Tombstones Territorial Park: Grizzly Lake, Trailhead to Talus Lake (5 days / 43 km)
Tombstones Territorial Park is an out-and-back backpacking trip on another level entirely. Initially, I wanted to visit because I had seen it named ‘the Patagonia of the North’ – and this motto, despite being a bit silly, definitely rings true. The tundra environment is spectacularly pretty, and the jagged, sheer peaks are impressive, ominous, and jaw-droppingly beautiful all at once.
We visited this remote park, close to the border of Alaska, in the middle of September. It was the perfect time to see entire mountainsides change colour to red, orange, and yellow, though I’ve heard from friends that the Tombstones are stunningly beautiful at basically any time of year. In September, however, it was quite cold, so preparing for snow on the passes, frost on the tent, and temperatures dropping below zero at night was essential.
Be aware that careful preparation for bear safety is critical on this trip.
Trip Completed: September 2021
Starting Point: Tombstone Interpretive Centre (Km 71.5 on Dempster Highway)
Ending Point: Grizzly Lake Trailhead
Total Distance: 43 km (not including the drive from Whitehorse to Tombstones)
Elevation Gain: 2,696 m
Duration: 6 nights
Difficulty: Advanced. This trail is in pretty good shape but does have sections that may be challenging to some hikers – scree, talus, steep sections, dramatic drop-offs, switchbacks, and boulder fields. Hiking poles will be your friend. A ranger we ran into told us it is common for hikers planning to do the entire trail to actually stop or turn back at Grizzly Lake, the first campsite, out of exhaustion, or because they can’t make it up Glissade Pass, a very steep section between Grizzly Lake and Divide Lake, the second campsite. I’d recommend a spell of physical training prior to arriving at the park if you aren’t used to hiking on this type of terrain – for safety but especially because this landscape is worth enjoying as much as possible!
This trail is located in Tombstones Territorial Park, a 6.5 hour drive north of Whitehorse, Yukon.
Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in (source).
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: Required reading includes the Yukon Gov website for planning a trip to Tombstone as well as this mandatory orientation video. You should also check out this pdf about Staying Safe in Bear Country as wildlife can be abundant in the park. A solo hiker was bluff charged by a bear while we were here, but we didn’t see any bears ourselves.
Map: We had downloaded the map of the park via the Gaia GPS app (subscription required) but the trail is well-trodden and easily visible in all sections, so we didn’t use it much aside from checking elevation. But it’s always good practice to bring a map and basic route finding skills just in case it snows and you can’t see the trail. You can pick up a trail map at Mac’s Fireweed Bookstore in Whitehorse, online at mac’s books before your trip, or at the Interpretive Centre at the park for $20.
Campsite Reservations: Campsites need to be booked well in advance. There are limited tent pads available in the park. We booked our sites for dates in September months earlier in January, so plan ahead to avoid disappointment! You can reserve campsites here. Note that this park is closed in winter and spring, but that even visiting in summer and fall, snowfall and freezing temperatures are possible. Camping fees as $12 per night per tent, and the park does not allow two tents on one tent pad.
Permits: You absolutely need a permit and you will have to carry it with you throughout your hike – we actually had a ranger inspect ours. Your backcountry campsite reservation is your permit.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitters: All campers are required to store food in bear-proof canisters. (If you are used to subbing a dry bag for a canister, think again!) We rented ours from Changing Gear in Whitehorse. Best to reserve the canisters in advance for the dates you will need them!
Shuttle: There are no shuttles required, but you will absolutely need a car to get to the park!
To start the journey, we flew into Whitehorse and spent a few days seeing friends and preparing for the trip. Any equipment you are missing can be bought from Coast Mountain Sports in downtown Whitehorse, and this is where we picked up fuel for the trip. You can also pick up bear spray here (all campers are required to carry it in the park), since you can’t fly with it in your luggage.
It’s important to note that nearly everything is more expensive in the North, so be prepared to spend a bit more on food, gas, and your car rental up in Whitehorse than you would anywhere else. We picked up our rental car from Driving Force but there are a few different places you could try.
