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Alaska Guide – Interior Hiking
|Popular For||Dayhiking, Backpacking, Rock climbing|
|Length||14.1 miles roundtrip (22.7 km)|
|Minimum Elevation||669 ft (204 m)|
|Maximum Elevation||3,240 ft (988 m)|
|Elevation Gain||3,400 ft total (1144 m)|
|Region||Fairbanks – Chena River State Recreation Area|
|Location||39.5-mile Chena Hot Springs Road|
|Parking||Large lot – State Park fee for day use ($5/vehicle)|
Granite Tors Hike Overview
The Granite Tors Trail is a 14.1-mile loop located in the Chena River State Recreation Area. There is a day-use fee for parking and a state campground near the parking area. Camping in the backcountry is free, but you must adhere to State Park regulations and still pay the parking fee for your vehicle ($5/day at this writing – check before going).
The hike travels through alpine vistas dotted with giant monolithic granite towers throughout the countryside. The trail is steep, climbing about 2850 ft in 4 miles, but not outlandishly difficult. It’s a great introduction to backpacking. There’s not a good source of water at the top, so make sure you bring enough or filter in the stream before leaving the valley floor!
Day hike or overnight?
The Granite Tors Trail is possible to do in a day, it typically takes me 8 hours for the loop, and that’s taking time to take lots of photos and explore the tors, but usually, I’m sore the next day. An overnight, camping at the shelter, or tent camping at any other location along the trail makes for a much more relaxing hike, only covering 6-8 miles a day. If you are into long-distance trail running, this is a fantastic option for training! There are many great places to camp; make sure to camp away from the trail and follow leave-no-trace principles.
There is a shorter 2-mile loop. However, at the time of this writing, one of the bridges is out, so the loop is not completable in the summer (I’ll try to verify and update this status for 2021 by mid-May). The shorter loop mostly follows the river and doesn’t have any significant elevation change or a view of the tors. It can be a nice walk through the woods with the family.
Granite Tors Weather and Forecast
A short walk via a pedestrian walkway takes you over the bridge to Chena Hot Springs Road. Be cautious crossing the road here as traffic tends to come in fast around a blind corner from the west. The trail begins immediately on the other side of the road. This is also the start of the two-mile loop (at this writing, one of the bridges is out, so it’s an out-and-back, adding to the 2 miles).
Beginning along the Chena River, follow the wide, flat trail for roughly 0.7 miles, at which point you come to a trail junction. (There is typically an earlier junction, but the bridge is currently out – I’ll update this when I hear otherwise). Here you can turn left and take the trail clockwise (gentler up, steeper downhill), or be kind to your knees and go straight for the steeper uphill. If you want a shorter day hike to see the tors, going straight gets you to the “Welcome Tors” sooner, making an out-and-back option of 12 miles.
I prefer to go counter-clockwise (straight at the junction – described here. This is mainly because my knees prefer to go up the steepest side and down the gentler slopes. Note that you’ll be going opposite the direction of the mile-markers). You slowly gain elevation by traveling over numerous boardwalks along a stream with multiple beaver-dammed ponds. Eventually, you’ll see the hill and gentle ridgeline as the trail ascends in front of you. This part of the trail is typically packed and easy to follow in winter.
The trail steepens and narrows. This section was quite overgrown with birch saplings and willow trees in the last few years. This makes for some very wet hiking in the rain as you constantly brush up against vegetation.
The trail steepens even more as you ascend out of the dense underbrush. In winter, you will often lose the trail here. It’s not traveled often and becomes windblown with deep snowdrifts. Navigational abilities are a must for this reason. In summer, the trail remains obvious until the very top, where a few cairns can help you follow the path.
Granite Tors Ridgelines
The trail eventually winds out of the spruce trees on rocky terrain, making the “Welcome Tors” visible. The trail is marked with mileage markers and marker poles up top. This can be a good place to explore some of the tors and turn around if you want a shorter day hike. Otherwise, the trail begins to round to the east with more gentle uphill walking.
You’ll come to the top of the first hill and descend back into a brief forest in a saddle between the two hills. Get ready to climb again. The trail is steep up the second hill, but not for long. About 500 ft of climbing in 0.8 miles from the lowest point in the saddle brings you to the high point of the hike and “Alaska’s Stonehenge” and past the prominent Asgard Tor. On a clear day, you may have stunning views of the Alaska Range here!
The trail flattens out for a while and is frequently very wet, rutted, and boggy. Walking slightly off-trail might keep your feet dry and prevent you from rolling an ankle. The trail veers off toward the treeline as the trail shelter comes into view.
At this point, you begin the descent into the trees and occasionally through some large sections of talus. Once off the rockier slopes, you’re on the northeastern ridge that can be seen from the beginning of the trail. There’s a fair amount of up and down here, and my legs usually feel this a bit when doing this hike in a day. Eventually, the trail begins to drop down the side of the ridge into bigger birch and spruce forest. The trail splits to the left (since the first bridge is out) and rejoins at the original junction from the beginning of the hike. Hang a right and return 0.7 miles to the road.
This is bear country. I recommend making noise while hiking, especially in the dense brush on the lower trail. You may want to carry bear spray or another deterrent as well. Make sure you know how to use it ahead of time. Use safe practices for storing food and keep food away from your sleeping area. bear safety info
Ensure you carry enough water. There aren’t reliable sources on the ridge. Water pumped from tussocks tastes like lichen and dirt. The Granite Tors Trail is steep, and it’s a long hike for a day if you aren’t used to walking 15 miles on steep, rocky terrain. Be aware that climbing on the tors can be extremely dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. Breaking a leg or spraining an ankle this far out can be troublesome. Also, there is no cell service (actually, starting in 2021, I started getting spotty cell service on the trail, but it’s not reliable).