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The Interior: Fairbanks & the Yukon Valley

White Mountains National Recreation Area and Steese National Conservation Area

Location/Size: Mainly north of Steese Highway (AK 6), northeast of Fairbanks, contiguous with Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge; southern unit of Steese National Conservation Area is south of the Steese Highway. White Mountain National Recreation Area, 1 million acres; Steese National Conservation Area, 1.2 million acres.

Main Activities: Hiking, hunting, fishing, snowmachining, river running, wildlife viewing.

Gateway Towns/Getting There: Fairbanks/vehicle access via Parks, Alaska, and Steese Highways; scheduled air service from Anchorage and other points. Park access: vehicle access to Steese via Steese Highway (AK 6), to White Mountain National Recreation Area via Elliott Highway (AK 2); charter air service from Fairbanks; foot access via trail; snowmachine access via winter roads.

Facilities, Camping, Lodging: Emergency winter shelters, summer trails, 200 miles of winter recreation routes. Reservable backcountry cabins in White Mountain National Recreation Area, designated campsites, mainly primitive camping.

Headquarters and Information: BLM Arctic District, 1150 University Avenue, Fairbanks, 474-2200, aurora.ak.blm.gov/WhiteMtns.

These contiguous parcels of BLM land spread north and east of the major historic and modern-day mining areas near the Steese Highway. White Mountains National Recreation Area is famous for winter recreation options via 200 miles of marked winter roads and paths. There are several reservable public-use cabins along these routes, offering shelter and comfort at the end of a day’s travel. Good all-season hiking routes are described below.

Beaver Creek, a National Wild and Scenic River, has road access for a put-in at the confluence of Nome and Ophir Creeks, several miles southwest of Sourdough Camp on the Steese Highway. From there the creek never sees road again and drains all the way to the Yukon, just downstream from Beaver. The full 20-day route includes a segment on the Yukon with a take-out at Mile 56 of the Dalton Highway. Consult the BLM and outfitters about shorter trips.

The similarly sized Steese National Conservation Area has two units, one to the north of the Steese Highway and one to the south. Steese hosts an important caribou herd and provides habitat for many other species. The northern unit features the excellent three-day ridge route of the Pinnell Mountain Trail (see below).

The southern unit of Steese National Conservation Area encompasses the drainage of Birch Creek, a National Wild and Scenic River featuring Class I–Class III waters. Birch Creek loops 125 miles through BLM wildlands between a put-in and take-out on the Steese Highway. Consult the BLM or outfitters about time, equipment, and shorter trip options.

Between the two preserves, the Chatanika River drains along the route of the Steese Highway before the road cuts south and the river crosses the Elliott, meandering through Minto Flats State Game Refuge to meet the Tolovana River. Outfitters serve short float trips on the Chatanika because of easy road access. Also found in this tumbled area of historic mines is the Circle-Fairbanks Trail, described below.

Trails in White Mountain National Recreation Area and Steese National Conservation Area

Several White Mountain trails are intended for ATVs or snow-machines. Consult with the BLM in Fairbanks regarding cabins and trail conditions.

Circle-Fairbanks Trail (58 miles, 1,700' gain)—The muskeg, forest, and bog flats of the region’s valleys sent early Athabascans to the ridgetops to search for travel routes. This segment of their original trail runs from Fairbanks Creek Road (4 miles from Cleary Summit Ski Area on the Steese Highway) to Twelvemile Summit at Mile 85.6 of the Steese. It’s not actively maintained. Through trail—6–10 days.

Pinnell Mountain National Recreation Trail (27.3 miles, up and down along ridgecrests, 500' total gain northbound)—This is one of the best short backpack routes in the state. From Mile 85.6 to Mile 107.3 of the Steese Highway, the maintained path follows a ridgeline route entirely above treeline. Two emergency shelters are available. For a hefty 10-day route, you can link up with the Circle-Fairbanks Trail. Through trail—3–4 days.

Ski Loop Trail (5 miles, 500' gain)—This loop route begins and ends at Snowshoe Pass at Mile 28 of the Elliott Highway. Some sections may be wet or muddy. The route climbs to a summit then contours clockwise around the mountain and back to the pass. RT—half day.

Summit Trail (20 miles, 900' total, 1,800' return, 1,100' Wickersham Creek return)—From Snowshoe Pass at Mile 28 of the Elliott Highway, the trail follows the ridgeline to the north-northeast before dropping down a spur to Wickersham Creek. The return route along the stream is a winter trail and may not be suitable for walking. Consult the BLM office about options. RT—4–6 days.