I live in a staycation paradise. My house is a few miles outside the city limits of Fairbanks, right at the foot of Ester Dome, with both summer and winter mountain biking trails less than a half mile away in several directions, and countless miles of trails accessible beyond those. The hills just outside of Fairbanks are crisscrossed by dozens of trails, and as a mountain biker, I’ve always savored my luck at having such opportunities right out my door or a short drive or bike ride away. But never before the outbreak of COVID-19 and its accompanying restrictions on our activities have I appreciated it as much as I do now.
As Alaska went into quarantine in March, both Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, told Alaskans to get outdoors. Both recognized that staying indoors looking at the walls (or worse, social media) is not conducive to good mental health under the best of circumstances, much less during a time of medical and economic uncertainty. And countless studies have shown that physically active people tend to have stronger immune systems than those who are idle.
It’s something I’ve known for decades. When I’m getting outside moving my body on a daily basis, I’m far less inclined to let life’s daily frustrations become more than blips on the radar. Having a mountain bike and trails to play on has helped me remain generally upbeat these past few months. And as Alaskans look around the state for quick getaways, mountain biking opportunities in the Interior beckon.
Fairbanks mountain bikers are blessed with many miles of non-motorized trails very close to town, and visitors should make the effort at exploring some of them. Ester Dome is one of the hot spots. The Ester Dome Single Track provides over ten miles of trail that can be accessed from a parking lot on Ester Dome Road, as well as a couple of discreet entry points elsewhere. There are two intersecting loops as well as some short but very fun side routes sprinkled along the way.
The Dome offers plenty of other options. Double track multi-use trails are scattered about. The most scenic stretch of the Equinox Marathon Trail provides several miles of gentle but fast downhill riding. And smaller, less noticeable pathways wander off in many directions.
Along the hills north of the city, cyclists can find a broad network of non-motorized trails. They begin on the west end on the campus of the University of Alaska and stretch all the way to Skyline Ridge above the east end of Farmers Loop Road. Skyline Ridge is a borough park that has a main trail and several twisty single tracks (look for the popular Secret Trail which is marked by a sign reading, “To Secret Trail”). From these riders can jump to the Skarland Ski Trail system and onward into the University trails for dozens of miles.
Birch Hill, another borough park on the northeast edge of Fairbanks, is also popular with summer riders. The main trails are broad and not too steep, allowing for easy climbing and fast descents. The park extends onto Fort Wainwright, with some of the best single track trails in Fairbanks on base. Riders and walkers are free to use them, but the Army requires they carry personal identification.
Further out, lots of trails wind through the hills overlooking Goldstream Valley. And the Chena River State Recreation Area and White Mountains National Recreation Area have many miles of multiple use trails.
Fairbanks has fewer bears than the Anchorage basin, and most of them black bears. I’ve only once flushed one out in a quarter century of riding trails. I carry bear spray regardless. Also rain gear. It’s sunnier here than south of the Alaska Range, but thunderstorms can occur quite suddenly. I’ve headed out on many eighty degree days without a cloud in the sky, and come home soaked. There’s no devil’s club, but lots of mosquitoes. And with our smaller population, the trails are quieter than around Anchorage, but sometimes not as well maintained.
Most evenings since breakup I’ve been hitting the trails on Ester Dome, accompanied by my dog Loki, on what’s become a nightly staycation activity. Canine enthusiasm always doubles the fun of being out on a trail. For well-loved dogs, the quarantine has quite possibly been the best thing ever. And thanks to my dog and my mountain bike, it hasn’t been unpleasant for me either.
TrailMapper (http://trailmapper.org/) is a local site where maps and information on all the trails in the Fairbanks North Star Borough master plan can be found. Click on the Launch button at the top of the page. Lots of smaller trails not shown zigzag through the hills. Some cross private property, so be sure to respect no trespassing signs. All trails in the Fairbanks area are free to use.