Slim’s River West Trail

Located in the remote Yukon Territory, Kluane National Park and Preserve is home to Canada’s highest mountain (Mount Logan – 5,959 m [ / 19, 5450 ft]), one of North America’s densest concentration of grizzly bears, and the largest non-polar icefield in the world. Among its mind-boggling collection of more than 2,000 glaciers, arguably the most striking of all is Kaskawulsh: a black- and- white frozen river that can be accessed on foot via the Slim’s River West Trail.

I hiked the trail in the summer of 1998 (please excuse the grainy photos), and all logistical details have been updated as of May 2020.

Kaskawulsh Glacier

At a Glance

Distance: 40 miles (64 km)

Average Time:  3 days

Difficulty:

  • Moderate. The hiking isn’t that hard, but some of the river fords can be challenging depending on water levels.

Start / Finish:

  • Tachäl Dhäl Visitor Centre. Out-and-back hike to the summit of Observation Mountain.

Season:  July to September

Slim’s River West Trail Overview Map (Parks Canada website)

Maps / Info

  • Maps: A free downloadable version of 1:50,000 Slims River 115 B/15 covers the entire route. You can also pick up a copy at the Visitor Centre at Tachal Dal.
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Hikers breaking camp on the Slims River West Trail.

  • Permits: Permits and bear canisters are required for all overnight trips into Kluane National Park. These can be organised at the Visitor Center. Park authorities also recommend that you bring a can of bear spray, which should be purchased before arrival at Kluane.
  • Supplies: Bring all supplies from Haines Junction, Haines, or Whitehorse.
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Hiking partner Delphine heading south on the Slim’s River West Trail.

History

  • Subsistence-hunting in Kluane: For millennia the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations people inhabited the area that is now called Kluane National Park. A subsistence-hunting lifestyle was central to their culture, however, in 1943 the Canadian federal government designated the area a game sanctuary, effectively prohibiting all hunting and trapping by indigenous residents. The law had a significant impact on the livelihoods and culture of the First Nations people, and it wasn’t until some five decades later in 1993 – after much negotiation and debate – that legislation was finally passed allowing the area’s original inhabitants to once again resume subsistence-hunting in their traditional homeland.
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Observation Mountain

Route / Conditions

  • Overview: An out-and-back route to the top of Observation Mountain, which as the name suggests, parallels the true left side of the Slims River for most of its course. The route is fairly straightforward to follow, although hikers should be aware that after periods of heavy rainfall, certain areas on the river flats can become very muddy, necessitating a move to higher and drier ground along the valley’s edge. For a more in-depth description of the trail, see the free downloadable PDF route description on the Canadian National Parks website.
  • Bears: Kluane National Park is grizzly bear country. In fact, one of the biggest bears I ever saw was rambling along Columbia Creek on the second day of the hike. That said, folks that are new to bear country can take solace in the fact that generally speaking, bruins want to avoid an encounter as much as you do. For detailed information see Tips for Hiking in Bear Country in the HEALTH & SAFETY section of the website.
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Footprints in the sand.

  • River Fords: From a safety perspective, the most dangerous aspect of the Slims River West trail is not any creature, but instead the river crossings. This especially holds true for two fords in particular – Bullion Creek (located at the 6 km mark) and Canada Creek (situated near the campground at the end of Day 1). Both of these watercourses can be swift, deep, and icy cold, and extreme care should be taken. See How to Ford a River in the SKILLS section for tips and advice.

Canada Creek campsite with Observation Mountain on the right-hand side // This image is from the Slims River West Trail chapter of “The Hidden Tracks“, the second book of my Wanderlust series with Gestalten Publications. The photo was taken by Sean Jansen (jansenjournals.com)

  • Summit Vistas:  The scenic highlight of this hike is undoubtedly the breathtaking view of Kaskawulsh Glacier from the apex of the appropriately named Observation Mountain. A serpentine highway of multi-hued ice creeping its frozen way among snow-capped peaks. It’s an incredible sight to behold, and the spacious summit makes for an unbeatable place to linger for an hour or two over lunch before beginning the journey home.
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Yours truly on top of Observation Mountain.

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View over Slim’s River from Observation Mountain.

Camping on Observation Mountain // Another shot from the Slim’s River chapter of the “The Hidden Tracks.” This image was taken by Jack Brauer (mountainphotography.com)

Final Thoughts:  Delphine of the Alps

Accompanying me on the Slim’s River West Trail was a French lady by the name of Delphine. We first met on the Alaska State Ferry heading north from Bellingham, WA, and subsequently travelled together around the Frontier State and the Yukon for about a month. More than two decades later, I have yet to meet a more genuinely enthusiastic hiker.

Delphine literally sprang out of her sleeping bag every morning. Each meal, no matter how basic, was appreciated as if it was her last. Flora, fauna, and landscapes were all taken in with childlike wonder. She was one of those people who was simply made to be outdoors.

I haven’t seen Delphine since 1998. After corresponding for a year or so (back in the days when people still sent letters), we drifted out of contact. However, I’d like to think that after all these years she is still regularly wandering the hills and valleys of her beloved French Alps. Now in her early 40’s, her elven-like step may be a little slower (or not), but I bet that the unconditional love she felt for the natural world remains undiminished.

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Delphine with the Slims River in the background.

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