Angel Rocks is easily the most popular hiking destination near Fairbanks, Alaska. On summer weekends and holidays, expect the parking lot to be full or overflowing. However, it’s not hard to get away from people on the three-mile loop. On weekdays the crowd is usually quite thin. In winter, I often find myself alone. In spring, the mud (especially on the northeast side of the loop) is extensive.
If you can arrange transportation, there is an 8-mile hike (one-way) to Chena Hot Springs that branches off at the top of this loop. There are some open-tundra sections on this trail that give breathtaking views of the Chena hills. It’s a great trail for an overnight hike or award yourself with a soak in the hot springs at the end of a long day.
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The hike is steep, but not for long. It’s just less than 1-mile of climbing, and the steepest section is very short-lived at about 0.4-miles. The views are worth the climb, and you get a bit of everything. There’s a river walk through the boreal forest, a few streams, and many giant granite towers at the top of the climb.
There are some rock climbing opportunities at Angel Rocks. However, the rock is sharp and brittle. An updated rock climbing guide by Frank Olive and Stan Justice can be purchased locally in Fairbanks at Beaver Sports or Ascension Rock Club.
The wide and well-marked trail initially takes you on a flat stroll along the Chena River. While following a tributary stream, you hit the trail junction to begin the loop at 0.8-miles. I highly recommend taking a right at the intersection to travel the loop counterclockwise. However, it may be worth checking the conditions of the back-side of the loop (left – west) beforehand as it’s often very muddy and less traveled. If it looks wet or in bad shape, you can avoid much of the mud (and bugs) and return the way you came on the eastern side of the loop.
The climb begins on a nice boardwalk to keep your feet dry. Sparse, permafrost stunted spruce trees give you a great view of the landscape and a view up at the tors before ducking back into the forest. The climb steepens and you pass a small spring before hitting a switchback. Another switchback brings you out of the woods as giant blocks of granite tower over you.
The trail steepens some more, and there are multiple short switchbacks before topping the ridge approximately 1.6 miles in. Spend some time to take in the views! You’ll continue left at a trail junction if you want to complete the loop. Otherwise, this is a good turnaround. Many travelers take this option, and the trail shows it. The “back-side” of this trail is not quite in as good of condition. Turning right at the junction is the Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs 8.7-mile trail.
If you are continuing on the loop, be aware that the trail tapers down a bit after passing the last Tor and descending into the forest. It can be challenging to follow at times. While it always feels rewarding to make a loop, the west side of this loop doesn’t offer much new. It’s often buggy, wet, and doesn’t provide much of a view. But, don’t let me talk you out of it, it is more beautiful forest!
Hiking Angel Rocks is excellent year-round, although it will be snow-covered from the end of September or early October through April. Then in April, the melted snow leaves you in the mud. You can expect Alaska weather at any time. I’ve encountered numerous summer hailstorms in the summer and even a June snowstorm. It can be forty-below and windy in the winter or in the high 90’s F in the summer. Check the forecast and be prepared!
I usually bring snowshoes with me in the winter, but rarely need to put them on as the trail is walked and packed often. More often, I need traction devices like microspikes on some of the steeper areas as the trail gets quite icy. Come prepared for cold and wind, especially up top. The path to Chena Hot Springs is rarely traveled in winter, so snowshoes or skis and navigational skills are a must if attempting the 8-mile trail.
April to May, the trail is muddy, but there usually aren’t mosquitoes yet (until the end of May). I’d expect snow and some postholing until the end of April at least. I often wouldn’t recommend hiking the whole loop since the west and north sides are the muddiest. Just turn right at the first junction and return the way you came after spending some time at the tors.
June through September are nice. Crowds dominate the parking area June-August, and the mosquitoes are plentiful. It’s often hot and sunny. Catching an afternoon hailstorm or downpour is a definite possibility. The colors start to change at the end of August and early September. The mosquitoes disappear too!