Editor’s note: This story was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, and some information might be out of date. With the situation continually evolving, we strongly encourage you to check ahead to determine the status of any business, park or activity you are interested in. To find the most up-to-date information about current health and travel mandates, check with the state of Alaska online and adn.com.
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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 119 years since, it’s grown to include a university and two military bases, and it has become the commercial hub of Interior Alaska.
Owing to its inland climate, the town enjoys drier weather and hotter summers than most of Alaska. 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 the place for information, and it has welcome centers along the riverfront downtown and in the nearby Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. 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, which celebrates the solstice with a street festival. Open year-round, nearby Pioneer Park 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 on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, which holds one of the state’s premier collections of Alaska and Arctic artifacts. The Fairbanks Community Museum focuses on the city’s history. Car buffs will motor toward the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, while summer visitors wanting a taste of winter can experience 20-below temperatures at the Ice Museum. And restless young ones will enjoy a stop at the Fairbanks Children’s Museum.
Fairbanks has a lively, close-knit and very supportive arts community, with several galleries open year round to display the work of local artists. For those seeking a deeper knowledge of Alaska and its culture, its people and its history, the secondhand bookstore Forget-Me-Not Books, operated by and benefiting the Literacy Council of Alaska, always has a large selection of Alaska-related books — some of them quite rare — along with plenty of other volumes on all topics. And the Noel Wein Library has regular children’s programs, free movies, plenty of special events and free high-speed internet access, all at its downtown location.
Much of Fairbanks’ growth has been driven by the gold and oil industries. A tour of Gold Dredge 8 north of town gives visitors a taste of the rich gold mining history of Fairbanks, while the nearby Trans-Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint 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 on the north part of the UAF campus allows visitors a close look at musk oxen.
Visitors looking to go fishing or hunting first need to obtain the proper license from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The department also has advice for obtaining a licensed and qualified guide to help arrange transportation, supplies and other logistics to make the experience complete.
For outdoor recreation, hiking and/or mountain biking trails can be found on the UAF campus, at the nearby Birch Hill Recreation Area, in the Chena River State Recreation Area east of town and elsewhere. All of these trails are open to skiers in winter. The Chena River winds through downtown and is popular with paddlers. Mountain bikes, canoes and kayaks can be rented from several establishments, and skis and fat bikes can be rented in winter. The Fairbanks Hiking Club, Fairbanks Cycle Club, Fairbanks Paddlers and Running Club North can be contacted for information. All four welcome out-of-town guests to their events.
ATVs and snowmachines can be rented for excursions on the vast network of public multiple-use trails that extend in all directions beyond Fairbanks. Check with rental companies for information on accessing the best trails.
For getaways, Denali National Park and Preserve is just a two-hour drive south, and the Arctic Circle is 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.
The nearby town of North Pole is home to the Santa Claus House, where it’s Christmas all year. A bit farther 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, 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, 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.
Winter in Fairbanks
Winters bring icy temperatures dipping to minus 40 or more, 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. And by late January the light is back.
Fairbanks is the ideal location for aurora viewing, and several 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 International Sled Dog Race alternates beginning and finishing in Fairbanks and 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 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 the reasons why many residents consider winter in Fairbanks the best season of all.