The Golden Circle Bike Tour


The Golden Circle - Haines to Skagway 

Total Stats: 360 miles, ~16,700 ft of climbing (20k according to ridewithgps), 3.5 days 

Self-supported, solo, female carrying bear spray and an iron will. 

Bears: 2

Ran out of Water: 0 but some close calls 

One of the best bike trips I've ever done. Without realizing it, I've been training for a long time for a trip like this. 


What prep? I came to Juneau without plans to do any sort of long riding or touring. I had my commuter bike shoes, no GPS unit, and (gasp) didn't bring a bicycle. I found out about this route - The Golden Circle, from Haines to Skagway by accident and then once the seed was planted on Monday... it was an emotional rollercoaster until I left on Friday (!) 

2 countries, 2 provinces, 1 state, and a whole lot of mountains

First off to make this happen, I needed a bike and camping gear. I had some camping gear and bike gear (i.e. sleeping bag and helmet) but not enough to do this trip. I quickly realized credit card camping wasn't a viable option -- it's 150 miles between Haines and Haines Junction and there's literally nothing in between. No gas stations and, well, there's a couple of like mountain retreat lodges but they are like $400 a night spas. I would have to carry everything -- water, food, shelter, etc. 

Fortunately, Sockeye Cycles has a self-supported rental option -- you start in either Haines or Skagway, can rent everything you need from there, and then you bike your little heart out to their sister store. One check done! 

But then I started actually talking to people about the trip, and locals gave me a head's up that there were, like, grizzlies up where I would be biking. Like, lots of them, like, next to a grizzly presevere with the largest population of grizzlies in the world. And it was really remote, like no back up options and you'll see a car every 30 minutes, maybe. The refrain I kept hearing was "You're going alone? Huh. Braver than me". Uh oh. 

I vacillated a billion times between Monday and Friday whether or not to do this trip. I like to think I am brave and strong but not stupid,  I stayed up late reading blog posts (this is my favorite one about the trip). Literally all of the dozens of blogs I read every single one of them wrote about 1-2 bear encounters, some people getting charged, etc. Most people did this trip supported or in groups, I would definitely be an anomaly solo. 

There are 3 reasons I ended up doing this trip -- 

One, I called Sockeye Cycles at least 3 times to ask about things and begged the store manager / my part-time therapist if he knew anyone who had done this route (he hadn't done it himself). Being an extremely kind and patient soul, Ted asked his friend Nora, who had done it solo and self-supported, if she'd talk to me and she agreed. 

Bless Nora, who is local to Haines and calmed me down by telling me about her (comedy of errors) trip. She didn't bring a tent and slept in a ditch her first night and was swarmed by mosquitoes, etc. She also told me that they call grizzlies "brownies" in this area because they aren't as aggressive -- they are well fed on berries and salmon, and I was going at the perfect time of year when the salmon were running. We talked for 30 minutes and she, my heroine I've never met, took me from nervous to excited for the trip. 

The second reason, as per usual, was Daniel Perry. When I expressed uncertainty, he immediately pinged back what's become our code word for this situation "WWLD" -- "what would Lael do?" and the answer is, always, Lael would ride her bike. While I'm no Lael, WWLD always bolsters me and reminds me that you never get to live life to the fullest unless you try. And you have to leap to try. 

The third was that the weather was forecasted to be perfect. Sunny, clear, a little hot but with 60% tailwind. You can't say no to conditions like that for 4 days in the Yukon.

Let's go for it!!!

Day 1 - Haines to An Avalanche Hut in the Middle of Nowhere, 63 miles 

In true bike commuter fashion, I started at Juneau at 5:45 AM biking from Jamee's house to the ferry terminal in Auke Bay where I caught the Juneau to Haines ferry that takes 4.5 hours. I made friends about 2 hours into the ride, who were from Haines. They were so intrigued / concerned / baffled by me as a person in general ("do you have a job?" "you're doing this alone? do you not have friends?" "you got your PhD in how many years?") but we shared many laughs ("why are you doing this?" "because my internal wiring is broken?" "well, that's obvious but we still like you"). In my first bit of poor planning, they informed me the Haines ferry terminal was 5 miles from the bike shop, so they offered me a ride to the bike shop -- my first (and only!) hitch hike on the trip. 

