Bonanza! The hidden treasure of Alaska’s state recreation sites
Jamie Hazlett / Sun Star Columnist
June 24, 2011
Now that the tour buses and cruise ships are ferrying loads of visitors in and out of Alaska’s more famous sites and cities, what’s a starving college student to do? You want to get out and enjoy the summer, but all of the main attractions are overflowing with people and the price of everything related to travel has skyrocketed. Maybe you’re limited to day excursions by your busy summer course or work schedule. You may even be completely unaware of what the Interior has to offer aside from Denali. Dig out your roadmaps, fellow travelers, and introduce yourself to Alaska’s state recreation areas.
Much more than the run-down settings of horror movies past and present, state recreation areas offer access to a variety of different places and activities. Some of these opportunities are surprisingly close at hand. Been to Fred Meyer lately? If so you’ve probably driven past the Chena River State Recreation Site, located just over the bridge on University Avenue. This is a great place to head if you’re new to the concept of camping out or you want to give your new gear a test run. Better yet, go a little farther afield and venture into the quarter-million acre Chena River State Recreation Area, home to the locally well-known Angel Rocks and Granite Tors trails as well as many less popular spots. Easily accessible from Chena Hot Springs Road, a day spent hiking here comes with the ultimate perk of being close to the hot springs themselves when it’s time to relax.
If you’re looking to explore further, head south on the Richardson Highway towards Delta Junction. Between Fairbanks and Delta you’ll pass five different state recreation or historical sites, and a further four designated recreation areas lie to the south of Delta. Each site has its own unique characteristics. Those particularly interested in being on the water or looking for a more highly developed campground might give the Harding Lake or Quartz Lake State Recreation Areas a try. People with a more rustic bent ought to head for the smaller Donnelly Creek State Recreation Site, about 30 miles south of the junction with the Alaska Highway. History buffs should take a peek into the past at the Big Delta State Historical Park, which makes for a great day trip from Fairbanks. Don’t forget to stop off at the Knotty Shop, just south of Eielson Air Force Base, for great ice cream.
If you aren’t into tent camping but want to spend a night or two away from the stress of schoolwork and summer employment, consider reserving one of the many public use cabins around the Interior. Public use cabins are available from several different government agencies, including the state Parks and Recreation Division and the Bureau of Land Management, and can be a great alternative to carrying a tent, especially on longer hikes. Some locations, such as North Fork Cabin in the Chena River State Recreation Area, are road accessible year round; others, such as the cabin at the Fielding Lake State Recreation Site, require alternate transportation during the winter months. While these cabins are slightly less cost effective, coming in at between 20 and 50 dollars a night, most of them sleep at least four people, with a few ranging up to eight or nine guests. Invite a few friends, and suddenly your nice, dry cabin is cheaper than the cost of risking a rainstorm under a tarp.
Regardless of whether you’re new to the state, a born and bred sourdough, or somewhere in between, the state park system has something spectacular to offer you, and at a much lower price than you’d pay to stay at the swanky hotels on the Denali Strip. Even the most seasoned backcountry explorers are sure to find someplace new to discover on the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, which outlines destinations beyond the Interior for those heading out on the road. This summer, let the tourists have the big name spots; you’ll be too busy exploring an Alaska they’ll never see.
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