Fairbanks, the Golden Heart City, is the second-largest city in Alaska and lies 365 miles north of Anchorage in the heart of the interior. The town center follows both sides of the Chena River, a small, winding tributary of the larger Tanana River. Lying in the Tanana Valley and surrounded by hills, the city of Fairbanks has a population of under 40,000 in the city proper, but almost 100,000 people are spread out over the vast wild forests of the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
Although Athabascan people have used the area for summer hunting since time immemorial, the townsite of Fairbanks began in 1901 during the Gold Rush era. Entrepreneur E.T. Barnette started a trading post that became a major supply stop for miners. When prospector Felix Pedro found gold nearby, Fairbanks attracted more residents and grew into a lasting town. Today Fairbanks is a diverse community at the top of the world that is unique in many ways.
To the south, Fairbanks is flanked by the Fort Wainwright Army Base and next to it, Eielson Air Force Base. The University of Alaska Fairbanks is the most prominent part of the west side. To the east, Chena Hot Springs Road is a safe haven for dog mushers and those that crave country life. To the north lies the wild White Mountains with Fairbanks just 196 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Temperatures range from long, cold winters that dip to −40°F(−40°C) to warm, sunny summer days that soar above 90°F(32°C). With seemingly endless summers under the midnight sun and clear, cold winters under the aurora, Fairbanks is a constantly changing storybook of wild Alaskan beauty.
Many visitors take the Parks Highway north from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The Richardson Highway heads into town from Tok and the Alaskan Canadian Highway, shortened to the “Al-Can.” Other options are taking the Alaska Railroad or flying into the Fairbanks International Airport. There are a variety of bus and tour services that can transport you to the interior from throughout the state. If you plan a trip to Denali National Park, take the extra step and head to Fairbanks to experience the magic of this unique interior town. Continue the journey north up to the Arctic Circle and beyond.
Wondering what to do in Fairbanks? Despite being a relatively remote town, there are a lot of activities and attractions to enjoy.
Here are a wide variety of ideas for fun things to do throughout the year:
Winter activities and attractions:
1.) Watch the Aurora
Just a short drive out of the city center in any direction, the light pollution fades away and the clear night skies provide perfect conditions for stargazing, and often aurora borealis or northern lights appear. In Fairbanks, it is common for the winter skies to light up with dancing lights in green, white, yellow, pink, purple or red.
When solar winds disturb the magnetosphere, the result is the aurora, a mysterious and elusive natural event that is a regular and beautiful part of winter life in interior Alaska. The aurora is always present, but it can only be viewed when the skies are dark and clear.
The best time to view the Northern Lights in Fairbanks is between August and April. The darker the nights, the better the view.
Head over one of the many ridges and domes around town to find dark skies for optimum viewing. Winter roads in Fairbanks can be tricky, so consider the easy path and take an aurora tour. There are many guide companies that will transport travelers to a perfect spot for aurora viewing.
Aurora tour guides explain the scientific realities of the phenomenon as well as stories about the lights and provide hot cocoa to enjoy while watching the sky. With any luck, visitors experience the incredible northern lights first hand. Check the aurora forecast to pick the best night for trying to catch the northern lights.
2.) Dip in the Hot Springs
As long as people have lived through interior Alaskan winters, people have been soaking in hot springs to take the chill out of their bones. Enjoying a ski or snowshoe in the bright winter daylight hours and settling into a hot pool of natural mineral water is an experience enjoyed by pioneers and Alaskans today.
Modern-day visitors to the interior flock to the hot springs in the area. Tolovana Hot Springs is the ski-in option with a 14 miles journey by foot or snowmachine to get to the cabins and hot springs. Chena Hot Springs Resort is on the road system.
Chena Hot Springs lies an hour’s drive outside of Fairbanks along a two-lane road that winds through the boreal forest. The drive itself is a wildlife viewing trip as the wilderness is alive with unspoiled natural beauty. The resort boasts an outdoor rock pool where visitors can soak in the hot mineral water in peace and quiet. In the winter, soaking in a pool of hot water while the outside air is below freezing is a novel Alaskan experience.
3.) Go Ice Fishing
Winters in Fairbanks are cold and usually the Chena River freezes solid in the winter months, which offers great opportunity for ice fishing from November to March. There are ice fishing tours, rental packages for all the supplies, and ice fishing huts available to reserve. Basically, the process involves drilling a hole in the ice and fishing in a small shelter, watching the line for signs of a catch.
