Stampede Trail Hike (Into the Sort-Of Wild)

I made good on the promise I made in yesterday’s blog post. Today I hiked the Stampede Trail in Alaska’s interior.

First, some background. Samara is here in Fairbanks for training, and I just decided to come along with her so that we could spend some time together outside of Dillingham. We arrived in Fairbanks a few days early and did some shopping along with various touristy activities. When I asked people what we should do in Fairbanks, more than a few folks thought it would be a good idea to drive the couple hours down to Denali National Park and do some hiking. Samara and I had actually planned to do that, but she ended up getting sick on Tuesday. It just didn’t seem like such a good idea to take a really long drive when she wasn’t feeling well.

There isn’t a bookstore in Dillingham, so we picked up a lot of new books when we first arrived in Fairbanks. One of the ones I picked out was Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. This is a true story about a young man from a good family, Chris McCandless, who took up a vagabond lifestyle, traveling around the United States. His ultimate destination was Alaska, where he ended up in Fairbanks. From there, he traveled down to a road outside Denali National Park called Stampede Trail. This road was built by mining companies in the 1960s. It’s a 50 mile road to nowhere, and about halfway down this road is an old city bus that was put out there to provide shelter for the miners using the road. Chris went out to the old bus alone and tried to live off the land. He arrived in the spring, and by the beginning of fall, his body was found by some moose hunters. He had starved to death, despite apparent success in hunting small game and gathering local roots and berries.

The book contained a map of the area.

The road on the right side is the highway to Denali National Park. Stampede Trail (now known as Stampede Road) goes west from the road, just north of Healy. Some important landmarks to note on the map are Eightmile Lake and the line indicating the end of the maintained road. There are a few rivers that cross the trail, and none have bridges. The abandoned bus is about 10 to 15 miles off the end of the maintained road.

I didn’t honestly think I would make it all the way to the bus, but I figured that if I drove down there to do a little hiking, that it might be an interesting experience. So when Samara went to training at 8am this morning, I got in the car and drove down to the Stampede Trail. It’s a two hour drive, and I had to be back around 5pm, so that only left a couple hours for hiking each direction (in and out) of the trail.

It was a beautiful drive down towards Denali.

As I got closer, I could see the mountains in the distance.

In about 2 hours, I reached Stampede Road.

Stampede is paved for the first few miles. I noted my odometer and figured I’d make it about 10 miles in before I had to park and walk the rest of the trail. The paving actually gave out after 4 miles or so, right after a little hippie commune/bed & breakfast called Earthsong. After that, it was all river-rock gravel.

It’s beautiful country. Of course, I only made it to about the eight mile mark before the maintained road ended. (You could probably guess that based on the name Eightmile Lake on the map.) It went quickly from a two-car-wide gravel road to a single-car gravel road with large potholes filled with water. I stopped at a little pull-off right before the road went to a single-car width and parked.

It was definitely a good choice to stop there. As you can see, our white rental car is not a four-wheel drive monster. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t even supposed to take it off the paved road, but considering how many gravel parking lots there are in downtown Fairbanks, I don’t feel too bad about going down Stampede Road as far as I did.

You can see my equipment leaning against the car, there. Here’s a closer picture.

The backpack was on sale at Sierra Trading and it’s a great bag. Samara bought me the carabiner and carabiner-handled coffee cup that you see clipped on. I have a filtration water bottle and regular water bottle packed inside, along with lunch, a change of clothes and a jacket. The shotgun is a single-shot H&R 12 gauge. I packed buckshot and slugs for bear protection. That might seem a little silly to those of you sitting in your living rooms in the lower 48, but I was hiking alone in an area where brown bears (grizzlies) and black bears are both abundant. (In fact, that’s what a lot of people go to Denali to see.) When Samara told someone at her conference today that I was hiking Stampede Trail, they expressed concern about bears. That made me feel even better that I made the investment in a shotgun. (Which, by the way, was an amazingly good deal. Just over $100 for a gun that provides bear protection, and I can also take it duck or grouse hunting in Dillingham.)

At this point, it was a little after 11am, and I started down the trail.

