Fairbanks is a small town in Alaska’s interior that lies at the base of the Tanana Valley. The Chena River runs through the center of town and flows to the Tanana River, the namesake of the valley. This small town is perfectly situated in the center of a ring of ridges and domes, at the edge of the wilderness in almost every direction. Fairbanks is centrally located in Alaska, providing the perfect opportunity for day trips.
Denali, North America’s tallest mountain, lies a short 3-4 hour drive south and there are many ways to enjoy the staggering beauty of the foothills and wildlands. Denali National Park and the surrounding area host a wealth of attractions for outdoor excursions, hiking, and wildlife viewing. The area north of Denali includes Healy, Anderson, and Nenana, all small Alaskan communities with unique offerings.
From Fairbanks central location in interior Alaska, a drive southeast heads to North Pole, Salcha, and Delta, then out into the wild and beautiful mountains of the Alaska Range. The landscape along the way is dotted with lakes and forests that Alaskans enjoy all year long. North Pole has access to nature and there are many reasons to visit this small neighboring community to Fairbanks.
North from the city center is the Elliott highway that heads to the Arctic Circle and the tundra beyond. The mountains and rivers are a paradise for those craving the beauty and solitude of Alaska’s wilderness. Aurora viewing and dog mushing are popular activities in this area, as well as fishing and camping near the Chatanika River.
Due east runs Chena Hot Springs Road, a 60-mile two-lane road winding through the boreal forest. There are opportunities for outdoor adventures up and down the road, as well as the Chena Hot Springs Resort at the end. This playground in the wilderness is suited for skiing, hiking, aurora viewing, and soaking under the stars in the outdoor rock pool.
No matter which direction you head, there are so many day trips from Fairbanks to enjoy. Here are just a few ideas for ways to explore the golden heart of Alaska and the wildlands beyond.
1.) Dip in the Hot Springs
One of the most popular days trips from Fairbanks is to the famed Chena Hot Springs Resort. The drive itself is a wildlife viewing tour as the forest along the road is home to many Alaskan creatures. Check the wetlands along the road for moose munching on plant life, bear wading in the streams, and beaver building their dams. The resort itself offers activities and attractions from the year-round Aurora Ice Museum (more on that later), aurora viewing tours, and cross-country skiing on the well-groomed trails.
The main attraction is the hot mineral water pools and hot tubs, both inside and out of the bathhouse and swimming area. The outdoor Rock Pool is surrounded by boulders and filled with hot water, naturally flowing from deep within the Earth. The pool is designed for adults to quietly relax in the open air and enjoy the mineral-rich waters. Children enjoy the cooler indoor pool and hot tubs, shielded from the arctic temperature in the winter. Chena Hot Springs Resort is a perfect day trip from Fairbanks everyone will enjoy.
2.) Go to the White Mountains
Just north of Fairbanks lies the White Mountains National Recreation Area encompassing over a million acres of wilderness that Alaskans and visitors cherise. Over 200 miles of trails are available for hiking, fat-biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and running in the fresh mountain air. North on the Elliot Highway 28 miles from downtown Fairbanks, the White Mountains are an accessible place to play in the sun all year-round.
Wickersham Dome is a perfect place to start exploring the recreation area with a 5-mile ski loop and a 7-mile out-and-back hike with epic views of the valley below. Check with the Bureau of Land Management for information on renting cabins in the White Mountains and current trail conditions.
3.) Head to the Arctic Circle
Take a tour up to the Arctic Circle for a unique experience possible only in interior Alaska. Tours head north to the Arctic Circle in the mornings and return by night. Travel north on the rugged Dalton Highway for the day to see the Arctic Circle and the tundra spreading over the rolling hills.
The Yukon River is a major feature of the interior and flows from Canada through Alaska to the Bering Sea. This mighty river flows swiftly, pale in color due to the glacial silt flowing from mountain runoff. See the Yukon River and cross the Arctic Circle and most tours will give you a certificate. There are also options to fly to the Arctic Circle for a shorter trip north from Fairbanks.
