What comes to mind when you think Alaska? Wildlife? Mountain ranges? Dog mushing? Northern Lights? If you’re looking to see and do it all, make Fairbanks your home base. As the state’s second-largest city, Fairbanks, is home to a little over 100,000 people and a whole lot of untouched terrain.
Otherwise known as the Hub of the Interior, Gateway to the Bush, or the Golden Heart City, Fairbanks is iconic Alaska. A place where you’re likely to run into moose on the road, see reindeer sausage as a staple menu item, meet professional dog mushers, learn what it truly means to live “off-the-grid” and, of course, witness the natural phenomenon of the Northern Lights. It’s a true wilderness destination that embodies what Alaska is all about.
As one of the top year-round Alaska destinations to visit, it’s a place that’s as equally exciting to explore in the summer months as in the winter. That said I particularly enjoyed visiting during their Midnight Sun season, an incredibly special time in which the area experiences 70 straight days of sunlight, with some days exhibiting a full 24 hours of light. Nothing really prepares you for witnessing a fully bright sky, illuminated with all sorts of vibrant sunset shades, in the middle of the night. But I loved it.
Depending on your interests there is plenty to do. Downtown Fairbanks and the surrounding area is home to a variety of cultural tours; antique shops; artisanal and hand-craft stores; museums; weekly farmer’s markets; restaurants and bars; in addition to points of interest like The World’s “Farthest North Antler Arch” and the Fountainhead Auto Museum. Just a short drive out you’ll discover the rugged side of the city with its hot springs, National Geographic-level natural landscapes, and the chance to ATV, fly, fish and more, all dependent on what calls to you.
Running Reindeer Ranch
If you’ve ever dreamed of taking a magical walk through the forest with majestic reindeer, book a one-of-a-kind tour at Running Reindeer Ranch. This company offers guided walking tours through the boreal forest with their reindeer family, which includes adorable babies!
As you go, you’ll learn all about these gentle creatures and have ample time to pet and enjoy the company of their eleven reindeer. It’s as interactive and personal of an experience with these animals as you’ll ever get!
Paws For Adventure
You can’t go to the world’s mushing capital and not stop by a kennel. Paws For Adventure is home to over 60, energetic, loving dogs and a slew of adorable puppies! This is where you go to learn about the history of mushing and to get up-close-and-personal with these powerful dogs.
For an authentic Alaskan experience, book a mushing experience for yourself where you’ll have the chance to enjoy dog sled travel through the wilderness. Or if you’re feeling extra adventurous, learn to drive your own small team at their mushing school!
Arctic Circle Fly/ Drive Adventure
One of the most unique things you can do in Fairbanks is visit the Arctic Circle, a specific circle of latitude that marks the southernmost point in the Northern Hemisphere where there’s at least 24 hours of constant sunlight and 24 hours of constant darkness during the year. If you don’t mind heights or road trips, book an Arctic Circle Fly/ Drive Adventure in which you board a small aircraft in Fairbanks to Coldfoot.
During the flight, you get an incredible aerial view of the unending Alaskan wilderness. While on land you’ll tour the Dalton Highway made famous during the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. In addition to the highlight of “crossing” the Arctic Circle, you’ll experience the beauty of the Yukon River and the greater Arctic tundra.
60 miles out of Fairbanks is Chena Hot Springs Resort, an ideal rustic retreat for those in need of some relaxing time in the wilderness. Their natural hot springs are an average of 106 degrees year-round and is completely free of chemicals. It’s situated amidst the wilderness and offers a peaceful atmosphere to take in the surrounding nature.
Also offered at the resort are adventurous activities that include ATV-ing, kennel tours, horseback riding, canoeing, fishing and more. And in the winter, guests can partake in snow machine tours, snowshoeing, ice skating, and the like.
Riverboat Cruise: Riverboat Discovery
Take a step back in time with this three-hour cruise into the heart of Alaska. During the Riverboat Cruise: Riverboat Discovery, you’ll watch a bush floatplane take off, visit the home and kennel of the late four-time Iditarod winner and her champion dogs and learn all about Athabascan Indian culture from Alaskan native guides who take you on a personalized tour of the Chena Indian Village. It’s a great afternoon for those interested in history and how life was like for the Athabascans.
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For a fun evening out, take part in an authentic Alaska Salmon Bake which has been operating in the historic Pioneer Park, Alaska’s only Historic Theme Park, for over 40 years. Indulge in an all-you-can-eat menu that features wood-grilled salmon, beer-battered cod, and slow-roasted beef. And don’t forget about Stroecker’s Dessert & Coffee Cabin—the only dedicated dessert cabin in Alaska. If you’re up for it, end the night with a show at The Palace Theatre. The Golden Heart review is a comedic musical comedy that’s all about the history and life on the frontier.
Another popular excursion for lovers of history is gold panning at Gold Dredge 8. Guests are invited to get aboard a replica of the narrow-gauge Tanana Valley Railroad, which takes you on an educational journey where you learn all about the gold rush and how the dredge actually functioned during that era. Once at camp, you have the chance to pan for gold yourself. You’re guaranteed to find some glittering gold!
Denali National Park
Just two hours away from Fairbanks is Denali, North America’s highest peak. Denali National Park and Preserve spans over six million acres of wilderness and is home to moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, wolves and more. Park guests aren’t allowed to drive their own vehicles past mile 14 so your only option to venture deeper into the park is to explore via tour bus.
During the tour you’re likely to come across all the mountain species you could hope for—we saw seven bears on our tour—as you drive through the park’s epic mountains, rolling rivers and lakes, alpine meadows, and vibrant tundra. Educational, exhilarating and scenic, it’s certainly something that should not be missed during a trip to Fairbanks.
Stay overnight at either Grande Denali Lodge or its sister property, Denali Bluffs Hotel, two fantastic properties that offer guests warm hospitality, beautiful views of the Alaska Range and Nenana River canyon, upscale dining options, luxe accommodations and access to a variety of tours and activities within and around the park.
Head back to Fairbanks on a scenic four-hour ride on the Alaska Railroad. Their iconic, flagship train, The Denali Star, features upscale fare in their dining car, a beverage service, and baggage service, among other amenities.
This summer United Airlines began to offer new, five hour nonstop services from San Francisco to Fairbanks. Tourism officials are anticipating United Airlines will offer a second summer of non-stop flights to Fairbanks in 2020, but they haven’t been formally announced. However, Fairbanks is always convenient to get to, with one-stop flights always available via Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines.