The Golden Heart City of Fairbanks is an arctic gem and a must see in the Last Frontier of Alaska. Due to extreme climatic conditions, Fairbanks is really 2 entirely different cities: Fairbanks in summer and Fairbanks in winter. The contrasts are literally those of night and day.
Fairbanks was founded as a trading post on the Tanana river in 1901, fifty-eight years before Alaska became state. In its early years, Fairbanks flourished as an essential stop for gold miners and other northern prospectors. It also became an important agricultural region due to its unique summer growing season. Ladd Army Air Field, now Fort Wainwright, was constructed in 1939 and is an important part of the city’s economy to this day.
Thirty-five thousand people call the vibrant city of Fairbanks home, with another 70,000 living in the surrounding borough. It is the largest city in Alaska’s north and the second largest in the state, second only to Anchorage. While agriculture is still part of the Fairbanks’ culture, it’s main commerce is now centered on staging operation for Alaska’s North Slope and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. This enterprise was featured on the television show Ice Road Truckers. There are still active gold mines, a major university (University of Alaska Fairbanks), and a supply infrastructure for the surrounding villages. The allure of Fairbanks is not found in its buildings or businesses, however, but in the aesthetic confluence of the Aurora Borealis (northern lights), the Tanana and Chena Rivers, the Alaskan Range with Mount Denali, and wildlife that is often as much a part of life as your own family.
Winters typically start in mid-October, and along with the cold and snow get progressively darker. By the winter solstice, December 21, 22 there is almost no visible sunlight. The 3 to 4 hours of light that may appear from 10am to 2pm are dusky at best. In contrast, summer, which typically runs from June to mid-September, boasts the famed “midnight sun” with the summer solstice on June 20, 21 actually featuring a never-setting sun. The temperatures follow the sunlight, with winter temperatures dropping to -70 degrees Fahrenheit with the summer sporting temperatures into the 90’s.
When to go:
Due to the vast differences in Fairbanks’ climate, when you go depends a lot on what you are looking to do and see. While some places and events are year-round attractions, others are truly season-specific. Rates are much less expensive in the winter both for airfare and lodging. If you plan to visit in the summer and are not part of a tour group, you will need to plan in advance and make reservations as cruise ship excursions and other tours lock up many of the hotels during the entire summer.
Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline
The iconic pipeline almost represents Alaska as much as gold does. While much of the pipeline is either underground or running through some of the world’s roughest terrain, Alyeska has created a free roadside information and viewing station just north of Fairbanks.
The pipeline, which stretches 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, is an engineering marvel. This stop has informational boards and real life cleaning “pigs” next to a section of pipeline that you can walk right up to and admire. A trip to Alaska wouldn’t be the same without seeing this piece of contemporary history.
Running Reindeer Ranch
If you’ve never walked through a forest with real-life reindeer this is your chance. At this incredible, privately run ranch, you will be treated to a personal tour by the ranch owner and operator, Jane. Jane will introduce you to the reindeer, guide you through the forest to watch “reindeer be reindeer”, and explain everything you ever wanted to know about Santa’s favorite pets.
This is not a “view from afar” tour as you get to literally bump shoulders with these remarkable animals. You can even make a life-long friend by scratching that itch on their heads that they can never seem to reach. When you are done, you will be invited into Jane’s home for refreshments that vary by season. Tours are by appointment year-round.
Morris-Thompson Cultural Center
A free, must-see in Fairbanks, the center features superb Alaskan history displays, informative movies, cultural information, kids activities, and a very great staff. They have better “hands-on” and interactive displays than most places where you have to pay.
There are several unique Alaskan themed areas designed for family photos. Outside there is a moose antler arch where people like to get married. If you visit on the first Friday of a winter month, the center is one of the hosts for Fairbanks’ “First Friday” art celebration displaying and selling work from local artists.
University of Alaska-Fairbanks
Museum of the North
Compared to large urban institutions, the UAF museum may not seem like much, but if you are looking for a brilliant history of the arctic, insight into native-Alaskan life, a sampling of wildlife and historic artifacts, and a collection of native art this is the place for you.
