creatures, I headed back down the mountain, but not before the low clouds made me take the wrong way.  Finally, back on the well-marked Sheep Creek Trail, I was happily walking downslope, thinking that the hike was worth it and ultimately not too strenuous. 

I then encountered two hikers going towards the Sheep Mountain.  They were debating whether to hike the Thechàl Dhâl Route once they got to the end of the Trail.  They asked me as to how long is the hike to the Dall sheep.  "Oh, just an hour more," I heard myself replying. 


Tsunami

Japan / USA / Europe - 23-Jun-20 -

Glacier parks by Tsunami

Lockdown may be over, but self-isolation continues. At this time what can be more relaxing than reminiscing about one of my favorite trips of all time? (Please note: Info contained here is 14 years old.) 

Upset that I was not invited to Bill Gates' 50th birthday party thrown by Paul Allen (the other founder of Microsoft) aboard his luxury yacht cruising the Glacier Bay National Park in 2005, I set out to visit the park in June 2006 by myself.  It was the only year between 2000 and 2015 when I did not come to Europe and decided to finish off the continental USA. I was living in Los Angeles at that time (and moved to Europe in 2015). 

The Panhandle section of Alaska is in my and many others' mind the single most beautiful area of the USA but also one of the rainiest. So I decided to make this trip in June, the least rainy month of the year in this area. It was the right decision to make, as I was totally lucked out that during the one week in the Panhandle it did not rain once.  Even the locals were surprised how lucky I was. 

My first visit to Alaska was to the Denali National Park back in 1991. This time I took the so-called Alaska Marine Highway, which is a ferry service running from Bellingham near Seattle through Juneau, Alaska's capital, in the Panhandle to Whittier near Anchorage, and vice-versa. AMH is similar in character to Hurtigruten in Norway, although AMH boats are somewhat smaller, allowing them to navigate through narrower fjords than large cruise ships can. 

I slept 3 nights in my tent pitched on the deck of the boat from Bellingham to Juneau like many other people were doing. This way you don't need to pay for a cabin. AMH mainly navigates through channels in what they call Inland Passage, originally formed as fjords, and allowed us to get off for sightseeing for a few hours at several ports of call along the way, such as Petersburg, a so-called Norwegian town. 

I spent a few nights in Juneau, which I believe is the prettiest city in the USA, with towering mountains in the background, and where I rented a car to drive up and down along the channels and fjords and to get together with my college friend for the first time in 15 years. 

As the boat from Juneau to Gustavus, the base town to explore the Glacier Bay NP, was running very infrequently like once a week, I took a small airplane to Gustavus.  Gustavus is a small village with less than 500 inhabitants, but believe it or not, it is known as one of the most gourmet towns in the USA and has several top notch restaurants.  Organic vegetables come from the restaurants' backyards, and the staples are of course locally harvested game, Alaskan King Salmon and Alaskan King Crabs. Remind you that Alaska is the most expensive state in the USA, even more so than the state of New York. 

On the second day in Gustavus I took a tour of the Glacier Bay NP on a boat, perhaps quite unlike Paul Allen's.  I saw mountain goats, puffins, and whales among others from the boat. The tour lasted several hours, getting close to several glaciers. Anywhere you go in the Bay you typically see the "facade" of glaciers in the foreground and high-rise snow-capped mountains in the background. And most of the time during the tour you see several "facades" at once. 

It was another sunny day, and aptly named Mt. Fairweather, the tallest mountain in the NP at 4,671 meters, was clearly visible. Remind you that you are looking at this mountain from the sea level. My friend in Juneau, who works for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), later told me that when she spent 2 months on a boat in the Glacier Bay for research work a few years back, it rained every single day, prompting her to take "shower" outside on the deck of her boat.  So impressed with Glacier Bay after a fine day out on the boat that I said, "The ultra wealthy know where to go for a special occasion." I only wish Bill it was sunny during his b-day celebration in October. 

The photo shows the facade of one of the glaciers, and the ice was cracking perhaps every 20 minutes. 

The following day I flew back to Juneau and the next day got on another AMH boat for 2 more nights on the way to Whittier. In this section AMH mainly runs not in channels but in the Pacific Ocean, and along the way you can see Mt. Logan and Mt. St. Elias (part of this WHS), the 2nd and the 3rd tallest mountains in North America (after Mt. McKinley at the Denali NP) albeit from afar. As my boat was approaching Whittier, it finally started raining. 

I love the Norwegian coast, but as far as the scenery goes, I would have to say the Alaska Panhandle is even more spectacular, simply because mountains seen from the water are much taller. 

More photos are accessible from the link below, and captions can be read by clicking on each photo. 

Read more from Tsunami here.


Cynthia Webb

USA - 10-Dec-12 -

Glacier Bay--pristine, vast, cold, peaceful, and amazing. The size and scale of the glaciers is astounding. I saw it on a cold, overcast May day from a cruise ship and wished I had the opportunity to see it both in (slightly) warmer weather and from the ground. Definitely worth the trip, and I'll be returning in the future.


Joyce van Soest

The Netherlands - 28-Dec-05 -

Glacier parks by Joyce

These parks are, in my opinion, quite different from each other so I don’t really understand why they are included together, except for the fact that they are beautiful nature areas in the Northwest.

My visit to Kluane was just very short and I’ve only seen a tiny bit of this huge park, but it’s definitely worth the long long drive up north. It’s impossible to capture the true beauty of this immense rugged landscape with high wild mountains so you have to go see for yourself.

The deep forests of the Westcoast of Alaska are worth a visit too, Wrangell-St. Elias is great, but you better make sure you take good rain gear with you because there’s a reason why there is so much RAINforest…


Kelly Henry

USA - 01-May-05 -

This must be one of the largest sites in area in the world. Glacier Bay is best seen from a boat. Even the view from a large cruise ship is unforgettable. An echoing rifle shot crack of the glaciers calving warns you of a giant splash and sea otters and whales can be seen from the waters.

Tatshenshini-Alsek doesn't have many roads but is full of wildlife, wide open spaces without even a power line or a road to spoil the view. Wrangell St. Elias has some of the largest mountains in North America as well as a historic abandoned copper mine.

You need at least 2 weeks to see this site properly. Pack warm!


Site Info

Full Name
Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek
Unesco ID
72
Country
Canada United States of America
Inscribed
1979
Type
Natural
Criteria
7 8 9 10
Categories
Natural landscape - Glaciation
Link
By ID

Site History

2000 Name change

From "Tatshenshini-Alsek/Kluane National Park/Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Reserve and Glacier Bay National Park" to "Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek"

1994 Extended

To include Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Wilderness Park

1992 Extended

Include Glacier Bay

1979 Inscribed

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Glacier parks

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