America's Ultimate 4x4 Destination
Even as a kid, reading Jack London's White Fang and watching "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon" on Saturday mornings, we dreamed of exploring the great Northern wilderness.As an adult, the big dream evolved into driving the Al-Can highway in an RV, with a 4x4 in tow for an extended adventure in the last frontier. However, time and finances seemed to always stand in the way.
That enduring dream finally came true in an abbreviated way in 1998, when we flew to Alaska to camp with Anchorage's Last Frontier Four Wheelers. Since then, the dream has intensified, and we've flown back three times for short adventures in the land of the midnight sun.
In 2004, the Last Frontier Four Wheelers invited us to spend a couple of weekends 'wheeling with them. Previously, we'd traveled in planes, trains, busses, ferries, and rental cars, but this time, we decided to embrace our ultimate adventure by renting an RV from Superior RV Rental in Anchorage.
We camped with the Last Frontier Four Wheelers for two consecutive weekends in July and enjoyed the luxury of RVing during the week. The first weekend, we convoyed with a hard-core segment of the club out on Glenn Highway, through the beautiful agricultural Ma-Su Valley, on our way to the Hicks Lake Trail in the rugged Talkeetna Mountains. Greg McClintock, a two-time competitor in Australia's Outback Challenge, led the group.
Greg's built-for-the-Outback 5.0L Ford-powered '85 CJ-7 is equipped to survive tough terrain over long distances (www.teamalaska4x4.com). Bill Shipp's '00 TJ only sported 33-inch Mud King tires, solid tow points, and a Warn 8274 winch, but with a positive attitude, he was prepared for the adventure. Since joining the club, Bill has shown that driver ability and a durable attitude are just as important in off-roading as a long list of modifications. Dave Diedrichsen was our tailgunner in his 351-powered '70 Bronco, the "Pack Horse," which Dave built for hard-core off-road trails in Colorado and Utah. Since coming to Alaska, Dave has installed a mobile machine shop in the Bronco.
Near Mile 100 on the Glenn Highway, at a point where the Matanuska Glacier streams down from the towering Chugach Mountains to the south, we locked our hubs and turned north into the Talkeetna Mountains. On our first trip with Last Frontier in 1998, the club took us up around Gunsight Mountain to the Squaw Creek Trail and on to Caribou Creek ("Alaskan Sojourn," 4WDSU March '00 issue). That trip had some challenging mud and lots of deep, swift glacial stream crossings as we followed Caribou Creek up to where it flowed out a gorge. This time, the club took us up Pinochle Creek Trail to the Hick's Creek Trail and from there to Caribou Creek at the point where Caribou Creek flows into the upper end of the same gorge.
The first 6 miles of the trail began pleasantly enough, with a clearly defined track and only minor stream crossings as the trail followed the general trend of Pinochle Creek. But the trail quickly evolved into hour after hour of hard-core winching through a seemingly endless string of mud holes along a high boggy ridge. Then it descended 500 feet from the ridge line into Hick's Creek, on one of the longest, steepest, and most slippery hills in the area. Once on Hick's Creek, the trail covered 11 more miles of aggressive, winding, muddy valley floor to Hick's Lake. From the lake, we crossed over the divide and 'wheeled down a boulder-strewn defile to Caribou Creek. Since there are few trees to winch from anywhere on this trail, a Pull Pal winch anchor was used repeatedly to keep the group in motion.
The Pinochle Creek/Hick's Creek Trail began life in the early 20th century as a supply route from the Matanuska River into the Alfred Creek gold camps. Now, it's used mostly by hunters on horseback or ATVs, and in winter, by snowmobiles. For street-legal 4x4s, it is extremely challenging and one of central Alaska's most demanding and unforgiving trails.
After 11 hours, we'd covered 16 miles and finally arrived at Caribou Creek. By midnight, we had set up camp, but the sun still circled just below the horizon behind the northern mountains. When we awoke a few hours later, it seemed like midday. After a campfire breakfast, we retraced our route through the same mud, but the view was even better, since we were 'wheeling toward the snowcapped Chugach Range.
