How to Hike Tombstone Territorial Park
· 16 min. read
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I remember when I first heard of Tombstone Territorial Park. I was working on my "Instagramming Canada" series a few years ago and was searching through piles of photos from around the territory to feature in it. Prior to that, I didn't know what to expect when I was scrolling through pictures of the Yukon, but what I saw took my breath away.
To this day, I remember the photo. It was a beautiful, onyx lake with towering black mountains around it, cutting across a silvery-white sky. On the shore of the lake were round, coloured rocks, that almost looked like spheres.
I immediately wanted to know where this place was and discovered it was Grizzly Lake, in Tombstone Territorial Park, one of the most northern parks in Canada.
To me, Grizzly Lake became like an Eden, or an El Dorado, or even a Mecca. It was a place that was too perfect to exist in real life.
You might notice that this article isn't titled "How to Hike Grizzly Lake". Why? Because Grizzly Lake is only accessible via Grizzly Lake Trail which is, in my books and probably many others, one of the most difficult places to get to in Canada. Why is it so difficult? Well, let me explain.
1. Getting to Tombstone Territorial Park
Getting to Tombstone itself can be a challenge. In my opinion, your best bet is to just drive. Wherever you are in Canada, just drive. Tombstone is located on Kilometre 73 of the Dempster Highway, which is a rugged, rough, and challenging drive if you've never driven on neglected gravel before. Because of this, if you plan to rent a vehicle, you're going to find yourself with limited options.
To start with, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were very few rental vehicles in Whitehorse. Those that you can get are either very expensive (such as Overland Yukon, which is about $300 a day to rent) or the rental companies don't allow you to take the vehicles on the Dempster due to the notoriously bad road conditions.
Some people even rent U-Hauls to the trip up to Tombstone, but due to the vehicle shortage, many of those are even unavailable.
With that said, starting in Whitehorse is nearly impossible, so look to start your road trip in Dawson City instead. Thankfully, it is home to Klondike Car Rental, which is who I went with, and I greatly recommend. They charge $150 a day for rentals, with the first 200km of gas for free. However, you do need to get their extra insurance as the Dempster can be such a hazard (yes, even if you have SGI insurance). Although it's an additional $18, you really don't have a choice as it's the only reasonably priced vehicle renting company in the Yukon.
(Klondike Car Rental also do airport shuttle pickups and drop-offs, which is pretty handy as there is no taxi or bus service in Dawson City.)
But how do you get to Dawson City? There's a good chance you're planning to go up there in the fall, which is a beautiful time of year to go, but also the time of year heavy morning fog blankets the city. It's so thick, in fact, that 50% of planes coming in from Whitehorse to Dawson City can't land. My plane had a 5% chance to land, and a 95% chance to carry up to Old Crow and eventually Inuvik. It's a gamble, but it worked for me so it might work for you too.
If you're planning to go to Tombstone, plan several months ahead, otherwise it will be difficult, frustrating and expensive. Unless you want to fork out $1,000 for flights (I am not joking, my round-trip was around $1,300), and several hundred dollars to just rent a car, your best bet is to just drive up there yourself from literally anywhere in Western Canada.
2. Driving the Dempster Highway
The common trend you'll find with everything in the Yukon is that while it may be beautiful, it's also dangerous. The Dempster Highway is no exception. It is the only way into Tombstone and is part of a 742-kilometre-long highway taking you straight to the Arctic Ocean. There are some campsites along the way and a hotel and gas station midway up at Eagle Plains, but beyond that it's just open road.
Thankfully, you don't need to worry about any of that. Tombstone is just an hour-long drive from Dawson City. Entrance into the park is free but staying overnight in the park is not. If you do plan to stay overnight, check-in with the Tombstone Interpretive Centre first ? and book your spots several weeks ahead of time. You'll need to drive past the start of the Grizzly Lake Trail hike to get to the interpretive center, but it's a requirement if you're spending the night.
Because the Dempster Highway is gravel, it's common for rocks to be thrown up while you're driving, and to slip and slide if you're going too fast. Take your time on the highway. I know you're excited to get to Tombstone, but you'll never get there if you go too fast on the highway.
3. Planning to Hike Grizzly Lake Trail
If you stopped at the interpretive centre, you would have been given a map that illustrated what kind of monster you are about to climb. If not, hopefully, you visited an online website like All Trails to give you an idea of what you're up again. According to All Trails, Grizzly Lake Trail is a "hard", 11km one-way trail. Those who make the hike often spend the night at Grizzly Lake, if possible, or hike to the next campsite. While the distance itself is daunting, the elevation gain is the real challenge.
