The transition from Seward all the way to Fairbanks was long and arduous. We had planned to go across the Denali Highway (next blog post) but it was raining hard and we didn’t know what we would be getting into on this mostly gravel road so we deferred. As it was, we went back to Anchorage where we visited the Potter Marsh and walked the boardwalk looking at several species of birds new to us.
We fueled up in Anchorage, where unleaded regular was $3.16/gallon. Then it was the long drive to Talkeetna where we dined at a Subway because we could get WiFi there. Finally, somewhere south of Cantwell, we pulled into a wide spot along the road and bunked down for the night.
In the morning, we continued our journey and passed by the entrance to Denali National Park and Healy, a small town on the outskirts of the park. Gas was only $3.25 here, so we topped off our tank. It took two more hours before the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, came into view and we began to wonder about a campsite. Cathy found the Tanana RV Park, next to the Fairgrounds and several miles from the University on College Street where we could have an electrical hook-up for $30/night.
This campground turned out to be a good choice. It was quiet and well situated for the stuff we wanted to do and for the shopping to re-supply. It had a laundry and showers as well, although the bathrooms could have been cleaner.
Our first stop in Fairbanks was to re-visit a place we had been to two years ago, Fountainhead Antique Car Museum. It was a rainy day anyway and this place is awesome. I am not a car nut by any means, nor is Cathy, but we find this place to be fascinating. There are probably over 100 restored cars on display ranging from models from about 1898 through the 1930s.
What makes it equally fascinating is that the cars are accompanied not only by signs describing them, but also the clothing of the period on mannequins. That is really a classy touch.
This museum is a little hard to find. Trust your GPS to get you started, then just follow the signs. You will be glad you did.
The next morning was quite nice and we headed out to yet another place we had been two years ago. It is called Creamers Field Migratory Bird Refuge, managed by Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It is really a nice place with several trails through fields and boreal forest. There are lots of birds, particularly Canada geese and sandhill cranes. We were a day early for the three-day annual Sandhill Crane Festival.
We rode our bicycles to the Tanana Valley Farmers Market. We don’t do farmers markets all that often, and while we were enthralled by the variety and novelty, we did suffer a little sticker shock. We had hoped to find fresh vegetables for less than in the supermarket and planned to stock up. However, green peppers were $4.00 each and that was pretty much the way of the other veggies as well. We bought a piece of fudge and left after wandering around.
After the Farmer's Market, we decided to take a drive up toward Circle, Alaska, which is at the end of the Steese Highway northeast of Fairbanks. This turned out to be a great decision and we only wish we had started sooner. This highway starts up past Ski-Land, a ski resort with chairlifts on a north slope. Word is that riding that chairlift will turn you into a popsicle faster than a deep-freeze.
This highway continues on, mostly east, into more and more wild country. We passed a few resorts, then some state recreation campgrounds and then we pretty much left civilization. The road eventually turns to gravel and crosses several high passes (high in this country might be 3,000-3,500 feet). At Eagle Pass we saw several herds of caribou, our first for the trip.
We finally made it to Central, about 36 miles from Circle. We went into the small store/restaurant and ordered burgers and fries for $12 each. I expected pretty low-end fare and was pleasantly surprised to have one of the best hamburgers I have ever eaten and fries as good as any you will find elsewhere.
While we ate, we visited with a young man who grew up in this remote village. He said he appreciated his childhood and now that he was on his own, came back routinely to visit.
It was too late to continue on to Circle so we reluctantly turned around and headed back to Fairbanks. We saw the caribou again at the pass and dropped on into Fairbanks about two and a half hours later.
The next day, despite gloomy weather, we headed north with our sights fixed on reaching the Arctic Circle via the Dalton Highway. This is the road that goes all the way to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean and is also referred to as the Haul Road. This road follows the Alaska Pipeline that brings crude oil to the Port of Valdez to be shipped to refineries elsewhere.
The construction of the Haul Road was an amazing story. Once it was approved, the entire 414 miles was built in a single season. Reports are that an enormous volume of trucks were moving 24/7 from early May through October, but they got it done.
We found this road to be a fascinating drive. It was wet the day we drove it and the truck got filthy dirty, but it was worth it. It was also vastly different than what we expected. Most of it runs through boreal forest of white spruce, birch and aspen. It was very hilly, not flat, and as you can imagine, it crossed many different habitat types.
The biggest river crossing was the Yukon on a bridge that is over 2,200 feet long with a three percent grade. This is the first place you can find fuel and food—be prepared to pay for it. Unleaded regular gas was $4.95/gallon. There is also a small visitor center here that is worth going into. We had a pleasant conversation with Bob, who had worked in Alaska for 37 years as a fire management specialist and now volunteered to run the visitor center.
There are several huge wildlife refuges along this road. Yukon Flats and Kanuti National Wildlife Refuges are two of them. These are BIG and very difficult to access. We did see a couple of guys head up the Kanuti River on a motorized inflatable boat and that is likely the best way to do it.
Like elsewhere in Alaska, the book called The Milepost, should be your travel bible on the Dalton Highway. Without it, we would not have found an overlook just past the Yukon River Bridge that takes you up on a hill overlooking the Yukon Flats NWR. We actually sent them a correction as well. They reported that the Hotspot near the Yukon Bridge was a good place to eat, but when we pulled in, we found it was closed for remodeling. We sent The Milepost editor a photo of that and she posted it on their Facebook page.
