A trip north up the Steese Highway from Fairbanks takes you through some of Alaska’s richest gold country as you make the 155-mile drive to Circle City, located on the Yukon River.
In addition to traveling through historic gold rush communities, part of the Steese is near the trail of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race, a 1,000-mile trek between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon.
Heading north from Fairbanks, the highway starts by skirting the eastern edge of Fairbanks, making a right at the intersection with the Elliott Highway.
The first notable stop comes in Fox, 10 miles north of Fairbanks. Fox began as a mining camp in 1905, but has since become a destination for restaurants and nightlife for those willing to make the short drive. The Turtle Club restaurant is well known for its heaping plates of prime rib and seafood. Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. is the northernmost brewery in the United States.
From May to October, the Howling Dog Saloon features live music in a colorful atmosphere. That’s not all there is at the Howling Dog. There’s a sand volleyball court and horseshoes. There’s a café serving cheesesteaks, burgers and daily specials. If you need a place to stay after a night at the saloon, cabins are available.
Road trip supplies and gas are available at the Fox General Store. From Fox, the Steese takes a sharp turn to the east, running through tailing piles and equipment from giant dredges that worked the valley in the mid-1900s. At 16 Mile, visitors can stop at the Felix Pedro Monument, the site where the Italian miner discovered gold in 1902, starting the stampede to Fairbanks. A public gold panning area is located just across the highway from the monument. Gold mining is still alive and well in the area; please respect private property.
The Steese also offers road access to the White Mountains National Recreation Area, where you can pan for gold at Nome Creek at 57 Mile. You also can hike, fish and camp in the White Mountains. Much of the area was burned by a wildfire in 2004. Hillsides are strewn with charred trees but become filled with color when the fireweed blooms in mid-July.
After descending from Cleary Summit, the Steese Highway winds through the scenic Chatanika River Valley. The town of Chatanika, created by mining activity, was once 10,000 people strong. Chatanika Gold Camp is the site of the old Fairbanks Exploration Co. Camp, built between 1923 and 1925 as the bunkhouse and dining hall for men who worked on Chatanika’s Gold Dredge No. 3. The camp is on the National Register of Historic Places.
At 28.5 Mile is a rustic lodge, across the road from what is left of Gold Dredge No. 3, which burned in 2013. The Chatanika Lodge was established in the 1930s as a trading post. The lodge’s Alaska decor showcases its hearty fare, with a full kitchen serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. At 30 Mile is Poker Flat Research Range, the only high latitude rocket range in the United States. It is owned by the University of Alaska. Poker Flat offers walking tours throughout the summer. Visit www.gi.alaska.edu/facilities/pokerflat for information.
Then stop at Long Creek Trading Post at 45 Mile for an espresso or ice cream.
A 2.5-mile loop offers access to the Davidson Ditch. The ditch is an 83-mile series of ditches, siphons and pipes once used to carry water from a small dam on the Chatanika River. It was one of the largest engineering projects in the world when it was built in 1925.
The road then climbs well above the tree line at Twelve-Mile and Eagle summits, two popular places to watch the sun skirt the northern horizon on the summer solstice.
After coasting down Eagle Summit to the small community of Central, about 128 miles north of Fairbanks, travelers enter the Circle Mining District. Central has a post office, general store and museum featuring the history of the Gold Rush and early 1900s.
Turning right at Central points you in the direction of Circle Hot Springs. The historic springs and associated resort, about 8 miles down the road, have been closed for years, but you can still check out the small ghost town.
From Central, Circle City, the road narrows and winds 34 miles to the banks of the Yukon River.
The river is 2 miles wide at Circle.
Circle, founded in 1893, was the largest city on the Yukon until gold was discovered in Dawson City, Yukon, in 1898. It served as the hub community for mines in the Circle Mining District.
At its peak, more than 1,000 people lived in Circle, which was named in the belief that it was located on the Arctic Circle, which actually is about 40 miles to the north. Today, the town has only a handful of residents. Gasoline and groceries are available.