Granite Tors Trail

Popular For Dayhiking, Backpacking, Rock climbing
Type Loop
DifficultyModerate
Length14.1 miles roundtrip (22.7 km)
Minimum Elevation669 ft (204 m)
Maximum Elevation3,240 ft (988 m)
Elevation Gain3,400 ft total (1144 m)
RegionFairbanks – Chena River State Recreation Area
Location39.5-mile Chena Hot Springs Road
ParkingLarge lot – State Park fee for day use ($5/vehicle)

Granite Tors Hike Overview

The Granite Tors trail is a 14.1-mile loop located in the Chena River State Recreation Area. There is a day-use fee for parking and a state campground near the parking area. To camp in the backcountry is free, but you must adhere to State Park regulations and still pay the parking fee for your vehicle ($5/day at this writing – check before going).

The hike travels through alpine vistas dotted with giant monolithic granite towers throughout the countryside. The trail is steep, climbing about 2850 ft in 4 miles, but not outlandishly difficult. It’s a great introduction to backpacking. There’s not a good source of water at the top, so make sure you bring enough, or filter in the stream before leaving the valley floor!

Backcountry campsite and bacpackers under a granite tower at Granite Tors in Alaska
Camping at the “Flying Horseman’s Tor”

Day hike or overnight?

The trail is possible to do in a day, a typical day hike for me is 8 hours for the loop, and that’s taking time to take lots of photos and explore the tors but usually, I’m sore the next day. An overnight, camping at the shelter or many other locations along the trail makes for a much more relaxing hike, only covering 6-8 miles a day. If you are into long-distance trail running, this is a fantastic option for training! There are lots of great places to camp, just make sure to camp away from the trail and follow leave-no-trace principles.

There is a shorter 2-mile loop, however at the time of this writing, one of the bridges is out, so the loop is not completable in the summer. The shorter loop mostly follows the river and doesn’t have any significant elevation change, or a view of the tors. It can be a nice walk through the woods with the family.

The Alaska Range makes a painting-like backdrop to the Granite Tors
The Alaska Range makes a painting-like backdrop to the Granite Tors | Purchase Prints

The Trail

A short walk via a pedestrian walkway takes you over the bridge to Chena Hot Springs Road. Be cautious crossing the road here as traffic tends to come in fast around a blind corner from the west. The trail begins immediately on the other side of the road. This is also the start of the two-mile loop (at this writing one of the bridges is out, so it’s an out-and-back, adding to the 2 miles).

Snowy hillsides along the Granite Tors Trail in the Chena River State Recreation Area
View of the hills from the lower trail | Purchase Prints

Beginning along the Chena River, follow the wide, flat trail for roughly 0.7 miles, at which point you come to a trail junction. (There is typically an earlier junction, but the bridge is currently out – I’ll update this when I hear otherwise). Here you can turn left and take the trail clockwise (gentler up, steeper downhill), or be kind to your knees and go straight for the steeper uphill. If you want a shorter day hike to see the tors, going straight gets you to the “Welcome Tors” sooner, making an out-and-back option of 12 miles.

I prefer to go counter-clockwise (straight at the junction – described here. Note that you’ll be going opposite the direction of the mile-markers). Traveling over numerous boardwalks along a stream with multiple beaver dammed ponds you slowly gain elevation. Eventually, you’ll see the hill and gentle ridgeline the trail ascends in front of you. This part of the trail is typically packed and easy to follow in the winter months.

The Climb

The trail steepens and narrows. This section was quite overgrown with birch saplings and willow trees in the last few years. This makes for some very wet hiking in the rain as you are constantly brushing up against vegetation.

As you ascend out of the dense underbrush, the trail steepens even more. In winter, you will often lose the trail here. It’s not traveled often and becomes windblown with deep snowdrifts. Navigational abilities are a must for this reason. In summer the trail remains obvious until the very top where a few cairns can help you follow the path.

Hiker approaching the granite tors in fall
Near the top of the steep climbing and the “Welcome Tors”

Granite Tors Ridgelines

The trail eventually winds out of the spruce trees on rocky terrain and the “Welcome Tors” become visible. The trail is marked with mileage markers and marker poles up top. This can be a good place to explore some of the tors and turn around if you want a shorter day-hike. Otherwise, the trail begins to round to the east with more gentle uphill walking.

You’ll come to the top of the first hill and descend back into a brief forest in a saddle between the two hills. Get ready to climb again, the trail is steep up the second hill, but not for long. About 500 ft of climbing in 0.8 miles from the lowest point in the saddle brings you to the highpoint of the hike and “Alaska’s Stonehenge” and past the prominent Asgard Tor. On a clear day, you may have stunning views of the Alaska Range here!

The Asgard Tor, a granite tower with the moon over it and a spruce tree
The monolithic Asgard Tor | Purchase Prints

The trail flattens out for a while and is frequently very wet, rutted, and boggy. Walking slightly off-trail might keep your feet dry and prevent you from rolling an ankle. The trail veers off toward the treeline as the trail shelter comes into view.

Hiker approaching the trail shelter along the Granite Tors Trail
Approaching the trail shelter
Aurora borealis, or northern lights over the Granite Tors trail
Aurora Borealis from the eastern part of the loop | Purchase Prints

Descent

At this point, you begin the descent into the trees and occasionally through some large sections of talus. Once off the rockier slopes, you’re on the northeastern ridge that could be seen from the beginning of the trail. There’s a fair amount of up and down here, my legs usually feel this a bit when doing this hike in a day. Eventually, the trail begins to drop down the side of the ridge into bigger birch and spruce forest. The trail splits to the left (since the first bridge is out) and rejoins at the original junction from the beginning of the hike. Hang a right and return 0.7 miles to the road.

Birch forest in the Chena River State Recreation Area
Birch forest views while descending the eastern trail

Safety Considerations

This is bear country. I definitely recommend that you make noise while hiking, especially in the dense brush on the lower trail. You may want to carry bear spray or another deterrent as well, just make sure you know how to use it ahead of time. Use safe practices for storing food and keep food away from your sleeping area. bear safety info

Make sure you carry enough water, there aren’t reliable sources on the ridge. Water pumped from tussocks tastes like lichen and dirt. The trail is steep, and it’s a long hike for a day if you aren’t used to walking 15 miles on steep, rocky terrain. Be aware that climbing on the tors can be extremely dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. Breaking a leg or even spraining an ankle this far out can be quite troublesome. Also, there is no cell service.

Beaver pond along the Granite Tors Trail near Fairbanks, Alaska. The hillside is starting to change to yellow fall colors.
Beaver dammed pond along Rock Creek | Purchase Prints

Thanks for reading! If you’ve recently hiked this trail, feel free to leave current trail conditions in the comments. Please make sure to include the date!

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This guide is in its infancy, but will soon expand into many more territories. I have at least 30 guides in draft now, and am hoping to add 50 by the end of 2020!

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