Fat tires in Alaska’s White Mountains
[by Matt and Agnes Hage]
Even though fat tire snow bikes have become increasingly popular in Alaska, their cartoonish proportions still garner quizzical looks from the locals. The six of us had created an impressive yard sale while gearing up for a week-long tour at the Wickersham Dome Trailhead. A handful of Carhartt-clad dog mushers watched in amusement as they hooked up their teams. The pups were also distracted as we put together the puzzle of frame, seat and handle bar bags that would carry our supplies (including four bottles of various spirits and a box of wine) on our ride. With everyone eventually in the saddle, we rolled onto the skinny trail that headed into the scraggly forest of black spruce. Before us was a white ribbon of packed firm snow, three feet wide, that cut across the rolling hills to the horizon. Before week’s end, we would close a 100-mile loop back to this spot. Rather than the primo singletrack we all seek out, this was crisp snowtrack.
Located 30 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska on the Elliott Highway, the one-million acre White Mountains National Recreation Area is a multi-use Nirvana. The Bureau of Land Management maintains over 200 miles of winter trails that are open to sled dogs, snowmachines, bikers and skiers. The trail network also connects a dozen log cabins available to the public on a reservation system. Each has its own character and is completely outfitted for winter: Coleman two-burner, wood stove; lantern; table; bunks; fire extinguisher; axe and a saw. Firewood sits neatly stacked along the outside. Without the burden of winter camping gear, we cruise along the snowmachine-groomed trails at a good clip. Having these wood-heated huts is key to doing multi-day trips in Alaska’s Interior where it routinely gets down to -40 degrees or colder at night.
Our tour utilized five of the cabins, going as far out as the Windy Gap Cabin, about 50 miles from our starting point. Our team settled into a routine of late starts after a hearty breakfast, about four hours of riding and reaching our next cabin just in time for “happy hour” where we’d take in the late afternoon sunset. Ours was more of a pleasure cruise than a hardcore expedition. Our longest day was the 23-mile ride up and over Cache Mountain Divide (3,285 feet) which involved some pushing on the bikes on the steeper sections. We also endured one day of negotiating extensive overflow on Fossil Creek. Overflow ice builds up while trapping frigid ground water in between breakable layers. Step in the wrong spot, and you’re guaranteed to get a boot full of ice water. Not ideal when your still 10 miles from the cabin.
There were some wet feet that day when we arrived at the Borealis-LeFevre Cabin for our final night of the tour. Thankfully our crew was working like a well-tuned machine by this point in the trip. Within minutes there was a fire roaring in the wood stove and a round of hot drinks being handed out. The aurora borealis turned on just after dinner for a spectacular finale. With a warm cabin at hand, it’s easy to stand out in the frigid night to watch the colors dance across the sky. There’s little to no artificial light pollution in the Whites, and the extreme cold makes the night air razor sharp. This makes it one of the best spots in Alaska to sip whiskey and watch the northern lights.
It’s also one of the best places on the planet to snow bike.
Based in Anchorage, Matt and Agnes Hage shoot for a variety of outdoor brands around the world. They’d like to thank Speedway Cycles, Revelate Designs and Adventure Appetites for making this adventure in the Arctic possible. hagephoto.com
IF YOU GO:
White Mountains National Recreation Area is run by the US Bureau of Land Management and best traveled during the winter months. The BLM maintains three trailheads to provide access to 12 public recreation cabins that are connected by extensive trail systems. Trailheads for the Wickersham Creek Trail and the Colorado Creek Trail are at Steese Highway mileposts 28 and 57, respectively. The McKay Creek Trail is accessed from Steese Highway milepost 42.5. The average distance between cabins is approximately 10 miles. Permits range from $20 to $25 per night and are required in advance.
Check on cabin availability as the White Mountains area has suffered from wildfires over the past years resulting in the loss of cabins. To find more about permits, cabin locations and trail conditions visit the BLM’s website: blm.gov/ak/whitemountains.