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 12 decades since, it’s grown to include a University and 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, Fairbanks residents 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 seek to enter.
The Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau 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, restaurants and events. Often on summer evenings, the Golden Heart Plaza is brimming with live music from local performers. And from downtown, it’s a short stroll to nearby Pioneer Park, which offers fun for the whole family with playground equipment, historic buildings, a train ride, museums and more.
Fairbanks is the site of several summer festivals, where residents and visitors enjoy being outdoors during the long daylight hours. The annual Midnight Sun Festival, hosted by the Downtown Association, takes place in the city’s downtown center on June 18. The large outdoor gathering includes live music, vendors and activities. The Golden Days celebration, the largest summer event in Fairbanks, begins July 16 with a series of events, culminating downtown on July 23 with a parade, street fair, rubber duckie race on the Chena River, and more. Finally, the Tanana Valley State Fair runs from July 29 to August 7 this year and offers fairgoers a chance to watch livestock shows, take in live music, wander through commercial exhibits, and let the kids go on some rides, all while keeping fueled on the endless food options.
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 focuses on city history. Car buffs will motor toward the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. 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.
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 University of Alaska Fairbanks campus allows visitors a close look at musk oxen.
People 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 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, 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. After a two year break, the Midnight Sun Run returns this year on June 18 at 10 p.m. Held annually on the Saturday night closest to solstice, the race usually attracts as many as 3,000 participants for a 10K dash under the perpetual daylight of summer. In September, the Equinox Marathon, starting and finishing at the University, is one of the most grueling marathon courses in North America, with over 3,000 feet of climbing and descending along a route that is largely trails and dirt roads, and that offers a spectacular view of the Alaska Range from the top of Ester Dome – if the skies are clear. Some years it snows on race day, so be prepared for anything. In 2022 the race is on Sept. 17, and 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.
Winters bring icy temperatures dipping to negative 40 or colder, 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 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.
December is when the the darkness reaches its zenith, and the season is marked by numerous events downtown, leading up to the solstice itself, Dec. 21, when an evening festival culminates with a fireworks show welcoming back the light. Ten days later, on New Year’s Eve, fireworks again illuminate the sky, this time from the West Ridge of the UAF campus.
Fairbanks is an 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, although the pandemic has made it an Alaska-only event these past two years.
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.