Whether you’re traveling from the U.S. on an epic Alaska Highway road trip or flying into the state for an independent journey, Fairbanks should definitely be on your itinerary. There are so many things to do in Fairbanks, Alaska!
My Itchy Travel Feet featured contributor, Debi Lander of ByLanderSea, shares her experience visiting Fairbanks. From soaking in a hot spring to walking with reindeer, you’ll enjoy Debi’s tips for fun things to do in Fairbanks.
If international travel is not suitable for you, a trip to Alaska or Hawaii might offer just the right exotic experience, yet still keep you within the United States. Hawaii tempts many for a beautiful tropical vacation and relaxing atmosphere.
Still, I chose Alaska for its natural wonders, sparser population, and mountain ranges that slope down into crystalline blue glacial lakes. Plus, I looked forward to an encounter with moose, caribou, whales, and bears. My visit to our 49th state left me nothing short of wonderstruck.
I got excited even before I landed. The build-up began when I caught sight of those massive mountains, the frozen glaciers, and the snakelike trans-Alaska pipeline from my window on the flight to Fairbanks.
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How to get to Fairbanks
I flew to Fairbanks, Alaska’s second-biggest city, located at 65 degrees north latitude, in the state’s central region. Fairbanks ranks as the farthest north city in the U.S., accessible by air, rail, and road.
I picked up a rental car at the airport and found getting around easy. Alaska just doesn’t have many roads!
Fairbanks earned its moniker as the Golden Heart City for its central location in the Tanana Valley with the Brooks Range to the north and the Alaska Range to the south. The Chena River runs through it and connects the city with many interior locations and smaller towns. The regional population measures nearly 100,000 residents.
Jerry Evans from Explore Fairbanks explains, “Many people find that starting their Alaska adventure in Fairbanks makes the most sense. Denali National Park rests just two hours away, Anchorage is six, and the Arctic Circle and Yukon River accessible with a four- to five-hour drive.”
Best time to visit Fairbanks
When making plans, think of Fairbanks as having two seasons. Midnight Sun Season lasts from April 22 through August 20 while Aurora Season continues from August 21 through April 21.
The winter cold and snow cover typically lasts from mid-October through March. Winter activities include dog sledding, snowmobiling, ice fishing, snowshoeing, ice sculpting, and aurora borealis viewing. If your timing is right and the sky is clear, you can catch sight of the awe-inspiring aurora or northern lights from Fairbanks.
Summer brings an assortment of quirky adventures including water activities like fishing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, power boating, whitewater rafting, and hiking. Ever consider teeing-off at 10:00 pm for 18 holes of golf played in daylight?
The Midnight Sun Baseball Game is another annual ritual played on the summer solstice with no artificial lights. Game time- 10:00 pm.
Best things to do in Fairbanks
Learn about Alaska heritage
Fairbanks boomed to life over 100 years ago as a gold rush town. The prospectors may be gone, but today’s main street looks like an old western movie set. Walk around the somewhat eccentric town center and see many murals, an archway constructed from 100 moose and caribou antlers, and a fountain honoring the Athabascan people, Alaska’s original inhabitants.
Right off the main street, you’ll find the 9,000 square-foot Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center. As visitors browse, they become acquainted with the natural history and authentic heritage in the land nicknamed “the last frontier.”
Visitor Center displays include natural habitats, woven grass baskets, clothing made from animal skins and fur, and intricate beadwork. Some areas incorporate video history, such as the building of the immense pipeline.
Boomer Travel Tip
The Visitor Center offers a vast array of travel brochures and attraction cards. If you haven’t made all your plans, this is a terrific place to look and ask for assistance. Or check online before leaving home.
Another good place to explore and learn about Alaska’s past is Pioneer Park. The family-friendly outdoor park contains a historic village featuring original buildings moved from downtown Fairbanks. Stroll around the small museums and down a Gold Rush era main street. Children enjoy the small, historic theme park with a carousel, boats, and narrow-gauge train that runs the perimeter around the shops and restaurants.
