Affordable public use cabins make stunning White Mountains wilderness accessible

The White Mountains National Recreation Area sits just 50 miles northeast of Fairbanks.

Often, it seems, what we love about Interior Alaska is lost on the rest of the world. They're called the White Mountains, but like most of the Interior, the region doesn't feel dominated by mountains but by open spaces.

We love the open spaces. And we love the harsh austerity of our cold, dry winter climate.

But for those interested in the beauty of the Interior, there is a logistical problem – open spaces necessarily include large distances. And if camping in the cold is an acquired taste, few of us end up acquiring it.

Nevertheless, the White Mountains National Recreation Area has a network of groomed trails connecting a dozen public-use cabins. Taken together, they offer a perfect solution to the problems inherent in experiencing Interior Alaska in the winter — the trails make it possible to travel reasonably quickly to warm cabins, and then relax and dry out. Skiers, mushers, snowmachiners, and bikers use the cabins. Often different users combine on the same trip, meeting at the cabins to keep each other company during long winter nights — and sharing the responsibility of cutting firewood.

I ski. It's probably the slowest of the options, but I can't help it. I love the squeak of my pole tips in the cold snow; I love the way that weight shifting from one ski to the other mirrors the swish of my dog's tail as she trots in front of me.

Maybe the interior itself is an acquired taste, with its cold, short days, open spaces, and scraggly trees.

But it's a taste worth acquiring.

Affordable cabin rentals

Go see for yourself. Cabins are $25 a night and must be reserved on the Bureau of Land Management website (blm.gov/ak/st/en/prog/nlcs/white_mtns/cabins.html) With prices of public-use cabins on the rise, these well-equipped little cabins feel like an excellent value. The nearest cabin to the highway is Lee's Cabin — my first trip to the Whites was a memorable night there as a teenager when my friends and I struggled to keep the fire going and the cabin warm at minus 30.

Many trip combinations, loops and out-and-backs, exist. The longest stretch of trail without a cabin goes 26 miles over what's known as "the divide" between Cache Mountain Cabin and Windy Gap Cabin. This section of trail frequently blows in and crosses through a notorious section of overflow known as the "ice lakes" at the far back end of the biggest loop.

Seeking a beginner-friendly loop? Start from the Wickersham Dome Trailhead at Mile 28 of the Elliot Highway and go to Lee's Cabin (7 miles) or on to Moose Creek Cabin (9 miles). Then take Moose Creek Trail to Eleazar's Cabin (10 miles) and then go back to the highway (12 miles, but passing Lee's Cabin, with the option for one more night there). But take a look at the map. Options are plentiful.

The White Mountains are fun for all, but be prepared for bitter cold, especially in the valleys. Be ready for wind as well as huge temperature swings as the inversion can commonly be as much as 20 degrees between valley bottoms and ridge tops. And watch for overflow.

Cabins need to be reserved in advance, but make sure you ask about current trail conditions before heading out. Your trip could be a bust if you find out the trail you were planning to take hasn't been broken out yet for the season or that there is open water on a mandatory creek crossing.

All visitors must be self-sufficient and cut firewood to replace what they use. Remember to take a camera — sometimes even the view through the window is memorable.

Seth Adams is a Fairbanks-based climber, freelance adventurer and photographer.