Hiking the Interior: Wickersham Dome and Upper Grapefruit Rocks

This weekend we were very domestic: cleaning, grocery shopping, watching football, etc, but we did manage to squeeze in two really great hikes. One of the fabulous things about living in central Alaska is the close proximity to everything outdoors. Nature and wildlife are literally in our backyard. I even saw bear scat on a bike trail in town during my run a few weeks ago. There are six different hiking/backpacking areas in and around Fairbanks giving us a wide range of choices for day hiking and overnight trips. But you do have to keep in mind that for Alaskans distance takes on a different meaning. So saying all the hikes are “close” for an Alaskan is really different than my definition. For example, on our shuttle ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks the driver was telling us about a restaurant that serves the best hamburgers in the interior. She told us that it was close to Fairbanks and a great place to get a burger on Sunday. The restaurant is an hour from Fairbanks. Scale in a place this big is just different. People see no problem with driving to Valdez (7 hours one-way) on Saturday and coming back Sunday. Big space is a part of life.

So when one of Lucas’ co-workers said that Wickersham Dome was close, we had a better understanding of what that might mean. The trail head turned out to be about an hour north of Fairbanks in the White Mountain Range. We read about Wickersham Dome in our trusty book, Outside in the Interior: An Adventure Guide For Central Alaska. The dome can be seen from Summit Trail which continues on for over 20 miles. We decided to hike up to the dome and back, about 7 miles round trip. The fall colors are starting to fade that far north, but the views were still spectacular. The trail takes you up into the alpine after less than a half mile and you can see back to Fairbanks as well as out towards the Brooks Range. After being up on the ridge for a while, we descended down into a wet spruce forest. The trail was washed out on both sides leaving a humped, hard-mud trail. The range of vegetation and weather was staggering. Up in the alpine it was cool with strong winds but down in the forest it was warm and wet. In the alpine, vegetation is limited to ground cover, while the forest is home to spruce and low bushes. The trail climbs again after a mile or so and leads towards the dome. The dome itself is rather unimpressive. It is a large mound with communication satellites on it, but just past it (about a half mile) are two sets of rock outcroppings that are awesome. From here we could see several hundred miles in every direction. On three sides we could see mountains, one set snow capped. The view north looked out over the Brooks Range and the Dalton Highway. I am repeatedly amazed at how far you can see and that it is almost all uninhabited. The only human developments we could see were the highway, the pipeline, and one tiny pump station. I could sit on those rocks looking out at the mountains for a long time, even with the wind. As always, I am reminded of how big and wild Alaska really is.

After getting back to our car, we drove 10 more miles north to upper Grapefruit Rocks. According to our guidebook, this area is a hot bed for rock climbers, but we didn’t see any, in fact, we had the mountain to ourselves. From the highway you can see the sheer rock faces jutting out, but until you are standing underneath them it is hard to tell how big they are. The trail up to Grapefruit rock was  legs-burning,  heavy-breathing steep. But the views were great. At the top we stopped at three of the giant rock formations. They got bigger the further up the mountain we got. The middle one had a low backside that we could climb up (no ropes required). From the top you could see Wickersham Dome and the Brooks Range. It was late afternoon, and the sun was lower on the horizon adding a soft light to the scene. It was beautiful.

It is exciting to know we have lots more Alaskan hiking in our future!

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