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, the city has grown to include a university and two military bases, and has become the commercial hub of Interior Alaska.
The Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau is the first stop for information, and has welcome centers along the riverfront, both 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 there, it’s a short stroll to nearby Pioneer Park, which offers fun for the whole family, with playground equipment, historic buildings, a train ride, restaurants, gift shops, 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 Saturday, June 24. The large outdoor gathering includes live music, vendors and activities. The weeklong Golden Days celebration, the largest summer event in Fairbanks, includes a variety of events and culminates downtown on July 15 with a parade, street fair, rubber ducky race on the Chena River and more. Finally, the Tanana Valley State Fair runs from July 28 to Aug. 6 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 staying fueled up 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 Alaska 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 displaying 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 quite rare, along with plenty of other volumes on all topics.
Much of Fairbanks’ growth has been driven by resource extraction. 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.
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 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. Trails on Birch Hill and campus are groomed for skiers when the snow arrives. 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 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 farther down the road is the Chena Lake Recreation Area. Open all year, it’s popular in summer with paddlers, cyclists, walkers and swimmers, and overnight visitors at one of the 45 campsites. In winter, it’s a nearby destination for snowmachining, skiing, fat-tire biking, ice fishing and more. Wildlife viewing can be enjoyed during any season.
Many races are available for those seeking a workout. This year’s Midnight Sun Run will be held on June 24 at 10 p.m. Held annually on the Saturday night closest to summer solstice, the race often attracts as many as 3,000 participants for a 10-K 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. It features over 3,000 feet of climbing and descending along a route that is largely set on 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. This year, the race is on Sept. 17. 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 lower, 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. By late January, the light is back.
December is when 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 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. Dog sled tours are available for those wanting to experience mushing.
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. 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.
David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer.