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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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.


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.


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Comments / Trip Reports

Have you been to Cottonwood Trail lately?

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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 ?

Thank you !

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.
March 23, 2013

Are there any creeks big enough to be open this time of year?
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.