This is because you aren't so much hiking Grizzly Lake Trail, as you are climbing it. There is a 1,436 meter, or 1.4-kilometer elevation gain on this trail, all within the first six kilometers. To help imagine that you would be climbing a little over four Eiffel Towers in six kilometers.
I've been told that after the first six kilometers it gets "easy", but those first six are incredibly difficult. People who are used to climbing mountains will probably be fine doing it, but novice hikers like me will find it a nearly insurmountable challenge.
Although autumn is the prettiest time to go on the hike, the trail can often be muddy and rooty. It's also a lot busier in the fall. In the summer, it's quieter, the trail is drier, and you aren't racing daylight as much. In fact, if you were to hike on June 21st, you could hike for 24-hours and never lose the sun.
With all that said, it is highly recommended that you bring snacks (granola bars, chocolate bars, trail mix, etc) and a bottle of water for every six kilometers you plan to hike. You can refill at Grizzly Lake if you get there, but you'll end up drinking most of the first bottle by the time you get to the lookout.
Also, I recommend bringing hiking sticks and a toque. It's going to get cold up there, and you'll need to stick for what's to come.
Oh, and of course, bring your camera.
4. Hiking Grizzly Lake Trail
I will not say that Grizzly Lake Trail beat me. My goal was to get to Grizzly Lake, but I only got to the four-kilometer lookout point before I turned back. This is where most hikers go back, as this is an exhausting, challenging climb.
The trail begins in what I call the "Mud and Roots" part of the hike. There are beautiful, towering trees all around you, and a gurgling stream that you will pass by a few times. For people who need a top-up of their water, this is a great spot to get it. Ideally, you'll want to clean the water first something like a LifeStraw Go Bottle, but I drank straight from the water and survived. In the summer, I've read, this part isn't too bad, but in the autumn it can be wet and frustrating, especially if you don't pick up your feet when you walk and you stub your toe on stupid tree roots.
The second part is what I called "Mud and Some Rocks". As the trees fade away and you start climbing the mountain, the path gets wider and a little easier. For the first time, you can get an idea of where you are going, and how far you've come. Because there are so many giant rocks to sit on, this is a great place to take a break. This is where I met most other hikers coming down from the trail ? or turning back because what to come was too hard.
The third part is called "No Mud But All Rocks". This is the hardest part of the climb, as there's no solid ground. Instead, you're walking, climbing, and scrambling over shale rock, which tumbles down behind you. About halfway into this area is a clearing, where you can look out and see the beauty that is Tombstone Territorial Park. If you want to push yourself a little more, you can scramble up a fifty-degree shale path and get to the top of the mountain and look down below. I did this, and then laid down and didn't move for about a half-hour.
This is where I turned back. I had run out of water (and I can't ask people for water as I did in Utah, because of COVID and all) and didn't bring any food. Had a planned better, I would have liked to go two kilometers more to the highest point in Grizzly Lake Trail. I was told you can see Grizzly Lake from there. It took every ounce of my willpower to make myself turn back at that point. I had made it further than others, but not as far as I wanted.
5. Getting to Grizzly Lake
I didn't get to Grizzly Lake. I was so close to paradise, but my body wasn't prepared for the hike and my backpack wasn't prepared for it either. It was a very solemn hike back down, and a very sad drive back to Dawson City, and a very long shower at the hostel, and a very early bedtime when I got to my room.
But others have done the hike and offered me some advice on the way. If you want to get to Grizzly Lake, and you want to know what comes after the lookout, please check out Leigh McAdam at Hike Bike Travel who I emailed and she got back to me about her experience. Also, check out Angela Liguori at Angels Liggs who did an incredible piece on it too.
There is also Tombstone Mountain Helicopter Tours, which can either drop you off or pick you up Talus Lake, which is about 11km further into the park than Grizzly Lake. This package is $1,170. You could also just fly around Tombstone for $650 for two people.
Personally, if I was to do this again, I would just prepare better and try the hike again. With a little more experience, some extra food, some extra water, and some walking sticks, I think I would have made it.
Will I ever return to finish my pilgrimage to Grizzly Lake? I don't know, but I sure hope so.
Have you ever hiked Grizzly Lake Trail? How about any of the other hikes in Tombstone? I wish I had had more time to try the rest of them. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and maybe get some advice for my next attempt at it.
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Categories: Canada, Hiking, Yukon