Steese Highway


Dog mushers in the White Mountains National Recreation Area

The Steese Highway is a 151-mile route connecting Fox (just out of Fairbanks) with the Yukon River at Circle (which is actually about 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle). Along the route you'll cross the Chatanika River and pass by the White Mountains National Recreation Area. Birch Creek National Wild and Scenic River is also accessible from Steese Highway. At Central, just south of Circle, is a short road heading east, just in case you might enjoy a visit to (and a dip in) the Circle Hot Springs.

Before the Klondike Gold Rush, Circle was the largest settlement on the Yukon River. These days, the center point of the mining around here is at Central, where you'll find the Circle District Historical Society Museum. In addition to the displays about the Klondike Gold Rush and the history of mining in the area you'll also get to visit with some pre-glacial mammoth remains found in nearby Mammoth Creek.

The mountains here are massive white limestone formations. The limestone is several thousand feet thick in most areas. Over the millenia, the weather has eroded that limestone away until now there are jagged cliffs and rugged peaks and pinnacles all through the area. Digging in the valley floors will bring you to permafrost about 1 foot down (in the summer, don't bother trying to dig in the winter). That permafrost stunts the black spruce but allows for thick stands of willow and deep sedge tussocks. Along the waterways you'll find tall white spruce and dense high brush, plus beaver, muskrat and river otter. In the woods are plenty of grizzly and black bear, moose, wolverine, coyote, gray wolf, and caribou. In the higher areas you'll find Dall sheep and marmots. Summer sees an influx of hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.

Chatanika River, along the Steese Highway

The White Mountains National Recreation Area is a 1-million-acre Bureau of Land Management property that is accessed about 1 hour north from Fairbanks. This is a place where you can pan for gold, hike, camp, fish and hunt (in season). The BLM maintains two campgrounds in the recreation area (hand pump wells, pit toilets, trash cans, picnic tables, fire rings, parking, $6 per site per night, first come-first served), in addition to 12 public-use cabins and more than 250 miles of groomed snowmobile/snowshoe/ski/dog sled trails. This is also where you'll get access to the Beaver Creek National Wild and Scenic River for float trips to the Yukon River in Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

At mile 57 on the Steese Highway, you can turn north on the US Creek Road. Seven miles down that will bring you to the junction with the Nome Creek Road inside the White Mountains NRA. The Nome Creek Road gives access to several hiking trails, the two campgrounds, and the put-in site for Beaver Creek.

Cripple Creek Campground is another BLM-maintained 12-campsite location at mile 60 on the Steese Highway. There's a short interpretive nature trail here that follows the Chatanika River between the day-use area and the campground. Amenities (and fees) are the same as for the nearby Recreation Area.