Steese Highway
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Steese Highway

The Road That Has it All!

This highway from Fairbanks passes through the Chatanika River valley next to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, by gold camps, over rolling hills of tundra, past wildlife, hot springs and finally to the mighty Yukon River.

Naming of the Steese
The Steese Highway was built in 1927 and named after Gen. James G. Steese, a former president of the Alaska Road Commission. The first 56 miles of the Steese Highway are paved, but the rest is two-lane gravel. Although the highway is open year-round, winter travelers should check on road conditions with the Department of Transportation in Fairbanks, (907) 451-5204.

Chena Hot Springs Road
Chena Hot Springs Road, which splits off the Steese Highway at Mile 4.9, ends at Chena Hot Springs Resort nearly 60 miles later.

Pipeline Visitors' Center
Farther up the Steese Hiway, at Mile 8.4, you can get a good look at the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The pipeline carries oil from Prudhoe Bay over mountain ranges, permafrost and tundra 800 miles south to Valdez. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. operates a visitors center seven days a week from May to September at the site. Close-up of Dredge Buckets

Fox Intersection
One mile farther up the road is Gold Dredge No. 8. The dredge, built in 1928, is open for tours. A three-way intersection in Fox gives you the choice of turning left into Fox, a tiny town at the junction of the Steese and Elliot Highways, best known for the Fox Roadhouse, which has been the Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. since February 1998. It is located on land worked over by a gold dredge decades ago, and Gold Dredge 8 (see above) is one of the local attractions.

[This photo of the "buckets" on a gold dredge is from the Lulu Fairbanks Collections in the UAF Archives. If you look carefully, you will see two men on either side of the buckets, showing the size of the buckets.]

The two other choices are taking the road north up the Elliott Highway, or turning right to continue on the Steese Highway. To the right, the highway traverses several miles of rock and gravel mounds. These are "tailings" from the huge dredges that mined the area for gold in the earlier part of the last century.

Pedro Monument
At Mile 16.5, a turnout and monument honors the location where Felix Pedro (Felice Pedroni) is believed to have discovered gold in 1902, starting the gold rush in the Fairbanks area.

Cleary Summit
The road climbs steeply from here to Cleary Summit. From the small gravel parking lot at the summit you will have a sweeping view to the north of the Chatanika Valley. This is a good place to watch the midnight sun in late June.

Chatanika Gold Camp
At Mile 27.9 is the Chatanika Gold Camp. This is the site of the old F.E. Co. Camp, which was built in 1921 to support 200 Chatanika dredge workers. The camp now has a restaurant, bar, rustic hotel and three multi-room cabins. "The world's largest coal-fired cook stove" is used to prepare Sourdough breakfast buffets on Sunday mornings.

Chatanika was an important gold mining district, and an old gold dredge still sits in a pond a few miles from Poker Flat. Chatanika now consists mainly of a few lodges frequented by hungry Poker Flat personnel.

The road follows the Chatanika River for the next several dozen miles. In case you are "into" fishing, grayling (over 12 inches) on the Chatanika and its tributaries is catch-and-release using unbaited single-hook artificial lures only, April 1 to May 31. After June 1, the daily bag and possession limit is five. Check with Fish and Game personnel before you visit, in case there are recent changes to the above guidelines.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a trailhead at Mile 42.5 which provides access to the White Mountain National Recreation Area trail system for hikers as well as ATVs.

Davidson Ditch
At Mile 57, U.S. Creek, you will have one of the best views of the famous Davidson Ditch, a series of ditches, siphons, and pipes once used to carry water from a small man-made dam on the Chatanika River to the working gold dredges of Fox and Chatanika. The Davidson Ditch cuts across the hillside of Poker Flat's middle range; it was 12 ft wide, 4 ft deep, and ran 83 miles, with another seven miles of 48-inch pipe. When it was built in 1925, it was one of the largest engineered projects in the world.

Just past U.S. Creek, at Mile 60,  is the Cripple Creek campground, operated by the BLM.

At Mile 85, the highway comes up out of the Chatanika valley to Twelvemile Summit (3,624 feet). The south end of the Pinnell Mountain Trail joins the highway at the ridgetop. The north end of the hiking trail, a strenuous two-day trip, intersects the highway at Eagle Summit, Mile 107.

Eagle Summit
The summit is the highest point on the road and another favorite spot from which to watch the midnight sun during the solstice in late June. On clear days, you will be able to see the Alaska Range, 100 miles to the south. There is a new BLM-built parking area with a short nature trail to a deck on the tundra.

It is pretty much downhill after Eagle Summit to the town of Central, where you enter the Circle Mining District. You are now about 128 miles north of Fairbanks. The district's historical museum in Central is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day noon until 5 p.m. Featured are antiques from the gold rush, such as an organ from a trading post, artifacts, an old-timer's cabin and a reading library. A modern-day gold mining exhibit features 20 types of gold from local placer miners.

An eight-mile spur road takes off from here, leading to the Circle Hot Springs Resort.

Birch Creek
If you like canoeing, you can launch at a BLM facility on Birch Creek, Mile 94. There are some rapids in Birch Creek, and it will take more than one day to float to the new take-out, at Mile 140. The take-out can also be used as a put-in for a six-hour float to the Birch Creek Bridge at Mile 147.

Before returning to Fairbanks, you can drive the winding road to Circle, on the banks of the Yukon River. Before gold was discovered in Dawson City, Circle, founded in 1893, was the largest gold mining town on the river. More than 1,000 people lived in the town, which was named in the mistaken belief that it was on the Arctic Circle, another some 30 miles north. Today, Circle has a population of about 80. It has a grocery store, two gas stations, motel and trading post, post office, cafe, campground, boat launch and general store.

Circle is a starting point for travel on the Yukon River. Circle City Charters offers river transportation and tours all in a covered and heated aluminum inboard jet boat. Visitors can travel upriver from Circle to the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

 

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