Alaska seems to be one of the last few places in North America where the folks really appreciate winter.
Alaskans aren’t huddled in their homes, whining and complaining and cursing the great blanket of white that covers this vast expanse of rugged wilderness. The bone-chilling cold doesn’t seem to phase them. They don’t board up the house and head south for the winter.
They embrace winter. Nowhere is this more evident than in and around Fairbanks where some of the hardiest folks on the planet call home. The people here celebrate winter—both motorized and non-motorized (feet-powered and dog-powered). Those tough-as-nails Fairbanksans don’t subscribe to Charles Dickens’ “winter of despair” line in the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities. Far from it, in fact.
Winter is a season of celebration and we found there might not be any better way to join in this festival atmosphere than on the back of a snowmobile. Yea, we’re a little biased about the snowmobile mode, but a snowmachine is really your only hope of covering and seeing even a smidgeon of the terrain around Fairbanks.
Gateway To The Interior
Fairbanks is the gateway to the Arctic and Interior Alaska—and to some of the best (and most popular) riding the Last Frontier has to offer.
During our trip to Interior Alaska, we rode places many other Alaskans like to ride which have become well known not only in Alaska sledding circles but across the snowbelt. We rode Cantwell, southwest of Fairbanks, and Summit, southeast of the city. And, since we had a few hours before having to jet out of town on our last day, we rode the rivers in and near the city.
It’s nice to ride snowmachining spots that live up to the hype. The only disappointing part of our trip was when we had to board the plane headed south.
You can ride just about anywhere around Fairbanks and to points in all directions—except a few select spots such as military installations, much of Denali National Park and a handful of others. And you can snowmachine right out of the city (sleds are allowed along city streets), as we did on our last day when we rode the rivers. Despite this glut of riding opportunities, many sledders choose from the three main riding areas out of Fairbanks. We mentioned two--Cantwell, a two-and-a-half-hour drive south on the Parks Highway and Summit, a two-and-a- half-hour drive southeast on the Richardson Highway. The third is the White Mountains, about a 30-minute drive north on the Steese Highway. Because of the White Mountains’ close proximity to Fairbanks, it is a popular riding area. We’ll get to the Whites later.
Climbing In Cantwell
Our first day of snowmachining was spent in Cantwell. That was good and bad. Good because the riding was everything a true boondocker/backcountry rider wants in a sledding trip. Bad, because we were sure that nothing else was going to be able to measure up to this stellar riding spot. And, to top it all off, we found out later that we didn’t even get to the real good stuff because it was socked in. Still, we managed to have a great day of riding all the untracked snow and challenging terrain, you know, because we had to.
Cantwell is a pretty broad description of the area we rode. The name possibly comes from a small town (pop. 222) about 10 miles from where we parked at Mile 196 on the Parks Highway. We parked in the Broad Pass (elevation 2,800 feet) area, a popular area for snowmachiners, partly because this spot is just about midway between Anchorage and Fairbanks and is fairly easy to drive to. There is lots of parking along the highway on both sides in this area.
We headed east off the highway with our sleds pointed toward Caribou Pass through a huge, fairly wide valley with mountains jutting up on both sides. You’ll notice dozens, possibly more, waterways in the area, some of which have open water and others with snow bridges where we were able to cross as we rode up into the Caribou Pass area. We rode in April so the waterways were beginning to open up. These waterways aren’t a big concern earlier in the season. Just use a little common sense and you’ll be able to get around.
The Middle Fork of the Chulitna River is the major drainage in the valley we rode but it’s the towering mountains that provide the scenery and riding variety. This is real terrain, you know, the kind where the contour intervals showing elevation on a topo map are very tight. And it didn’t take long to ride out of the trees as we gained elevation towards the powder fields that dominate here. The number of trees isn’t like a West Yellowstone or Island Park per se. They are more spread out in the Cantwell area and we did ride the trees for awhile, dipping in and out of small drainages and up and over smaller hills. But once we got above the treeline, it was obvious we could ride for miles and miles and never cross our tracks twice—or see another sled for that matter. Our turnaround point was up near the headwaters of the Susitna River, which helps drain Interior Alaska into the Pacific Ocean.
Mountains on the east side of the Parks Highway in the Cantwell area top out at about 5,500 feet—around 2,000 feet above the valley floor. That kind of elevation might not sound challenging enough for some but sit at the bottom of any these mountains in this part of the Alaska Range and it will look like someone put a wall of snow, ice and rock in front of you. That’s what’s going to appeal to the horsepower junkies who love to point and shoot. It’s as challenging as you’ve got nerve and the horsepower to back it up.
Remember the real good riding we mentioned previously? Our guide Greg Shaffer told us (and backed up by several locals we talked to) the real good riding was west of the Parks Highway toward Denali National Park. Places like Bull River Valley and Foggy Pass (along with some others we swore an oath not to divulge) are some of the locals’ favorite sledding spots but you definitely would not want to venture into these areas without someone who knows the terrain. It’s important to note that snowmobiling is not allowed in much of Denali National Park but you can ride in some places. You have to know before you go.
The avalanche danger in Cantwell is higher than, say, the Summit Lake area because the mountains around Cantwell are steeper and longer. Don’t just take your avalanche gear with you, know how to use it. The mountains on the east side of the highway top out at about 6,000 feet and the riding/scenery could include several glaciers.
