Exploring the Dempster Highway – hiking Lil Creek Canyon

We had a short day available at the Tombstone Mountain Campground on Day 8 of this RV trip – Tuesday, July 31st. We had to leave by about 2:00 pm to get Cathy to the Dawson airport, but that gave me just enough time for another short hike, down into the Lil Creek Canyon just north of the campground.

I left the campground just after 10:30, and my first stop was just 2 kilometers up the Dempster Highway, at the Tombstone Range viewpoint, Km 74.0.

Tombstone Range viewpoint, Km 74.0 of the Dempster Highway
I climbed up above the viewpoint for most of the photos I shot there. The next photo looks back to the south – the campground is in the centre.

The view to the south from the Tombstone Range viewpoint, Km 74.0 of the Dempster Highway
The next photo is a fairly radical HDR image of the scene at the Tombstone viewpoint, making it look rather like a painting.

A fairly radical HDR image of the scene at the Tombstone viewpoint
The next photo looks to the north over Lil Creek Canyon, from about Km 75.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
Going back 20-30 years when I was fairly regularly running tours up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, Lil Creek was a common stop of interest in my early-season tours, as deep ice forms on the upstream side of the highway (seen in the next photo), and the ice canyons that form in the spring were a unique attraction for many of my guests.

Lil Creek - Dempster Highway, Yukon
The view down Lil Creek from the highway.

Lil Creek - Dempster Highway, Yukon
All along the edge of the highway at the Lil Creek crossing were the distinctive tracks of caribou.

Caribou track at Lil Creek - Dempster Highway, Yukon
The next photo shows a caribou leg at the Tombstone Interpretive Centre. You can see the structure that makes the tracks so distinctive. The ankle also makes a distinctive “click” when the caribou walks.


At 11:00, I was down on the creek bed. The large lower culvert handles the normal flow of Lil Creek, while the smaller, higher one takes the water flowing over the ice buildup each spring.

Culverts on Lil Creek - Dempster Highway, Yukon
Just downstream from the highway, an unnamed creek about the same size as Lil Creek enters from the north.

Unnamed creek flowing into Lil Creek - Dempster Highway, Yukon
At the flow levels during my hike, the two creeks took quite a distance to fully join.

Lil Creek - Dempster Highway, Yukon
This was definitely a hike for water shoes – crossing the many creek channels and even walking down them wasn’t optional.

Keen sport sandals on a Yukon creek crossing
After finding the previous day that all of the usual ice on the North Klondike River had melted, I had no expectation of finding any on Lil Creek, but soon encountered a few small accumulations of it.

Ice Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
I thought that encountering caribou and grizzly were fairly strong possibilities in the canyon, and a can of bear spray was in a pocket right at my right hand.

Hiking in Lil Creek Canyon in July - Dempster Highway, Yukon
According to the Yukon Bedrock Geology map, this section of Lil Creek cuts through the Road River group which is comprised of black shale and chert, dolomitic siltstone, calcareous shale, and buff platy limestone. It formed during the Ordovician period about 488 million years ago, when this area was covered by a warm, shallow sea.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
The canyon gets particularly interesting when you reach two faults and intrusions of the older Narchilla formation, comprised of interbedded maroon and apple-green slate, siltstone, sandstone. This formation formed during the Ediacaran period about 550 million years ago.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
The colours in the rocks of the second Narchilla-formation intrusion are even more dramatic and richer.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
Now that I’m home and can do some research, I really want to hike the canyon with a geologist. While I can get the basics, there are no doubt some fascinating stories in those layers.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
Just thirty minutes from when I first got my feet wet with Lil Creek water, I had almost reached the point where I had decided before starting that I would stop.

Hiking Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
Once thick vegetation reduced the sight-lines to a few meters, it was time to focus on the area upstream for the short time I had available. The view beyond was intriguing, though – next time! 🙂

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
The maroon sandstone here had a great deal of variety. Some layers were cardboard-thin, and the entire layer had grey-blue sandstone intruding in many places.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
It amazes me that some plants can gain a foothold in places like this, with no perceptible soil and an extremely harsh climate.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
The next photo shows a broader view of the grey-blue and maroon sandstone together.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
A closer look.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
And there’s some lovely design work by Mother Nature.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
At 11:40, I began walking back up the creek.

Hiking Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
I got distracted by more photo ops, though. Here’s the maroon sandstone part of the wall of Lil Creek Canyon, as seen with a Lensball.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
I wondered what this would look like on a wet day, so splashed some water on the sandstone. A day with light rain might have some pretty amazing photographic possibilities.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
There are some large granite boulders that don’t fit into the geology narrative that I have so far, which is entirely sedimentary.

Hiking Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
Almost back to the car, at 12:10. That hour and 10 minutes had proved to be even more interesting than I had expected. I wonder how many other people think about what this creek is like up close as they drive by…

Lil Creek - Dempster Highway, Yukon
Back on the highway, this view into Lil Creek made more sense to me. Below the area of vegetation where I stopped, there’s another colourful intrusion that will make a longer hike worthwhile, perhaps next year during my drive to Tuktoyaktuk.

Lil Creek Canyon - Dempster Highway, Yukon
I had just enough time left for a quick look at the Tombstone Interpretive Centre, to see if there was anything new. There wasn’t, but I re-read many of the panels.


The Friends of Dempster Country had set up a “lemonade stand” in the interpretive centre. One was iced Labrador tea, and the other was infused water with fireweed and yarrow. I hadn’t brought any money with me, so can’t tell you what either tasted like.


Back at the campground, it was a little after 2:00 pm by the time we had lunch and got ready to go. That got us to the Dawson airport in good time for Cathy’s flight back to Whitehorse. Unfortunately her plane was again delayed (for an hour this time, they said), but it was too hot to wait and I wanted to get to Moose Creek Lodge for dinner, so I headed south at 4:20.





Comments

Exploring the Dempster Highway – hiking Lil Creek Canyon — 8 Comments

  1. hi murray
    several years ago i hiked from the road down lil creek and back to the campground. i didn’t have the geological information you had. still it was and interesting hike and no bears. of course no possibility of dry feet.

  2. Hi Murray
    A number of years ago we, my son-in-law Matt Clarke and I hiked Lil Canyon also from the highway back to the campground.Being a geologist I can testify to the interesting features in the canyon rocks i.e. the real nice section of turbidites (rocks deposited by mass sediment plumes for instance on continental slopes) with all its characteristics.Very interesting were the sole marks of the turbidites an example of which I deposited at the Interpretive Centre. A few years later it was still there with some comments by the late Charlie Roots.

    • Thanks for your comment, Hein. Turbidites were talked about during one of our hikes during Geology Week at Tombstone last year, but I don’t recall seeing an example – I need to go back to the interpretive center and see what I should be looking for.

  3. It amazes me how many people go to places and only see the surface rather than really seeing things like you saw. We could go to a national park and spend two weeks and not see near all we want to see and a lot of people would just drive thru it in a day.

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