A note on car rental insurance: this is the only place I have rented a car where there is insurance for the body of the car and different insurance for the windshield and tires. It will be pricey and you won’t want to buy both, but you definitely should. There are lots of big trucks on the highway and it’s a running joke in Whitehorse that every car has a cracked windshield – and indeed, we cracked our rental car’s windshield on the drive to Tombstones!
If you have time for some sightseeing in Whitehorse – make a stop at the Beringia Museum and grab lunch from Bullet Hole Bagels – affordable and tasty! There are fantastic day hikes all around Whitehorse too – hike up Grey Mountain for a view of the city and to get your legs ready for the days ahead!
Day 0: Drive from Whitehorse to Tombstone Mountain Park
Time to drive to the park! You’ll want to arrive as early as possible at the campground because it is first-come, first-served, so plan for an early start. It’s a 6.5-hour drive at minimum to get to the campground; they are often doing construction along this route so it can easily take longer.
Keep an eye out for mountain goats! We saw a few on the cliffs just outside Whitehorse as we were driving by, but local friends have said you can also see lynx, moose, and bears! It’s a beautiful drive where many rest stops make for worthy photo ops. There are not many gas stations/convenience stores, so definitely fill up your tank whenever you have an opportunity, and bring lots of snacks! If you can, try to make a stop at Braeburn lodge – it’s a bit of an add spot but there are many friendly dogs and it’s a great opportunity to meet some local characters. Most importantly, they have freshly made cinnamon buns bigger than your head!
Most of the drive is along the Klondike Highway (YT-2) but you will eventually have to take a turn onto the Dempster Highway.
Important note: No car rental place in Whitehorse will rent you a car that you can take on the Dempster Highway, but there is no avoiding this highway if you want to get to Tombstones. The Dempster Highway is famous because you can drive it all the way to the arctic circle, but it is, for all intents and purposes, a dirt road. The stretch from the Klondike Highway to Tombstone Territorial Park is the safest, best stretch of the Dempster, so if you go slow and are careful, you should be fine. It’s going to feel crazy, but when the car rental associate asks if you are going on the Dempster, you have to say no. We were told to lie to the car rental associate by multiple folks in Whitehorse, and although not ideal, I don’t believe there is a way around it if you don’t have access to a car in Whitehorse.
Campsite: The Tombstone Interpretive centre (Km 71.5 on the Dempster Highway) is worth a visit if you get there while it’s open, but the Tombstone Mountain Campground (Km 72 on the Dempster Highway) is just 500m further down the road. There are 12 walk-in tent sites, and 35 pull-in sites suitable for car camping.
Bring cash! There is no attendant at the campground to give you a change. Camping is $12/night. It’s quite rustic as far as front-country campsites go, and is truly wonderful with mountains all around. Check the bulletin boards for talks and events – we went to an interpretive campfire talk about Moose, which was fascinating. We even got a chance to try moose meatballs!
There is a tiny interpretive walk here called the “Edge of the Arctic Interpretive Trail” (500m) which I would definitely recommend. The many signs are a great introduction to the subalpine habitat in the park, which you will definitely appreciate knowing in the days to come!
Day Hike Opportunity: if you have an hour or two, consider hiking the North Klondike Trail (easy to moderate, 1.6 km)) which starts right from this campground.
Campfires are permitted here as long as they are within the designated fire pits. You won’t be able to have a fire once you are in the backcountry, so if you like campfires, this is your only opportunity.
Get to bed and prepare for an early start!
Day 1: Grizzly Lake Trailhead to Grizzly Lake Campground (11.5 km)
After packing up at the Tombstone Mountain Campground, you will want to drive a few Km along the Dempster back to the Grizzly Lake Trailhead, at Km 58.5. This is where you will be leaving your car.
The Yukon.ca description of this leg of the hike starts with “Many people are not prepared for the level of difficulty they encounter on this trail.” and I have to say that this is definitely true. The first stretch up to Grizzly Lake is tough, and can be a shock if you are not used to backpacking, or haven’t done a trip in a while. We met several campers at Grizzly Lake who were very sick and unable to continue on their journey after this hike.