The stars of the exhibit are the numerous taxidermy displays that put you face to face with gigantic brown bears, polar bears, seals and other arctic inhabitants. Absolutely worth an afternoon, especially if you pair it with a visit to the university’s Large Animal Research Station.
Large Animal Research Station
For a moderate fee during the summer, take a guided tour among muskoxen, caribou and domestic reindeer. While the animals are behind fences, they do come close enough to feed. The knowledgeable guide will not only provide you with a wealth of information, but has a number of antlers, hides, and other tactile displays that enhance your experience. How often do you get to come face to face with a musk ox?
Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
The exterior may not stop you in your tracks, but once you walk through the doors it’s like stepping into a time machine. The vast collection of rare and one-of-a-kind vehicles is kept in impeccable shape. Several of the vehicles are the only ones in the world, and many more are prize winners. If you are lucky, you will be there when they are taking one or two out on a drive as all of the vehicles are kept in running condition at the on-site garage.
In addition to the vehicles, there is a great selection of Alaskan women’s clothing from several different eras. Try on the many pieces of period clothing for both genders as you get into the vehicles for pictures with truly unique pieces of history. While this is a year-round attraction, they are only open one day per week in the winter.
Santa Clause House
Located 30 minutes south of Fairbanks, the actual town of North Pole, Alaska, dramatically highlights the tradition of its most famous resident with a monumental 42 foot tall, 900 pound Santa Clause. The streets are lines with candy canes, and real-life reindeer pens sit outside the aptly names Santa Clause House.
This must-see destination offers the “Original Letter From Santa” ready to be posted from North Pole and sent anywhere in the world. You can shop from a variety of Christmas treasures while drinking fresh brewed espresso and filling your belly with homemade fudge. Photo opportunities with Santa are available during select hours.
An array of authentic, log dwellings and shops were moved to what was originally named Alaskaland to recreate the feel of Fairbanks in the days of the pioneers. Adding to the historic charm of this small theme park is a paddle wheel ship open for exploration and providing a taste of the river boats of that era, and the actual Harding rail car (President Harding) also open for viewing. A small train provides a quick tour of the park. Children will enjoy the playground, merry-go-round, and mini golf. While the park itself is free, there is an admission charge to visit the airplane museum located inside the park.
There is also a charge for the deep freeze house. If you visit during the summer and want to know what it feels like to be in Fairanks in the winter, you can pay to put spend some time in a specially designed freezer that will take you down to -40 degrees Fairenheit. Don’t worry, they have proper arctic gear for you to put on before you go in. If you’ve never been anywhere truly cold, this could be an experience worth your time and money.
Should you get hungry during your time at the park, or at any time you are in Fairbanks, the famed all-you-can-eat Alaska Salmon Bake is right next door.
The park itself is open year round, but the shops and activities are summer only. In the winter, the shops and streets are decorated with Christmas lights. The park is transformed into a magical location for a frigid winter’s stroll. If you are dressed properly and brave the elements you will come away with some beautiful pictures and memories.
Chena Hot Springs
Sporting “healing waters”, Chena Hot Springs is known as the most developed hot springs in Alaska. With indoor pools as well as outdoor hot tubs and the natural rock lake that gets up to a natural 106-109 degrees Fahrenheit, there is something for everyone in the entire family.
Next to the hot springs is the Aurora Ice Museum. This 1000 ton museum of solid ice is the world’s largest year-round ice environment. It is kept at a constant 25 degrees Fahrenheit through patented geothermal technology.
In the summer there are many activities in addition to the thermal waters. From a disc golf course to dog cart rides, and from ATV adventures to horseback riding – play hard all day and soak those sore muscles in the healing waters at night.
In the winter, the hot springs are perfect for a ridiculously cold Fairbanks’ day. Regardless of how cold it is outside, you will be staring up at the brilliant sky as your body is enveloped in warm, healing waters. As an extra benefit, Chena Hot Springs is known as a remarkable location to view the auroras.
Treat yourself to an experience of a lifetime. Cruise with the Binkley family upon an authentic sternwheeler. For over 100 years and 5 generations the Binkleys have navigated the Tanana and Chena rivers. Today, they have a world-class tour that takes you back through history.
