Sunday, September 5, 2021

2021 Summer Trails Challenge in 36 hours

Post by Corrine

We came around a corner and saw another long puddle that filled Quartz Creek Trail. Eric looked at it and shrugged his shoulders. 

“I’m just going to bike through it,” he said. 

In just a few feet, though, he was splashing through every pedal rotation as the puddle was at least a couple of feet deep. 

My feet were still dry, so I decided to walk my bike around the puddle, which required a bushwhack through dwarf birch and around black spruce. 

“We should just leave our bikes here and hike,” I argued. 

“But the trail might get better,” Eric said. “Let’s try a little farther.” 

The trail never did get better. If it wasn’t puddles, it was sections filled with huge rocks. And my feet eventually got wet. 

Why were we putting ourselves through this misery? To do the Fairbanks Summer Trails Challenge! The sign on the Quartz Creek Trail was the second-to-last sign we had to get. We weren’t going to give up on it! Fortunately, the sign was “only” 6 miles in on the trail, which is 17 miles long. We were so happy to finally see the sign. We took a selfie, ate a snack, and then turned around for another 6 miles of puddles, rock gardens, and hike-a-bike steep sections. Well, I guess it is called a trails “challenge.” 

The Trails Challenge

On the Flicker Trail at Tanana Lakes Recreation Area

Each year, the Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Department puts on a summer and winter trails challenge. Parks employees put up signs on trails in the Interior, and the goal is to take a selfie at each sign and post it on social media. If you get a minimum number of signs, you get a “Trailblazer Award” and are eligible for prizes. (Here’s a link to the Trails Challenge page:

On the Sunnyside Trail at Birch Hill.

The challenge is a great way to get people outside and has been hugely successful with more people taking on the challenge each year. We’ve been on most of the trails in the Interior, so we try to take the challenge to another level. The last couple of years we have done all the trails in one day (though we did miss the one last winter). Were we ready to do that again? 

Early in the summer, we were either too busy on weekends or I was tapering for a race, or the weather was not conducive to being out all day, so it didn’t seem like our Trails Challenge was going to happen. I never even got around to registering us. 

Between Sunnyside and Relay Loop trails at Birch Hill

Last Minute Decision for Some Craziness

Fast forward to Labor Day weekend. I had four days off and we wanted to do something bigger than a couple of day hikes. Except the weather wasn’t cooperating. The whole state was going to be rainy. North or south of the Alaska range didn’t seem to matter, none of it was looking promising. The best weather seemed to be nearer to Fairbanks. We threw out some suggestions to each other. Pinnell? Mt. Healy? What about the Trails Challenge over two days? We decided to see what the weather was like Friday morning, my first day off. 

On  the Wickersham Creek Trail

I woke at 7 AM and the local weather forecast was pretty good. I said to Eric, “Let’s do the Trails Challenge.” He, of course, said yes. Luckily, I had printed the Trails Guide earlier, just in case. I looked at the list of trails while eating breakfast to figure out the most efficient order to do them. Eric tried to find a little intel online about some of the signs. We quickly threw some clothes and snacks in the car, and we were out the door by 8:30 AM. I am usually way more methodical about planning our adventures, but what the heck. The sun was shining, and daylight was burning.

On the Ester Dome Single Track

The Challenge of This Challenge

We’ve done the Trails Challenge in a Day before, but we knew this one would be tougher to complete than in past years. This Trails Challenge required more miles on trails and more driving than in the past. And we usually do the Trails Challenge in a Day around solstice, so we had less daylight in early September. But on the upside, there would be no bugs! 

On the Eagle Trail at Tanana Lakes

We started with the closer trails and then saved the ones further out until the end. We got to 17 of the 20 trails by midnight on Friday. The last three were farther out the Elliott and the Steese highways north of town. We didn’t want to bike or hike them in the dark (the point of the challenge is to see the trails) but did we want to sleep in our car? We hadn’t packed sleeping bags or pads and didn’t have a lot of warm clothes. We also needed gas, and everything was closed until morning. Also, after finishing the Chena Dome Trail and driving back to the Steese Highway, we were only seven miles from home. We decided to go home and sleep until it got light. So, not quite a Trails Challenge in a Day, but still a big challenge. 

Hiking down the Chena Dome Trail in the dark at 11 PM

We got to bed at 1:30 AM and set the alarm for 6 AM. After four-and-a-half hours of sleep and 30 minutes to eat breakfast, we were back out the door. We thought we would be done by early afternoon, but we had to drive a lot to get to the final three trails and they took longer than expected, especially Quartz Creek Trail. But we managed to finish and be back home by 8 PM, just under 36 hours of when we started.

Climbing down from Tabletop Mountain

We were tired and dirty but satisfied. We had biked 68 miles, hiked 10 miles, and climbed over 12,000 feet. We had driven 400 miles to reach all the trailheads. Our actual time on the trails was 18.5 hours. And we had great weather! We got sprinkled on the first afternoon and had a brief shower on day two, but mostly it was warm (45-65F) and partly sunny. The fall colors were prime in the higher country. It was a great way to spend a couple of days in the Interior.

