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.
My wife, Corrine Leistikow, and I were part-way through 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 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 ourselves by looking north.
At Maclaren Summit we headed north on the Maclaren Summit Trail. Completed 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 is, of course, spectacular. If you travel north on the trail, you have constant views of the Alaska Range. Quite a treat.
Along the way we saw ptarmigan, a swan, 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 shore. 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.
Since 2007, the state Division of Mining, Land and Water has been putting in trails from the Denali Highway to Sevenmile Lake. These replace some old trails that were built in boggy lowlands. Glacier Gap Trail, the first of the new trails to be built, 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 developed Maclaren Summit Trail. Finally, the connector along Sevenmile Lake was finished just last year, making the full loop possible. All the trails were built by Fairbanks-based Happy Trails Inc. — and were designed to be sustainable, which should minimize their maintenance needs.
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 ridable. 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?)
About halfway down toward the lake, the trail meets Glacier Gap Trail, where a very short extension goes down to the shore. This would have been a good place for lunch, but we stopped a little earlier at a spot 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 think 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 to high above the lake. By that time, we were getting pretty tired. Still, as before, the impressive scenery provided a good distraction.
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. Following that, 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.
Eric Troyer is a freelance writer and volunteer living in Fairbanks. He publishes the Interior Trails Newsletter, a free monthly newsletter about trails in interior Alaska. To get on his distribution list email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Denali Highway trails loop tips
This loop would be a fun place to do an overnighter and there are definitely off-trail exploration opportunities in the Amphitheater Mountains. However, a good portion of the trails and mountains are in the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District Special Use Area, where motorized vehicles must stay on the trail.
Bikes and foot traffic are OK for off-trail use, but you are not allowed to disturb any artifacts and should do your best to minimize any impacts to the vegetation. Outside of the special use area, follow the Generally Allowed Uses On State Land, which can be found here: bit.ly/2nBb8GC
The site with the most comprehensive information about the trails is the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District website: bit.ly/2YrKYtg. Check both the “Trails” and “Maps” tabs on the left. (At the time of writing, the connector trail on the shore of Sevenmile Lake isn’t shown.)
Denali Highway offers trails for many users
The Denali Highway has a lot of trails to explore. Most are on the eastern side, toward Paxson. Many are unofficial trails without any kind of signage. Here’s a sampling, starting from the Paxson side, including links to websites with more information.
Tangle Ridge Trail
Hiking trail; about 1 mile, one-way
Trailhead just off the Tangle Lakes Campground access road. Gentle grade to ridge with 360-degree views of the area, including Lower Tangle Lake. Ridge hiking possible beyond.
Landmark Gap Lake Trail
Motorized, multi-use trail; about 3 miles, one-way
Little elevation gain or drop. Ends at the southern end of gorgeous Landmark Gap Lake, a great place to go fishing or wading. (There is a side trail there, but please don’t follow it, as it leads to a sensitive archeological area.)
Osar Lake Trail
Motorized, multi-use trail; 7.2 miles, one-way
Trailhead just across the highway from the Maclaren Summit Trail. Osar Lake Trail is usually dry and is recommended for hiking, mountain bikes and ATVs. August and September bring heavy concentrations of hunters.
Alpine Lake Trail
Mile 68, behind Alpine Creek Lodge
Hiking trail; about 4 miles, one-way
Leads to a string of three alpine lakes and a broad pass after 4 miles or so. Ask at the lodge for directions. The lodge also offers hiking tours of several other trails in the area.
Brushkana Campground Trail
Hiking trail; about 3 miles, one way
Starts from campground and provides a scenic overlook of Brushkana Creek and the Alaska Range.
Jack River Trail
Motorized, multi-use trail; about 5 miles, one-way
Provides access to the Jack River Valley. The first two miles of trail cross private land on an easement, so stay on the trail in that area. The trail dead-ends after just a few miles, so it’s good for a short trip or to provide access for hikers and backpackers wanting access to the mountains. Popular with hunters in the fall.