Alaska's fat-tire bike explosion spread its tentacles farther into Chugach State Park on Thursday when the Alaska Department of Natural Resources announced an array of trails will open to fat bikes all winter.
Many of them have been available to riders who secured a permit before heading out. But from Sunday through March 31, routes now open to fat-bikes all winter include the Middle Fork Trail, Lost Cabin Trail, the Eagle River Corridor to Icicle Creek and ice atop Eklutna Lake (once it forms). Perhaps the most popular is the 5-mile long Middle Fork Loop.
"I love the Middle Fork ride, and I think it's overdue for Chugach State Park to remove the permit requirement," said Tim Woody, an avid Anchorage biker who's also Alaska communications manager at The Wilderness Society. "Fat-bikers have spent years proving that we belong there. That trail is ideal for winter biking, and bicyclists shouldn't be treated as second-class citizens. Mountain biking — and fat-biking as an extension of it — is a mainstream activity, and we are a large, responsible user group. It's our park too."
Chugach State Park Superintendent Tom Harrison was quick to agree.
"There's been an explosion of fat-bike popularity, and exponential growth," he noted. "We tried out a few areas by permit and Middle Fork seemed to be pretty darned popular. But we can't keep permitting them over and over and over.
"It's public land, and it's public recreation, and there's a demand for it."
The new regulations define fat-tire bikes as those with tires at least 3.7 inches wide with a pressure of no more than 20 pounds per square inch.
"Oh, it's a gem really," Janice Tower, founder of Singletrack Advocates, said of the Middle Fork Trail. "A great ride — but not for beginners because it can be kind of technical. There are definitely some steep grades. It's a more intermediate trail for advanced riders and ones who are physically fit."
Tower noted that the trail has been off-limits to bikes in the summer, but that the frozen ground of winter limits any impact. The state park has worked to reroute the trail out of marshy areas to terrain with better drainage too, she said.
Come winter, Tower found that the permitting was available online and "pretty easy," though it required more planning before pedaling.
Claire LeClair, operations manager of the state Department of Natural Resources, said permits were first issued four years ago, going from 100 back then to 600 last winter.
Alaska should take advantage of that growing interest, Woody said, and encourage it.
"Middle Fork should be only the beginning," Woody said. "It's time for Chugach State Park to become a bike-friendly destination.
"Southcentral Alaska has great potential for epic mountain bike rides. We should be a destination for vacationing bicyclists. We should be looking at Whitehorse, Yukon, as a great example of a community that recognizes the health, recreation and tourism benefits of building trails and appealing to mountain bikers."
Middle Fork can be ridden as a loop. If riders start at the Hilltop Ski Area or elsewhere in Far North Bicentennial Park, they can ride up to Powerline Pass, and access Middle Fork from there.
"The scenery and terrain are great," Woody said. "You're up high with close views of the Chugach and distant views of the city, and the trail offers a range of climbing, descending, creek crossings, and other features," Woody said.
"Many of our big rides are over mountain passes on the Kenai, and are very hard to access by bike in winter. Middle Fork gives us a really great winter ride, and we need more of them."
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