Not only is ice fishing a wonderful way to get out into Alaska’s great outdoors, it is also a way to learn about local fish and the conditions of the river. With the right warm gear, ice fishing can be a fun family activity and a delightful day for visitors. Enjoy ice fishing in Fairbanks, a classic interior Alaskan pastime.
4.) Hit the Slopes
Fairbanks is widely renowned among skiers for the perfect powder that covers the slopes. Fairbanks cold, dry winters make for piles of powdery snow to play in and a long season to enjoy the mountains, when the snow everywhere else has long melted. Head to Fairbanks from November to April to enjoy the interior’s famed conditions.
Whether you prefer to ski or snowboard, there are ski resorts on opposite sides of town with different runs for different levels of skill. Check out Moose Mountain and Skiland, the interior’s best ski resorts. Moose Mountain has excellent sunny days and a cool series of buses that transport skiers and snowboarders up to the top. Skiland has a full ski lift winding down the north side of a slope, making the snow last longer and the mountain more professional in nature. If you are an avid winter sports enthusiast, try them both!
5.) Ride on a Dog Sled
The interior boasts miles of trails that attract many mushers to the area to live, train and mush through the wildlands. Dog mushing is a sport with many races and prizes across the north, as well as a long history in Alaska as a form of transportation. Dog mushing is a common practice in interior Alaska and some mushers open their land and sleds to visitors.
Take a dog mushing tour and you will see first hand the dog yard where the team lives, the set up of a dog sled, and the trails that the mushers run. Guests choose how long they want to enjoy the view and most tours provide additional warm gear for those who aren’t prepared for the temperatures.
Visitors are generally nestled in the sled and covered in blankets while the musher drives the team. A dog mushing tour through the snowy forest is a truly unique experience and opportunities abound in the Fairbanks area.
6.) See Ice Art
The World Ice Art Championships take place in Fairbanks every February and March and the glistening artwork remains on display until the sun melts them away. Plan a visit at this time of year to see the ice park at night when the colored lights illuminate the ice carvings. With multiblock and single block carving competitions, some of the world’s most distinguished ice sculptors compete for the honors. Their creations are on display for a small entrance fee to the ice park.
The large and magical ice sculptures seem to defy logic while delicately balanced and glittering in the lights. The Ice Park is located at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds and includes ice attractions for the whole family and places to play in addition to the ice sculptures. Visit the World Ice Art Championships to see this beautiful art form that can only exist in the winter cold.
7.) Play in the White Mountains
Head north from Fairbanks into the White Mountains to see some of Alaska’s most glorious features. About an hour’s drive from Fairbanks lies the White Mountains National Recreation Area. The one-million-acre area is monitored by the Bureau of Land Management and offers cabins for overnight trips in the mountains.
This remote range offers exceptionally powdery snow that is perfect for any outdoor winter sport. Bring snowshoes for transportation, or snow machines, fat bikes, skis, snowboards or sleds. The White Mountains offer bluebird skies, fresh mountain air, and the beauty of Alaska’s access to huge spaces of wilderness.
8.) Go Ice Skating
Across the town, you can find outdoor ice rinks to enjoy. There are several outside the Big Dipper Ice Arena and Ester Park floods their basketball court to create a rink on the west side of town. There are also places to skate on ponds in the dead of winter. From freeze to spring melt, take your skates out to enjoy a refreshing day on the ice.
Fairbanks is one of the few places where ice skating outdoors can be done for half the year, so enjoy this arctic outing with friends and loved ones. The Big Dipper rinks are maintained and you can rent skates inside for use. There is also an indoor rink, but it is only available for recreational skating on a limited basis.
Summer activities and attractions:
9.) Explore the Tors
Tors are large granite boulders that rise out of the earth, and the Granite Tors Trail is a direct route to some interesting tors to explore. This 14.1 mile loop lies at 39 mile Chena Hot Springs Road and is a well-used local hiking trail to see views of the area, pick berries and explore the tors.
There is a 24-spot campground at the trailhead for camping before or after you finish the loop, or some backpack out and camp in the bush. Bears are frequent in the area during berry time in late summer, so be sure to make a lot of noise, carry bear spray, and check with local authorities for safety guidelines. The Granite Tors hike is a Fairbanks adventure not to be missed.
10.) Ride the Train
The Alaska Railroad offers summer passenger service between Fairbanks and Anchorage, stopping by Denali National Park halfway through the journey. Taking the train is a much longer journey than driving, but completely different as you can enjoy the wilderness of the route. The views are spectacular out the train window and there are ample opportunities for wildlife viewing.