The beginning at Juneau

Ted did an amazing job getting the gear and bike ready to go for me, so after packing everything in, buying more snacks in town and fuel+a spork, I was off at about 1:30 PM into a lovely tailwind going up the river. My bike was ridiculously heavy, like I couldn't lift it at all. I think the bear box + some unnecessary overpacking on my end (i.e. a second jersey. What was I thinking?!) + just the extent of the supplies needed (i.e. bear spray, 3L+ of water, tools, etc.) took my bike well over 50 pounds. 

It was easy riding to start - clear, almost car free, and through a bald eagle preserve. I stopped at mile 33 at a Roadhouse for fries and water (I was low on water and hot, figuring an early stop wasn't going to hurt me while they were available. I was not wrong.)

Flat, empty roads with a tail wind. Ah, the dream.

At about mile 50 and 5ish PM, I arrived at the Canadian border. Having only minimally prepared and not having a GPS unit for navigation (I used my watch to track the ride), I didn't know how much climbing I had left in a day or even where I was relative to other locations. I only had signs (and granted, there are only 3 turns in the entire route Haines-Haines Junction-Whitehorse-Carcross-Skagway). Anyways, I arrived at the border to 3 badass young female border agents who, while maintaining a serious demeanor, expressed that they were simultaneously impressed-confused-concerned for me. Our conversation went like this: 

Border Agent 1: "Are you alone?" 
Me: "Yes" 
Border Agent 1: "Why?" 
Me: "I don't plan well" 
Border Agent 2: "Do you know where you're staying tonight?" 
Me: "Not really" 
Border Agent 3: "you know there is literally nothing ahead, right?" 
Me: "... a campground? Million dollar falls?" 
- they look at each other - 
Border Agent 1: "So that is like 60 km away. There are some avalanche huts before then. One of them is quite luxe - it even has a couch. You should stay there. The bears won't eat you then." 
Me: (O.O)
Border Agent 2: "Can we give you some water?" 
Me: "yes!" 
Me (again): "Hey, is the climbing almost done? This is the pass, right?" 
- they look at each other again - 
Border Agent 3: "No... you, uh, have a ways to go"

Oh Canada! Hello British Columbia! 

Yeah, so, they weren't wrong. The climbing started from there, and it was savage. Steep, hot, and completely draining. The views were incredible, but I was sweating so much I was drenched - I could tell I was low on electrolytes and there wasn't anything I could do but continue. 

At least the views were amazing

Around 7ish PM, I summited the pass. There's no sign. And you're not really done with the climbing, you just start going down more than you go up. At first I figured I'd leverage the midnight sun and ride through the night to the campground at mile 100, but as the sun started to dip below the mountains, I realized this wasn't a good idea. I was fried from that climb and I was clearly in grizzly country with temps cooling and chance of bears increasing... so I started looking for the alleged luxe avalanche hut. 

Second-class avalanche hut accomodations 

Home sweet home 

I found a hut at ~mile 63. This certainly didn't look like a luxury hut. I opened up the door, and yeah, it was gross. Spider webs, bugs, and evidence of mice everywhere. I closed the door - 3 options: 

1. camp near a circle of RVs I had just passed. Pros: a wagon circle. Cons: RVs are protected from bears. I am not in a tent, and my food would still be outside albeit in the bear box. 
2. continue to search for the luxury hut with a couch (spoiler: it was about 15 miles up the road) 
3. don't pass up a gift hut when you find one

I opted for 3, choosing mice and spiders over bears and holding out for better. It was the right gamble, I unloaded the bike, went in, didn't make dinner, killed about 20 mosquitoes and 3 spiders, unrolled my sleeping bag, and fell asleep immediately. This has taken years of camping and nasty sleeping situations to literally be so out of f***s that I can just... pass out. 

Day 2: Avalanche Hut to Haines Junction, 86 miles

I woke up in the state you might imagine I'd be in -- out of electrolytes, hungry, and dehydrated and mostly out of water. Fortunately as I was starting to prep and put things away, I heard a truck roll up to park next to my hut and use the outhouse (my outhouse!) behind my hut. I waited till he was done, popped out, and accosted the friendly trucker for water "hey, do you by chance have any water?". 