That said, if you have a base level of fitness and are used to backpacking, I would say its your standard “Difficult” hike: the trail is narrow, there are rocky sections, steep drop offs, and there is a lot of elevation gain. It’s a great workout, but don’t worry, the views are so beautiful you will forget all about the pain in your legs. I feel like I smiled the whole day on this hike, I was so happy to be taking it all in. Officially, this hike can take between 7 and 10 hours, but our group did it in about 6.5
There are few opportunities to filter water along the trail, so make sure you always bring as much as you think you will need for the whole day.
Note: This is a popular day hike for folks visiting the park, so this part of the hike will be a bit busier than the other sections, which are only accessible to backcountry campers (and some ultra runners!)
Campsite: All the campsites along the trail are very similar, placed around small lakes in the shadow of enormous dark jagged peaks.
They all have raised tent pads along a cordoned-off path. Grizzly is the largest campground on the trail with 14 tent pads. The park works very hard to maintain the delicate tundra environment and they track how much of the vegetation is trampled by campers and hikers year over year, so everyone needs to do their part and stay on the marked trails around the campsites. (Lots of reading material on this topic is provided inside of the outhouses!) There are no trees or bushes around the tent pads so don’t expect much privacy from the other tents. This would normally be a downside, but we found all the other campers we met to be mature, respectful and quiet.
Right by the lake of the campsite’s namesake (your water source during your stay), there are one or two cooktents – white canvas permanent tents where you can do all of your cooking and eating. Note that it is forbidden to cook or eat at your tent or anywhere else around the campground, to minimize the risk of attracting a bear. Just alongside the cooktents are greywater barrels. It may seem unusual to seasoned backcountry campers (I had definitely never seen one before in Ontario!) but you will have to put all your greywater into them. The greywater barrels have lids that need to be screwed on at night and are eventually picked up by helicopter for disposal.
There are bear caches/lockers where all food and attractants must be stored. You will be sharing these lockers with other groups of hikers, so it’s important to keep things tidy.
No campfires are permitted at any of the backcountry campgrounds.
Day 2: Grizzly Lake Campground to Divide Lake Campground (6 km)
This section of trail is officially rated “Difficult to Extreme.” The “Extreme” bit refers to “Glissade Pass” – a very steep section of trail hikers will have to climb in order to continue on to Divide Lake. From the north side of Grizzly lake, it starts with a sustained climb that can last up to 2 hours. The crest is very exposed and windy, and can actually have totally different weather than down in the valley. (We had hail!) The descent on the other side is even more steep, on unstable shale and scree, that moves and slides with every step. Careful stepping is a must. Your hiking poles will be essential equipment here!
After the descent, the trail is fairly flat, and you will have plenty of time to catch your breath and admire the landscape.
This section of trail can take anywhere between 4 and 6 hours. We did it in about 4.
Campsite: Divide Lake Campground has 10 tent pads, 1 outhouse, 1 cooktent, and a greywater disposal. This campground might be a bit quieter than the previous one because many folks either only plan to camp at Grizzly, or plan their trip so they stay at Grizzly first, then hike all the way to Talus for their second night. In this park, it’s basically impossible to go wrong – all the sites are stunning.
Day 3: Divide Lake Campground to Talus Lake Campground (12 km out and back)
This is the easiest stretch of the hike – 6km of easy (flat!) hiking to Talus, and 6 km back to Divide. But it can be quite muddy, depending on the weather. It took us about 2 hours each way, but we did take a break to look for some berries at Talus. We treated this as a relaxed, packless, day trip from Divide Lake, to recover a bit from the tough previous days. You could easily choose to stay at Talus if you wanted to switch the order of the campgrounds.
You might see some helicopters up here! A tour company flies tourists around the peaks, and sometimes even drops off hikers who only want to hike “out” from Talus to Grizzly Lake Trailhead.
It was very rainy and cloudy the day we hiked to Talus and unfortunately did not get a clear view of the peaks here. On our way back to Divide, the sun came out for a spell and we did get a better view! This is definitely the point where you start to understand why people call this place the “Patagonia of the North”.
Campsite: We did not actually stay here, but there are 10 tent pads, 1 outhouse, 1 cooktent, and a greywater disposal. All the campgrounds were equally well equipped.
Day 4: Divide Lake Campground to Grizzly Lake
Same as Day 3, but in reverse. I found Glissade Pass to be a bit more challenging in this direction. As you gain elevation up the pass, you will notice many trails snaking up toward the crest. Wherever possible, choose the most solid one, but you won’t really make a mistake as long as you keep hiking upwards. You will be grateful you have eaten at least some of the weight in your pack by now!
