Tombstone Territorial Park is an unusual place. For one thing, it is host to the most incredible rugged mountains you could ever imagine.
Secondly, you are actively encouraged to hike away from the trails. Now that is something that does not happen very often in any National Park or otherwise. But Tombstone is different.
Even those catching a glimpse on the way up the famed Dempster Highway will notice it. Whether it is the mountain ranges, colourful tundra or endless wilderness, something will draw you in. If you like hiking, Tombstone should be number one on your bucket list.
Off the beaten path in Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon
All I knew of Tombstone Territorial Park was the jagged peaks featured on the front of seemingly every Yukon Tourism publication. While driving through the park in June we had seen many impressive looking mountains, but none matched the photos I had seen.
As it turns out, these mountains are most easily seen by hiking an established 11km trail to Grizzly Lake. My mind was set on doing this trail. After a trip to the interpretive centre, however, we put another hike on our list.
In this harsh northern environment, there are few trees here to impede your journey, making it is far easier to navigate and pick your own route.
Should you have the skills, it is possible to hike and camp anywhere you like. The ranger on duty that day advocated us to simply choose a mountain and hike up it. Challenge accepted.
Hiking over tundra in Tombstone
Our first hike in Tombstone Territorial Park was to summit Rake Mountain (1,600m), a peak located close to the Dempster Highway. We were recommended to try this one by the staff at Interpretive Centre as there is a rough ‘horse trail’ leading to the base, which makes the beginning a little faster.
Before reaching the horse trail though, it is necessary to hike a kilometre across tundra (2nd photo). Despite later hiking directly up a mountain, crossing this tundra section was actually the worst part.
Tundra is boggy and squishy and hard to walk on. I can only describe it as walking over a giant water bed filled with pineapples.
Since the horse trail led through the valley, it was very boggy too, so we started climbing much earlier than we intended. Hiking without a trail can be pretty rough, especially if you’re climbing a mountain. There are no steps or helpful switchbacks to make the elevation easier.
We had to double back and re-route a number of times after finding ourselves in a difficult spot. Having said this….it was awesome. We were finding our own path, not just following a trail, and making our own way up a mountain. Pretty cool.
The top of Rake Mountain
Arriving at the peak of Rake Mountain was incredible. We had a 360 degree view of the endless rolling mountains and tundra of Tombstone Territorial Park, with the Dempster Highway winding through it all. Trucks and other vehicles on the road were visible, along with our own van which we had left just three hours before.
Yep, from start to finish, this hike took only around three hours, with a number of climbing breaks. Of course, it was a hard climb, but my gosh, was it worth it.
This hike has the best effort to reward ratio I have ever experienced. I would never have guessed we could have achieved these views in such a short time.
Nowhere to hide
Our original plan was to continue hiking along the ridge to the next mountain, but we were quite happy to camp here.
We didn’t need to stay overnight, but we wanted to spend a night in a wilderness camp (i.e. not established). My only fear was of grizzly bears since this was prime bear territory. The rangers had advised us to take a bear spray each and a bear-proof food canister to try and avoid any issues.
Being in the alpine (as opposed to down in the valley) and in a lesser frequented area (few hikers = few food smells) worked to our advantage, and we didn’t see any. The only wildlife we saw was lots and lots of grouse! One of the many beauties of hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park – no trees. There are far fewer places for animals to hide!
Descending Rake Mountain in fog
Waking up the next morning, we couldn’t see a thing. At first, we could barely see our own outstretched hands. It cleared up a little but then the rain set in.
We packed up quickly and made a dash for the van. Well, not so much a dash as a slow descent through the rain, fog and mud.
If going up was difficult, going down was even trickier. JR navigated while I found it hard to balance on the slippy ground. The ‘boggy’ tundra we had hiked the day before was now flooded and harder than ever to cross. We reached the Interpretive Centre campground absolutely soaked. But it was so worth it.
Hiking Rake Mountain not only offered us incredible views of Tombstone, but also showed the potential off-trail hiking. We only travelled a short distance from the highway to see these vistas – imagine if we had continued on down the pass for another few days? Another trip!
Tombstone Territorial Park hiking: The details
Tombstone Territorial Park is a large protected wilderness area in northern Yukon, around an hour and a half away from Dawson City (pop. 1,300).
The park is accessible from the Dempster Highway, a 737km dirt road to Inuvik (NWT) and the Arctic Circle. The road intersects Tombstone at around 50km in, with the Interpretive Centre located a bit later at 71km.
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Yukon hiking: Best time of year
The main Yukon hiking season is short, especially in Tombstone Territorial Park. We had intended to go hiking in Tombstone in late June but there was still a fair amount of snow at the higher elevations. The campsites on the Grizzly Lake trail, the most popular route, were still closed. When we returned in late July, we were good to explore anywhere.
If planning a late summer trip, do keep in mind that the cooler temperatures come sooner to Yukon than elsewhere in Canada. The changing colours in Tombstone are beautiful, but be sure to bring warmer clothing and equipment.
Camping in Tombstone Territorial Park
We camped at Rake Mountain, establishing our own wilderness campsite. It is free to camp in the backcountry anywhere besides the Grizzly Lake Trail.
The Grizzly Lake Trail has three backcountry campgrounds, with tent pads, outhouses and cook shelters. Tent sites cost $12/night. Permits must be obtained at the interpretive centre. Reservations are recommended, especially on weekends. Camping is available from late June to mid September.
There is a road accessible campground called Tombstone Mountain near the interpretive centre, open from mid May to early September. Sites are suitable for campers, trailers, vans and tents and cost $12/night. The campground has basic outhouses plus water and bear proof caches.
What to know about Tombstone Territorial Park hiking
Tombstone Territorial Park has no day use fees, nor any trail or parking fees. Our hike to Rake Mountain was completely free. As mentioned, it is possible to camp and hike anywhere in Tombstone.
- Register at the interpretive centre first before heading out into the backcountry
- Hikers must have skill and experience with wilderness hiking and be prepared for all kinds of weather conditions.
- Be sure to bring the appropriate bear safety equipment and know how to use it.
Essential gear for Tombstone hiking
Alongside all of the essential backcountry hiking gear, I would recommend bringing:
- Plenty of mosquito repellent. The bugs in this part of the world are ferocious. You will not want to be without strong bug spray!
- Sturdy hiking boots. Hiking across tundra is difficult – trust me, you’ll want the support. I use swear by the Oboz range of hikers, for day hikers as well as backcountry treks. The Bridger’s would be great for this hike.
- Hiking poles. Even just one will help when descending and ascending the mountains of Tombstone. We love Black Diamond’s Distance Z series.
- Bear spray. Tombstone is home to many grizzly bears and other large wildlife. Keep a full bear spray handy (not in your backpack!) and know how to use it
- Bear proof food storage: With very few trees around, it is imperative to use a bear proof container for food storage. We find Bear Vaults easy to use. It is also possible to rent a container from the interpretive centre.
- Air horn: As well as bear spray and a bear canister, we also brought along an air horn to potentially scare aggressive bears away. It also doubled up as a signalling device.
Have you ever hiked in Tombstone? Do you have any stories of off-trail hiking? Let us know!
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