Introducing Steese Highway
The scenic but severely lonely Steese Hwy follows an old miners’ trail 162 miles from Fairbanks to the Athabascan village of Circle on the Yukon River. This hilly and winding road is paved for the first 53 miles, and then has a good gravel base to the mining settlement of Central. In the final 30 miles it narrows and becomes considerably rougher and more twisty. While an interesting drive, the route’s main attraction – Circle Hot Springs – has been closed for several years.
It may be worth a short drive up the highway to see the Felix Pedro Monument, which commemorates the miner whose gold strike gave birth to Fairbanks. The stream across the highway – now known as Pedro Creek – is where it all happened.
Beyond this is the FE Gold Camp (Mile 27.9), a national historic site. The camp was built in 1925 for the dredging that went on from 1927 to 1957 and removed an estimated $70 million in gold (at yesterday’s prices).
A few miles beyond, the landscape opens up, revealing expansive vistas as well as evidence of forest-fire activity. There are several state campgrounds, including Cripple Creek BLM Campground, which is the uppermost access point to the Chatanika River canoe route.
Access points for the Pinnell Mountain Trail are at Mile 85.6 and Mile 107.3. The first trailhead is Twelvemile Summit, which offers remarkable alpine views and is often snowy well into June. Even if you have no desire to undertake the three-day trek, the first 2 miles is an easy climb past unusual rock formations.
The Birch Creek Canoe Route begins at Mile 94, where a short road leads down to a canoe launch on the creek. The wilderness trip is a seven- to 10-day, 110-mile paddle to the exit point, at Mile 140.5 or 147.2 of the highway. The overall rating of the river is class II, but there are some class III and possibly class IV rapids that require lining your canoe.
Eagle Summit (3624ft), at Mile 107, has a parking area for the second trailhead of the Pinnell Mountain Trail. A climb of less than a mile leads to the mountaintop, the highest point along the Steese Hwy and a place where the midnight sun can be observed skimming the horizon around the summer solstice. On a clear day, summiting here can feel like ascending to heaven. The peak is also near a caribou migration route.
Twenty miles later, the highway passes through Central (Mile 127.5), a former supply stop on the trail from Circle City, and finally to Circle itself (Mile 162), once a bustling town of 1200 people, with theaters, dance halls and 28 saloons. Circle, on the Yukon River, grew up during the Klondike Gold Rush (1897–98) and was erroneously named by original settlers who thought it sat on the Arctic Circle (which actually lies 50 miles to the north).