Cottonwood Trail


Distance: 75 km
Elevation Gain: 530 m (1739 ft)
Time: 4 days
Difficulty: Moderate
Region: Kluane
Date Added: April 23, 2012
Last Update: April 23, 2012
Winter: ski touring snowshoeing 



This multi-day trail circles through and around the Dalton Range in Kluane National Park. The trail can be hiked or skied from either end, although if you are skiing it, starting at the Mush Lake side allows you to keep the wind at your back when you reach Kathleen Lake. There is a mountain pass to climb during the middle of the trip, but the elevation gain isn't difficult. The view of the impressive Dalton Range mountains almost never leaves your sight.


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Photos
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Winter



Driving Directions

To start from the Mush Lake Road, drive south from Haines Junction on the Haines Road for 53.4 km. At this point there is a small brown National Park sign on the right, pointing to the parking area and trailhead. Two vehicles are required for this trip (unless you want to hitchhike back to your vehicle at the trailhead), so leave one vehicle at the Kathleen Lake campground, which is the end of the trail.




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Trail Description

Only the winter route has been recorded.


Winter

In the winter, this trail is best suited to ski touring. Nordic touring skis versus alpine touring skis are preferrable as the trail is a mix of flat terrain and gradual ups and downs. Nordic touring skis with directional fish-scales will suffice for most of the uphill sections along the trail, however half skins are great to have along for steeper sections. The route does travel through avalanche terrain so avalanche safety gear and training is advisable. Navigation tools such as a map and compass and/or GPS are a must in the winter.

The route starts off on the Mush Lake Road, a wide 4x4 trail that is often track set and packed in the winter. The first part of the trail passes through mixed poplar and spruce forests with nice views of the surrounding mountains. The terrain is quite flat for the first 7 km following along the Alder Creek valley. There are occasional trail markers along the way at any major junctions. At about the 7.7 km mark, the trail turns slightly towards the northwest to follow along the mountain side. The terrain gets a little more hilly here and it's gradually up and down for the next few kilometres. At the 16.5 km mark the trail crosses Dalton Creek (there is an old bridge here). This is a good potential camping spot with access to the creek and it is also a good stop as the trail begins to climb up into the alpine after this. The Mush Lake/Cottonwood Trail junction is just a little ways further at km 16.8.

From the Mush Lake/Cottonwood Trail junction, take the right fork onto a narrower trail which begins to climb immediately for 1.6 km up the Dalton Creek valley. After about 200 m of climbing, the trail levels out and views open up around you as you gain access to the subalpine. Continue following the trail on the left of Dalton Creek. The route is gradually uphill through sparse trees towards a broad mountain pass (1,290 m at km 23.4).

After reaching the pass, the route traverses a wide alpine plateau. Around km 24 you will need to either stay high or drop down into the gully of Dalton Creek. The summer trail goes through the gully, staying next to the creek, and this is an option in the winter as well; however, be weary that this is a potential terrain trap if an avalanche were to come down one of the many tracks on the mountain to the right (east). If you choose this route, spread out and travel through this area quickly. Alternately you may choose to stay high on the bank/ridge along the left of the gully. At the 30 km mark you will reach the end of the gully at the base of a large mountain where the trail takes a sharp left following along Victoria Creek. There is a nice open flat area near here offering good camping options near the creek with great views of the mountains around.

The trail continues along the right side of Victoria Creek until you reach an area where several small valleys converge. A trail marker will direct you to keep to the valley on the right. There is a gradual climb of about 200 m to a second mountain pass (1,249 m) at km 35.7 with a stunning view from the top looking down into the next valley. From this point you get a nice short downhill section (300 m) where you can finally get some turns in.

You will now be leaving the alpine, dropping down to a nice aspen and balsam poplar parkland. The route follows along this valley until coming to meet with a larger open valley at km 43. Now the trail follows along the right of Cottonwood Creek for a couple kilometres but then you will need to leave the main creek and head towards the smaller valley on the right towards Johobo Lake and the old Johobo Mine which is apparent on a prominent mountain in the distance with it's many exploration roads and mining trenches. In the winter it is easy to make a bee-line through the trees.

Once across Johobo Lake there is a cutline trail starting from the northeast end of the lake at km 50. There is a trail marker a little ways down this trail. Continue a short ways uphill to a potential camping spot with a large open area, access to a small creek, and views of Sockeye Lake and the Auriol Range to the north (km 51.5).

From this point the trail starts going gradually downhill traversing along the mountain side to the right (east), eventually leading to the east end of Louise Lake (km 60.7). This section of the trail is 9 km long with lots of ups and downs through the trees. It can drag on for a while so it is possible at some locations along the way to cut through the trees directly to the lake, for a flatter route if you so choose.

