The Petersville Road

Lil Willy's First Alaska Adventure, July 2010


This is the first of Lil Willy's Trip Reports since Dave and Ruth arrived in Alaska.

Ruth and I are into trail riding and four-wheeling, mostly just for the sightseeing. We love to both experience new country, and revisit previously enjoyed places. But recently, while on a commercial gold panning tour in Fairbanks, AK, we had so much fun finding "color " in our pans, we were moved to buy a bit of equipment, and give it a try in the wild. Two each plastic pans, suction bottles, specimen bottles (size medium, not small) and one plastic gravel screening pan later, we were in business.

We learned that the Petersville Road, 250 miles south of Fairbanks, offered both activities: a dirt road to explore, and the Petersville State Recreational Mining Area to try our hand at panning.

HelperAfter helping out around the house and the garden (200K JPEGs) for most of a season, as well as getting me back and forth to work a few times, Lil Willy was getting anxious to get out and flex his sidewalls on some real Alaskan dirt, and maybe even take a dip in the water, so we set out for Lil Willy's first Alaska adventure.

The Petersville Road, a dead end drive roughly 34 miles one way, heads west out of Trappers Creek on the George Parks Highway. The road was first built as an access for private miners and claim owners in the early 1900's. The area was further developed by the "Michigan 59'ers," an influx of mostly Michigan farmers through a federal land grant program in the 1950s and 60's.

The first 10 miles of the road are paved, with another 9 miles of good dirt road to the Forks Roadhouse. Beyond the roadhouse the road gets narrower and rougher. We knew the State Recreational Mining Area was a little further beyond the roadhouse, and that's where we had planned to camp. But what we didn't know was how good the road might be, and if we'd have difficulty with our large trailer; there had already been quite a bit of rain.

Parks HighwayThe drive from Fairbanks was one of persistent low clouds, obscuring the distant views, and many of the nearer ones. In good weather, Denali State Park, located along the Parks Highway to the south of Denali National Park and Preserve, offers the best views of Mount McKinley, or Denali as it's called, the highest peak in North America. Rising some 18,000 feet from its base near Wonder Lake at 2000' mean sea level, to over 20,000' at its summit, it has more vertical rise than even Mount Everest of the Himalayas!

Unfortunately, with the low clouds and widespread rain, we had not yet seen the mountain on this trip, and wondered if we would, even though this trip had been planned in part, just to view Denali from the south.

Now from what we've gleaned so far, in Alaska, you can pretty much legally drive any back road, and camp in any location alongside said road, unless there's a sign saying you can't! On the other hand, you cannot just pull in anywhere and look for gold; by doing so, you'll more than likely be "jumping somebody's claim ". We had planned to trailer Lil Willy up to a suitably awesome camp location for a couple nights, so I decided to go into the Forks Roadhouse, and ask the locals for information about the road beyond.

Forks RoadhouseThe historic Forks Roadhouse, a log building constructed in 1900 to serve area miners, and added onto "Alaska style" ever-since, is the last major vestige of civilization in this area. We strolled into the well-aged establishment and looked around for a moment, letting our eyes adjust to the dimly lit interior. There on a stool, sat a man at the bar, and another with two female companions sat at a nearby table. Behind the bar was a sourdough pouring drinks. In my best Alaska demeanor, I greeted the bartender and asked how the road was further on.

Now granted, here's a couple of fairly clean people (first night out), in a nice looking truck with a pop-up camper in pretty good shape, and we're pulling a huge trailer (I do miss Lil Red back in Wyoming) also in pretty good condition. In what can best be described as an "Alaskan out-of-the-way place" we stuck out like a sore thumb! Even so, we were a bit taken aback when the bartender replied, "Wha chew wanna go up there for? Yer liable to get shot!"

In retrospect, I suppose he thought we had a trailer full of claim jumping equipment, whatever that may be, but he immediately decided against any further communication with such a dumb-sum-bitch as I. The patron at the bar struck up a conversation when he saw how hurt I was, and the two-woman man tossed in a few words as well.

CampgroundWhen all was said and done, we decided to camp a couple hundred yards past the Roadhouse on the left fork, where it dead-ended in a water-logged public camping spot alongside a river named Peters Creek. The bar patron was camping down here in a tent, and had been for several weeks while he worked the river in this apparent public access mining location, a designation we didn't know of until after our time here was mostly spent. There was one other camping unit, a small Class-C motor home facing the river, but we saw no activity around it.

We popped up the camper and set about heating some grub. Presently, the two-woman man drove down in a surprisingly nice car, parked near us and walked out of sight behind our trailer, like he was looking for something in the campsite to our rear; he lingered for a few minutes, then left as quickly as he had arrived. Shortly thereafter, a crew-cab pickup with four rough-looking men drove by and continued down a small two-track parallel to the river, then disappeared.

The weather was dismal, casting a gloomy mood over the experience. Out of our familiar surroundings and circumstances, we were a bit spooked by the strange welcome, and these odd camp visitors. Up until now, our biggest concern for this trip had been bears; now we were mentally preparing for the unpredictable and dangerous two-legged predator, you know, the kind that has been staring at the flickering candle too long. We loaded the 12-gauge with buckshot ahead of bear slugs, and kept it within reach while we slept.

