Slim’s River West Trail to Observation Mountain

Located in Canada’s remote Yukon Territory, Kluane National Park and Reserve is home to the country’s highest mountain (Mount Logan – 5,959 m /19,551 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 (Ä’äy Chù) 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: 64 km (40 miles)

Average Time:  3 days

Start / Finish:

  • The Thechäl Dhäl Trailhead parking lot; located 2.6 km (1.6 mi) up the Ä’äy Chù (Slims River) Valley from the Thechàl Dhâl Visitor Centre.
  • Out-and-back hike to the summit of Observation Mountain.

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

Difficulty:

  • Moderate to difficult. The hiking isn’t that hard (with the exception of ascending Observation Mountain), but some of the river crossings can be challenging depending on water levels.

Season:

  • July to September. The average temperature for Kluane in July is 12°C (53°F), with sub-freezing temperatures possible at any time of year.

Logistical Information

  • 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 Thechäl Dhäl Visitor Centre.
  • Online Information: See the Canadian national parks website for general information on Kluane National Park (eg. how to get there, health and safety, camping options, etc.).
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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 and Reserve. 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 that parallels the true left side of the Slim’s 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. 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)

  • The Route to the Top of Observation Mountain:  The second of the above-mentioned fords, the multi-channeled Canada Creek, should ideally be tackled early morning on day two. Once across, follow the watercourse west toward the confluence with Columbia Creek, and then follow the latter until you reach the steep and rocky path that ascends Observation Mountain. Upon gaining the plateau below the summit, the views of Kaskawulsh Glacier are breathtaking. The serpentine highway of multi-hued ice creeping its frozen way among snow-capped peaks is arguably one of the finest vistas in North America – an unbeatable place to linger for an hour or two over lunch before beginning the return journey.
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Yours truly on top of Observation Mountain.

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Looking back over Slim’s River from Observation Mountain.

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

Final Thoughts:  Delphine of the Alps

In 1998 I was accompanied on the Slim’s River West Trail by Delphine, who hailed from Chamonix in France. We had met on the Alaska State Ferry heading north from Bellingham, WA, and subsequently did multiple hikes together around the Frontier State and the Yukon. More than two decades later, I have yet to meet a more genuinely enthusiastic outdoors person.

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 wrote 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 Slim’s River in the background.

Gear List

If I was to hike the Slim’s River West Trail again in 2020, this is the gear I would take:

