By the Light of the Midnight Sun

Driving the Highways of Alaska's Fairbanks Region
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The Brooks Range
Find the Brooks Range via the Dalton Highway.

A few minutes spent with a road map quickly makes it clear that it's impossible to tour all of Alaska in a vehicle. Roads just don't exist to the western reaches of the state and through most of the Arctic. What roads there are, however, offer scenery the likes of which can be found nowhere else, and these same roads lead to adventures beyond almost anyone's dreams.

One of the prime departure points for touring Alaska by vehicle is the town of Fairbanks. Unless you're headed south to Anchorage or back down the Alaska Highway toward Canada, all of the driving opportunities in Alaska's Fairbanks region start on a single road leading north from town, the Steese Highway. On the Steese, it's 4.6 miles to the turnoff for Chena Hot Springs Road and 11 miles to the Elliott Highway turnoff in Fox. From Fox on the Elliot Highway, it's 73 miles to the start of the Dalton Highway.

All of the Dalton Highway, all but the first 28 miles of the Elliott Highway, and most of the Steese Highway are gravel-surfaced roads. Take necessary precautions, particularly with the Dalton Highway. The Dalton was built in the mid-1970s and is locally known as the Pipeline Haul Road or, more simply, the Haul Road.

The Steese Highway

Until the Pipeline Haul Road was completed in the mid-1970s, the Steese Highway offered one of only two routes to the shores of the Yukon River in Alaska. Then and now, it is still the most popular route, and the only highway from Fairbanks into the region that is home to the Yukon-Charley National Preserve.

When you pull into Fairbanks on the Alaska Highway, you come to a four-way intersection with a stoplight. To the left is downtown Fairbanks and the road to Anchorage; to the right is Fort Wainwright; the Steese Highway begins straight ahead. The Steese sweeps around the east side of Fairbanks and heads due north at first, gradually swinging to the northeast.

Arguably, gold was responsible for the Steese Highway. Felix Pedro's discovery claim, which resulted in part from the founding of Fairbanks, is just north of the city along the Steese. It's well marked and has a wide graveled area for stopping. Beyond that, about 127 miles from Fairbanks, lies Central, a town that grew up in a region where gold was being mined even before it was discovered near Fairbanks. People still mine gold in the hills and streams around Central, though little of this activity is visible to road travelers. The lower Steese Highway near Fairbanks, however, offers several things of interest to those wanting to sample Alaska's golden past.

Near Fox and at intervals along the highway, the bottom lands fill up with mounded gravel. These are the tailings left by gold dredges that worked through area streams. A gold dredge is a metal mechanical monster designed to scoop gravel from stream bottoms, process it for gold, and spit all the other stuff out the back. Even the smallest streams in gold-producing areas would get the gold dredge treatment. Dredges gradually worked their way downstream by digging a hole to float in and filling it in behind them. Though they floated, dredges can't be called boats. Before they could move, they had to dig out another place to float. As they proceeded downstream, the dredges crisscrossed the valley, trying to leave no stone or bit of bedrock unscraped in the quest for the precious yellow metal.

Today, environmentalists would have a fit were you to suggest reactivating an inland gold dredge. Without a doubt, these machines significantly alter the landscape. But it is possible to visit gold dredges today, because when the gold ran out, prospectors just left these things where they stopped. Little more than 9 miles from Fairbanks on the Steese Highway sits Gold Dredge #8. Guided tours are available and you can try your hand at panning for gold. There is also a restaurant, bar, and hotel for those who want to stay a little longer.

Officially, Gold Dredge #8 is a"National Historical Mechanical Engineering Landmark." (I'll bet that's a designation you've never heard before.) The dredge last operated in 1959. In the past few years, this five-story, 250-foot-long dredge has been restored and opened to the public, rapidly becoming one of the Fairbanks area's most visited attractions.

From the dredge, the Steese Highway winds past Fox as well as Pedro's discovery claim and up to Cleary Summit, a little less than 21 miles from Fairbanks, and not far from the White Mountains National Recreation Area. Atop Cleary Summit (2,233 feet) you look out over the Chatanika River Valley, which the road follows upstream for about the next 45 miles. Like the Chena River, there is grayling fishing available in the Chatanika, as well as canoeing. The Chatanika, though, is not as heavily used as is the Chena.