4.) Hike Angel Rocks
One of the most popular hikes in town is the Angel Rocks Trail located 49 miles from Fairbanks on Chena Hot Springs Road. There are two trails to choose from for spending the day on this picturesque trek. Head up to the rocks and return for a 3.5-mile loop that takes you up to a scenic overlook and back to the parking lot. For the more adventurous, hike the 8.3-mile one-way trail to Chena Hot Springs that covers 1900 feet of elevation and is frequented by hikers and horseback riders. Soak tired muscles in the hot springs pool after the adventure and either hike, bike or get a ride back to the trailhead parking lot.
Angel Rocks are actually large, granite tors created when granite cooled with the Earth’s crust and formed large boulders that now sit prominently on the hillside overlooking the hot springs. There are several rocks to climb and you can spend a lovely afternoon exploring the top of the hill picnicking and hiking at Angel Rocks.
5.) View the Aurora
An aurora tour is less of a day trip than a night trip, and one worth exploring. There are countless options for aurora viewing tours, but the primary components remain the same. A guide will escort guests to a location for watching the night sky, hoping to see the elusive northern lights, or aurora borealis. Usually traveling a little out of town is required to escape the light pollution and find a spot with dark, clear skies. Aurora tour guides will teach guests all about the science and folklore of the aurora borealis and provide hot cocoa and company while waiting for the northern lights to appear.
6.) Explore Chena Lakes
Chena Lake Recreation Area is a popular spot with ample shoreline at this 2178 acre park east of North Pole. For summer fun, head here for camping, picnicking, swimming, and jet-skiing on the series of lakes. The lakes are freshwater surrounded by boreal forest, covering 259 surface acres with the deepest spot measuring 38 feet. There are silty sand beaches for swimming and enjoying the sun, and although temperatures are cool in Fairbanks, summer months offer sunny afternoons for recreation. Summer water activities start in May and continue until September when temperatures turn frigid, although the water is never particularly warm.
Hiking trails at Chena Lakes include the 2.5 mile Nature Trail Loop that leads through the taiga forest. This and the other trails in the area are available winter and summer for walking and pets are allowed on a leash. Winter at Chena Lakes offers a different set of options to enjoy the trails including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and skijoring. Other Alaskan activities include ice fishing, dog mushing, snow machining, and aurora viewing.
7.) Fly to Fort Yukon
Flying on small planes is a part of life in rural Alaska and many places are only accessible by air and water. See this unique side of Alaskan life by taking a small plane up to Fort Yukon, a small town of about 500 people on the Yukon River. A day tour will head up to the area, tour the landscape and check out the Yukon River. Several options for tour companies exist to see the rugged landscape of interior Alaska from the air.
8.) View the Delta Mountains
The scenic drive to Paxson Lake from Fairbanks takes you past many of the eastern interior’s most beautiful areas. Travel from the sub-arctic climate of the interior to the windy farmland near Delta for a change of climate. After connecting to the Richardson Highway, travel south to the Delta Mountains of the Alaska Range. The landscape opens up and the majestic mountain views expand in every direction. Continue past the Black Rapids Glacier where buffalo roam in the distance and travel to Paxson Lake, an expanse of peaceful, pristine water with chunks of ice usually floating across the surface. Drive from Fairbanks to Paxson Lake for a scenic day trip.
9.) Ride the Train to Denali
The Alaska Railroad offers daily summer passenger train service south to Anchorage through Denali National Park. The train cuts through the Alaskan countryside on a unique path offering views of the wilderness only seen by rail passengers. Every morning in the summer months, the train departs the station for the 12-hour trip. Travel down to Denali and enjoy the scenery in style as you relax on the comfortable cars of the Alaska Railroad. Stay in Denali to enjoy all the area has to offer, take the train back, or drive the 3-4 hours for a shorter return trip. A train trip to Denali is a fun way to see the interior without the mosquitos.
10.) See Master Ice Carving
One of the unique benefits of the long, cold Fairbanks winters is that the weather is perfect for winter activities. Ice carving is one of those and the area boasts ice sculptures in town and in specialized museums. The World Ice Art Championships are held locally each February-March and across the interior ice carvings decorate the streets.