As you can see, it was very muddy. I had to dodge around some pretty big puddles, some of which took up the entire trail. It was fairly easy hiking, though. I had almost expected the road to simply end and have to pick my way through the overgrowth. I was worried about actually being able to follow the old trail. I needn’t have worried. If I’d had four-wheel drive or an ATV, I could have driven the entire route I took.

The scenery was, obviously, very pretty.

There were rolling hills and mountains to see at first, but before long, there was a lot of brush on either side of the trail. That’s when I started seeing small game.

See it? How about a little closer…

I’m no expert, but I believe this is a spruce grouse. It was skittish enough to run away if I approached too quickly or too closely. Nevertheless, I got within five feet of one of these guys. I should think it would be easy to take these guys with a shotgun using birdshot, or even a .22 rifle. They’re the size of a small chicken, so they should have a decent amount of meat.

One thing I noticed as I was walking along was that some of the trees seemed to have a fair amount of missing bark. My educated guess is that the moose were eating the bark before the plantlife around here starting greening up.

As I came down the backside of a hill, I started to get a nice view of the hills off to my left.

There was a creek running beside the trail as well.

I didn’t see any actual beavers, but I did notice some beaver activity. This tree appeared to have been downed by a beaver.

There was plenty of evidence of human activity on this trail, but this tree clearly wasn’t chopped with a hatchet or axe.

Speaking of evidence of humans, I wasn’t the only one on the trail. After I’d gone a little ways, a guy came down the trail behind me on a mountain bike. He surprised me, to be honest. He stopped and chatted for a minute. He had just moved up to Healy and was going to see how far down the trail he could bike. We discussed the relative merits of a shotgun versus pepper spray for bears. While I’ll spoil the end now and tell you that I didn’t see any bears (or any large game at all), I’d still rather have a shotgun in hand than pepper spray in my backpack if I were to come across a large brown bear.

The other evidence of human activity on the trail was the ATV tracks that followed the entire course and the fire pits that I stumbled across somewhat regularly. There was also evidence that folks liked to camp down this trail. Someone had taken a home-made pickup camper and dropped it off into the woods.

It was just twenty yards off the trail, across a small creek.

As I went on down the trail, I saw plenty more small game, such as this hare.

I saw a few of these. Just as in Dillingham, they’re turning from winter white to summer brown. They were skittish, but only if I approached quickly. The other small game I saw were a couple of squirrels. I’m used to eastern gray squirrels. These guys were brown, and they were pissed off that I was in their territory. Both squirrels I saw chittered at me loudly and stood their ground until I was very close.

I ran across another makeshift campsite.

I don’t know what this area was like when Chris McCandless walked in here in the early 1990s, but it’s hardly the most remote area of the Alaska bush any more. I guess it probably wasn’t that remote when he was here either. That’s one reason it’s so sad that he starved just 30 miles or less from a main highway.

After a bit, I started to run into places where the streams and creeks crossed the trail.

I don’t know if any of these bits of water were the ones marked on the map. In all honesty, since I didn’t reach the bus or any other definite landmark before turning back, I have no way of knowing how far I hiked. I did hike for 2 hours in, so assuming an average speed of 1.5 to 2 miles per hour, we can assume I made it 3 or 4 miles past the end of the maintained road. That should have gotten me past the first stream marked on the map and possibly to the Savage River. I know the rivers flow quite differently depending on the season, but I just don’t know if I really reached any of the ones that are actually on the map.

It doesn’t help that the map is probably outdated. For at least one section of the trail, a creek had decided that it would take the path of least resistance and route itself over the actual trail.

I had to take a detour through the pines off the side of the trail.

There I encountered another angry squirrel. He surprised me, but not enough to need to use any buckshot on him. He sure was loud and angry, though. If he’d had a shotgun, he probably would have used it on me.

I had planned to hike until 1pm and then turn around. I passed the mountain biker coming back my direction, and he asked how far out I thought the abandoned bus was. Apparently he knew about Chris McCandless, and had wanted to see the bus. He didn’t get that far, though, and he was moving much faster than I was. Shortly after we parted ways again, I reached another stream crossing the trail.