From the east end of Louise Lake find the trail marker and follow the trail through the trees for approximately 5 km until you finally reach Kathleen Lake by following a creek down to the lakeside (km 65.6). Once on the lake it is clear sailing from here on in terms of route finding, as you essentially follow along the south shoreline as directly as possible to the Kathleen Lake Campground (about 10 km).


Note: Overnight trips in Kluane National Park and Reserve require registration and approved bear resistant food canisters. Please visit the Park's website for details.

Elevations

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Comments / Trip Reports

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GC
April 17, 2018

To add to Voyageur comment. You better have a plan B and C out there, repair kit or spare gear. Never know, you can break a biding or something ;). A way of communicating is a must; sat phone or Spot or In Reach...
Voyageur
April 14, 2018

We skied the trail as a group of two with back country skies, light back packs and pulks from April 8-12.

Gear: We carried snow shoes as back-ups and they were really helpful at camp as they avoided us from sinking in hip deep into the snow when taking the skies off.

The trail was easy to follow and in places where there was no obvious trail it was easy to follow the ski/snow shoe tracks from former travelers. Although in the Alpine where none of these are visible it is highly recommended to bring a map or GPS device for route finding and avoiding the avalanche terrain that is mentioned in former posts. After crossing Victoria Creek we missed the trail leading to Kathleen Lk. which forced us to bushwalk for a bit (a real pain with a pulk). Kathleen Lk. was solid frozen with some softer spots but still safe for travelling.

We got water from creeks at camp I and camp II and spent an extra night at the Cottenwood Creek which was also open (no water at camp III.

Snow conditions: Due to higher temps during the day the snow pack got really soft especially on sun exposed aspects that made traveling quite exhausting. Early starts are recommended since it cooled down well enough at night to harden the snow. Since you are traveling through avalanche terrain carrying avi-gear and know how to use it is a must.

Wildlife: Bear tracks all along the trail was a proof that they are out again so taking bear spray and storing food away from camp was certainly a right decision.

Recommendations: Try to travel light, keep your gear in good shape and bring an essential repair kit. The combo pulk/light back combo seemed to work out for us. Bring enough fuel to melt snow in case creeks are frozen. Know how to read the map/track and be confident in rout finding, assessing avi terrain and ways to minimize the risks. Plan for an extra day since these mountains are sure worth spending more time to enjoy nature.
Peter Knamiller
April 3, 2018

We skied the route over the Easter weekend, along with at least another 2 or more groups on the trail that weekend!
The trail conditions were very good, with little to no penetration resulting from the cold temps for this time of year. I would imagine that this could change very quickly if temps rise. There was good snow coverage the whole length of the trail, expect Kluane Lake, which still had very solid (2-3 foot) ice which was blown bare. We used skins on this section for less of the Bambi experience.
There was a group of snowshoers from Vancouver behind us the whole way and they were degrading the ski trail considerably, particularly in the softer parts as they were breaking through. I would not recommend this trail for snowshoers.
We found a good water supply at Camp 1 and 2 and no water at camp 3.
Regarding avalanche concern there was evidence of a couple older slides (2 weeks) near the end of day 2 where the route moves through an obvious terrain trap. We easily avoided this by traversing above the gully on the west side. I would recommend this route regardless of avalanche concern as it completely avoids the terrain trap and does not add any distance. There was also some more recent solar triggered slides along Cottonwood Creek which are likely to increase as the spring warm up hits. Watch for these and don't underestimate the avalanche potential for some of the micro terrain feature on the descent into the head of Cottonwood creek.
The trip was great with some beautiful alpine scenery.
Nicolas Lemieux
April 3, 2018

PERSONAL SUGGESTIONS

Nordic skis vs AT vs classics vs snowshoes:
If the nordic skis with skins and/or half skins are best suited for this trip, I was quite happy with my AT touring set up, although mine is as light as it gets. I sure missed having scales in some places but it was great to open the trail, to drag a pulk up and to cross the icy lake at the end. One of us had classics with a backpack and made it through and even had some glorious moments but had to stay behind for the trail to be packed in the forest and to borrow snowshoes for the lake. There was another group of snowshoers that apparently had to be evacuated by helicopter out on Day 4. The snow is just too soft for snowshoing in many areas. Unless you make it a 6 days trip and are willing to burn lots of calories, I wouldn’t recommend it. Also, you’ll destroy the trail for skiers doing that.