On the Quartz Creek Trail

The Trail Ratings

We decided to rate the trails by superlatives. You will have to check out the trails yourself to see if you agree with our assessments.

Easiest Trail: Chena River bike path in town. 

Flat, paved, and along the river. I ride part of this bike path every time I commute to work.

Hardest Trail: Quartz Creek Trail

By far, this was the most challenging trail to do on a bike. Steep, rocky and with lots of puddles and water. Lots of hike-a-bike. I think there was maybe a total of one mile that wasn’t extremely challenging to bike. The rocky areas were relentless. Glad our bikes held up!

Rootiest Trail: Secret Trail

I thought this would be the most difficult trail for me, but Quartz Creek was even harder. Eric loves riding downhill on bumpy, rooty trails. Me, not so much. Luckily, the trail is only about a mile long.

Most Fun Trail: Chena Lake Gravel Bike Path

This category was hard to decide, and Eric and I debated it for a time since all the trails are fun. But we chose this one for two reasons. First, neither of us had ever been on this bike path. Much of it meanders next to the lake and along a slough. It’s flat and easy and wide enough to bike and chat. Second, we did some extra miles going further down a gravel access road all the way to the Chena River to a small dam. Not sure why the dam is there. To keep the Chena River out of the slough and the lake? We love exploring and finding new areas. 

Not really sure why this dam was built here

Eric having fun on this fun trail

Most Surprising Trail: Beaver Springs Nature Trail

Neither of us had been on this trail before. Eric had heard of it but knew little about it. The trail is short, but we were happily surprised at one point to look up and see Santa Claus’s rear end! Part of this trail runs along a slough behind the Santa Claus House and the huge statue of Santa.

Most Directionally Challenging Trail: Chena River Loop Trail

Last summer, when we were supposed to do a different trail in the Chena River Park area, we ended up doing this loop twice before we realized we were on the wrong trail. This year, we started down the Nature Trail before realizing it was the wrong trail. We figured it out and found the River Loop Trail and the Trails Challenge sign. Then we continued the loop, but we accidentally started around the loop again before realizing our mistake. We are usually not that directionally challenged. We just can’t seem to get our directions right on the River Park trails! 

Shortest Trail: Cranberry Trail

This trail is in our backyard. We only walked 1/4 mile to get to the trail sign by a side trail. The whole trail is 3 miles, but we felt no need to do that for the Trails Challenge. We’ve done it lots of times already. 

Our first trail sign of the day right near home

Longest Trail: By distance, Compeau Trail. By time, Quartz Creek Trail. 

The Compeau Trail is 23 miles round trip to the sign, but we were able to do it in 3 hours. In comparison, the Quartz Creek Trail is only 12 miles round trip, but it took us over 4 hours to do.

Eric having fun on the Compeau Trail

Finally almost to the trail sign on the Quartz Creek Trail

Most Scenic Trail: Quartz Creek Trail

Although this trail was challenging, it was by far the most scenic. A lot of the trail is above tree line with expansive views of the mountains all around. And this weekend, the fall colors were at their peak. It was stunningly beautiful. We highly recommend this trail, although we would recommend hiking unless you like challenging mountain biking terrain. It’s motorized so you can also take an ATV. 

Favorite Trail: Compeau Trail

Love, love, love this trail. Lots of climbing but on good grades that are very bikeable. And then wonderful, swoopy downhills that even I can almost just let loose on. The trail itself is in great shape with minimal rocks, mud, and ruts. And beautiful vistas through the trees, up high where the trail opens up. 

Best Animal Sighting: Skarland 9 Mile Loop

We saw several animals: a porcupine on Compeau, sheep on Quartz Creek, a loon and osprey on Chena Lake, and a moose and fox while driving. But the best animal sighting was the musk ox at the Musk Ox Farm. He was right up next to the fence where we parked. He kept grunting and walking back and forth while messing with the cables with his horns. He was so close we could smell him. I was glad for the double fence! Usually, the musk oxen are way off in the distance, so it was fun to see one up close. 

The Trails Challenge is a great way to find out about and experience local trails. Every time we do the challenge, we feel thankful for living in such an amazing area. 

One more of the Quartz Creek Trail because it was so beautiful

Our Past Trails Challenge in a Day Write Ups

Summer 2020:

Winter 2020:

Summer 2019:

P.S. During our four-hour nap in the middle of our 2021 Trails Challenge, Eric had a strange dream. It was about the Mellick Effect, which is the observed phenomenon that studies about how competitive trails challenges affect the behavior of competitors in said challenges. Unfortunately, the alarm rang before Eric could read the conclusion of the study. 


  1. That looked like a lot of fun, and an amazing weekend adventure. A great time of year to do it, with the colors and lack of bugs. Really loved the description and photos!

    1. It was great fun except a few minutes on the Quartz Creek Trail! I think this might be a better time to do the trails except for less daylight.

  2. Wow- what a way to finish out the summer! You two are inspiring! I have seen those signs on some trails but never tried the Challenge yet...might be something in our future. Thanks for the trail character descriptions too. Kudos!

    1. You should definitely nab some signs next summer. And there's still time this year. You have until September 30!