By John Estle
In addition to the trail modifications being done on the Birch Hill Recreation Area trails, a major new trail is being constructed on Fort Wainwright lands on the south side of Birch Hill. This new loop trail is currently being called the “Sunnyside Trail” because it will be one of the few trails on Birch Hill where someone skiing the trail can actually see the sun during the depths of winter.
Funding for the trail comes from a grant made to the NSCF by the Rasmuson Foundation. The trail is being built by Jon Underwood and his trail construction company, Happy Trails. Construction started in the second half of July and was virtually complete by the end of August.
The route was originally laid out in 1995 by John Estle, when the club received permission to create the trail as a result of a meeting between the Fairbanks North Star Borough mayor and the Fort Wainwright garrison commander. The trail was cleared that same year and the next year by a Bureau of Land Management hotshot crew.
However, funding for the project never materialized so it was not constructed at that time. Over the years, the process of constructing trails, and securing the necessary permissions has become more and more complex, so what would once have been a simple project turned into a pretty complicated process that took a few years to get to the point where the ground could be broken.
In the lead up to construction, Jon Underwood modified the original design to bring the route and profile up to modern trail standards, changes which Estle enthusiastically endorsed.
The trail departs from, and returns to, the next-to-the-top southern switchback on the Outhouse Loop. There are three basic parts to the trail. The first part is the loop portion of the trail that runs southeasterly from the Outhouse Loop to a point near where two downhill mountain bike trails turn onto the alpine slope. At its southeastern-most point, the trail bends left and uphill and returns to the Outhouse Loop via a series of climbs and drops to break up what is a pretty substantial climb. The loop distance is very close to 3.5 km.
The second part of the route is one that is completely dictated by topography. One of the features of Birch Hill is that the south-facing slope immediately above the floodplain is VERY steep. That being the case, it proved very difficult to construct a route connecting the bluff edge to the flood plain that would not be overly steep for both descending and ascending.
There is only one location along the entire south face of the hill west of the alpine slope in which construction was possible. The route between the bluff and the floodplain is not ideal: it will be steeper than desired, will have two-way traffic, and will include a tight switchback. However, it will work. This segment will be about 500 meters in length.
The final segment of the route is a flat, two-way traffic portion on the flood plain from the bottom of the steep bluff descent to the Fort Wainwright Alpine Hill Base Lodge. This route is also about half a kilometer in length.
Most skiers starting from Birch Hill will probably use the trail one of three ways:
1) Ski the loop from the Outhouse to the top of the bluff and back (this will cut out the steep “Cliffside” route connecting the edge of the bluff to the flood plain).
2) Ski the loop from the Outhouse to the Ft. Wainwright Base Lodge, then ski up the Sonot Connector. Doing this will provide some new loop options . . . and some exposure to the winter sun. If you ski this loop from the stadium then head straight back to the stadium from the top of the Sonot Connector, it will be about an 8 km loop.
3) Ski down the Sonot Connector, then up the flood-plain-to-bluff-edge climb, then ski the return to the Outhouse. That distance will be 5.8 km.
If you like to ski long loops at Birch Hill without (too much) repetition, I have already planned out a loop of approximately 30 km that I can’t wait to ski. Starting in the Stadium:
• do the upper North 40, upper Black Hole, Blue, South Tower, Roller Coaster, Medevac, White Cub and White Bear to Sonot Junction.
• At Sonot Junction, go down Sonot Connector, then head for the Sunnyside Trail.
• When you get to the Outhouse Loop, ski the upper Outhouse or the whole Outhouse, then back out the Sunnyside to Fort Wainwright and up the Sonot Connector.
• At the top of the Sonot Connector, turn right and finish White Bear (with Moilanen’s, of course)
• then do Warmup Loop.
Your only repetition will be the Sonot Connector and the two-way trail from the base lodge to the Sunnyside Loop– but you are doing those in different directions. And, you stay out of the Stadium virtually the entire time. Not bad!
And if you are hungry or thirsty, you can stop at the base’s ski hill lodge along the way for a snack or a drink – maybe make one stop in each direction. What could be better?
(Photos by John Estle: Building the new trail on Fort Wainwright land.)