Pulks vs Backpacks:
This is tough call. While it’s nice to have a pulk in the flat areas and to carry more gear to make the winter campaing experience more enjoyable, it can also be a pain in the uphill, downhill, sideway terrain, in the forest and it will be very hard to glide on the flat terrain. A lightish backpack would be ideal if you’re willing to sacrifice some confort. Something in between I think I would try another time is a mix of a backpack and pulling a small dry bag well tied in a crazy carpet that you can carry in your backpack if needed. But the grass always seems greener on the other side.

Glad we carried:
- GPS with topo maps loaded with the route
- Snowshoes for around camp and if skis brake
- Skins (a must we think)
- Shovels for the camp and avalanche safety
- Avalanche safety gear : most of the trail is OK but some sections can be a bit tricky
- Duct Tape (of course), zip ties and extra rope for pulks repairs
- A set of extra poles
- Sunscreen, lipbalm & sunglasses (you have to)
- Liquid gas stoves. Gas stoves don’t do well in the cold.
- Warm stuff. Night were quite cold.
- Booties for after ski

Maybe not next time:
- Wine : froze after the second night !


OVERALL RECOMMENDATIONS

This is an epic trail with some alpine feeling you can get without alpine touring equipement. A 4 days loop through the mountains of Kluane is quite tempting. Just bear in mind it’s not an easy one, and the conditions can make it harder. While we really enjoyed it, even if tiring, I previously heard few stories of the trail becoming a nightmare for some (snow too soft to ski in the afternoon, moose completely messing the forest trail, etc.). You’ll need to be fit for this, have some winter camping knowledge, be well prepared for all conditions, ideally be a group to switch trail breaking and be able to add extra day(s) if needed.

Voilà ! Hope it helps.
Nicolas Lemieux
April 3, 2018

Our group of five is just back from an Easter trip on the Cottonwood. Here are few notes about the conditions of the trail, from Mush Lake to Kathleen Lake.

Day 1 : The first 7km was an icy crust of multiple snow machine tracks, which wasn’t great both for skiing and the pulks. The next kms were better although we had to put the skins on for the ups and downs in the woods with the pulks. There was open water at the camping spot (Dalton Creek).

Day 2 : The ascent makes you sweat and you can feel the weight of your pulk. There was again open water in the meadows above the first ascent. It could make another place to camp if you feel like putting extra miles/effort on the first day. The alpine is gorgeous and snow was great although there was a strong cold wind facing us. The terrain is curvy in few places so it tends to drag the pulk sideways. As the description states, at some point the summer trail enters into a terrain trap (gully) on your right. The wall can be tall and hazardous. We felt it was safer to stay on the ridge/bank on the left. Keep in mind though to head towards its right at the end where you’ll find a notch which seemed the only safe area to drop down. Although it’s a bit steep for xcountry skis and pulks, it’s safe for avalanches. Some of us went down sideway, some other transitioned to snowshoes. The creek was open and it’s a terrific area to camp.

Day 3 : We followed previous ski tracks which mislead us up high, far from the trail. Once we saw it was entering a gully that felt like another terrain trap, we backed down and headed towards the original trail. After the pass, the downhill section is quite nice although the pulks slowed us down on down semi-flat area and we had to let them go in a steeper section. Snow was starting to get soft in mid afternoon. There was open water at the bottom in the valley. This could potentially make another good place to camp if the bear are not out (see the Park information and camping recommendations). With the detour, it made up for a long day. There was no open water at the camping spot so we melted snow.

Day 4 : The snow was quite soft, even in the morning and even with previous tracks. In addition to that, moose tracks and lots of branches made it an obstacle course for the skis and pulks. It didn’t seem tempting to cut through Louise Lake tough as you would need to bushwalk downhill into lots of snow. Once passed gorgeous Louise Lake, we followed the route on our GPS but other parties seemed to have lost theit way a bit into the creek. While the first markers were easy to find, we didn’t see where it entered the forest but made it through with the GPS. No open water so we had to melt snow again to drink. Kathleen Lake (again amazing views there) was on bare ice and the strong wind was facing us the whole way, so don’t keep your hope too high to sail your way back. Three of us switched to snowshoes to get a better grip on the ice. It took quite a while to finally reach the camping parking. Like kayaking open waters, it feels like you’re not progressing much. Again, it made up for another very long day.

Avalanches
Although the snow seemed stable (no whumfs, no cracks), there were old avalanches in fews places.

Bear & Wildlife
No signs of bear. Annoying moose tracks on Day 4.
Sam V
July 18, 2017

Hello Marc and Laura,

Thank you for your trip report.

I'm looking at more info on the cottonwood trail and would like to get in touch with you. Unfortunatly it doesn't seem to be able to get your contact info from the comment.
Would you be able to contact me at svigier at gmail.com ?