Good Morning Canada 

Everyone loves the solo female cyclist in grizzly country, so of course, trucker Andy gave me water and let me refill all my bottles. We talked for a bit - he was from Whitehorse and camping with his family about a mile away. I told him I'd see him later, and when he looked surprised, I reminded him "dude, I'm going to be biking to Whitehorse the next two days, you'll see me driving home" and he laughed. 

With that, I made breakfast and was off by 7 AM. 

The biking that morning was unbelievably beautiful - rugged mountains in misty clouds as the temperatures were cool and crisp. But also, nervewracking as I started to see more and more bear scat on the road. 

At one point, I was climbing a hill when I saw a SUV spotted me and pulled to the side of the road. Must be a bear ahead. I kept slowly climbing towards the SUV as a man popped out with his telephoto lens and started taking photos of me. He didn't just take a few, he took like 30, laying down in the road to get a better angle, etc (I was climbing very slowly, bike was heavy!). When I reached him, I smiled and said "yes, I am part of the wildlife". 

He then informed me I was crazy being alone -- "don't you know there are bears?" I asked him if he had seen any that morning and he said 1 and several hours ago. Ok no immediate bear then. After a few more photos (no, I did not give him my contact info, I was just part of the wild life for him), I kept rolling. 

It is kind of larger than life!

The bear scat increased in frequency - it was literally all over the road. Bears not just used the road here, they straight up lived on it. I counted at least 30 bear scat and I knew, knew, a bear was in my future today. I started playing my music on speaker so I wouldn't surprise the bears (bikes are quiet!) and singing along. I kept going, passing the luxury hut (damn! It did look nice!) and eventually passing the campground that I was "aiming" to make it to the night before at mile 30 for the day (it was a nice campground!). No bears...

Sweet Campground views! 

I climbed to the top of yet another of a billion hills, and I decided it was lunch time at a view point. I was, again, low on water, and started to make lunch with the last of it when two RVs pulled up. GOLDMINE! I quickly befriended them (from Calgary, Alberta -- my favorite province!) and then asked for water. They did hesitate for a moment since they were low themselves, but being Canadian and looking at the salt stains on my shirt, they gave me 3 liters :)

They also, more importantly, warned me that there was a grizzly ahead on the side of the road, about 10k up. Non-aggressive, but ... a bear. 


They weren't wrong. At about 10k, there was ... a brownish lump crossing the road. I immediately stopped my bike. I had just finished a memoir by an Olympic distance runner a few weeks before, and she talked a lot about mental training -- visualizing situations and fears before they happen and working through them in your mind. I had mental trained for this moment a hundred times by reading all those blog posts and then picturing what I was do - what if the bear stood on it's hind legs and growled? charged me? Attacked me? 

It paid off in a big way. My heart rate didn't even spike as I saw this teen bear foraging on the side of the road. A motorcycle went by and he stood up to get a better look - ok, so he's curious about bikes, I'll stay here. He knew I was there, but didn't care too much, only occasionally glancing at me. I waited about 10 minutes there, watching up as he drifted in and out of the road. He was cute and I could tell non-aggressive, but I needed to be smart. 

Finally, 3 cars from the other direction appeared and stopped upon seeing the bear. They did not give a rat's ass about me, unprotected cyclist, as they stopped about 150 yards away and got out of their cars to take photos of the bear. The bear didn't seem to care, so I started walking toward them, bike on bear side, and they all (people included) didn't notice me much. As I passed the cars, I got back on the bike and started rolling, slowly.

Then the bear noticed me. He perked up but didn't chase. I noted that biking = potential prey animal for bears. This one was curious about me rolling and the motorcycle from earlier, but didn't care about the cars or people walking. 

