Following 10 years of planning, public input, fundraising and construction, the Mastodon Trail was completed in early October. This nonmotorized 13.5-mile trail provides access to Nugget Creek Cabin and will eventually connect to a 40-mile network of trails in the nonmotorized portion of the Chena River State Recreation Area.
“It’s nice to finally get it done,” said Alaska State Parks Northern Area Office Superintendent Brooks Ludwig. “The neat thing is this is the first nonmotorized trail that we’ve built mechanically. Now that we’ve got it all smooth and finished, it’ll grow in and become a really nice single-track trail.”
The building, however, wasn’t easy. Ludwig said trails typically take one or two years — the Mastodon Trail, construction on which began in 2013, took the longest to complete of any that the office has renovated.
“This has been one of the toughest trails we’ve ever worked on,” Ludwig said.
The origins of the trail can be found in the 2006 Chena River State Recreation Area Management Plan, which recommended that trail access to the existing Nugget Creek cabin be improved and directed the Northern Office to work with user groups and individuals to expand winter trails opportunities and a cabin system for nonmotorized users.
In 2010 Northern Area State Parks conducted a formal public involvement process and, according to Ludwig, garnered “overwhelming support” for what became the Mastodon Trail.
The Chena River State Recreation Area stretches across nearly 400 square miles and, based on vehicle counts, sees roughly 150,000 visitors who camp, hike, kayak, canoe and fish there every year.
Prior to the construction of the Mastodon Trail, the Nugget Creek Cabin was considered an “under-utilized asset.” To access the cabin by foot, visitors had to take the Mist Creek Trail, which required fording the Chena River and then hiking through 5.5 miles of rugged, poorly marked trail. Back then, park managers recommended that “only hardy, experienced adventurers attempt the trip” according to a 2010 National Parks Service newsletter.
After a roughly 10-mile route was flagged out, Ludwig said the state Legislature appropriated $250,000 to kickstart the project. Ultimately the price tag ended up around $438,000, or about $32,000 per mile. The rest of the funds came from the federal Recreational Trail Grant Program.
“That’s one of the more expensive trails we’ve built,” Ludwig said, though he added, “It sounds like a lot, but federal government trails cost like $60,000 per mile.”
Construction of the trail, however, was heavily stymied. The contractor for the project, Jon Underwood, owner of Happy Trails Inc., described the process as “fairly difficult.” The hurdles that were thrown at him and his three-man crew, however, make that sound like an understatement.
“It was a difficult trail in a number of ways. It had two major creek crossings and a minor one,” he said. “And there were a series of misfortunes that befell it. There was a fire that burned near there in 2013-14 and we had to move all of our equipment back because of that. The next time we tried to work on it, we have an unusually rainy summer and it was extremely wet.”
Underwood said it was one of the most remote trails he’s worked on, which led his crew to put up a spike camp around 8.5 miles into the trail and work from there for most of the project. The work was supposed to be completed last year, but winter came early, delaying work further. Then this year, the Nugget Creek Fire descended on the trail.
“It burned the entire last 9 miles of the trail and created interlocked deadfall pretty much completely over the last 4-5 miles of the trail,” Underwood said. “We literally cut our way through that with chainsaws. It took us five weeks to cut all the way through it.”
The fire not only left trees littered across the intended path, it also melted all the surveying flags marking the path of the trail. While Underwood was clambering over deadfall to re-mark the route, he noticed that the ground was wet, mossy and riddled with permafrost — less than ideal for nonmotorized trail use. That resulted in a rerouting exercise that extended the trail a couple of miles on higher ground with better soils.
“It’s been difficult, but the trail is fantastic and people are going to really enjoy it,” Underwood said. “It’s longer and more remote than most I’ve worked on. It’s got long, long sections in it that have really nice views, especially if the weather is clear, you can see all the way out to the Alaska Range.”
Underwood said the trail is conducive to mountain-biking because, while there’s a bit of a climb, the gradients are gentle.
“It should make a great packrafting route, because you can go in there with your packraft, stay in the cabin and then put in at the South Fork of the Chena and go out,” Underwood said. “I really encourage people to go give it a try. Because of the fire, the views are really good and it’s really pleasant to walk and a fun trail to bicycle on. It should be great in winter and summer.”
Ludwig, too, is pleased with the trail’s completion.
“This was the longest we’ve ever worked on a trail. This was abnormally long, we just ran into so many different complications,” he said, before rhapsodizing on the finished product. “Next summer, the morel mushrooms are going to be coming up like crazy and the fireweed … the views from the trail are like nonstop.”
The Mastodon trailhead is at 38.6 mile of Chena Hot Springs Road. While the Mastodon Trail is nonmotorized, winter motorized access to the Nugget Creek Cabin is allowed from the Southfork Trailhead at 31.4 mile Chena Hot Springs Road. Once the river freezes, visitors can snowmachine the South Fork Trail to the cabin.
Ludwig said that the plan for the Mastodon is still to link it to other trails in the area.
“You can link it off the ridge to the Granite Tors Trail,” he said. “It’ll be kind of a trail-hopping opportunity out there.”
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.