Two nights on the Tors trail

Two nights on the Tors trail
Ghostly aurora from the Granite Tors Trail | Purchase Print

I’m awakened in the night by a shiver. I have somehow found my way deep in my sleeping bag, sticking my nose toward the tiny cinched opening above me for fresh air. I shift to roll on my side and the condensation soaks liner smears against my face.

“How long have I been asleep?
It’s not morning yet, is it?”

I grab the drawstring and push the sleeping bag open. Good God, the air is cold. The draft crawls down my body all the way to my toes.

“What was I doing again?
The time . . .”

Reaching into the mesh pocket on the side of the tent, I grab my GPS. I left my watch at home, in the freezer . . . another story. Tapping the tent wall with my hand dislodges the frost built up on the tent sides. The tiny ice particles slowly rain down on my face.

Powering on the GPS, it’s almost 3:30. The night is almost over. I reach for the tent zipper; more frost trickles down my neck. Now the vestibule. I stick my head out of the tent and look up. A bright band of green stretches across the sky in a long arc from the northern horizon to the southeast.

The aurora is out. It’s time to get up. This is what I’m here for. Get up!

Aurora Corona - Diverging rays of green and pink northern lights directly overhead
Auroral Corona | Purchase Print

The Hike

That was my Tuesday morning. The day before began nearly the same way, only a little earlier. I attempted to hike to the Granite Tors starting Sunday afternoon, pulling camera gear, camping gear, and food in a sled. The first mile is a section of a well-traveled two or 3-mile loop trail, so it went pretty fast. I ran into a couple of women coming back the other way. They said they had to turn back because the snow was too deep toward the top. That information didn’t instill much confidence in me when I looked at the 80 pounds of gear I was hauling behind me. But I was dropped off here and don’t have cell service, so it would be a bummer not to try.

The uphill section is relatively gradual on the eastern side of the 15-mile loop. The further I hiked, the less-traveled the trail was, and I started punching through the snowpack, even in snowshoes. Once I was above the treeline, the trail was no longer packed or visible at all. I just followed the ridge the best I could, slowly climbing about 1500 feet. I thought for sure all the spring breakers the week before would have worn down an excellent trail for me, but it looked like no one had been out there all winter.

Pulling a sled up snow up the Granite Tors Trail in the Chena River State Recreation Area

Battling Snow

Post-holing doesn’t bother me much. I’ve actually become entirely accustomed to it on the strange Alaska interior snowpack. I don’t like to ‘surprise’ post-hole. Three to five steps on the surface, then surprise! I’m in up to my waist. And then the sled slides into my back. Then I’m left to untangle a mess and get my snowshoe from under the sled. This was the pattern for a couple of miles. I realized there was no chance of making it to the top of the ridge before nightfall, or possibly at all, so I began marking possible aurora-viewing locations on my GPS. When I was five miles in, the snow was very soft and deep, and I was heading downhill into the trees. I turned back to my last marked spot.

First Night

Winter campsite along the Granite Tors Trail
Sunset from the snowy Granite Tors Trail
Gorgeous sunset from camp | Purchase Print

Not long after midnight, I was awake and found some aurora in the sky.

Green aurora borealis dancing over the Chena River Valley
Green aurora dancing over the Chena River valley | Purchase Print
Green northern lights with Fairbanks city lights in the distance
Looking toward Fairbanks and North Pole, 40 miles away | Purchase Print
panoramic photo of the northern lights over the Chena River valley from the Granite Tors Trail
Northern lights panorama | Purchase Print

Feeling pretty tired and cold, I retreated back into my tent after about 40 minutes. Nothing seemed to be changing with the northern lights and it’s not like I could check data online or anything, so I figured I’d get some rest for the next day.

I slept in, which is rare for me. It wasn’t until about 11 am that I had eaten, struck camp, loaded the sled, and returned to the trail.

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Granite Tors on a distant hill from a snowy trail
Tors on a distant hill | Purchase Print

Travel was frustrating. There was no longer an obvious trail; I just had to follow the rolling ridge as best I could. This took me into some thick brush on a couple of occasions. The snow softened the further up I walked. As I started the last climb up to the tors, I realized that I needed more time.

Every step was up to my waist in the snow. I abandoned the sled to blaze a path a few times. At 3 in the afternoon, I made the decision to turn back. If I could have stayed an extra day or two, I would have spent the night there and tried to push my way to the top in the morning when the snow was firm. I didn’t have enough time (or food and fuel). Therefore, I decided to return to one of the other spots I had marked with a good view of the valley.

Night Two

Winter campsite along the Granite Tors Trail
Sunset through silhouetted trees in winter
Another sunset from camp | Purchase Print

It got cold despite being 1000 feet in elevation lower than where I was the previous night. It’s not often that I’m uncomfortably cold, and I’ve done plenty of camping at -30° F. However, I felt pretty miserable this night. It took all my willpower to pry myself out of my sleeping bag to go outside at 3:30 am, but I did, and it was very worth it.

It was about the same when I first awoke as the night before. Usually, these late-morning aurora turns into a dim, diffuse, pulsating display. There was still a good, strong band, though, so I was hopeful.

Not much happened in the first 10 minutes. Then some microstructure started to appear in the band. It was like waves traveling down the main band from the northwest to the southeast.

Waves of green aurora begin to form in a band as activity begins to pick up
Waves of aurora from the band as the activity picks up | Purchase Print
vertical panorama of aurora borealis over a silhouetted forest
Bright Greens over the landscape | Purchase Print
Aurora borealis corona overhead
More corona overhead | Purchase Print
green and red aurora over the hills at Granite Tors in the Chena River State Recreation Area
Tall aurora over the hills as the activity diminishes briefly | Purchase Print
Bright green aurora borealis and Fairbanks city lights
Aurora resumes with a little bit of Fairbanks city lights | Purchase Print
soft green aurora over Chena hills
Soft and diffuse aurora over the hills | Purchase Print

I slept in again. My pick-up was arranged for 5 pm, and I only had about 3 miles remaining for the hike out. I took my time cooking and packing, hung up my sleeping bag and tent to dry in the sun, and sprinted back and forth on the trail to stay warm. I left a little after 1 for the trailhead.

Birch trees and shadows on snow
Birch and shadows | Purchase Print
Birch and aspen forest in the hills of the Chena River Valley, Alaska
Birch and aspen forest and shadows in the snow | Purchase Print
Spruce forest in the Rock Creek valley floor | Purchase Print

More Photos

March 22

March 23

March 24 (best aurora night/morning)

Blog Comments

Those r Fab pics…I live in India and always dreamed tht I get to see the Aurora’s at least once before I die…r there specific time of the year when these happen regularly and do they occur in specific location??

Thank you! The best place to see them is in the far northern or southern hemispheres. Great places are Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland or Scandanavia. The best time is typically around the fall or spring equinox. Winter can be good too, if you can stand the cold!

I would say that reading this made me feel like I was actually there, but I’m sure that it was MUCH colder than I’m imagining! Beautiful pictures as always. What a great experience.

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