Lake country 

Anyways, I continued, feeling pretty smug about my first (and positive) bear encounter. The bear scat frequency started diminishing as I transitioned into lake country. A incoming car pulled over again when they saw me, and I figured here we go again, bear. But as I rolled up to them, they were a couple from Whitehorse that just wanted to say hi and express how amazing it was that I was doing this route alone (I know, I'm great). I did not beg water off of them (still had 2L!) but we had a great conversation. 

storm blowing in

As I approached Haines Junction (food! water!) a storm started to blow in, and it began downpouring as I descended into Haines Junction (Left: Fairbanks, 600 miles. Right: Whitehorse, 100 miles). Without much hesitation, I went to several hotels looking for a vacancy, found one (!), and went and showered - washing two days of salt, sweat, and deet off my body (I haven't mentioned the mosquitoes because some traumas don't need to be relived). The hotel I stayed at was also a burger/chinese fusion restaurant (?) so I had a veggie burger (unexpected surprise), fries + spring rolls, and passed out around 5:30 PM. 

Day 3: Haines Junction to Whitehorse, 109 miles 

I started late the next day at 7 AM (again, bears... they don't like heat and are most active in the morning/evening when it's cooler), kicking the day off with breakfast at the Village Bakery in Haines Junction which Jamee, the guys on the ferry, and pretty much everyone I talked to said was incredible. It WAS! I had a sticky bun, coffee, and took an amazing veggie breakfast burrito to go (sooo good later as a pocket burrito).

I made friends with two motorcyclists from Ohio who (A) thought I was nuts to be cycling it (B) asked if I was a trust funder (how can you do this?). I told them I would love to be a trust-funder - do they know of any rich men looking to support someone who just wants to ride their bike all the time? I also finally learned how to concisely describe my job to random strangers ("I am an engineering manager"). 

I heard from everyone how great this bakery was and it did not disappoint

This day was the least exciting view wise and was still pretty incredible. It is long and straight and unfortunately had a massive gravel section (like 5 miles?) interspersed in there because the Yukon apparently likes to tear up their roads and let them sit for several months before they do construction ( :| ). 

Overall, it was a pretty straightforward day. I didn't see a lot of bear scat, so I just kind of checked out and biked away, thinking about life and just enjoying the experience for what it was. Occasionally some large flies would attack me and ruin my life (note: Yukon flies can maintain speeds of 15 mph indefinitely. I kid you not). I got really good at killing flies ninja style - I didn't even need to look. 

Around 4 PM, I made it into Whitehorse -- 100 miles! I ate at an amazing sushi restaurant, drank about 6 liters of water (they gave me 3 pitchers) and my eyes were bigger than my stomach so I put extra in a to-go box and put it in my bear box (LOL - Michael Boyer I hope you read this, I know you'll find that hilarious). I still felt good, so I continued on another 10 miles to Wolf Creek Campground outside of Whitehorse.

Hey, there was room for my to-go box... 

Tragedy struck - unfortunately the campground was totally full and the next one was 30 miles away. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, I did what I do best and begged RVers for help. It only took one ask "do you mind if I just camp behind your RV? It's just me and I'm quiet and I'll be gone in the morning?" and I got a yes :) 

A night of actual camping 

They were an interesting couple - they lived and worked in Whitehorse but lived at campgrounds and he commuted by e-bike to work. He said that in the Yukon, an annual camping permit was $100/year -- what a great deal. I would totally live in a campground if that was the case in Michigan! Being Canadian (re: inherently extremely kind and generous people) they offered me a steak dinner, but I was actually full from the sushi and ready to pass out. 

Day 4: Whitehorse to Skagway, 101 miles 

I woke up and my new best friends had already left for work (at 6 AM!). I prepped breakfast and started breaking down the tent. Just as I thought "hmm I should grab the bear spray and keep it in my pocket, 10 feet away is too far when you need it", I picked up the bear spray, looked up, and there was a bear about 100 feet away! 

What a cutie! But campground bears are sad :( 

Again, my mental training prepared me well and my heart rate remained level - I quickly realized he was a black bear foraging for easy food around the campground and was skittish. I called out to him "hey bear" and he went off towards other RVs and I continued to pack away my tent (yes the bear spray stayed in pocket). 

Before long, I was rolling. I wanted to get to Skagway by 3 PM, but little did I know that this was going to be my biggest climbing day, covering several large hills/mini mountains to White Pass.  