Explore gardens under the midnight sun
One of the first places I visited was the modern-looking University of Alaska Fairbanks. Here I found the Georgeson Botanical Garden or what I termed the gardens of the midnight sun.
The flowers, trees, shrubs, and herbs look like they’ve taken a mighty shot of Miracle-Grow. But, of course, the plants flourish more than expected due to the non-stop sunlight in the summer months. I saw huge cabbages and giant blossoms. The gardens are free but include a donation box.
Go Gold Panning
I decided to seek my fortune at Gold Daughters Panning, run by two adorable sisters. They provided a short lesson on the technique to get me started.
Then, armed with a bag of paydirt, I was talked through the process of repeatedly swirling the debris in a water-filled pan and eventually leaving behind the heavier gold flakes. I found much more dirt than gold, but it’s rather relaxing. There’s no need to stoop down by a stream; you sit comfortably at a water trough.
Finding gold, even small flakes proves fascinating for adults and is irresistible for kids or grandkids. Participants take home everything they find, like fossils, pyrite, quartz, and gold. I uncovered enough gold flakes to fill a little charm.
Boomer Travel Tip
Gold Daughters is located across the street from a section of the 800-mile long Trans Alaska Pipeline constructed in the 1970s. Walk over for a closer look and photo op.
Walk with a Reindeer
Another unusual Fairbanks activity is a reindeer walk. The Running Reindeer Ranch offers guided walking tours of the boreal forest with live reindeer. Watch them effortlessly leap and bound among the trees or stroll lazily along with your group.
You’ll learn about the animals and how they adapt to the polar climate. Those with a genuine fondness for reindeer may wish to stay at the Reindeer Haus, an aptly named chalet with porch views of the Alaskan Range.
Soak in Chena Hot Springs
No visit to Fairbanks is complete without a trip to Chena Hot Springs Resort. I drove the rental car about an hour and a half, with brief stops for photos, past pristine wilderness.
The 56-mile drive meanders along the one and only road there (notice I didn’t say highway). No worries if you don’t have a car. The resort runs tours from Fairbanks
While Chena Hot Springs attracts tourist’s year-round, I found the natural mineral springs too hot in late August. However, soaking in the rock lake in the winter would be heavenly, not to mention memorable. Those bold enough dip their heads under the 106-degree water, then let the cold air create icy hairdos.
The resort includes various lodging choices, an ice museum that’s worth the tour, an ice bar for that special cocktail, and an excellent restaurant. A waiter suggested succulent Alaskan scallops, and he was right, super delicious.
Snowcats transport overnight guests to an unobstructed aurora viewing area. Sadly, I was just a bit too early for that breathtaking scene.
Another unusual and warmer way to catch the Northern Lights is to snuggle inside a fiberglass igloo while gazing out of a window—something Borealis Basecamp makes possible. I need to return on a winter trip to gaze at the starry Arctic sky.
Travel to the Arctic Circle
If I’d allotted one more day, I would have taken an excursion to the Arctic Circle. There are many tour options. You pick how you want to travel the 200 miles both there and back. Choose to drive with a guide in a van or bus.
For an additional cost, you can hop in a plane and fly in one or both directions. Once there, you will take a short hike on the tundra and see the Yukon River and perhaps caribou, muskox, or an arctic fox. Depending on the time of your outing, you may catch the aurora borealis.
Driving the 200 miles along the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay is not recommend unless you have four-wheel drive, snow tires, spare tires, a CB radio, and emergency supplies.
Boomer Travel Tip
Viator offers a variety of Arctic Circle tours from Fairbanks. Most include free cancellation. Check them out.
Visit the North Pole
I also missed going to the North Pole, a short 20-minute drive from Fairbanks, where the spirit of Christmas lives year-round. If your travels include children, don’t miss it. Wouldn’t this be fun to experience with the grandkids?
How many days should I spend in Fairbanks?
I’d recommend two to three days in Fairbanks to see everything. Aurora chasers should stay a minimum of three nights to increase their chance of seeing of those purple and green hues light up the sky.
When it was time to leave Fairbanks, I traveled by Alaska Railroad to Denali National Park in a glass-domed car with wrap-around windows. I highly recommend the train.