Friday, July 26, 2019

New Denali Highway Trails Create a Loop of Spectacular Scenery (plus more Denali Highway fun)

This story ran in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Corrine bikes up a hill as we leave the Sevenmile Lake valley.
By Eric Troyer

As we biked to the top of the little rise, the view of the Sevenmile Lake valley spread out before us. Gorgeous!

But it didn’t take our breath away. We had already been biking through miles of stunning scenery. You know it’s a good trip when spectacular scenery just becomes part of, well, the scenery.

Lupine were a treat along the Maclaren Summit Trail.
My wife, Corrine Leistikow, and I were in the middle of biking a great new trail/road loop on the Denali Highway. The loop is about 27 miles long with about 6 miles of that on the Denali Highway. None of it has boring views.

We started at the Glacier Gap Trailhead (Mile 30.5, Denali Highway) and biked the highway to the Maclaren Summit Trailhead (Mile 36.7, Denali Highway). That portion of the highway has expansive views of the Amphitheater Mountains to the north and the many lakes lying between the mountains and the road. The highway is gravel there but has little traffic, so dust wasn’t a problem despite the sunny day. We did have to expend some effort, as the biking was generally uphill, but it was easy to distract yourself by looking north.

Corrine biking the Denali Highway with the Amphitheater Mountains in the background.
At Maclaren Summit we headed north on the Maclaren Summit Trail. Finished in 2015, the trail winds along a wide bench past numerous lakes. It has a lot of ups and downs, but nothing overly long or steep. The trail is rocky in a few places, but a lot of it is fairly smooth. And the scenery, of course, is spectacular. If you travel north on the trail you have constant views of the Alaska Range. Quite a treat.

The Maclaren Summit Trail passes numerous lakes. 
Along the way we saw ptarmigan, a swan, and golden plovers (including some plover chicks) and lots of wildflowers. Anyone not interested in doing the whole loop, should consider doing this trail as an out-and-back. It’s the easiest section of trail and well worth the effort.

When we reached the rise overlooking Sevenmile Lake, we started descending toward the lake. An extension of the trail does go all the way to the lake, but we followed a connector that runs along the southern shore of the lake. This is the newest section of trail in the loop.

Descending toward Sevenmile Lake is a visual treat.
Since 2007 the state Division of Mining, Land and Water has been putting in trails from the Denali Highway to Sevenmile Lake. The trails replace some old trails that were built in boggy lowlands. Glacier Gap Trail, the first built of the new trails, starts from the highway, crosses Rock Creek, goes past Glacier Gap Lake and then through the Amphitheater Mountains to Sevenmile Lake. A side trail reaches down to Glacier Gap Lake. The division then put in Maclaren Summit Trail. Finally, the connector along Sevenmile Lake was finished just last year, making the loop possible. All the trails were built by Fairbanks-based Happy Trails, Inc, and designed to be sustainable, which should minimize their maintenance.

As motorized, multi-use trails, they are open to many uses, including biking, hiking, and ATVs. However, they weren’t busy when we biked the loop on a sunny weekend in late June. We saw just two mountain bikers, and two groups on ATVs, one group of four and one of two.

The connector trail along Sevenmile Lake is more challenging than the Maclaren Summit Trail. Sections of the connector trail are quite rocky and have several short, steep hills. And you can’t avoid getting wet feet while crossing the stream that comes out of Houseblock Valley. Still, most of it was rideable. And beautiful, of course. How could it not be? Sevenmile Lake sits at the base of the Alaska Range. What a treat! (Did I say that already?)

The creek coming out of Houseblock Valley was about knee-deep and cold!
About halfway down the lake the trail meets Glacier Gap Trail, where a very short extension goes down to the lake. This would have been a good place for a lunch, but we stopped a little earlier with a higher view of the lake.

The Glacier Gap Trail goes through a valley that grows steeper the farther south you go. The trail here can be really rocky in places, and we often walked our bikes, but the scenery was—you guessed it—outstanding!  And just as we began to realize that the views weren’t as expansive as they had been, we came around a corner to see Glacier Gap Lake before us. We had more stream crossings through that section, and then the trail climbs the hillside high above the lake. By that time, we were getting pretty tired. Still, as before, the impressive scenery provided a good distraction.

Corrine pedals through Glacier Gap toward Glacier Gap Lake. 
Then we were finally rewarded with some long downhills. We had fun swooping down the winding trail toward Rock Creek. That stream crossing is the longest—about 150 feet or so—but it’s only thigh deep at most and the current isn’t strong. Then it was just another quarter-mile or so to the trailhead and our car.

The loop, with a lunch break, took us about 5 hours and 40 minutes. I had my full suspension bike and was glad for it in places, but Corrine rode her hardtail and did fine. We were both tuckered out at the end, but content from indulging in so much remarkable scenery.

After crossing Rock Creek, Corrine climbs a hill less than a mile from the Glacier Gap Trailhead. 
A GPS track of our ride. 

Other things we did while on the Denali Highway

Corrine spent Saturday biking a long section of the Denali Highway.
(See the smoke in the background? Lots of that in Fairbanks at the time. We avoided most of that on the Denali.)

She saw wildlife along the way.

And, of course, gorgeous scenery.

While Corrine biked on the highway, Eric biked to Landmark Gap Lake.
And did some hiking on a ridge along Upper Tangle Lake...

...and on a ridge along Lower Tangle Lake.

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