Just over 100 miles northeast of Fairbanks, the Steese National Conservation Area (NCA) in eastern Alaska is a Bureau of Land Management Property perfect for outdoor recreation. The remote location, near the small town of Circle, is a haven for visitors who want to spend time outside without the interruption of others and don't require too much in the way of services. The NCA is separated into two sections by the Steese Highway. Popular stops for breathtaking views are the Eagle and Twelvemile Summits.
The south section of the conservation area can be accessed by watercraft on the Birch Creek Wild and Scenic River. Visit this region if you are looking to fish and do some dry camping. The north section is suited to hikers, rock climbers, and wildlife enthusiasts. It boasts the only maintained trail of the NCA, the Pinnell Mountain National Recreation Trail. Either section would suit visitors in the winter who snowmobile, ski, and snowshoe around the vast, white, and very cold wilderness. In the summer, all visitors enjoy plenty of daylight in this land of the midnight sun full of streams, wildflowers, and birds.
BLM camping is the preferred option for visitors to the Steese National Conservation Area. There are hike-in primitive free camping opportunities on-site. For RV-friendly camping, Cripple Creek Campground is closer to Fairbanks and the world-famous Denali National Park and Preserve. Other destinations while in this scenic part of Alaska include the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and the Tanana Valley State Forest. With a little planning and the right gear, the Steese National Conservation Area can be a wonderful vacation spot.
Only a small number of roads enter the boundaries of the Steese National Conservation Area, and they are not RV-friendly. These roads are only suitable for high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles, not navigable in a large RV or when towing a trailer. The best options for RVers wanting to explore or camp at Steese NCA are to access the area on foot or using the Birch Creek Wild and Scenic River.
You can park at the trailhead to the Pinnell Mountain National Recreation Trail at mile 85.6 on the Steese Highway and walk in. If you're feeling adventurous, you can kayak or raft along the river for access to the southern portion of the Steese NCA. If you want to attempt this method, you can use the highway to access Upper Birch Creek between Twelvemile and Eagle Summits, or drive past the small town of Circle, also past the NCA, and enter the water at Lower Birch Creek.
For road access to the northern section of the NCA, your best bet is the roads that reach Porcupine Creek, Nome Creek, and Faith Creek. Although a little more limited, road access to the southern section can be made following signs to Roads Harrison Creek and Bottom Dollar Creek. Except for the Pinnell Mountain National Recreation Trail, routes within the Steese National Conservation Area are unmaintained. Whether it's summer or winter, you need to know where you're going because the roads are also largely unmarked. Both winter and summer routes within the Steese NCA are unmaintained and unmarked.
Cripple Creek is a BLM campground at mile 60 of the Steese Highway. There is a small charge for camping here, but there are RV-friendly sites. This BLM property is accessed using a blacktop highway, so it is reachable if you are towing a trailer or driving a larger motorhome. The sites are close to the Chatanika River for easy fishing access. Campers can also make use of the riverside day-use area for picnics and general relaxation.
Cripple Creek provides a few amenities you might be missing if you've been doing a lot of backcountry camping. They have toilets and access to drinking water for visitors. Pets are allowed here and your site will have a picnic table and fire ring.
There are no set campgrounds at the Steese National Conservation Area with any hookups or facilities like playgrounds and boat ramps. What the area lacks in services, it makes up for with its amazing setting and luckily, the camping is free. Only backcountry camping is permitted at the conservation area and is done at your own risk.
There are two emergency trail shelters within the Steese NCA North section at North Fork and Ptarmigan Creek. They are primitive cabins available on a first-come, first-served basis only. Water catchment systems for rain or melting snow are the only amenities they offer. These shelters and other locations on the Pinnell Mountain National Recreation Trail can be accessed on foot only. RVs can't make it off the main road, called the Steese Highway. To access the camping areas along the Pinnell Mountain Trail, park at either Eagle Summit or Twelvemile Summit and hike in. There are restrooms at each of these two summits - the only ones close to the Steese National Recreation Area.
When doing backcountry camping in this mountain and river paradise, be prepared to share the area with wildlife like bears. If you didn't bring enough water for your trip, treat any water you get from open water sources like rivers and streams. Read up on everything you need to know before you go.
Travelers to the Steese National Conservation Area can expect untouched wilderness and very few sightings of other humans. Since the area is mostly undisturbed, visitors get to experience unparalleled wildlife viewing.
Set your sights on the sky for the chance to spot raptors like eagles and upland birds. Fox, moose, and bears also frequent the areas along the Steese Highway, Birch Creek Wild and Scenic River, and the Pinnell Mountain Trail.
Perhaps the most unique wildlife experience at Steese NCA is the chance to watch the migrating caribou. The NCA offers migration corridors, winter ranges of boreal forests, and alpine tundra calving grounds used in the summer.
The area between Twelvemile Summit and Eagle Summit is the ideal place to watch the caribou from late July to early September. The almost 24 hours of daylight certainly helps with visibility.
The best place to hike in the Steese National Conservation Area is the Pinnell Mountain Recreational Trail. The trail runs for 24 miles through the steep and rugged countryside while hugging the southern boundary of the north section of the NCA.
Hikers can start the trail at either Eagle Summit or Twelvemile Summit since the trail joins these two landmarks. On the trail, you will pass the two emergency cabins at North Fork and Ptarmigan Creek in case you need to stop for the night. This is the only maintained and marked trail within both the north and south sections of the conservation area.
A trip to Steese National Conservation Area would not be complete without a paddle on the Birch Creek Wild and Scenic River. There are no boat rentals at Steese NCA, so you'll need to bring your own. If you're comfortable with it, use your canoe, kayak, or raft to gain access to the NCA from either the Upper or Lower Birch Creek entry points.
Exploring the area by watercraft is ideal to maintain the natural peace and quiet needed to spot rare and elusive wildlife. Watch out for bear, caribou, Dall sheep, moose, and fox while out and about on the water.
The Steese National Conservation Area is sparsely visited in the good weather of the summer, and this is also true for visitors daring to make the trek in the winter. The unmarked trails here are open to snowmobiling (with some weight and other restrictions), skiing, dog-sledding, and snowshoeing.
Access to the area in the winter is at your own risk since it is prone to snowdrifts, thin ice on the streams and rivers, and very cold temperatures. The payoff, though, is a quiet, snow-filled paradise.
The opportunities for conveniences like supermarkets and restaurants are non-existent at Steese NCA. This is all the more reason to try and catch your dinner. Fishing is a great way to enjoy the expansive wilderness while doing something useful.
Some of the larger rivers and streams here are home to King and chum salmon, which is one of the reasons bears frequent the area. Additional types of fish you may catch include the Arctic grayling, northern pike, burbot, and round whitefish.
If you are a lover of rock climbing but happen to live somewhere flat, then you'll be glad you took the road trip to Steese National Recreation Area. The most common place to engage in this exciting sport is at the Mount Prindle Research Natural Area. The mountain itself is found on the northern section's southwest boundary.
The Mount Prindle headwall faces south and offers two recommended walls for climbing. The main wall towers 900 feet above with satellite buttresses. The smaller wall totals 300 feet.
Due to the area's remote location, it is difficult to get in and out in one day. Prepare to camp overnight in isolated country. This trip should only be made by experienced and well-prepared visitors.