Located near the geographic center of the state, Fairbanks is Alaska’s year-round tourism destination. Established along the Chena River in 1901, it originally served prospectors working outlying gold claims. In the 118 years since, it’s grown to include a university and two military bases, and has become the commercial hub of Interior Alaska.
Because it’s inland, the town enjoys drier weather than most of Alaska and hotter summers. On summer solstice, Fairbanksans bask in 22 hours and 49 minutes of direct sunlight. But with the sun setting just below the horizon before rising again, the town does not see darkness from early May until mid-August.
The Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau is a good source for information, and has welcome centers along the riverfront downtown and in the nearby Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center (907-459-3700). The Thompson Center provides an excellent introduction to the history and culture of Interior Alaska’s original inhabitants, the Athabascan people.
Downtown has many shops and restaurants, and hosts the annual Midnight Sun Festival (June 23, from noon to midnight) which celebrates the solstice with a street festival. Open year-round, nearby Pioneer Park (Airport Way and Peger Road) offers fun for the whole family, with playground equipment, historic buildings, a train ride, museums and more.
Museums are scattered throughout town, including the Museum of the North (907-474-7505) on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, which holds one of the state’s premier collections of Alaska and Arctic artifacts.
Car buffs will motor toward the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum (907-450-2100), while summer visitors wanting a taste of winter can experience 20-below temperatures at the Ice Museum (907-451-8222). And restless young ones will enjoy a stop at the Fairbanks Children’s Museum (907-374-6873).
Much of Fairbanks’ growth has been driven by the gold and oil industries. A tour of Gold Dredge 8 (907-479-6673) north of town gives visitors a taste of the rich gold mining history of Fairbanks, while the nearby Trans-Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint (on the Steese Highway) lets people walk right up to one of the world’s engineering marvels.
For a taste of nature, Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, located on the north side of town, offers birding and wildlife viewing as well as miles of walking trails. The Large Animal Research Station (907-474-5724) on the north part of the University of Alaska campus allows visitors a close look at musk oxen.
For outdoors recreation, hiking and/or mountain biking trails can be found at the nearby Birch Hill Recreation Area, in the Chena River State Recreation Area east of town, and elsewhere. The Chena River winds through downtown and is popular with paddlers. Mountain bikes, canoes and kayaks can be rented from several establishments.
For getaways, Denali National Park and Preserve is just a two-hour drive south, and the Arctic Circle about five hours north. The Riverboat Discovery Tour provides the opportunity to slip out of town and head down the Chena and Tanana Rivers via sternwheeler. (Disclosure: The Binkley family, which owns Riverboat Discovery and Gold Dredge 8, also owns the Anchorage Daily News, which publishes this guide.)
The nearby town of North Pole is home to the Santa Claus House (907-488-2200), where it’s Christmas all year. A bit further down the road is the Chena Lake Recreation Area. Popular with paddlers cyclists, walkers and swimmers, the park also has 45 campsites.
Many races are available for those seeking a workout. The Midnight Sun Run (June 22, 2019), held on the Saturday night closest to the June solstice attracts as many as 3,000 participants to a 10 p.m., 10K dash winding through town from the university to Pioneer Park. In September, the Equinox Marathon (Sept. 21, 2019), starting and finishing at the university, is one of the most grueling marathon courses in America.
Restaurants for all tastes and budgets abound, including a remarkable number of very good Thai restaurants. And later, visitors can kick back at one of the growing number of breweries and distilleries.
Fairbanks in winter
Winters bring icy temperatures dipping to 40-below or lower, and visitors should come prepared. But usually it’s nowhere near that severe. And with the dry climate and minimal wind, zero in Fairbanks can feel warmer than 30 above in Anchorage. Winter solstice brings just 3 hours and 41 minutes of direct sunlight, but the low-lying sun envelops the town and hills in a beautiful pink and golden glow. By late January the light is back.
Fairbanks is the ideal location for aurora viewing and a number of local businesses cater to this growing clientele. It also offers some of the best winter recreational opportunities in Alaska.
Snowmobile tours are gaining in popularity, and several guides offer them, both near town and farther afield. Dog sled tours are available for those wanting to experience mushing. For spectators, the Yukon Quest alternates beginning and finishing with the city of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory every year.
For winter athletes, the Chena River to Ridge Race offers 25 and 50 mile routes for skiers, fat-tire bikers and runners every March, while the White Mountains 100 presents those same groups with a challenging 100-mile trip though the White Mountains National Recreation Area about an hour north of town. Even those with more modest ambitions can rent fat bikes for winter excursions on the trails in Goldstream Valley and cross-country skis for the trails on Birch Hill and the university campus. Downhill ski runs can be found on Birch Hill and Moose Mountain.
Finally, no visit to Fairbanks is complete without a trip to Chena Hot Springs Resort, 56 miles east of town. While open year round, winter is the best time to climb into the outdoor pools. The hot water keeps bathers comfortable even as air temperatures drop below zero, snow and ice sweep upward from the pool edges, and the northern lights dance in the sky. It’s the quintessential Fairbanks experience, and one of many reasons why many residents consider winter in Fairbanks the best season of all.