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The Interior: Fairbanks & the Yukon Valley

Steese Highway (AK6) -- Fairbanks to Circle

Road Conditions and Attractions—160 miles. Open year-round. The first 40 miles are paved, the rest is maintained gravel; the final miles have numerous sharp curves. Access to White Mountains National Recreation Area, Steese National Conservation Area, scenic passes above treeline, mining history, trailheads, river put-ins, Circle Hot Springs, Circle, and Yukon River.

The Steese heads north from Fairbanks then quickly turns to the northeast, winding through the historic mining country of the Fairbanks gold strikes. Crossing over Cleary Summit, the road drops down to the Chatanika River and follows the boundary of the White Mountains National Recreation Area along the ridgeline to the north. Climbing above treeline to Twelvemile Summit, the route crosses from the Tanana into the Yukon watershed then climbs again to Eagle Summit before dropping to the lowlands, the town of Central, and the turnoff to Circle Hot Springs. After the tortuous final miles, the Steese reaches the town of Circle, the Yukon, and road’s end.

Most of the route winds through the twisting heart of the White Mountains, allowing access to mining sites, trailheads, river put-ins, and other recreational options. Services are available in Central and Circle. You’ll see plenty of evidence of dredge and placer mining—old and new.

Fairbanks (Mile 0)—See above.

Chena Hot Springs Road Junction (Mile 4.9)—See above.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint (Mile 8.9)—This is one of the main viewing locations for visitors who wish to learn about the pipeline. The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company operates a visitor center here (open Memorial Day–Labor Day daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. 456-9391, www.mosquitonet.com/~ranchmotel/transack.htm).

Goldstream Road Exit (Mile 9.5)—Access to historic Gold Dredge Number 8, featuring mining relics and buildings, gold panning, a mastodon- and mammoth-bone display, museum, gift shop, snack bar, RV parking, tours, and, of course, the gold dredge. P.O. Box 81941, Goldstream Road, 457-6058, fax 457-8888. Open June–mid-September daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., $10.

Steese-Elliott Junction (Mile 11)—The expressway turns into the Elliott Highway while the Steese exits, turns east and heads into the hills.

Felix Pedro Monument (Mile 16.5)—This roadside monument remembers the man who discovered gold in Pedro Creek in 1902, setting off the gold rush that led to the founding of Fairbanks.

Cleary Summit (Mile 20.3, 2,233' elevation)—There are some good views from the summit area. There’s also a small ski basin with a hilltop lodge.

Old F.E. Gold Camp (Mile 27.9), Chatanika, 389-2414. $60–$90. Food and lodging in a wonderful restored mining complex. Northern-lights viewing in winter.

Chatanika Lodge (Mile 28.6), Chatanika, 389-2164. Rooms $50–$65. Excellent classic Alaska roadhouse restaurant and bar. Take a look and then grab a bite. Walk to the gold dredge across the road (be careful to respect private property signs if posted). RH

Upper Chatanika River State Recreation Site (Mile 39)—Good river access. Campground with 25 sites, $8.

Pavement Ends (Mile 43.8)—Switch here to a good gravel road. Open year-round.

Davidson Ditch and Nome Creek Road (Mile 57.3)—In 1925 the 35-mile-long Davidson Ditch was built to carry water south from the higher reaches of the Chatanika River to an area not far from the settlement of Chatanika. The water was used to float the dredges that chewed away at placer deposits. Segments of large pipe were joined with tunnels and ditches to complete the project. Read the story and take a walk on the pipe.

From here, the road leads to the Nome Creek put-in for the Beaver Creek route (see White Mountains National Recreation Area and Steese National Conservation Area, below). Work is underway to lengthen this road to Ophir Creek.

Cripple Creek BLM Campground (Mile 60)—21 sites.

Twelvemile Summit and Trailheads (Mile 85.5, 2,982' elevation)—Pull off here for views and a short walk. The southern trailhead for the Pinnell Mountain Trail is here, as is the northern end of the Circle-Fairbanks Trail. The two can be linked into a very long route (see White Mountain National Recreation Area and Steese National Conservation Area, below).

Birch Creek Canoe Trail Put-in (Mile 94)—See White Mountain National Recreation Area and Steese National Conservation Area, below.

Pinnell Mountain Trailhead (Mile 107.1)—Not quite in the pass, this is the northern end of the route (see White Mountain National Recreation Area and Steese National Conservation Area, below).

Eagle Summit (Mile 108, 3,624' elevation)—This is the high point of the road and a great viewing area. Fine wildflowers in season.

Central and Circle Hot Springs Road Junction (Mile 127.8)A few businesses are scattered near the junction along the short stretch of paved road that runs through town. You’ll find food, gas, and lodging options. Turn south here for the 8-mile drive to Circle Hot Springs.

The town of Central (population 58) began as the Central Roadhouse in 1896, serving the Circle Mining District. It still serves as a supply center for the miners who work about 65 area claims. Visit the Circle District Historical Society Museum west of the junction on the north side of the road. This small, new museum features mining and area heritage exhibits. Ask about the great gold robbery of 1996, 520-1893. Open Memorial Day–Labor Day daily noon to 5 p.m.; $1, children under 12 50¢.

Circle Hot Springs Resort is my favorite of the three road’s-end hot springs north of Fairbanks (Chena, Manley, and Circle). The water here is hot, unlike that in Manley; and only slightly aromatic, unlike that in Chena. There’s a very large, clean outdoor pool in which you can find your spot and soak. The lodge itself is rustic and loaded with history. Enjoy the quiet ambiance of hot water, cool air, and easy living as contented people stroll amicably about. An airstrip allows charter air access from Fairbanks. Mile 8.3 Circle Hot Springs Road, Central, 520-5113. Open year-round, rooms $95–$125, cabins $85–$110, floor space for sleeping bags $20, restaurant and bar open all day, exercise room, library, massage therapy, and gift shop. Swimming for nonlodgers is $5.

Circle (Mile 162)—After enduring the final 35 winding miles of the Steese, you’ll arrive at road’s end, the Yukon River, and the town of Circle (see below).