Only an hour’s drive north of Fairbanks, rafting and fishing adventures abound
Winding through the historic mining country of the Fairbanks gold strikes and crossing over Cleary Summit, the Steese Highway drops down to the Chatanika River valley, where two state recreation areas overlook the river. Lower Chatanika State Recreation Area consists of 570 acres along the Elliott Highway; farther north on the Steese Highway is the 73-acre Upper Chatanika State Recreation Site.
During the Fairbanks gold rush in the early 20th century, the Chatanika River was used to support the area’s booming gold-mining industry, where its flow was used to operate gold dredges. In an effort to divert water to mining operations, dams were also built on the river to support the nearby mining operations. In 2002, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game removed several of these structures, which restored the original flow of the river.
With headwaters flowing from the rolling hills north of Fairbanks, the Chatanika River weaves through 128 miles of spruce and birch forest to its convergence with the Tolovana River.
The clearwater stream is rich with fish, such as grayling, lamprey, burbot, humpback whitefish, northern pike and sheefish. The river also has a modest run of king, silver and chum salmon in late July through October. Terrestrial creatures in the area include black and brown bears, moose, wolves, river otters and beaver.
The lower river traverses Minto Flats, an area of mostly open wetlands internationally renowned for its high quality waterfowl nesting and staging habitats, drawing in protected species of ducks, geese and swan.
Visitors to this area enjoy camping, fishing, rafting, hiking and picnicking.
The river is best suited to small vessels, such as canoes or kayaks, and encompasses the Chatanika River Canoe Trail (28 miles long), a BLM registered trail. For an all-day float, canoeists and rafters can launch their boats from a gravel bar reached from a road in Upper Chatanika State Recreation Site, and end at Lower Chatanika State Recreational Area. The longest section of river suitable for rafting is approximately 45 miles, and takes 3 to 4 days to cross.
Fishing is also excellent in the summer. The grayling population is optimal all summer, and the river has a modest run of king, silver and chum salmon in late July through October. For extended stays, visitors can camp at either park.