One-Man Towns, Eight Paved Highways, 129 Million Acres of Forest. Alaska? Naturally.

Biking the Iditarod Trail

May 21, 2001
Outside Magazine

The old man slowly unbends, crooking his hands in the small of his back to lever himself upright. You wave. He stares and, presumably deciding that any group wearing such a rainbow of spandex can't be aiming for claim-jumper stealth, turns back to his ramshackle sluicing operation. To the west, Mount McKinley rises over shadowy forest. The alpenglow of evening will soon pinken the clouds. But the miner cares only about his mud. You watch for a moment before continuing on. Your destination, Iditarod, a town built by and then forgotten by gold diggers like this, still lies 20 miles ahead.
You've found the real Iditarod Trail, which most cheechako (outsiders) probably think of as nothing more than the route where the world's best mushers brave ice, moose, and frostbite each winter. But the Iditarod actually began as a track cut out of the wilderness by prospectors. Crossing forests, tundra, rivers, and the home fields of large and prickly bears, it tested just how serious the prospectors were about striking it rich.

Today, it also happens to be one of the greatest mountain-bike rides on earth, a rough, 1,049-mile immersion in all things Alaskan, from nubbly tundra, moose scat, and icy patches in June to deep midtrack ponds after the thaws of July. Make sure your bike is outfitted with extra spokes, a handlebar-mounted air horn, and, if you can afford it, indestructible snowcat rims from All-Weather Sports in Fairbanks. Don't sweat over equipment too much, though; miners once rode this route on one-speeds, the tires stuffed with rope.
Since the Iditarod in its entirety is too long for any but the most dedicated or underemployed, it's best to pick a manageable, representative section. The finest is the 165-mile-long stretch from McGrath, the geographic center of the state, to Iditarod itself.
The Iditarod Trail doesn't run through McGrath proper, however. So you'll need to hire a boat to take you down the Kuskokwim River to Sterling Landing, which offers access to the trail via an old dirt track. (Book the boat ride, about $50 per person, through the Tukusko House hostel, 907-524-3198.) From Sterling, head in the only direction possible: up. You'll be grunting along a steep, gravelly road that rises 1,500 feet to where you join the Iditarod. But at least you'll be pedaling through a pleasing, rough-hewn world, filled with tall grass, Sitka spruces, and hemlocks. After about 45 miles, civilization returns, sort of, as the microtown of Ophir shuffles into view. Stop and chat with Roger Roberts, the 55-year-old Loafer of Ophir, the town's mayor, sheriff, greengrocer, barkeep, and—you guessed it—lone resident. Share any cookies you may have brought and ask him if you can camp in his fiefdom.
After this, the trail climbs a high ridgeline. Mud frequently clogs the route. Bears crash through the underbrush. (That's why you have an air horn.) It's harsh country. But a few miners still work claims here, with a tenacity that's both formidable and poignant. This same spirit inhabits the empty streets of Iditarod itself, which you should reach about two days after leaving Ophir. Its dilapidated shacks deserted for decades, Iditarod can be sobering. Its emptiness does have one advantage, however: Your bush plane can set down right in the middle of Main Street.
For a guided trip along the Iditarod Trail, call Iditasport Inc. in Anchorage (907-345-4505); multiday rides cost about $250 per day. If you go on your own, round-trip airfare from Anchorage to McGrath on Pen Air is about $428, including bike handling (907-243-2323.). Enterprise Flying can then whisk you from Iditarod back to McGrath for about $150 per person (907-524-3322).

Filed To: Mountain Biking, Alaska