It was halfway through this hike that one of our group members realized he forgot his toiletries bag in the bear cache at Divide Lake. He stashed his bag and ran packless back to get it – but I would not recommend this technique. Always double-check that you have packed out everything you’ve brought in!
Campsite: Described above.
Day 5: Grizzly Lake Campground to Grizzly Lake Trailhead
Same hike as Day 2, but in reverse. We hiked this section faster than we did earlier, because it is downhill, because our packs were a bit lighter, and because the sun was shining down on us after 2 days of rain!
If you are a hiker who gets sore knees from descents though, today is the day you are going to feel it. Luckily, the sweet shelter of the car awaits you!
Once you get to your car, it will take an hour and a half to drive to Dawson City, which is full of charm and definitely worth a visit. Most backcountry campers will drive to Dawson instead of the 6-7 hours to Whitehorse, given that they’ve already spent most of the day on a strenuous hike. The Bunkhouse is popular with hikers, but we stayed at a very unique spot called Bombay Peggy’s. It’s a bit pricier but I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It has many thoughtful touches (and fascinating history!) you will definitely appreciate after so many days in the wilderness.
This was hands down one of the most memorable backcountry trips I’ve taken. It’s definitely quite a bit off the beaten track, as it takes time and money to get all the way out to Tombstone Territorial Park, but I couldn’t recommend it enough.
There are more rules at this park than may be considered typical to many hikers. For example – dumping grey water (everything from dirty dishwater to when you spit out your toothpaste) is not permitted anywhere except for in designated greywater collection stations.
Here are some tips I’d like to share
Preparing for your trip:
- There is NO cell service in the park, and satellite service is spotty. Plan to be out of communication with the rest of the world while you are here.
- Bring a robust first aid kit. If you have an accident, it’s very unlikely you will receive immediate medical attention.
- Hiking Poles are essential.
- A dishwashing basin is very helpful for cleaning your cutlery and pots in a sustainable way. Remember you can’t just scrub your pots in the lakes!
- Bring clothes for WET weather: rain jacket and rain pants will be critical in a downpour. If you have gaiters, bring those too! The trails can get very muddy. I’d highly recommend waterproofing your boots before you go as well.
- Bring clothes for COLD weather: In mid September, the nighttime temps were colder than I had planned for. It dipped below freezing nearly every night. Some nights I wore 3 pairs of pants and my 700-fill puffy jacket inside of my sleeping bag (Rated to -9) with a liner, and was still chilly.
- Just because a sleeping bag is rated to a certain temperature doesn’t mean you will be comfortable in it at that temperature. If you are sensitive to cold temps, bring extra clothes to stay cozy at night.
- Unlike other parks, Yukon Parks will not initiate search and rescue if you do not return from your trip – make sure you share your travel plan with a reliable friend before you leave.
- Prepare yourself physically for your trip. This is a challenging backcountry trip and the more physically prepared you are for it, the more you can enjoy it. Backcountry trips do not have to be sufferfests! In the weeks before my trips, I did a bit more cardio exercise than usual, and also this exercise guide from REI which is great for avoiding injuries!
While on the trail:
- It may go without saying, but ‘Leave No Trace’ 100% applies here.
- The ground squirrels at all the Tombstone backcountry campgrounds are not afraid of humans and will eat literally anything. There are signs everywhere to remind of this but I’m here to confirm you should 100% take the warnings seriously. We saw one group lose their water filtration system because a ground squirrel gnawed right through the tube!
- Store food in airtight canisters and ziploc bags even when you are hiking! Everyone has to do their part to avoid attracting bears to the trail.
- And last but not least, try to take a peek outside your tent in the middle of the night. If the skies are clear, you just might be able to see the Northern Lights. I wasn’t able to snap a photo, but it was so magnificent to see them in the alpine environment, flanked by the serrated mountain peaks of Tombstone Territorial Park.
Sonya is a video game producer and outdoorswoman based out of Toronto, ON, and sometimes Kelowna, BC. She is comically bad at rock climbing but is a great cook on a camping trip – things balance out.