LAUGHTON GLACIER TRAIL AND WHITE PASS TRAIN EXPEDITION
The Laughton Glacier Trail is one of the best excursions in Skagway for cruise visitors and local hikers. The expedition begins with a ride along a historic railway aboard the White Pass Train. The vintage train drops you at the trailhead of the hike, which leads you through the mossy wonderland and out of the forest where you emerge beneath the epic Laughton Glacier. Ice-spikes will help you navigate the glacial ice as you edge closer to the towering glacier. It’s an expedition for all ages with relatively flat terrain for able trail walkers.
Hike Distance: The total distance of the hike was 14.5km along a pretty well-defined trail throughout. The trail is an out and back so it is just over 7km one-way.
Hike Duration: The hike is a slow-paced adventure with lots to see along the way. A big part of the day is hanging out and exploring the glacier and the ice once you arrive so that also takes some time. We took over 8 hours for the entire excursion but I believe the hike alone could be achieved in under 3 hours if you made quick tracks to and from the trailhead.
Hike Difficulty: The Laughton Glacier Hiking Trail is relatively simple with only a couple hundred meters of elevation. The trail itself is well-maintained although you do navigate roots, rocks and uneven surfaces. Most walkers will be fine but it is not a suitable trail for those not comfortable with loose terrain.
The difficult parts to mention are of course the glacier itself. It’s not necessary to hike on the glacier but it is highly recommended. For this, you will need to put on ice spikes. Just the simple spikes you wrap onto your shoe will do. These will help you navigate the glacier. You also have some loose gravel in the final stages of the hike, which is slippery and can be a little dangerous for some. If you do the hike as part of a tour, your guide will provide the ice spikes and likely a trekking pole aswell.
Hike Incline: Total elevation from the trailhead to the glacier was 300m. The train takes you from Skagway town to the trailhead up 500m so you gain 800m for the day but over half of that is from the comfort of the train.
HOW TO GET TO THE LAUGHTON GLACIER TRAIL
I did my hike with Packer Expeditions as a shore excursion from the Ovation Of The Seas – Royal Caribbean cruise ship. They picked us up in a bus, took us to the train pickup and then we rode the train to the trailhead.
If you are not part of a tour with Packer Expeditions, you will need to book your train ticket on wpyr.com and pick your tickets up at the depot in Skagway and then jump on the train to the trailhead. The tickets run at about $60 per person for a return trip but you can check the current prices on the site here.
MY EXPERIENCE ON THE LAUGHTON GLACIER TRAIL
As I said above, I hiked with Packer Expeditions as a shore excursion from the Ovation Of The Seas – Royal Caribbean cruise ship. This meant everything was quite well organized and we didn’t have to worry about maps, equipment, snacks, water and safety measures. It was all taken care of.
Packer Expeditions included the following gear on the tour:
- Trekking poles, rain gear, and hats and gloves.
- Guides carry extra warm clothing, sunblock, and bug repellent.
- Full lunch in the form of a sandwich buffet
- Water bottles, candy bars, and nuts are provided for the trail as well as hot drinks
After departing the ship, we were met by our guide and taken to the railway stop on a bus. Here we boarded the train and off we set on the historical railway. This route was built during the Klondike Gold Rush and was at the time, one of the most scenic railways in the world and during this 45-minute ride, you will be able to soak in the epic landscapes along the way.
The railway is quite unique as it still uses vintage parlor cars. Several of the cars were built in 1881 and others built more recently share the same design.
On the train, we were briefed by our guides and we made our sandwiches for the day. Rather than give everyone a set lunch, we were able to pick our toppings and pack them up in our bag. They also gave us a couple of chocolate bars and packets of nuts to keep us going throughout the day.
The train journey was beautiful. For the most part, we were surrounded by the forest but every now and again the railway would open up into a clearing in the valley and the views were pretty phenomenal with huge cliffs on either side and lush green covering everything in between. The train journey in itself is one of the shore excursions for cruise passengers, which means your transit to the hike is actually someone else’s highlight of the day. You know then, that is a special journey with many scenic moments.
We jumped off the train after 500m of incline gain from Skagway. The train had dropped us right at the trailhead and after grabbing some spikes and trekking poles from the guides our group set off into the forest.
The trail was quite well defined and was mostly a dirt path with a few ups and downs. However, at times wooden boards had been installed to make the hiking path easier to navigate in the wet periods. On either side of the trail, you could find small blueberry bushes amongst the smothering of moss and other forest ferns. The old-growth rainforest valley that is home to moose, bear, mountain goats, and other wild animals. We kept a lookout for bears but didn’t make any sightings.
The trail winds its way along the raging Skagway River and we often made slight detours to find ourselves on the rocky banks of the river. It was ferocious and freezing cold. Not a river you want to fall into!
Halfway along the trail is a small clearing where a mountain hut toilet is nestled in amongst the trees. Once you reach this point you will begin to get glimpses of the Laughton Glacier.
From this point on you will steadily make your way uphill although the trail is never too steep. The trail gradually becomes less of a path and more rocky as you edge your way closer to the glacier until you are indeed just walking over rocks! The path is still visible but at a certain point, you will need to put your ice spikes on as the terrain is now just rocks on top of the ice and can be quite slippery. Glaciers are also unpredictable and can be very dangerous so despite the landscape looking quite tame, it is not advised to explore glaciers alone or without an experienced guide or companion.
We strapped on our ice spikes and began to steadily move across the ice. Along the way, we encountered lots of exposed crevasses and moulins aswell as many other unique ice formations. About 1-kilometer before the base of the glacier, our group stopped and enjoyed lunch and the viewpoint. This is where most groups stop and admire the scenery. You will find yourself inside a valley where the glacier used to cover the entire landscape. Now all that remains is the gravel as the glacier continues to recede further every year.
After lunch and some more exploring on the glacier, we headed back along the trail the same way we had hiked in. At a good pace, I think we made it back in under 1.5 hours without stopping as much as we did on the way in. It’s a beautifully peaceful trail where you can enjoy the fresh mountain air and calm atmosphere on the way down. By the way… if your guides make you do a ‘Glacial Facial’ they made us too!
I highly recommend this railway and glacier hike combo if you are stopping in Skagway as part of a cruise or just passing through as a traveler. It’s a great way to experience a glacier and enjoy a moderately challenging day out on the trails without getting too crazy!