I was a bit nervous again in the morning, bear senses tingling. I was in a remote forested area and the temperatures were cool after two hot days. If I was a bear, I'd definitely be roaming around that morning. About 20 miles in, a white Suburu that had passed me a few minutes before started coming back from around a corner towards me. Then they did a u-turn and rolled down their window as I approached.
Me: "so there's a bear ahead huh?" 
Him: [startled, but, sidebar, very cute]
His dog: [barking erratically]
Me: "yep, a bear" 
Him: "I just saw a grizzly chasing a black bear and there was a grizzly cub behind them" 
Me: "Mmm. That sounds pretty bad" 
Him: "I figured I would come back and make sure you got across ok" 
Me: "I always love an escort, that would be absolutely fantastic, thank you" 
So we rolled at 10 mph together for ~1 mile, and he pointed out where the chase scene had happened (his dog even barked in the direction he pointed a few times). We talked - his name was Brayden, he was going fishing in Skagway and lived in Whitehorse. He was a cyclist too, and we talked about my trip so far. When we parted was, he told me he'd see me in Skagway later (spoiler: I did not see him in Skagway later D: ). 

The rest of the ride was uneventful, just the way I like it. It's funny, on this trip I optimized for things I usually try to avoid -- maximum traffic, heat of day riding, lack of exciting things. There was plenty of adventure already baked in! 

Emerald Lake

First photo of me and rental bike, Phillippe 9

At about 11 AM, I made it to Carcross, which is a kitschy but beautiful town on a lake nestled between the mountains. I was craving coffee pretty badly, and lo-and-behold, the universe provided a lovely coffee shop and I ate my goldfish, crackers, and refilled water supplies.

 A mountie asked me if anyway had been giving me trouble and I told him no, my experience had been delightful and even the bears had been polite. We talked for a bit - he was a cyclist too (!) and, in a genuine and wonderful way, just wanted me to have as great of a trip as possible. I told him the Yukon had represented well. 

From there, the rough part of my day started. I mean, it was unbelievably gorgeous and probably the prettiest part of the trip, which I didn't think it was possible to beat what I had already seen. BUT, it was brutally hot and exposed. I climbed slow, drank my water, and just as I was about to throw a fit, I stopped and made lunch on the side of the road and collected water from a stream. 

I didn't bring a water filter, but I did have iodine tablets. If I were to redo this trip, while begging for water from RVers worked out just fine, I think a water filter would have been a better idea. I just didn't want to drink iodine water the whole time (yuck). 


So I climbed and climbed and internally raged for hours. The mosquitoes were so bad on the climbs I just said f it and covered myself in deet. But I persevered on, not really having a lot of other choices (several people I had talked to about this trip had bailed on this section... I now understand why). Eventually I made it to Alaska, there was one more cruel little climb, and then a long and fast descent down to Skagway. I took almost no photos of this part of the trip, savoring the descent as all mine -- hard earned and won. 

In Skagway, I returned my rental setup to Sockeye Cycles just as they were closing up. Jamee then let me know she was on her way to pick me up (I know, I'm spoiled, my friend comes to pick me up in the end of the trip by PLANE). 

Since it was the 4th of July, the Skagway airport was closed so I had to hop a fence to get to Jamee and the plane. We hugged, I smelled, and Jamee did a quick inventory of me "omg you have a lot of bites, what's wrong with your hands (heat rash), and you're bleeding? and you're covered in salt, omg it's on your shorts and backpack". 

Me: [smiles] 


So yes, an unbelievable trip. I always say "live to train, train to live" and I feel like this trip was the culmination of a million experiences I've put myself out there for that made me stronger and better equipped to handle such a ride. This is not a trip for everyone, especially if you want to do it in 3.5 days. I kept beating myself up mentally for how slow I was, but when I finished and looked back, considering all the gear I had, etc. I did great. Those were all big days, and I got through them with a smile and my humanity intact. 

Even more, I'm proud of myself for going outside my comfort zone and doing this trip. Yes, a lot could have gone wrong, but I prepared myself well, made smart choices, erred on the side of caution, and had the fitness to make it all happen. I would do this again, and I probably will do things like it again. What an incredible ride.

One more photo - a picture of the artwork I bought at Sea-Tac at the start of my Juneau trip and I looked at every night while trying to decide whether to do this trip 

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