Reaching The Summit
Our next destination was the Summit Lake area, home of the famous Arctic Man, a combination ski/snowmachine race that attracts 10,000 spectators every April. We rode Summit a few days before the race and there was already a buzz of activity taking place in preparation for the incoming throng.
The drive from Fairbanks to Summit on the Richardson Highway is like all the best national scenic highways you’ve ever been on rolled into one. The snow-draped mountains go on forever in most directions and the canyon south of Delta Junction is very cool and scenic. It is along this stretch that you get an eyeful of the Black Rapids Glacier off to the west of the highway. A good part of the drive is also along the Delta River, a massive waterway where we saw moose feeding in the river bottoms. Another feature you’ll easily be able to see from the highway is the Alaska Pipeline, which stretches 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Mile 216 is a good spot to stop and read the interpretive signs about the 48-inch pipeline, which is above ground along this stretch of the Richardson.
We continued south and then turned off the highway at Mile 197 and parked at the end of an access road. From there we shot right up to the mountains. From where we parked you could see the Gulkana Glacier, just one of many glaciers in the Summit area, including the College and Gakona glaciers, which you can get close to and ride, being sure you watch for crevasses.
The spectacular scenery in the Summit area consists of mountains, snow and ice. On a clear day you can see the huge peaks—including 16,237-foot Mt. Sanford—in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park which is miles away. Closer to the Summit area mountains include Mount Gakona, a 9,700-foot peak surrounded by a sea of glacier ice. Riding elevations here are similar to Cantwell—Summit Lake sits at 3,210 feet with the riding up to between 5,000-6,000 feet.
Because of the terrain and lack of trees in the Summit area, you can’t say we were tree running. It was more like ravine running or drainage running. We’d fly down one side of a ravine or drainage and power up the other, hitting wind drifts and fresh, untracked snow. There is no limit to where you can ride and we did just about every imaginable kind of snowmachining you could—except tree running and trail riding (no trails here).
We also went to the starting point of the Arctic Man, affectionately known as the Tit. From there we rode the entire course, through the ravines and flats to the finish line, trying to imagine and visualize along the way how on earth they made that corner at the speeds they race.
Near the Tit is a mountain face the locals call Courage. Shoot up that and you’ll find out just how much you do or don’t have. Also near the Tit is the Gakona Glacier, which is known by local snowmachiners as the toilet bowl, we’re presuming because of the way the toe of the glacier swirls near its end.
We decided to do some serious boondocking and took off toward the Gakona River (fed directly from the Gakona Glacier) Valley, picking our way through the mounds of snow and hunks of glacier ice. Most riders stay closer to the Richardson Highway and the surrounding mountains but it was an adventure to explore an area that probably doesn’t see many sleds.
Snowmachiners ride both sides of the Richardson Highway and Summit Lake, from which the area takes its name, is on the west side. We stayed on the east side.
Summit Lake is an area that just doesn’t release you like some other places we’ve ridden. On our way to the truck at the end of the day we kept stopping to shoot up this ravine or climb this mountain or bust powder in this drainage. We’d say, “Okay, it’s time to go head out,” but then would find another untouched spot that we couldn’t resist. Summit is kind of like Lake Powell. Just like Lake Powell has probably hundreds of secluded coves, Summit has so many ravines and fingers reaching into the mountains that you might never be able to touch the snow in all of them.
Snow—or the lack thereof—isn’t really even an issue, what with 8-10 feet of snow falling every winter in Cantwell and Summit. One definition of the word Alaska that we heard states it means an “object toward which the action of the sea is directed.” No, we have a better definition. We think Alaska means snow.
Closer To Fairbanks
As was mentioned, closer to Fairbanks are the White Mountains and the White Mountains National Recreation Area, a one million-acre playground that has a winter trail system with 200 miles of maintained trails. Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the trails travel through scenic limestone mountains with jagged cliffs and peaks, connecting to 12 remote public use cabins. According to the BLM, the log cabins are rustic, but have bunkbeds, tables and benches, a cooking area with Coleman style cook stove and lantern, a wood stove for warming the cabin and, of course, “the quintessential Alaska outhouse.” Cabins must be reserved in advance through the BLM Fairbanks District Office.
Not wanting to miss any snowmachining opportunity, we also took a spin on the Tanana River our last day in Fairbanks. The Tanana River, which runs along the south side of Fairbanks, is a very braided waterway that is banked by a thick forest on both sides. We rode past the confluence of the Chena and Tanana rivers (which, of course, was covered by several inches of ice and snow) and then headed south on the Tanana to the Tanana Flats, a huge expanse that eventually butts up against the Alaska Range. A real adventure would be to ride the Tanana to the Yukon River and then on to the Bering Sea. That would be a trip.
We have two regrets during our trip to Fairbanks. First, we didn’t get to see Aurora Borealis because of the cloud cover (snow actually). Second, we missed the ice sculpture thingy which we hear is spectacular. We saw some remnants of a few of the sculptures but they don’t do justice to the real thing.
We’re definitely up for another trip to Fairbanks and Alaska’s Interior. When you experience the kind of snowmachining offered there you’ll understand why those hardy Alaskans embrace winter.