As far as fishing goes, the Chatanika does have one far-out thing that the Chena lacks—a spear fishery for whitefish, usually about the third week in September, just a few days before freeze-up. Most of the action takes place on a Saturday night at the Chatanika River Wayside, 39 miles from Fairbanks. Otherwise sane adults pull on hip boots, hoist a lighted gasoline lantern in one hand and a spear in the other, and wade into the river. Amid much shouting, consumption of personal antifreeze, and general revelry, these folks stand all night in freezing water trying to spear whitefish, which really aren't very big. Often this event coincides with the first snowfall of the year. If you've got a snug camper or motor home to sleep in, it's certainly something to see. But be careful: Should you get bit by the whitefish bug, you just might find yourself standing in the middle of a rapidly freezing river, all the while trying to think up some believable story for the folks back home.

Seventeen miles or so past Chatanika Wayside a large pipe is visible to the left. This is part of the Davidson Ditch, built in the 1920s to move water down to the gold dredges. After the dredges shut down, the water flow was used until 1967 to generate electrical power, when a major flood in Fairbanks flattened more than 1,000 feet of the pipe.

At about 100 miles down the road, you will find yourself in the midst of the Steese National Conservation Area, which encompasses 1.2 million acres of protected lands. The area is home to caribou calving grounds and is part of the Dall sheep's natural habitat.

Eagle Summit and Circle Hot Springs

Past the Davidson Ditch, the road continues to climb. When the climbing stops this time, drivers will find themselves well above timberline at Eagle Summit, 3,624 feet, 108 miles from Fairbanks. Timberline in this part of the world extends to between 2,500 and 3,000 feet. For folks used to the Colorado Rockies, where timberline starts above 10,000 feet, these numbers are pretty low. But they are handy. Using these numbers, travelers almost always have a means of estimating the heights of various mountains.

For example, say you note from a distance that timberline on a coastal mountain ends about one-third of the way up the mountain. Using that observation, you wouldn't be very far wrong to say that the mountain is about 7,500 feet high. You do, however, have to be a little careful and have some sense of where you start in relation to sea level. Say you're sitting at an elevation about 1,000 feet above sea level and you see another mountain where the timbered slopes run one-third of the way up. In this case, the summit would be only about 4,500 feet, because there are only 1,500 feet between you and the timberline.

At any rate, Eagle Summit is well above timberline. This is great country for ptarmigan hunting in August or September, but Eagle Summit is best known for the summer solstice. Though it doesn't ever get completely dark during summer nights in Fairbanks, the sun does set at least briefly every night. But on June 21, if the sky is clear, the added elevation at Eagle Summit means watchers can see the sun that never sets. At midnight (true midnight, not daylight savings time), the sun dips against the northern horizon but never quite sinks below it. On any given June 21, several hundred Fairbanksans trek to Eagle Summit hoping that the weather will permit them a glimpse of the midnight sun. The weather cooperates about half the time.

From Eagle Summit, the Steese Highway drops rapidly down to Central, one of the interior's oldest settlements—and, these days, one of the smallest. Central services various mining operations in the hills around town, though you won't see many of these folks in town during the summer. Those who make their living mining gold have only a few short summer months to extract a year's livelihood.

Just on the northern edge of Central there's a road junction. Straight ahead leads to Circle on the Yukon River. The road to the right leads to Circle Hot Springs, possibly the finest hot springs resort in Alaska accessible by road. Circle Hot Springs is open year-round, though it's usually a fly-in resort during the snowbound months. There's a great pool (outdoors but sheltered from the wind) and a renovated lodge that has stood on this site for decades. Circle Hot Springs is less than 9 miles from the junction on the Steese Highway.

The last 35 miles of the Steese Highway, from Central to Circle (also known as Circle City), runs mostly through lowland forests of spruce and birch. Circle, 162 miles from Fairbanks, was erroneously named by area miners in the late 19th century who thought the town site was actually on the Arctic Circle. Unfortunately, the Arctic Circle is about 50 miles farther north.

Circle periodically floods in May. When the ice goes out on the Yukon River each year, ice jams form from time to time. When one of these jams occurs just downstream from Circle, the water quickly backs up into town. When the ice jam releases, usually within hours to a day or so, the town quickly drains. At the entrance to the campground on the riverbank in Circle is a large plywood sign welcoming visitors to the campground. The last time the Yukon River flooded the town during breakup, the water reached the bottom of this sign, about 4 1/2 feet above the ground.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 22 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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