Girdwood, Fairbanks and Nome Gold Rush Heritage

This is a great gold-rush-focused addition to a longer Alaska trip, or the starting point for other history-oriented travels throughout the state.

Day 1

Start your day in Fairbanks. Alaska's second-largest city is located in the broad Tanana Valley, which is also home to the state's most productive gold deposits. Make your first stop the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, which offers wonderful displays on local culture and the history of gold mining in the area. After lunch, stop in at the downtown Fairbanks Community Museum, where you can see packing lists and other memorabilia from some of the earliest gold rush prospectors.

Your next stop is the University of Alaska Museum of the North. This excellent museum features the state’s largest public display of gold and a wealth of information on the role this rare mineral has played in Alaska’s history. End your day with a trip to Fairbanks's delightful Pioneer Park, which features dozens of shops, small museums and historical artifacts in an outdoor setting, along with a hilarious dinner revue that explains how a gold strike by Italian immigrant Felix Pedro brought hordes of gold seekers to Interior Alaska and spurred the founding of Fairbanks.

Day 2

Ready to get your hands dirty? Fairbanks has several hands-on gold panning tours to choose from. Most take about half a day, and some include a stop at the Trans Alaska Pipeline viewing area on the Steese Highway; if your tour doesn't include this, make sure to visit on your own. Here, you can get a close-up view of one of Alaska's most under-appreciated engineering marvels: the 48-inch-diameter pipeline that carries crude oil 800 miles to Alaska's southern coast, where it's loaded onto barges for shipment to refineries. Discovery of the oil spurred a 20th-century boom that had similar effects to the gold rushes of the 19th century, expanding communities and industries as eager workers flocked to the state. Enjoy an early dinner at one of several Fairbanks restaurants that sport outdoor decks overlooking the Chena River, then catch an evening flight to Anchorage.

Girdwood, Fairbanks, and Nome gold rush heritage

Day 3

Start your day with a guided tour of a working gold mine in the small town of Girdwood. Located just 35 miles south of Anchorage, Girdwood was established in the mid-1890s as the first gold strikes were made along Turnagain Arm. Nowadays, you can pan for gold and take a guided tour of historical buildings, or just watch other miners who regularly work the gold-bearing creek. Enjoy lunch at one of Girdwood's excellent restaurants, then hike or take a tram ride to the top of Mount Alyeska, which offers a panoramic view of seven hanging glaciers in the surrounding peaks. From there, it's time to head back to Anchorage for a late-afternoon flight to Nome, where you'll spend the night.

Day 4

Spend a day working a local creek for gold. Nome tour companies offer a variety of gold panning tours and experiences, and many can combine a day of gold-seeking with fishing or a visit to historical buildings and cabins from the early 1900s. To learn more about the gold rush that drove settlement in Nome, visit the city-owned Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum on Front Street. This small museum is packed with artifacts and stories of the gold rush, Alaska Native culture and dog mushing, including the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Take a photo in front of the largest gold pan in the United States and the famous burled arch that marks the end of the Iditarod, both located in downtown Nome, or spend a few hours beach combing along the coast where the Bering Sea meets the Seward Peninsula. Some of the gold mining equipment you'll see sitting on the beach or moored in shallow waters is still in use. Enjoy one more night in your Nome hotel so you'll be well-rested for tomorrow's flight back to Anchorage, then home.