The White Mountains National Recreation Area is home to 200+-miles of trail traversing a million acres of wilderness and a mountain range named for the dominant color of its limestone foundation. It lies fewer than forty road miles (about an hour) from Fairbanks and is easily accessible by car. The White Mountains encapsulate true Alaskan wilderness right on the backdoor of Fairbanks.
One of the most popular hikes in the area is Wickersham Dome on Summit Trail, which travels along ridges and above treeline atop packed dirt and exposed rock with a panoramic picture of the White Mountains and as far north as the Brooks Range on a clear day. Wickersham Dome is one of the most notable vantage points along the route, in the form of a rounded hilltop in the southwest corner of the wilderness area with little in the way to obstruct the views. Berry-picking is also popular here in late summer.
To get there, drive 28 miles on the Elliott Highway from Fox (where it splits with the Steese) and look for signs marking the trailhead. A parking lot with restrooms and trail info will be on your right. The trailhead is the starting point for both the Summit Trail, and the Ski Loop Trail, a 5-mile loop and a nice option for a shorter hike with less elevation gain than the 7-mile out-and-back to Wickersham Dome.
The trail to Wickersham Dome is defined by elevation gain with quick and dramatic rewards. At its start, you’ll follow gradual ebbs and flows through alpine forest and rocky terrain covered in moss, lichens, and wildflowers. Makeshift stairsteps appear as the path starts to wind around and up to the crest of the Dome. This stretch has the steepest climb, but hikers immediately enjoy expansive views of Interior wilderness with plenty of places to stop for a break. Large rocks at the top are popular for bouldering or to kick back, rehydrate, and take in the view.
For a day hike, turn around once you’ve reached the top of the Dome and return to the trailhead. If you’re interested in camping or spending the night, continue on Summit Trail.
The Bureau of Land Management operates 12 public use cabins in the White Mountains, with an average distance of ten miles between each one and for which users must obtain a cabin permit (with fee). “Shelters,” however, are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Summit Trail Shelter lies eight miles in from the start of your hike to Wickersham Dome. At the trailhead, you can check a log book to see if anyone has “reserved” the shelter by jotting down their plans for rangers and fellow hikers. Consider a weekday trip to avoid the largest crowds of visitors and Fairbanksans who often escape to the White Mountains for a weekend.
Caribou, Dall sheep, moose, grizzlies, black bears, and many species of birds make their home in the White Mountains. Pack and store your food properly to ensure safety in the company of bears. Make noise while you hike, and carry bear spray (available for purchase in Fairbanks). The long-range visibility afforded to hikers on this trail will help you spot bears before coming too close.
After a long day on the trail, stop into Hilltop Truck Stop on your drive back to Fairbanks (3711 Elliott Highway). It’s one of the last full-service truck stops for semis headed up the Dalton Highway (one of the best places to meet an Ice Road Trucker) and famous for its pie, served in huge, fresh-baked slices that fit for a trucker’s appetite. Order by itself or a la mode.
- Reserve cabins by calling 1-877-444-6777. Find a trail map on the BLM website. Alternatively, you can visit the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center (101 Dunkel Street) in Fairbanks for trail maps and expert advice (but not cabin reservation). Cabin amenities are minimalist. You’ll have a warm, dry place to sleep (bunks and a wood/propane stove—bring your own fuel or come ready to chop wood). You’ll need to pack matches, extra water (limited along the trail), mosquito repellant, a sleeping bag, and warm clothes because it can get chilly at night, no matter what time of year.