Thank you !

Sam
Marc and Laura
July 2, 2017

Did the Cottonwood trail June 29th to July 2nd (3 nights - 4 days). Started at Mush Lake Road and finished at Kathleen Lake.

The Summer route is quite different than the route used in the winter. You can't rely on the Winter GPS data if you are doing it in the Summer. It is actually 85 KM long and it is highly suggested to get a detailed map and trail information from Parcs Canada before going. They suggest 4-6 days as well for the trail.

Overall, it was a great hike and offered great views!! Especially when you get to the second mountain pass (in the photo) or when you get to Lake Louise / Kathleen area. We didn't really know what to expect at first and thought it would be easy-going hiking after reading the description, but we soon learned that there are many obstacles to overcome if you go in the Summer. Just be prepared!

Throughout the years, I think Cottonwood trail hasn't been really maintained. Most of the trail markers have fallen down. Also, the trail can easily be lost at times. Kilometres 51 to 70 are a bit overgrown. If it's raining or it has rained the previous day, you will be wet in a matter of minutes going around the fallen trees and getting the branches out of your way.

The trail was also washed out in other areas. At the opening on Mush Lake Road, we had to bushwack to find the trail again. This happened a few times where we had to backtrack. After a couple of minutes looking, we would eventually find the trail, be very happy that we found it, and follow it until the next obstacle. There is also a landslide when you are following the shore of Kathleen Lake that you have to go around.

Several creek crossings. The hardest one in our opinion was the first Victoria creek close to Camp 2 (right after you do a sharp left turn). Current was strong and dangerous. We eventually found the safest spot to cross after bushwacking along the creek and we were able to make it to the other side. Water level was upper thigh (if you are 6 ft tall) to waist (if you are shorter).

Victoria creek after Louise Lake on your way to Kathleen Lake was quite high as well. Around the same water level as the first one, but wider. It was very stressful to find a safe spot to cross. I considered just using my air mattress and swimming across the lake to prevent me from crossing the creek that looked more like a river... We ended up running out of options and we didn't want to back-track 60KM so we decided to go for it and made it.

Third challenging creek was Goat creek. Another group on the other side of the creek told us they had attempted it earlier but couldn't do it, but we were starting to get used to these creek crossings and we found a quite easy spot to cross. We were not back-tracking 75KM at this point!! Other than that, you will find about 20 other small creeks. If you don't want to get your boots wet, it would be a good idea to have Crocs or Sandals for these crossings.

The creek crossings and challenges only made us appreciate it more when we had a nice trail to follow. PS we lost one of our hiking sticks in Louise Lake if somebody finds a blue Black Diamond stick somewhere, please let me know!! Good luck and have fun!!!
Anthony DeLorenzo
April 7, 2015

We skied the trail this Easter Weekend. Mixed bag of snow conditions but generally good going. We were skiing with packs but there were two groups behind us towing pulks so there is likely a good trail put in now. Many creeks were open for water sources.

First day was a half day ski and we camped at Dalton Creek not far from treeline. Next day we pushed through the passes and camped in the Cottonwood valley. Day three we had all-time conditions down Cottonwood Creek and through the meadows to Johobo Lake but from there the old mining road was totally bombed out by moose. In hindsight we should have cut down to Louise Lake but we pushed through the road and camped at Victoria Creek which was mostly snow-free. Final day was less than two hours to get to the vehicle, we had a raging tailwind on Kathleen Lake pushing us across the bare ice.

We saw one grizzly bear out roaming around at the top of Dalton Pass, lots of moose sign and countless ptarmigan everywhere.

Parks Canada crews have been working hard on this trail the past couple of years with volunteers from the Contagious Mountain Bike Club to clear the trail, the result is that there are very few deadfall on the cut trails now.
Amy
March 23, 2013

Are there any creeks big enough to be open this time of year?
Anthony
August 28, 2012

We mountain biked this trail on August 25. Generally the trail is in good condition.

Not too grown in through Dalton Pass and down through the Cottonwood valley, wildflowers were spectacular and late! Lupins at the end of August and Fireweed still in full bloom.

Deadfall is becoming an issue on the old mining road. From about km 52 to 78 there are 40-50 trees down that require climbing over/under/around. Also quite a few on the singletrack trail that climbs from Kathleen Lake and eventually joins the King's Throne trail.

We saw an incredible amount of bear scat, tracks and diggings, many of them fresh. Luckily no bear sightings but I sure wouldn't sleep well if I had to camp out there. Make lots of noise and keep your bear spray handy!

Creek crossings were all quite low, the deepest crossings of Victoria Creek were mid-thigh or lower.