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Introducing Elliot Highway

From the crossroad with the Steese Hwy at Fox, just north of Fairbanks, the Elliott Hwy extends 152 miles north and then west to Manley Hot Springs, a small settlement near the Tanana River.

The first half is paved, the rest is gravel, and there's no gas and few services until you reach the end. Diversions along the way are comparatively few, but the leisurely, scenic drive, coupled with the disarming charms of Manley Hot Springs, make it a worthwhile one- or two-day road trip.

Lower Chatanika River State RecreationArea (Mile 11 Elliot Hwy) is a 570-acre park offering fishing, boating and camping opportunities along the Chatanika River. The area has two free, informal campgrounds: Whitefish and Olnes Pond.

At Mile 28 of the Elliott Hwy is the Wickersham Dome Trailhead parking lot and an information box. From here, trails lead to Borealis-Le Fevre's and Lee's cabins. Lee's Cabin (Sun-Thu/Fri & Sat $20/25) is a 7-mile hike in and has a large picture window overlooking the White Mountains and a loft that comfortably sleeps eight. Borealis-Le Fevre Cabin (Sun-Thu/Fri & Sat $20/25) is a 19-mile hike over the Summit Trail. Reserve through the Bureau of Land Management office (BLM; 474-2251) in Fairbanks.

At Mile 57, where a bridge crosses the Tolovana River, there's an old BLM campground that's no longer maintained, but there's still a turnoff here. The fishing here is good for grayling and northern pike, though the mosquitoes are of legendary proportions. Nearby is the start of the Colorado Creek Trail to Windy Gap BLM Cabin. Check with the BLM office in Fairbanks about use of the cabin during the summer.

Off Mile 62, 10 miles before the junction with the Dalton Hwy, a 500ft spur leads from the road to Fred Blixt Cabin (Sun-Thu/Fri & Sat $20/25). This public-use cabin should be reserved in advance through the BLM office in Fairbanks.

Livengood (lye-ven-good), 2 miles east of the highway at Mile 71, has no services and is little more than a scattering of log shanties. Here, the Elliott Hwy swings west and in 2 miles, at the junction of the Dalton Hwy, pavement ends and the road becomes a rutted, rocky lane. Traffic evaporates and until Manley Hot Springs you may not see another vehicle.

In short order the Elliot Hwy ascends to a high subalpine ridge, which it follows for miles, and on clear days affords views of Mt McKinley to the south.

The open country invites off-road hiking, and the breeze is often strong enough to keep mosquitoes at bay.

The rustic, privately-managed Tolovana Hot Springs (455-6706; www.mosquitonet.com/~tolovana; cabins $30-120) can be accessed via a taxing 11-mile overland hike south from Mile 93. Facilities consist of two cedar tubs bubbling with 125°F to 145°F water, plus, a quarter mile up the valley, two cedar cabins that must be reserved in advance. The trailhead isn't signposted; contact the managers for directions.

At Mile 110 is the paved 11-mile road to the small Athabascan village of Minto (population 207), which isn't known for welcoming strangers.

Beyond Minto, the Elliot Hwy briefly becomes winding and hilly, and then suddenly, at Mile 120, there's chip-sealing for the next 17 miles. Hutlinana Creek is reached at Mile 129, and a quarter mile east of the bridge is an 8-mile creekside trail to Hutlinana Warm Springs, an undeveloped thermal area with a 3ft-deep pool.

The springs are visited mainly in winter; in summer, the buggy bushwhack seems uninviting.

From the bridge it's another 23 miles southwest to Manley Hot Springs.