The Alaska Railroad offers special event trips, regular routes to Seward, Anchorage and all points in between, and stellar service. Consider taking the train to or from Fairbanks for a more relaxing and fun way to travel in the interior. In the fall especially, the views and the foliage are outstanding.
11.) Go Camping on the River
All along the Chena River from right in town to Chena Hot Springs are state-regulated campsites to enjoy in the summer months. Campsites are simple in nature with fire pits, parking spots, lavatories and grills. Get out into the woods and spend some time sleeping under the midnight sun on a summer camping trip on the Chena River.
Fishing, hiking, berry picking, dipping your toes in the very cold river, and hanging out by a campfire are all common activities on a Chena River camping trip. Make sure to check campsite availability online and bring your own firewood. Even one night of camping out of town is truly refreshing to the spirit.
12.) Canoe the Chena
The Chena is a fairly slow-moving, narrow river in the section that runs through town. It is easy to jump in at several points in the downtown area and float along for hours until you arrive at your pre-appointed destination. Fairbanks has generally warm and sunny June and July summer days, perfect for cruising along in a raft, canoe, or kayak on the Chena River.
Starting from one of the parks downtown, you can stop after a shorter journey at Pioneer Park, stop on Airport Road, or cruise all the way down to the confluence of the Chena and the Tanana for a full day float. Several outfits located along the river offer rentals of boats, kayaks, canoes, and life jackets. Floating the river is definitely a fun thing to do in Fairbanks.
13.) Pan for Gold
There is, in fact, gold in the hills around Fairbanks and active mining operations are ongoing by independent mines and large operations. There are also tours that offer a gold panning experience for visitors. Get in touch with the gold rush roots of the town by trying your hand at panning for gold.
Gold panning is a simple task that you can easily learn in a minute. You can purchase a pan from a hardware store and head to a creek for a leisurely summer afternoon in Alaska seeking your fortune. There are also established tour locations where they will show you the ropes, provide the materials, and put your gold in a tiny vial as a keepsake. Gold panning is a fun outdoor activity that most people enjoy.
14.) Stop by the Ice Museum
Located at Chena Hot Springs Resort, the Ice Museum houses gorgeous hand-carved ice sculptures all year long. Master ice sculptors Steve and Heather Brice keep the Ice Museum under constant revision with fresh, sparkling ice art for viewers to enjoy year-round. The Ice Museum tour provides parkas for all visitors and is about 30 minutes of exploring the world of professional ice carving.
After seeing every nook and cranny of the large and beautiful displays of ice art, guests are treated to drinks in individual martini glasses made out of ice served at a bar made out of ice. With insulated seat covers to keep you toasty while you sip, the experience of the Ice Bar is unique and fun. Visit the Ice Museum for a taste of the World Ice Art Championships any time of year.
15.) Stroll in the Garden
The Georgeson Botanical Garden on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus is a gorgeous place to spend some time in the summer months. Flowers bloom all throughout the growing season and the spacious gardens are a joy to visit again and again. Varieties of flowers are labeled and you can learn about Alaskan flora as you stroll the botanical garden.
Lovely events are held regularly from live music and poetry to guided walks with a botanical leaning. Head to the Georgeson Botanical Gardens for a picturesque location to relax and enjoy the summer days. You can even reserve the spot for a special event or wedding among the lovely flowers.
16.) Check out the Lakes
Tanana Lakes is the hottest new Recreation Area in town and summer or winter, there are options for outdoor fun. In the summer, paddle boarding and swimming are the chosen sports. In winter, there are tracks for cross-country skiing across the lakes. Any time of year, Tanana Lakes is a great spot for spending time outdoors in Fairbanks.
Located on the southside of town, these lakes are tucked into the wilderness right at the edge of town, making the recreation area accessible to all. This spot is a great place to swing by at lunch or after work to fit some fresh air and sunshine into your day.
17.) Ride the Riverboat
For a touch of Gold Rush charm, take a ride on the Riverboat Discovery. This paddle boat runs up and down the smooth part of the Chena River in the summer months. The multilevel riverboat is large and comfortable with lots of space to explore, relax, and take in the views of Interior Alaska.
The three-hour boat ride runs during the summer and has several stops to explore the history of the area. There is a boathouse to dine in before or after your ride on simple, homestyle cooking. The whole Riverboat Discovery experience is a must-see on a summer visit to Fairbanks.