Petersville RoadThe next morning dawned mostly clear and sunny. The Steven Kingish atmosphere of the night before evaporated with the morning mists. While Ruth prepared breakfast, I got Lil Willy set up for our day trip. Within an hour, and a few miles further up the road, we had the top down and the windshield folded.

Cotton grassThe vegetation in this country is strange to a Rocky Mountains boy. The high, thick, scrub thickets of alder and willow provide ample opportunity to hide wildlife, and I mean Grizzly Bears, but also moose. In between thickets are marshy grasses, streamlets and bogs, covering much of the lower lying regions beyond the road. We even discovered a new plant called cotton grass, growing wild alongside the wettest regions. Where the terrain does rise, it is quite rounded, cut into such shapes by the glaciations of the last ice age. There is much less of the rock-fall, and river-cut erosion, so typical of the Rocky Mountains from where we hail.

CloudsThe interior of Alaska is designated dry, but we have had a "much-wetter-than-Wyoming" experience so far. Much of the summer has felt humid to us, and rain is more frequent than we would have guessed. Beautiful mountain vistas are as often obscured by clouds as not. This road would take us to within viewing distance of Mount McKinley, and we hoped we would happen upon it before the midday clouds reformed.

PetersvilleWe passed through Peter's Canyon, with a rising mountain on the left. Small waterfalls cascaded from the slope on the right. We crossed over and through the canyon and came out onto the north side. After winding through the country for a while, we came upon two old run down cabins, or what is known as "Petersville".

Along the way we met one other couple, driving their own Jeep, a Wrangler. The man was a retired veterinarian from Price, UT, the very place in which Ruth and I met over twenty-five years ago. We still have lots of family there. This couple was on their Alaska vacation, and he was looking for the Petersville State Recreational Mining Area to do a little panning himself. We had a nice visit and then continued on our separate ways.

CrossingBy and by we came upon the bridge, a landmark defining our now known location. We noted several other people in various states of camping, panning, dredging, or just plain exploring and driving. Many were local Alaskans, some were tourists, but all were there for their own idea of adventure.

Immediately after the bridge, we turned right toward the river ford, instead of left up Cache Creek. We descended to the river and made our first of many river crossings.

McKinleyIt was in this area where we came up a rise and there was Mt. McKinley in the distance! The mountain was mostly clear of clouds, and we stood Lil Willy in front for a photo op. After some exploration, and a run up the road as far as we could go, we turned around and made our way back to the first ford where we ate lunch and tried our hand at gold panning.

Now I don't know how you fantasize the gold panning experience; I had never given it much thought. What thought I did give it went something like this: you're out here in the wilds anyway, might just as well have a hobby during your down time. There's a beautiful little stream, and a nice rocky slope. Here's some warm grass upon which to sit. Got a pan? Sloosh it around a bit with a selection of that river gravel there, and just this much water. What's that you say? A nugget? Well I'll be, how about that? Just that simple huh? Oh my, now just lookie there at all those flakes. Must be near twenty or thirty pieces right there!

DavePerhaps I'm just impatient, or maybe I didn't listen very good during the commercial tour instruction, but I do believe there are easier ways to get rich, like working for the man for example. Bent-over back, hunched neck and shoulders, crouched knees and legs, stressed ankles, and that's while you're relaxed just doing the slooshin'! Add onto that shoveling and screening the gravel, the constant reaching for more ice-cold water, which by its very nature is at a level somewhat below where your feet stop, and trying to get these tired old eyes of mine to see through these bifocals. No, I think I'll try a more enjoyable hobby, like maybe bull riding.

DredgeSome of these people don a scuba-like setup, submerging themselves in the frigid water while using their portable suction dredge unit to vacuum the bottom of the river. You'll see couples with one doing this underwater work, while the other digs five gallon buckets of gravel from the river bank, and every indication that some of them are doing this all summer long, by the look of their camps. No, thank you very much, you all have fun now, you hear?

VistaUpon leaving the area we turned right on the Cache Creek fork. We drove in as far as the Cache Creek Cabins, a commercial lodging and mining location. For $25 a day, you can do the previously described mining on their land. The cabin rental is additional, and these are very tiny cabins, maybe no bigger than 8' by 12'. Personal gold mining hasn't changed much in the past 150 years; the folks who make the money are the ones who sell supplies and services to the miners.

McKinleyNow, out just about as far as we could get on the Petersville/Cache Creek Road, we turned around and made our way back toward camp. We had been surprised to see no wildlife all day, save various birds, and a couple of beavers. Again we had a beautiful distant view of Denali. We had to zoom way in for a good shot.

Upon pulling into camp we were somewhat startled to find several new arrivals: motorhomes, cars, trucks, and fifth-wheels; what a difference a day makes. We enjoyed the evening sitting alongside the river, and rehashing our day. The sun continued its northern slide; this far north it doesn't so much lower as it slides along the horizon. By the time it fell below the mountain top, we decided it was time for bed. We'd had a great first time out in Alaska with Lil Willy, but we think we'll leave the gold panning to others of a heartier persuasion.

Thanks to Dave and Ruth for the update from Alaska.

All of their stories are now at Lil Willy's Trip Reports on CJ3B.info. -- Derek Redmond

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Last updated 10 November 2010 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
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