Visit an Athabascan village, marvel at and purchase pelts, watch a bush plane take off from alongside the boat, and visit the home of late Iditerod sled dog champion Susan Bucher. The dog kennels are still maintained by her husband. End your adventure at Steamboat Landing where you can load up on souvenirs and enjoy a communal mean in the Discovery Dining Hall.
Gold Dredge #8
Last operated in 1959, Gold Dredge #8 stands as a monument to Alaska’s recent past. Now a favorite tourist location, the dredge brings history to life through a Disney-esque tour. After a short ride on a narrow gauge railroad with live music and a talented guide, you will explore the dredge and try your hand a gold panning. Every flake or nugget you find is yours to keep, and while you may not strike it rich you are guaranteed to find gold.
Open year-round for exploring, Creamer’s field is best known for “hosting” bird migrations. While many waterfowl and other avian species call the field home through the summer, the real treat comes during the migration seasons. The spring and fall see the fields filled with hundreds to thousands of ducks, geese, swans, and sandhill cranes. If you are a bird lover, or just want to marvel at the vast number of feather friends the migrations bring through Fairbanks, this is an absolute must.
Creamer’s Field is also surrounded by nature trails. You might want to bring some mosquito repellent because the bugs can get pretty thick once you enter the wooded areas. Pests aside, the well-maintained
trails make for a perfect afternoon stroll and many locals make regular use of them.
Late Summer brings berries. Hundreds of miles of undeveloped, forested roadway surround Fairbanks. Along these roadways are arctic blueberries, salmonberries, lingonberries, raspberries, cloudberries, rose hip, and many other edible treasures. Not only are the fields changing colors providing a backdrop that would make any artist envious, but the cooler temperatures make the late summer berry patches a perfect place to spend a day.
Grab a bucket, put on your muck boots, spray or dab on the mosquito repellent, and take home a treasure that you can’t buy in stores. Be sure to bring your singing voice, whistle, or other noisemaking device, too, because the berry patches are also a favorite dining place for Alaska’s many bears.
Aurora Viewing and Photographing
The Aurora Borealis or northern lights can be seen through much of the year in Fairbanks. Summer visitors will not stand much of a chance of seeing them given the near-constant sunlight, but visitors in the winter will often be treated to a Fantasia-like display in the sky. The colors of the aurora can vary from wispy green and white streaks to brilliant splashes of red and purple that dance across the sky.
The best times to view the auroras are in the late night or early morning hours during periods of extreme cold. If you can find these conditions on the dark night of a new moon your chances increase all the more. Since bright lights hinder your ability to view the dazzling display, it is best to head away from the city lights. Many locals take the 30 minute drive to Ester Dome or Chatanika.
If you’ve come to Fairbanks in the winter, your trip will not be complete without putting on your parka and snow pants, getting your camera ready, and experiencing one of nature’s most beautiful sights.
World Ice Art Championships
Each year hundreds of the world’s best ice carvers from over 30 countries flock to Fairbanks with their chainsaws and chisels to create masterpieces out of ice. From 4 ton single blocks of ice to 12 block monuments that can reach 25 feet high and weigh 20 tons you will be mesmerized by the unparalleled artistry on display.
Once completed, the brilliant work is enhanced with colored theatre lights creating a simply mind-blowing experience. For the kids, there is a park constructed completely out of ice with slides, mazes, and spinners. While there are other ice carving events, none compare with the grandeur and brilliance of the world ice championships.
Yukon Quest Dogsled Race
Dogsleds are still a very real part of Alaskan life. While not every Alaskan has a team of sled dogs, few do not enjoy two of the most inspiring races in the world, the Iditerod and the Yukon Quest. You can watch the mushers race past on their journey to Nome during the Iditerod, but you do have to go a ways outside of Fairbanks. The Yukon Quest brings the race right to your doorstep.
The 1000 mile gauntlet starts in Fairbanks in even number years and ends in Whitehorse. The route is reversed in odd numbered years with the dramatic finish taking place in downtown Fairbanks.
The Yukon Quest headquarters building and information center is located downtown Fairbanks.