Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Fairbanks and The Steese Hwy, May 19-June 2, 2016

Fairbanks and The Steese Hwy, May 19-June 2, 2016

We spent about 2 weeks in the Fairbanks area, including the 4 day trip on the Dalton I write about in the next blog entry. We also took an overnight trip part way up the Steese Hwy towards Circle, AK.

Snow bank on the Steese Hwy near Eagle Summit Rest Area.

Steese Highway
While you are in the Fairbanks area, take a trip up the Steese Hwy to at least MM107, Eagle Summit. BLM Brochures for Steese & Elliot highways here. Or stop by the BLM office in Fairbanks for a paper copy.

The best time to go is in sunny weather. This can be a day trip, but a more relaxed trip is to boondock for two nights at a pullout from MM60-107 and take a day trip from there. If you are members of Escapees be sure to get the Days End Directory for details of places to stay. There are other sources for boondocking sites by searching online for “free campgrounds”.

The first 60 or so miles of the Steese is pretty nondescript. Mostly driving on a highway through birch, aspen and spruce trees. Beyond MM60 the highway begins to open up and around MM80 you begin to leave the trees behind and get into tundra covered hillsides with small black spruce trees at lower elevations.

The Steese Hwy is paved to about MM85. After that for at least the next 30 miles the road was in excellent condition, suitable for any rig if the road is dry. If it is wet, it can be slippery.

We drove our RV to MM65 and boondocked at a huge viewpoint/pullout well off of the road. The next morning we drove our pickup truck to Eagle Summit at MM107.

Our boondock spot at MM65:

The afternoon and night we stayed at MM65 was when we realized that, in this far north climate, trees and bushes grow best on the south facing slope. This is unlike most of the western US where vegetation grows best on the cooler and wetter north facing slopes. Here in the far north, the sun defrosts the ground and permafrost deeper, and the ground gets warmer, on the south facing slopes. This way the vegetation has a longer and better growing season. I detailed this more in my next blog entry about our Dalton Hwy trip here.

In the morning we drove our pickup from our overnight spot at MM65 to Eagle Summit at MM107. Here are some pictures along the road:

Starting the unpaved part of the Steese Hwy.

12 Mile Summit MM85.5.  A good boondocking spot with great views

At MM94 is Birch Creek. A rest area and a launch point for 110 mile canoe or raft trips down Birch Creek. The take out is at MM140. More info here.

Birch Creek and the launch point:  

Lots of the fairly level parking here at MM107 

There is very nice ¼ mile loop trail with information signs about the tundra plants here.

Picture of a Wooly Lousewort wildflower on the trail

Also Eagle Summit is the start or finish of the 27 mile Pinnell Mountain National Recreation Trail, which follows the ridge lines back to 12 Mile Summit.

However you don't need to walk for miles to enjoy the trail and a walk along tundra covered hillsides. Starting at the parking lot, the trail follows a series of easy switch backs, with an elevation gain of about 125' and about 1/3 mile, to the ridge line. From there the trail is fairly level for the next few miles. Walk as much or little as you like. In the summer wildflowers bloom here. We were too early for most of the flowers.

The trail along the ridge line
View from the trail along the ridge line

More views of the tundra covered hills from the road near Eagle Summit

Snow bank along the road near Eagle Summit.


Our “campground” of choice was the parking lot at Pioneer Park. They have designated RV spots for $12/night. Nothing fancy, but it was better than being in an RV park.

Our “campsite”.

There is a 5 consecutive night limit at Pioneer Park, so we also spent a couple of nights(not consecutive nights) at Sam's Club parking lot. It was very quiet parked behind Sam's Club gas station. At Sam's I did ask a manager for permission to park. Much, much quieter than at Walmart. Walmart is extremely busy. Lots of RV's coming and going, plus the store is very busy. Thre are 2 or 3 rigs parked there, long term, as well. They were there when we arrived and had not left by the time we were leaving the area. Also it didn't look like they had any intention of leaving this free parking spot.

We didn't do anything exciting in Fairbanks. Mostly just tourist things. I didn't take any pictures in Fairbanks.

The places we visited in Fairbanks:

The Visitor Center in the downtown area. Great, informative displays about Fairbanks, the area around Fairbanks and the four seasons in the interior and north country of Alaska. Well worth spending 2-3 hours looking at everything plus more time for the videos.  Plus there is a inter-agency information center here with information about the natural areas in the interior of Alaska.

Museum of the North at UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks)
An excellent museum on the UAF campus covering the people and animals of interior and northern parts of Alaska.

This is not only the place we parked in our motorhome most of the nights we were in Fairbanks. There are also a number of attractions and museums in the park. Go to the link above for a full list. We were here before Memorial Day so most of the visitor activities were not yet scheduled. The museums were open on limited hours though.

Here are the places we visited in Pioneer Park:
Well worth the visit if you have the time. Lots of pictures and artifacts from the Fairbanks area. An excellent series of small dioramas depicting gold mining methods from the 1890's to 1930's. A theater type show "Big Stampede" about the gold rush and the early people in Fairbanks. It was interesting but the last 10-15 minutes got real wordy. It was like the narrator was trying to extend the length of the show to reach about 45 minutes.
A restored riverboat which operated on the Yukon River. Only takes about 15 minutes to go though the riverboat.
Alaska Salmon Bake $35. All you care to eat.
While the Salmon and Beer Battered Cod were good, and the salads looked good, we were disappointed in the overall setting and ambiance of the place. The prime rib was just so so. An extremely thin slice and not very tasty. The weather the evening we were there was cool by our standards, low to mid 60's. At the booth where you paid they gave you a quick introduction and handed you a good sized “cold” fish shaped plate. They said you are welcome to use the plate for all your food. If you wanted a clean plate you could come back and ask for a clean plate. We would have preferred to have clean plates available at salad bar and the grill area. It would have been especially nice to have warm plates at the grill area. The seating was either outdoors, or in a large dinning hall which was just a little warmer than the outdoors. Probably about 68-70 degrees inside. It wasn't cold enough for them to heat the dinning hall I guess. For drinks (included with dinner) there was one soda dispenser, the kind you find in gas station convenience stores. All the refills you want. For condiments, catsup, tarter sauce, etc there is one cart outside. There is a pay bar for fancy drinks or for adult beverages. If you are there when 3 or 4 tour buses show up for dinner you will be standing in line for drinks or condiments. Getting there at 5 to 5:15pm you shouldn't have a problem with crowds. We noticed most tour buses didn't show up till 6-8pm.

This is a nice place to stroll through a botanical garden full of flowers which grow in Alaska. The flowers were not as well documented as I would have liked. It was an enjoyable place to spend an hour or so seeing the flowers and other plants which are either grown commercially or in the wild. We lucked out and got to chat with the botanist who “discovered” that growing peonies commercially in Alaska could be a great source of income for small farmers. We spent about 30 minutes talking with her about peonies and the Alaska interior in general. Alaska is the only place in the world where peonies mature to the harvest point in the June-September period. The rest of the year, there are other locations in the world which grow and export peonies. In 2016, Alaska expects to export around 100,000 to 150,000 flowers and in 2017 about twice that many. Links to Alaska Peonies here and here.

We enjoyed our stay in Fairbanks. There was a lot of relaxing and quiet time. Plus the two great trips on Steese & Dalton highways. Weather was decent. A few days of off and on rain, but no real downpours.  

Free potable water fill at Pioneer park and free dump stations at gas stations in town.  The easiest dump station to maneuver your rig in and out of is at the Tesoro Station at the corner of College Rd. and Illinois St.  No potable water though. 

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