Given the time, and since I knew I wasn’t anywhere close to the bus, I decided to have a little break and then turn back.

I stopped for lunch next to an old firepit that was on a bank just above this stream.

It was a nice view from where I sat and ate my sandwich and chips.

I had read online that this wasn’t a very beautiful hike and that Denali was a better choice. I disagree. Sure, there weren’t lots of mountains, but it was still a very pretty area. I think the locals would rather discourage people that are only interested in the area because of the bestselling book, but I think it’s worth the hike to see such a notable area.

Here’s me at the turnaround point.

As I was hiking back, I saw a couple of ducks sitting in a stream, but they took off before I could get their picture. Still, the stream itself was pretty.

I took some pictures of a couple of piles of scat that I crossed on the trail, but Samara says scat isn’t very photogenic and that I shouldn’t post it. So I won’t. But my guess is that it was moose scat, and that it was old.

On the way back up, I was glad I had turned around when I did. My right ankle started to get really sore and I was slowed down considerably. I did see another spruce grouse on the way out.

I also saw some tracks. The first ones I think were moose, and Samara agreed at once when she saw the picture.

The second set were bear, I think. They’re very faint, so it’s hard to tell. I’ll post them anyway, and you can decide for yourself.

There are two tracks in that picture, running diagonally from bottom left to top right. You can see separate toe prints on each one. (Ignore the obvious ATV tracks at the bottom right of the photo and concentrate on the fainter tracks in the middle.) I compared those to some images online, and they certainly could be bear. I didn’t see any actual bears, though. Of course, between the mountain biker running the trail ahead of me and me yelling out “hey-yup” every few minutes, I hopefully scared off any large predators. I didn’t have any desire to see a bear up close and personal.

When I arrived back at the car, there was a great view of the mountains to the south in Denali.

The mountains were really big compared to the ones we get in Dillingham, and unlike the ones around Dillingham, I was able to get a better picture of these.

It threatened to rain on me all day, but it never quite opened up. I was thankful for that. The clouds looked ugly a couple of times, though. I wore a jacket for the first hundred yards of the trail, but I stripped down to my t-shirt after that. My pack actually made my back sweat a lot, and the pace kept me warm enough, even though it was a cooler day.

I took a picture of the note I left on the dashboard of the car. Even though Samara had told me that she was going to call the Alaska State Troopers if she didn’t hear from me or see me by 6pm, I wanted to be on the safe side.

I wrote that note on the back of the author’s bio page from Into The Wild (which I carried with me for the map it contained). If Chris McCandless had left a note like this for someone, perhaps he wouldn’t have died a mere 30 miles from help. Better safe than sorry.

On the way out, I got another good picture of Eightmile Lake. There’s a small cabin at the edge of the lake on the right.

I also got at least one good parting shot at the mountains as I was winding my way back down Stampede Road to the highway.

I wasn’t even off the Stampede Trail when Samara called me on our pre-paid cellphone. (There was no cellphone service after the maintained road ended, so I left the phone in the car, but as soon as I hit the maintained road, I got service again.) I left her know that I hadn’t died and was on my way back to Fairbanks. It was a smooth trip back, and I arrived by 5pm. I took a nice hot bath to soak my ankle and wash off all the 40% DEET bug spray I was wearing. (Mosquitos are killer here!) After that, we ate a nice dinner at Chili’s. (I actually miss chain restaurants–I’m definitely not ready to go “into the wild” for good.)

Tomorrow we catch a 6:15am flight back to Dillingham via Anchorage. We’ve enjoyed our mini-vacation in Fairbanks, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it. Cross your fingers–we’re hoping that when we get back to Dillingham, it’ll be as green there as it was here in the interior. Then maybe you’ll get some hiking-related posts from Dillingham.

3 thoughts on “Stampede Trail Hike (Into the Sort-Of Wild)

  1. Ann

    I don’t think those are bear tracks–I think it was Bigfoot!

    Glad you made it out of the wild safely. :)

  2. ErikHalfacre

    Great story. Your spruce grouse are actually willow ptarmigan though. Spruce grouse don’t change color and don’t have white feathers.

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