18.) Explore the Field
Creamer’s Field is a Migratory Waterfowl Refuge where birds stop on their long migrations in the spring and fall. Wildlife viewing, nature education and research are all functions of the refuge, as well as protecting wildlife habitat. Creamer’s Field is a local favorite for recreating, walking, running and bird watching.
Wildlife in the refuge include arctic fox, voles, moose, and a huge variety of birdlife from tiny chickadees and redpolls to larger ravens, owls, Canada geese, and Sandhill cranes. There are three trails to explore: the boreal forest trail, the seasonal wetland trail, and the farm road trail. The historic Creamer’s Dairy building stands at the edge of the field with an information center nearby to find about all the latest information for enjoying Creamer’s Field.
19.) Visit the Farmer’s Market
The Tanana Valley Farmer’s Market is a bustling spot on College Road with the best the area has to offer. The growing season is short this far north, but the endless hours of sunlight grow some vegetables like kale and cabbage to enormous proportions. From late May through the snowfall, the Farmer’s Market is open Wednesdays and Saturdays for the public.
The many farm-fresh vegetable stands are accompanied by lunch options, local honey, fresh-baked bread, locally made artisan items, soaps, jams, and more. Live music and performances occasionally grace the stage and there is a peaceful, family atmosphere about the whole event. Head to the Tanana Valley Farmers Market for all your local fresh food needs in the summer.
Any time of year:
20.) View the Pipeline
Along the Steese Highway near Fox, Alaska lies the Alaska Pipeline Viewing Point, a particular section of the Alaska Pipeline that intersects with the road for up-close viewing. See the pipeline itself and learn from the photo displays about the inner workings of the “pigs” that run up and down, cleaning the lines.
This marvel of architecture runs the length of the state of Alaska and delivers crude oil from the North Slope far to Valdez, over 800 miles. This silver pipe sees over a million dollars of oil flow through per hour. Contemplate the impact the pipeline has on the state and world while learning about this vital part of Alaska’s economy. Pipeline era stories are the best.
21.) See the Statues
Downtown Fairbanks has several works of public art to visit. Golden Heart Park, the central plaza in downtown Fairbanks, contains the large statue “Unknown First Family”, a fountain that flows in the summer months. This sculpture is by Malcolm Alexander and is a majestic eighteen feet in stature. Visit this Fairbanks landmark anytime.
Across the footbridge, you will find the sculpture “Polaris” by Cheryl Hamilton and Mike Vandermee. Inspired by the brightest star in the Little Dipper constellation, the sculpture is brightly polished steel and stands between the two Cushman Street bridges. Cross back to Golden Heart Park over the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge to complete the journey.
22.) Check out the Children’s Museum
Fairbanks Children’s Museum is a great place to take a family to play and explore their many exhibits. With activities, lessons, classes, performances, and open playtime, children are encouraged to learn and explore throughout the museum. Allow plenty of time to enjoy all they have to offer.
Recent renovations are underway to improve the Covid friendly nature of the museum to make it safer for all to visit. There are always new events happening at the Fairbanks Children’s Museum, so make sure to check with the museum for interesting happenings. The museum is also a perfect spot to visit on a cold or rainy day when an outdoor option is less enjoyable.
23.) Stop by the Morris Thompson Center
This cultural center is a gathering place for Fairbanks residents and visitors for education, celebration and discovery. Come to the Morris Thompson Center to learn about all the town has to offer from knowledgeable guides and informative displays. The spacious, light filled room is a sanctuary, nestled in a park by the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks.
There are three life-sized dioramas to explore and learn about the culture and history of the area. In addition, there are computers for the public to use, information about visiting the area and northern Alaska, and a shop with a wide variety of local artisan goods. Stop by the Morris Thompson Cultural Center when in Fairbanks to find out the latest info on all happening in town.
24.) Go to the Museum of the North
Perched on a hill with a view of the town, the Museum of the North is one of Alaska’s premiere research facilities for Alaskan history, archeology and culture. Located on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, the museum is open year-round for locals and visitors alike to enjoy the regularly rotating exhibits.
Alaska’s natural history displays include prehistoric fossils and explanations of the different ages, as well as some dinosaur fossils. Special exhibits on the aurora, arctic weather conditions and other standing exhibits are joined by new displays of cultural importance and current research. A day at the museum is fun for a group or a solo trip. There is something for everyone to enjoy at the Museum of the North.