Driving the Steese Highway north from Fairbanks is like following a river upstream as it diminishes into its headwaters. First it's a four-lane freeway, then a two-lane highway, then the pavement gives out (at about mile 60), and eventually the gravel gives way to dirt. The road climbs over round tundra mountains, leaves behind the last tiny town, and then drifts through uninhabited woods before ending on the banks of the Yukon River at a tiny Athabascan village, Circle (named for the Arctic Circle, which it isn't on). It's a rough 162-mile drive to nowhere. But if nowhere is where you want to go, the Steese Highway may be the right adventure for you. Just don't forget the mosquito repellent.
Much of the land surrounding the Steese is controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), 1150 University Ave., Fairbanks, AK 99709 (tel. 800/437-7021 or 907/474-2200). Small- and large-scale gold mining takes place in the area, but most of the land is managed for conservation and recreation, with several campgrounds, some popular river floats, and a couple of beautiful hikes. The BLM website contains a lot of good information, but you'll need to type in this ungainly URL to get started: www.blm.gov/ak/st/en/prog/recreation.html#. In addition, the state parks department manages the Upper Chatanika River Campground, at mile 39, with 24 sites, pit toilets, a hand pump for water, and a $12 fee. This is the starting point for the most popular river float on the highway. Before heading out, call state parks at tel. 907/451-2705, as the campground hasn't been consistently open.
Without driving to the bitter end at Circle (where the only attraction is the Yukon River itself), you can make a goal of Eagle Summit, at mile 107, the highest place on the highway (3,624 ft.), and a good spot to be on June 21 each year, the summer solstice. Although it's still a degree of latitude below the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets here on the longest day because of the elevation and atmospheric refraction. People come out from Fairbanks and make a celebration of it. The midnight sun is visible for about 3 days before and after the solstice, too, assuming the sky is clear. The BLM has installed a toilet and a viewing deck on a 750-foot loop trail at the trail head to the 27-mile Pinnell Mountain National Recreation Trail. This is a challenging 3-day hike over amazing terrain of rounded, windblown, tundra-clothed mountaintops. To hike it in the easier, more downhill direction, start at Eagle Summit and end at Twelvemile Summit, mile 85.5. Two emergency shelters along the trail provide protection from the ferocious weather that can sweep the mountains. Get the free BLM trail brochure before going or check the trail's web page at the BLM site mentioned above.
The next sensible destination is the tiny town of Central, population 96, which occupies a birch grove 128 miles along the highway. It's a real, old-fashioned gold-mining community and home of the remarkable Circle District Museum (tel. 907/520-1893; www.cdhs.us), which displays old mining equipment outdoors and has a large indoor gallery on the area's history. The museum's normal hours are summer Thursday through Sunday noon to 5pm, but check on the website before going, as there's concern it won't be able to stay open with the potential loss of the only accommodations in town. That's the Steese Roadhouse (tel. 907/520-5800), which, if operating, offers rooms, gas, food, and drink. A campground is open in the summer on a spur road to Circle Hot Springs, the site of a historic hotel and swimming pool that shut down years ago. To learn more about the area, check out these websites maintained by community members: www.steesehighway.org and www.bottomdollar.us.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.