The Yukon Territory’s Tombstone Mountains are often called the “Patagonia of the North” and are best known for their stunning tundra landscapes, rugged peaks, and wildlife. After first discovering their existence, I KNEW I needed to experience them first hand ASAP. My partner Logan and I booked backcountry camping permits back in April of this year for the first opening nights of the season and the countdown began!
After a 6-hour drive northwest from Whitehorse we claimed our campsite for the first night and stopped in at the Interpretive Centre just off the Dempster Highway for a mandatory orientation.
My heart instantly sank when we approached the Interpretive Centre and a sign posted on the door read “Grizzly Lake Trail to Divide and Talus Lake CLOSED for snow and muddy conditions.” CLOSED?! We had 4 nights booked in the backcountry. Grizzly Lake, Divide Lake, Talus Lake, and back to Grizzly Lake. In that order. I had no time or patience for a closed trail to ruin our plans.
Although we were disappointed, hope was not lost because a ranger was planning to hike out to check on the conditions of the pass three days from then. I remained optimistic we could follow our original itinerary, though we changed our permit locations as a formality anyways. Best to have options.
We emerged from the orange glow of our tent to rain that had not yet subsided from the night before. But a little rain could not put a damper on our excitement. From the Grizzly Lake Trailhead, we headed out on a well-travelled trail with a 40-pound pack on my back and 50 pounds on Logan’s back with hopes that we did not forget anything important.
The trail steadily gained elevation through the trees and wildflowers and then we broke through treeline into the alpine and were rewarded with the first views of Mount Monolith. Marmots popped out of the rocks to greet us as we followed the talus ridge towards Grizzly Lake with lush vegetation below us and jagged peaks looming in the distance.
The trail continued to follow the ridge as we hiked on talus and traversed across the mountains. Marmot meadows (which speaks for itself, marmots galore!) was a nice way to break up the hike from the hard-packed trail and talus and the boulder crossings that we didn’t know we were about to tackle.
I was extremely appreciative of the sturdy ankle support that my Wind River IIIs provided as I tediously crossed the large boulder fields. Before we knew it, we were approaching Grizzly Lake with its deep blue water which was to be our home for the night.
Walking into camp was like nothing I had even imagined.
Raised tent platforms were scattered out from the main walking path, which was delineated with wooden stakes and cables to minimize human impact on the sensitive tundra vegetation. We claimed a platform and headed straight to the lake past the two outhouses, cook tents, bear caches, and grey water disposal.
With Campsters on my feet, I navigated the slippery rocks in the lake and took a dive into the clear, cool water. There really is nothing quite like a refreshing dip after a long, hot day in the mountains.
I unzipped the tent in the morning to the BLUEST skies outlining Mount Monolith and could not be any happier. Our plans for that day were to hike up and over Glissade Pass further into the backcountry and camp at Divide Lake for the night.
We ascended the pass with Grizzly Lake below us and got our first views of the trail which literally went STRAIGHT back down the other side of the mountain. A few lingering snow patches did not stop us as we easily skirted around them.
In record time, we made it down the loose scree, crossed a large snow patch, hiked down some talus, through a lush meadow with small stream crossings and traversed the base of a mountain alongside a valley to Divide Lake.
Relentless winds from the night before had subsided by morning and we started our routine for the day by eating breakfast, sipping coffee, packing up camp and heading on out to the next lake.
At this point I should mention that we were fairly hungry for most of our trip. In the Tombstones, you are required to keep your food in an approved bear canister, so when I was packing for our trip I was forced to take out about 1/3 of the food that I had originally packed for us.
Between myself, a 5’3” individual who eats A LOT and Logan, a 6’5” man, we did not have enough food to sustain ourselves comfortably. For breakfast, we shared a Pop-Tart, a small Clementine, and a Fruit Source Bar and had to resist the temptation to eat any of our extra snacks because we needed to save them for one of our longer days.
With packs tightened around sore hips, we headed even further into the backcountry toward Talus Lake. Within 30 minutes of our hike, it started to rain which to be honest, felt kind of nice. We were lucky enough to have pretty good visibility for our first views of Tombstone Mountain and Talus Lake.
We went to bed hungry and tried to distract ourselves by immersing our minds into a good book.
Day 4 was our first day hiking back in the direction of the trailhead and after we laced up our boots, we said goodbye to Talus Lake and took our last glimpses of Tombstone Mountain.
The weather had improved, and it was an enjoyable day of hiking. We hiked past Divide Lake and discussed our plans for van life next summer because we simply could not wait to have the freedom to backpack and hike for as many days as we wanted without work forcing us back to reality.
We ascended the steep scree face slowly but surely at one step up, 7/8 step back. Grizzly Lake was once again below us and we hiked down to the familiar camp for the night.
Our final day in the backcountry was a bittersweet one. It was the last morning unzipping the tent to the phenomenal views of Mount Monolith, the last time filtering water from the lake for oatmeal and coffee, the last meal we had to eat with a knife, the last time spitting toothpaste into a grey water barrel, so many lasts.
However, thankfully this would be the last time that Logan and I had to share every last crumb of food that we had brought. We made good time on our hike back and I could tell that we had grown stronger and more confident because the boulder crossings became almost second nature. We ate our last morsel of food among the friendly and entertaining marmots before descending back down the ridge to the trailhead.
That’s it! 5 days and 4 nights in the backcountry of the Tombstones and it was so much more than I had ever expected. Each lake offered a different perspective of Mount Monolith and was a unique shade of blue from the rest. And even though we were hungry for most of the trip and forced to share every last snack, I never ONCE got “hangry” which I have known to be from time to time. The views and the experience just wouldn’t allow it! It was a backpacking trip of a lifetime that I will absolutely cherish forever!
Caitlin McKenzie is an Environmental Manager and avid hiker located in northern BC who spends her weekends travelling to the Canadian Rockies to satisfy her mountain fix. Follow along with her adventures on Instagram @mountainbait.