  ITEM   WT. (OZ)   SUB (oz)   SUB (kg)   COMMENTS
         
 BACKPACK        
Gossamer Gear Kumo (2015 model)        15     Wide shoulder straps are among the most comfortable I have tried / Robic material is durable and has good water resistance / Outside pockets are easily accessible (i.e. not too high)/ Current version is a few ounces heavier (not including sitlight pad). 
Pack Liner (Trash Compactor Bag)          2     Cheap and effective
              17 0.48  
SHELTER        
MLD SoloMid XL (plus inner net)         21     Inner net nice to have during bug season in Yukon/Alaska. I’ve been using the SoloMid XL since 2015; the current version is a couple of ounces heavier, but the weight penalty would be worth it for increased space. 
Stakes – Mixture (MSR Ground Hogs, Shepherd hooks)         2.5    
            23.5        0.67    
SLEEPING SYSTEM        
Pad – Thermarest NeoAir XLite (Sm)          8     Very comfy / Doubles as makeshift framesheet for pack / Put feet on backpack when sleeping / See 20,000 + mile review.
Quilt – Katabatic Palisade        19.4     I used this quilt on the PCT and CDT in 2012, and it’s still going strong eight years later.
            27.4          0.78  
KITCHEN        
LokSak 20×12 (Food Bag)         1.2     Holds up to five or six days of food. 
Food Vessel: Reconstituted Talenti Ice Cream Jar         1.8    
Titanium spork (Toaks)         0.2    
SmartWater Bottles 1 LT (2)         2.6      
             5.8           0.16  
FIRST AID / HYGIENE        
Sunscreen (repackaged in tiny bottle)        
Hand Sanitizer (repackaged in a dropper bottle)       It’s been more than 20 years since I’ve had a case of the trots in the backcountry. I think a big reason is my diligent use of hand sanitizer.
Aquamira (repackaged in dropper bottles)       Purification method of choice since 2007.
Mini Toothbrush        
Toothpaste (mini tube)        
Dental Floss       Doubles as sewing thread
Antiseptic Wipes (2)       Clean cuts and wounds.
Gauze        
Triple Antibiotic Cream (tiny tube)        
3M Micropore Medical Tape       Breathable, paper tape / Adheres well.
Ibuprofen (6)      
Sewing Needle       One-armed blind people can sew better than I can.
Tenacious Tape, Mini Tube Super Glue (repairs)       To compensate for my lack of sewing skills.
              4           0.11  
CLOTHES        
Insulation Layer – Montbell Plasma 1000 Alpine Down Parka         8.4     Incredible warmth to weight ratio (1000 fill power goose down). The Plasma is about the same weight as my long-time favourite, the Montbell Superior, but approximately 20-30% warmer. The catch? The Plasma is twice as expensive. 
Rain Jacket – Montbell Peak Dry Shell         7.3     Gore-Tex Shake Dry technology. Waterproof membrane on outer layer. Jury still out on long-term durability, but definitely a step in the right direction on the waterproofness front (Note: Hopefully future editions of the jacket will include pit-zips).
Extra Socks – Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew          2.6    
Head Net – Sea to Summit with Insect Shield         1.3      
Buff (original polyester)         1.4   Beanie, neck/face protection, condensation wipe, convenience store holdups if low on cash.
Gloves – Montbell Chameece Liners         0.9   Easily the best liner gloves I’ve ever used / Compatible with touchscreen devices
    21.9  0.62  
MISCELLANEOUS        
Phone –iPhone 11        6.8     Recent pick-up. Major upgrade over my old Samsung Galaxy S7,
Phone case – Otter Symmetry (orange)        1.3      
Stuff sacks – HMG Cuben Fiber (2)        2.4      Ditty bag / first-aid / toiletries
 Nitecore NU25        1.8     Recent pickup. I’d been hearing great things about it for the previous year or two, and decided to give it a try. Double thumbs up
Montbell Trail Wallet (orange model)        0.5     Love this little wallet. Burnt orange colour makes it tougher for me to lose. 
Swiss Army Classic        1.3     For a long time, I really only used the tweezers and scissors, but in recent years I’ve carried more cheese and veggies on shorter hikes, meaning that I now use the knife as much, or more than the other two features. 
Compass – Suunto M-3G Global Pro        1.6     Adjustable declination and globally balanced needle (more responsive than my old Suunto M-2). 
Deuce of Spades potty trowel        0.6      
Map Bag – Quart Size Ziploc        0.2 Keeps maps clean, dry, and organized.
Trekking Pole – Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Pole        7.0 After reading many positive reviews, I recently picked these up on Amazon. At less than US$60 for the pair, they arguably the best value for money trekking poles on the market.   
             23.6          0.67  
BASE WEIGHT TOTAL        7.69 lb         3.49 kg  
         
ITEMS WORN        
Pants – Outdoor Research Ferrosi       11.6     Light, stretchy, quick-drying – most comfortable hiking pants I’ve worn.
Base layer – Patagonia Sun Stretch Shirt (Lge)           7     Material feels soft against the skin, relaxed fit, dries quickly, useful zippered pockets, and UPF 30 protection.
Hat –  Adapt-a-cap (old model)          3.2     The latest incarnation is heavier and a little tight for folks with a big noggin.
Shoes – Brooks Cascadia 14       23.6     I’ve worn every model of the Cascadias since the 3’s, which came out more than a decade ago. With the exception of the Cascadia 10’s, all of the different incarnations have consistently given me between 450 and 600 miles before having to swap them out.
Socks – REI Merino Wool liners        1.6 Still my favourite liner socks, though the current models aren’t as durable as the pre-2013 versions.
Dirty Girl Gaiters        1.2 Handy for keeping out dirt and mud. I’ve been rocking DG’s since 2007. 
Timex Ironman Watch        1.4     Cheap, durable, light, multiple alarms
Sunglasses        0.8     Polarized lenses, 100% UV protection, wrap-around.
          50.5           1.43  
TOTAL WEIGHT         10.8 lb         4.92 kg  

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