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, two military bases, and has become the commercial hub of Interior Alaska.
Owing to its inland climate, 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.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still an ongoing concern, it’s important to check with all businesses and facilities before visiting. While there are no borough or state restrictions outside of government-run buildings at present, masking, social distancing and maximum capacity limits might be enforced on site. It’s best to know what’s requested of the public in advance, and kindly respect the wishes of those in charge of the establishments you wish to enter.
The Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau (101 Dunkel St.) is the place for information, and 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. The annual Midnight Sun Festival, hosted by the Downton Association, will take place in the city’s center on June 19. Though smaller than usual owing to the pandemic, it is still being billed as a “large outdoor gathering” and will include live music, vendors, and activities. Open year-round, nearby Pioneer Park (2300 Airport Way) 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 campus, which holds one of the state’s premier collections of Alaskan and Arctic artifacts. The Fairbanks Community Museum (535 Second Ave., #215) focuses on city history. Car buffs will motor toward the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum (212 Wedgewood Dr.), while summer visitors wanting a taste of winter can experience twenty below temperatures at the Ice Museum. And restless young ones will enjoy a stop at the Fairbanks Children’s Museum (302 Cushman St. Suite 101).
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 (517 Gaffney Rd.) 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.
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 (2220 Yankovich Rd.) on the north part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus allows visitors a close look at musk oxen.
Sportspersons 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 needs to make the experience complete.
For outdoors 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, 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 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.
The nearby town of North Pole is home to the Santa Claus House, 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, held on the Saturday night closest to the June solstice usually attracts as many as 3000 participants to a 10 p.m., 10K dash. This year the event will be held virtually. Entrants need to run a 10K route of their choice between June 19-22 and submit their results. See the race website for further details. In September, the Equinox Marathon, starting and finishing at the University, is one of the most grueling marathon courses in America. This year there will be a full marathon, as well as a half, but no relay.
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 minus 40 or more, and visitors should come prepared. But usually it’s nowhere near this severe. And with the dry climate and minimal wind, zero in Fairbanks can feel warmer than 30 above in Anchorage. Winter solstice brings just three hours and 41 minutes of daylight, 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 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 further afield. Dogsled 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 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.