As we slogged through more deep mud holes, Dave's alternator, which is mounted low on his Bronco's engine, became packed with mud, causing the bearings to seize. When the mud stalled the alternator, the dual V-belts burned off. Removing and repairing the alternator on a 351 V-8 in 2 feet of mud is a real chore. Dave wound up using a section of nylon parachute cord to replace the V-belts, and although this resulted in the loss of power steering and the hydraulic winch, it provided cooling for the engine and allowed the Bronco to continue.
At about the same time, the motor on Greg's winch quit, leaving the group with only one working winch and another 6 miles of challenging trail to cover. With careful planning, everyone made it safely to the trailhead, but with only one working winch, we didn't get there until the next morning.
Unfortunately, the Last Frontier 'wheelers had to go back to work. We headed to the town of Talkeetna, the traditional staging site for climbers as they begin their trek up Mount McKinley in Denali National Park. There are three ways to get close-up views of McKinley: Take the 12-hour bus trip though the park to Kantishna, which offers the best wildlife viewing; take a charted sight-seeing flight around the mountain; or drive into the Peters Hills in a high-ground-clearance 4x4 on the Petersville Road.
We decided to head to the hills with the Bramante family in their dual-cab 4x4 F-250. We paused at almost every hilltop to take in awesome landscapes, observe several small gold-mining operations, and hike beside sparkling streams teaming with huge spawning salmon. (We kept an eye open for the grizzlies that had left enormous tracks on the creek banks.) With large forest fires burning near Fairbanks, though, smoke obscured the high peaks of Denali. The Peters Hills may be the best place for unguided visitors to go four-wheeling in Alaska. The area would take several days to fully explore, and even stock Jeeps would have little trouble running most trails.
By the end of the week, we headed back to Wasilla to rendezvous with the Last Frontier gang for some milder 'wheeling. The club convoyed up the Parks Highway to Willow, and then east along the Hatcher Pass Road into the Talkeetna Mountains 70 miles north of Anchorage. On this trip, we were accompanied by Rick and Jan Scroggs in their immaculate 350-powered Jeep YJ; Phil Hemphill and family in his 351-powered '85 Bronco; Bill Shipp and family in his '00 TJ; Erin Dobson in his late-model Ford F-150; and Greg McClintock in his '85 CJ-7.
At the trailhead to the Purches Creek Trail, we locked our hubs and began an ascent from 1,800 feet. To cross a swampy area created by a beaver dam, someone had built a rustic wooden bridge over the creek. From there, we 'wheeled up a sometimes rocky and slippery wooded trail to an alpine plateau. From our 3,500-foot-high vantage point, we enjoyed sweeping views of the Alaska Range and Mount Susitna to the north. To the south, we gazed across the Susitna River Valley and Cook Inlet toward Anchorage. Farther ahead, the trail dropped through the forest to Purches Creek, where we picnicked before 'wheeling the 5 miles back to Hatcher Pass.
Greg repeatedly emphasized that "There are several trails leading into the area between Purches Creek and Willow Mountain, each with an increasing degree of difficulty. This is a good area for experienced 'wheelers with modified 4x4s to spend a few days exploring. However, off-road travel in central Alaska can be difficult and dangerous. Never take safe travel on these trails for granted. Cell-phone coverage is spotty at best, and many of the trails are unmarked. Authorities seldom monitor these trails, except during hunting season.
"We recommend that 'wheelers never travel alone in Alaska. You should always carry recovery gear, first-aid supplies, and survival equipment. Let someone know where you're going and when you expect to be back. The best means of seeing these trails is with the assistance of one of the local clubs, such as the Last Frontier Four Wheelers or Alaska Extreme Fourwheelers."
Too soon, our adventure in the Great Land was over. We bid farewell to our Last Frontier friends, returned the RV, and flew back to the Lower 48. But the yearning for our ultimate adventure will undoubtedly endure until we finally make our way up the Al-Can highway and leisurely explore the many backroads along the way.