Aurora Ice Museum at Chena Hot Springs Resort houses glittering ice sculptures and with a super-cooling system that keeps the room frozen year-round. Sculpted by a master carving team comprised of Steve and Heather Brice, the sculptures are continually maintained and updated. Highlights of the trip include the ice bar and the ice martini glasses, hand-carved fresh daily. The Aurora Ice Museum is at the Chena Hot Springs Resort, an hour’s drive from Fairbanks.
11.) See the Tripod in Nenana
The small town Nenana lies about an hour’s drive south of Fairbanks on the Parks Highway and is home to the Nenana Ice Classic, an annual guessing contest that attracts locals to wager on the time the ice will break up. A black-and-white tripod is erected on the river ice each year in early March and tickets go on sale to guess the date and time of the tripod falling into the melted river, an Alaskan tradition since 1917. This is just one of several events held in Nenana where fireworks are displayed. Visit Nenana any time of year and see the 700-foot bridge over the Nenana River, have a burger at the Monderosa, or explore the shore and enjoy a picnic on the river. Nenana is an hour away and an easy place to take a day trip from Fairbanks.
12.) Check out the Chatanika River
At mile 39 of the Steese Highway lies Upper Chatanika River State Recreation Site, an access point for the small, clear Chatanika River. A forty-minute drive from downtown Fairbanks, head out the highway to find clear skies and the cold, fresh river flowing over smooth river rocks. The parking leads to a gravel bar for camping, relaxing, dipping in the cold river, and taking off in canoes. The Chatanika River hosts a limited spearfishing event each fall that draws many locals to fish. Chatanika is a peaceful and wild river area to enjoy any time of year.
13.) Mush the Trails
Dog mushing is popular in Fairbanks as the climate conditions are perfect for long, snowy winters to run dogs on the miles of well-conditioned trails. Several of the kennels in the area offer dog mushing excursions to spend a day in the forest mushing the trail. Meet the dogs, learn about the sport of dog mushing, gear up for the temperatures, head out on a dog sled with a musher, and cruise through the winter wonderland as an experienced dog-team takes you through a run. The area around Fairbanks has several kennels to choose from for an unforgettable dog mushing experience.
14.) Raft the River
Fairbanks runs right along the Chena River and recreation on the water is a big part of summer Fairbanks fun. A rafting tour is a fun way to enjoy the Alaskan wilderness with a knowledgeable guide and proper safety gear. Either near the town on the Chena River or near Denali on the Nenana River, a full-day rafting adventure is a fun day trip from Fairbanks.
15.) Pan for Gold
Head out of town into the hills gold, or at least a gold panning tour. There are several operations in the area offering day trips to learn about the Gold Rush days of the early 1900s and try gold panning. The Fairbanks area hosts a rich mining history with the mineral-rich hills still desired for their metallic content. Tours include gold mining history and descriptions of the equipment, demonstrations of how to use a gold pan, and the water and silt to try your hand at panning for gold in Alaska. With a visit to the pipeline and lunch, this can be a full-day trip from Fairbanks.
16.) Ride the Riverboat
The old-fashioned stern-wheeler rolls up and down the Chena River in Fairbanks during the summer months. Ride the Riverboat Discovery and experience the Gold Rush Era transportation that was all the rage in the 1900s in Alaska. The scenic Chena River is lined with green forests and flowers along the shoreline. The easy ride up the Chena River to the Tanana River and back takes four hours and has a few scheduled stops along the way to experience Fairbanks culture.
17.) Walk with Reindeer
Running Reindeer Ranch is a surprise hit in Fairbanks and is a wildly popular attraction with visitors. Spend a day at this reindeer ranch to learn about these arctic animals and meet a few up close. The tour includes walking a loop through the birch forest with a group of reindeer, watching them eat lichen on the ground they can sense through the snow. This intimate experience allows a true understanding of the reindeer and the environment they thrive in. At the end of the walk, feeding the reindeer and taking photos is a thrilling finale to the tour. Walking with reindeer at Running Reindeer Ranch is fun any time of year, and the surrounding Goldstream Valley is beautiful. Enjoy this popular day trip in Fairbanks.