7 Things to Do in Fairbanks
As Alaska’s second largest city, Fairbanks is a bustling year-round destination known as the “Golden Heart City.” It’s also used as a jumping-off point for spectacular destinations like Denali National Park and Preserve. See its museums to learn Gold Rush and Alaska Native history or take a river tour or a dog-sled ride. If you’re visiting in winter, be sure to book a tour to see the shimmering green and red of the northern lights. Here are seven top things to see and do.
1. Visit the Museums
Learn about Fairbanks’ early Gold Rush years at the historical Tanana Valley Railroad Museum and Pioneer Air Museum. See hand-carved Alaska Native art and artifacts, the state’s largest gold display, and an Ice Age bison mummy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Museum of the North. Visit the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum to see pre-World War II cars and 1920s fashion.
Experience the “20 below” temperature from a freezer inside the Fairbanks Ice Museum and learn about the annual World Ice Art Championships. At the Aurora Ice Museum, the world’s largest year-round ice environment located at Chena Hot Springs Resort, play the ice xylophone, crawl into the indoor igloo, visit the frosted chapel, and sip on an appletini from an actual ice glass.
2. Soak in Chena Hot Springs
Alaska’s ultimate relaxation at the celebrated Chena Hot Springs Resort. With a steamy average temperature of 106 degrees, the adults-only natural Hot Springs Rock Lake attracts those looking to unwind. Have a child or teen under age 18? Take advantage of the indoor heated pool and hot tub in the Pool House and the outdoor hot tub. Views of lush, green forests in summer and snow-covered trees in winter make this destination a beautiful escape any time of year.
Thanks to heated tunnels that lead directly to the hot springs’ entrance from the locker rooms, freezing outdoor temperatures can mostly be avoided—but you may experience a fun Alaska oddity—frozen hair! While you soak, the steam rising from the hot springs will cause your hair to collect a thin layer of frost, and this will surely create memorable photo opportunities.
Complete the trip with a rejuvenating Swedish, hot-stone, or deep-tissue massage from the Pool House Cabin. Choose between staying on site at the resort or in the nearby public-use cabins or campgrounds at Chena River State Recreation Area.
3. Explore the Chena River
The 100-mile Chena River cuts through the heart of Fairbanks, offering fishing, boating, and recreation opportunities for locals and visitors alike.
Learn about history, wildlife, and Alaska Native culture on a guided river cruise. Along the way, visit an Iditarod champion’s dog kennel and a recreation of an Athabascan Village. Navigate between towering trees and riverside fish camps on jet-boat and rafting tours. Or, you can explore on your own on a stand-up paddleboard, kayak, or canoe.
Stroll through the historical downtown along the Chena Riverwalk that passes Riverfront Theatre, Fairbanks Curling Club, and Pioneer Park—Alaska’s only historical theme park. Here, you can visit museums, Gold Rush buildings, and a carousel. From the Chena River State Recreation Area, you can book chartered fishing trips or spend the night at easily accessible riverside campsites. In winter, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and dog sledding are popular activities when the river freezes over.
4. Go Dog Sledding
Made popular by the Iditarod, Yukon Quest, and movies like “Balto,” dog mushing is more than just Alaska’s official state sport. It is a way of life, and it’s also one of the best ways to explore Alaska’s scenic backcountry in winter.
Quick, half-hour dog sledding tours give visitors a taste of the sport, while overnight adventures provide an immersive experience like sledding through the Chena River Valley or spending the night at roadhouses or backcountry camps. Dog sled trips are available year-round, with winter sleds swapped out for wheeled carts in the summer.
Along the way, knowledgeable mushers share their stories of life in Alaska while teaching visitors about dog mushing history. Sit back as adorable teams of Alaska sled dogs cut through the snow on dog-sled tours or learn how to drive the sleds yourselves. Wrap up the day by playing with puppies and meeting the champion mushers at the kennels.
5. Experience Fairbanks Festivals
In the Land of the Midnight Sun, Alaskans soak in as much daylight as they can before long winter nights set in. The Golden Days festival in July commemorates the discovery of gold with parades, rubber-duck races, a river regatta, and old-timey reenactments. At the Midnight Sun Festival, jam to live music, stop by the car smash, pan for gold, shop local, and watch the Midnight Sun Baseball Game. Experience food and culture at The Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival and the many recurring farmers markets. Or, celebrate Alaska Native heritage as athletes compete in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, which features events like the seal hop and the Alaskan high kick.
To spice up winter, fireworks at the Winter Solstice Celebration light up the night as visitors listen to music and stroll through the decorated streets. Other must-dos include the World Ice Art Championships, Denali Winterfest, and the Festival of Native Arts - a multi-day event that attracts Alaska Native performers, artists, and spectators to celebrate traditional song, dance, and art.
6. Chase the Northern Lights
The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, is a natural phenomenon caused by collisions of electrically charged particles. The result is vibrant colors—from yellow and red to green and violet—dancing across the dark Alaska skies.
Because of its location under an auroral oval, Fairbanks is one of the world’s best places to watch the northern lights brighten the night sky. The dancing lights can appear on any dark, clear night in Alaska, although the prime aurora-watching season is from mid-August to mid-April. For the best views, venture away from city lights to Creamer’s Field, Cleary Summit, or aurora hot spots.
Guided northern-lights tours take travelers by bus, plane, snowmobile, and even dog sleds to the best viewing spots. Check Explore Fairbanks’ Aurora Tracker to see the forecast, and pack a camera or take an aurora photography class to better remember this experience of a lifetime.
7. Experience Wildlife
The R.G. White Large Animal Research Station is home to musk oxen, reindeer, and cattle. Once extinct in Alaska, thousands of musk oxen now thrive across the vast landscape. At the station, researchers study the ancient creatures and learn how they survived the Ice Age. Fun fact: qiviut, the musk-ox undercoat, is what keeps the animals warm and was historically spun by Alaska Natives for blankets and clothing. Visit the gift shop to purchase qiviut yarn and see how warm it is.
To go for a stroll with some of Alaska’s most iconic animals, stop by Running Reindeer Ranch. The family-owned ranch offers reindeer walks through the scenic boreal forests complete with photo stops, cookies, and hot cocoa. From Fountainhead Wedgewood Wildlife Sanctuary, leisurely hikes travel past beaver huts and photography blinds along the Taiga and Wander Lake trails. Sit back and watch as beavers, fox, moose, and more than 100 species of birds scamper throughout the sanctuary. Another birdwatching hot spot in town is Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge where, just 2 miles from downtown, over 60 species of birds can be spotted.
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