The Lower Chatanika River State Recreation Area, located north of Fairbanks, Alaska is one of the two state recreation areas along the Chatanika River. Chatanika, a name derived from the word meaning whitefish river in Tanana Athabascans, is a 128-mile tributary of the Tolovana River winding through Alaska’s North Star Borough.
The area where the park stands today used to be a bustling railroad town. The town of Olnes, located just south of the park, once served as a railroad depot and had a store, hotel, post office, and nearly 300 residents at its peak. Olnes served as a transportation hub for mining during the height of the gold rush, but once the gold supplies depleted, miners left the area, and Olnes became a ghost town. The buildings remained standing until the early 1990s when the structures that hadn’t been scrapped, burned, or destroyed were finally dismantled.
Today, the remnants of Olnes are merely history, and visitors now come to the area to spend time outdoors along the Chatanika River. The lower river brings campers, RVers, anglers, and ATV riders to the vicinity because the terrain and landscape create ideal conditions for adventurous outdoor recreation. RVers staying overnight have the choice of two first-come, first served camping areas, and once settled for the night, they will find no shortage of outdoor fun nearby.
The Lower Chatanika River State Recreation Area is a short drive, approximately 24 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska. From the Elliott Highway, the recreation area is located at milepost 11.
The campgrounds and day use areas at Lower Chatanika River are self-pay. Some sections of the recreation area charge a day use and overnight camping fee year-round, while other areas only asses fees during the operating season. The operating season generally begins when the snow melts, or when the water is safe to turn on. Check the information boards when entering the facilities for specific information on each area.
The two campgrounds in Lower Chatanika River State Recreation Area do not have size restrictions on RVs and trailers, so the state’s rule of 65 feet or less isn’t applicable at the Chatanika Campgrounds.
The Olnes Pond Campground is a primitive-style campground that permits year-round camping. During the off-season, some services are winterized. Drinking water, restrooms, trash, and the boat launch open usually after the majority of the snow has melted. Upon arrival, all guests will pay applicable parking, overnight camping, and boat launch fees by using the self-pay stations located near the campground entrance. The Olnes Pond Campground assess fees year-round. The campground has gravel campsites with no size restrictions for RVs. There are no electrical, water, or sewer hookups, but each site has a fire ring and a picnic table for campers to enjoy the outdoors. The campground provides guests with drinking water, restrooms, dumpsters, and a hand-carried boat launch. Quiet hours are from 11:00 pm to 6:00 am. Generators and ATVs are not permitted to operate during quiet hours.
The Whitefish Campground is a primitive-style campground that operates seasonally. Upon arrival, all guests will pay applicable parking, overnight camping, and boat launch fees by using the self-pay stations located near the campground entrance. The small campground has gravel campsites with no size restrictions for RVs. Each space has a fire ring and a picnic table. There are no electrical, water, or sewer hookups in the Whitefish camping area. The campground provides guests with drinking water, restrooms, dumpsters, and reservable picnic shelter as well as a pay-per-use boat launch. Quiet hours are from 11:00 pm to 6:00 am. Generators and ATVs are not permitted to operate during quiet hours.
The Lower Chatanika area has trails leading from Olnes Pond branching out in almost every direction. The multi-use trails allow foot traffic, bikes, and ATVs. Whatever activity you participate in, ensure you have the proper equipment for the season, and you are prepared for varying weather patterns. Always be alert and understand trail rules. The trails near Olnes Pond lead toward the Chatanika River and the northern boreal forest, and each path is well marked and indicates hazardous areas.
ATV riders come to the Lower Chatanika River State Recreation Area because the network of trails offers mostly flat riding with an occasional steep grade. ATV riders of all abilities will have fun because the trails accommodate beginners to advanced riders. The trails wind through the forest and along the river providing scenic views and varying terrain. ATVs are not allowed on roads or highways, and speeds must not exceed ten miles per hour in the campgrounds. Children under the age of 14 must have an adult rider with them at all times. Please observe quiet campground hours, and refrain from riding between the hours of 11:00 pm and 6:00 am.
The Steese Highway is a designated Scenic Byway that connects Fairbanks with a small settlement just south of the Arctic Circle. The Steese Highway is open year round and is 50% paved and 50% gravel. Travelers taking the scenic byway can take any number of pull-offs to see wildlife, visit historical locations, pan for gold, take photos, and visit local villages. Exciting stops and milepost information, as well as road conditions, weather, and highway closures are posted online.
Fishing is one of Alaska’s favorite outdoor activities, and the fishing isn’t limited to the coastal areas. The Lower Chatanika River and Olnes Pond are both considered popular fishing areas in the northern region. River anglers may access the river from the Whitefish Campground boat launch or fish from the shoreline. Some of the common river species include northern pike, king salmon, chum salmon, Arctic grayling, and humpback whitefish. If lake fishing is more your style, Olnes Pond has species like burbot, longnose sucker, rainbow trout, and whitefish. All fishing areas have regulations and restrictions during certain seasons. For information on the types of licenses, bait, limits, and other fishing limitations, contact the area park office or the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
When you think of the states where dog sledding is a favorite activity, Alaska almost always comes to mind because of the famous dog sled race, the Iditarod. Dog sledding isn't just for racing though; many people like to sled for recreation. People interested in trying dog sledding have different tour options and sledding outfitters to choose from in and around the Fairbanks area. There are hourly tours, daytime tours, and even overnight tours where sledders have the opportunity to see the northern lights. Contact one of the local outfitters for more information on the iconic Alaskan activity.
When the weather turns cold, and the snow begins to fall, the hiking and biking trails inside of the Lower Chatanika River State Recreation Area become cross country skiing trails. People who want to try the sport should rent skis and other equipment near Fairbanks before heading north. If cross country skiing is a new sport for you, and you prefer lessons and guided excursions, there are Nordic centers and other ski clubs in the Fairbanks area that provide opportunities for adventurous people to get outside and experience Alaska on skis.