I mentioned that this is a gravel road. That is only partially true. There are sections of pavement that just randomly appear. However, and this is a big however, often the pavement is worse than the gravel. It is subject to frost heaves and potholes that can swallow a caribou whole and require some creative driving to stay on the road. A couple of other things you should know about this road include:
1. truckers have the right of way. It is really their road. Give them room.
2. With that said, beware of soft shoulders. They can suck your vehicle into a real mess that may require an extremely expensive tow bill to resolve.
3. Apparently, the gravel they use on this road is very sharp and likes to puncture tires. I left Idaho Falls with brand new tires and carried a second full-sized spare. That is the recommendation for anyone driving this road.
4. Many rental car companies do not allow you to drive their cars on gravel and dirt roads. Check before you rent. We have heard that there is a rental agency in Anchorage that will allow it but we don’t know the name.
We stopped at a BLM (most of the public land in the area is BLM) wayside called Finger Mountain. This has a short interpretive trail and a half mile trail out to Finger Mountain which really isn’t a mountain, but rather a large geologic feature we might call a rock. This was a pretty stop and only 17 miles from the Arctic Circle.
Our next stop was the Arctic Circle. There is a sign depicting this up a side road. There is also a BLM campground (free) with some more or less developed sites. The BLM says the campground is a work in progress. I don’t recall seeing any bear boxes so keep your food locked in your car if you stay there. I also recall that the upper loop was better than the lower loop so check them both out.
It was really cool to realize that we were almost on top of the planet. With regret, we realized we didn’t have time to make it the next 60 miles to Coldfoot and back so we turned around at the Arctic Circle sign. On the way back we fished in Fish Creek where I caught an Arctic grayling, INSIDE THE ARCTIC CIRCLE! Cool! We also fished briefly on the Kanuti River with no luck.
The drive back was pretty uneventful. We ate dinner at the Yukon Camp. It was a sparse menu of Asian origin and was okay. We bought tee-shirts stating that we had been to the Arctic Circle and all the way home we were high-fiving our accomplishment. One highlight though, was spotting 2 Arctic foxes next to the road. They were a delight to watch and gave us our third "first" mammal, the other two being lynx and caribou, for the trip.
We can hardly wait for the chance to go all the way to Deadhorse and see the Arctic Ocean. When we do, we hope to spend several days there and in the Brooks Range exploring and experiencing the Arctic. It is a 500-mile drive from Fairbanks and at the end, you have to pay a guide to take you the last eight miles through oil company property to actually see the Arctic Ocean, but it would be worth it. We just need to plan to take about ten days to do it.
We were a little bummed that the weather on our Dalton Highway drive was so poor. Most of the time the light was what photographers refer to as lead light—heavy, gray and dull. The next day was no better and we didn’t want to do another drive in the rain.
So, after a morning in the trailer, we decided to go try panning for gold at Gold Daughters, right across from the famed Gold Dredge 8. Panning for gold was actually quite interesting and we even found a little. Of course, they also provide you with a small bag that is guaranteed to have gold and that was even more fun.
When the next day dawned clear and bright, we were really excited. We first went to Creamers Field again and then headed out toward the vaunted Chena Hot Springs. It was a nice drive, but the springs look kind of like a rich man’s place and we didn’t stay long. We did check out Nordale Road, because we had been told that it was a good place to view the Northern Lights if they show.
The Ice Palace at Chena Hot Springs is pretty iconic but we didn't go inside.
That evening, we researched the Northern Lights a little and found that there is a rating system that tells you what the chances of seeing the phenomenon is. That night was supposed to be a pretty good night. We headed out of town about midnight with Cathy wringing her hands that we weren’t going to be able to see them. That was until I pointed out my window and, even with all the town lights, we could see them in the north sky.
We got to the spot that we had scouted earlier and joined a photographer in enjoying a show that lasted for about an hour and a half. Cathy took some amazing photos with her new Samsung Galaxy 8 cellphone that still have me wondering why I bother with thousands of dollars’ worth of photo gear. The Northern Lights truly were amazing, dancing around the sky like ghostly green and purple flames. I would be photographing one direction and Cathy would grab my sleeve and draw my attention behind me where a totally different show would be happening. It was certainly a highlight of the trip.
Our last stop in Fairbanks was actually in North Pole. We stopped at the Santa Claus Workshop and mailed cards to our grandkids “from Santa”. These will have an official North Pole, AK postmark on them. Last time, the grandkids thought this was really cool. Some of them are older and wiser now so this may not be such a novelty.
BTW, we didn’t buy gas as we left Fairbanks (my bad) so we thought we would just fill up in North Pole. It was quite a bit more expensive there. Ironically, as we headed down to Delta Junction, we passed a little place where gas almost matched Anchorage. Go figure.
All in all, we spent six days in Fairbanks and had a wonderful time. A lot of travelers we meet seem to just pass through Fairbanks. We have considered it one of the fun-filled parts of our journey and are very glad we didn’t miss it.
At Finger Mountain on the Dalton Highway. The Arctic Circle is just 17 miles behind us.