I had heard that Fairbanks was among Alaskan visitor’s favorite cities, so when we were planning our 2-week Alaska visit, we made sure to give ourselves time in Fairbanks. In Fairbanks, you can experience much of Alaska’s history in a beautiful mountainous setting alongside rivers. It is a very spread out city, just under 33 square miles. Although there is a downtown, it is not where we spent the majority of our time, as the fun stuff to do in Fairbanks is spread out. We learned about riverboats, oil, gold, native peoples, and reindeer while we were in Fairbanks, as well as visited the North Pole. Read on for what to do in Fairbanks. We spent three days in Fairbanks.
What to do in Fairbanks
The discovery of oil in Alaska in 1967 had a profound effect on Alaska. It shaped where people settled, caused people to immigrate for oil jobs, and provided money to Alaskans. Getting oil from Prudhoe Bay in the north, which is unreachable in the winter, required unique technology and thought. A specialized pipeline was created, prepared to deal with Alaska’s cold without disturbing the permafrost. On the outskirts of Fairbanks, you can see the pipeline, as well as learn about its construction and technology. Expect to spend an hour or two at this free activity. There are no bathrooms or food here.
Well before oil, the discovery of gold brought people into Alaska. It also brought steamboats and railroads. I didn’t realize that mining was still occurring in Alaska. We learned a lot about gold mining during our visit to Gold Daughters, just across the street from the Alaskan Pipeline.
Dad is a real gold miner, and he had two daughters who opened this place to teach us about gold mining. The family is super friendly and helpful, and my teens loved this experience. To enter, you must buy a pass that allows you to pan as long as they are open. Gold panning is harder than I expected, but they guarantee you will leave with some of the shiny stuff.
Visit the North Pole
Ok, it is not actually the North Pole, but a town with that name which has embraced it.
We got a lot closer to the real North Pole as a day trip from Fairbanks. Read about our day trip into the Arctic Circle.
The North Pole is a natural place to eat crepes, right? We enjoyed this casual eatery so much we would have returned if we had kept our rental car for a second day.
Visit the North Pole Post Office
Think easy Christmas card photo!
Celebrate Christmas All Year Long
at the Santa Claus House
Meet Live Reindeer
At the Antler Academy next door to the Santa Claus House. You can step into their pen and feed them.
Run Through a Boreal Forest with a Herd of Reindeer
If you have any interest in reindeer, Running Reindeer Ranch is a unique and exceptional experience. Jane and Doug invite small groups onto their ranch to meet their family of reindeer. They teach you everything you would like to know about the furry antlered creatures. Your half-day adventure culminates with a walk through the forest which will make you see why the reindeer are referred to as running.
Learn so very much about Fairbanks with a Riverboat Discovery Tour
A ride on a steamship sounded fun to our family, but we didn’t realize how significant this tour would be. We learned more in this one afternoon than we had on most of our trip. It ended up as a highlight for much of our family and something everyone could easily enjoy. Here are the three parts of this tour, still run by the Binkley family after five generations.
Ride on a Real Riverboat
We come back to the significance of gold in shaping Alaska. Miners came to find gold, traveling long distances over challenging landscapes. Supplies were needed to support them. They needed an easier way. They started using riverboats up the shallow waterways in 1898. Today you can ride down the Chena and Tanana river with Riverboat Discovery.
See a Dog Sledding Demonstration
Dog Sledding was another way supplies were transported around Alaska. From the boat, you will see a demonstration on the shore.
Watch a Seaplane Take Off and Land
One percent of Alaskans have a pilot’s license, which points to the fact that flying is an essential way of getting around in this state with limited roads. I spent many hours on my Alaskan vacation watching seaplanes take off and land. I was lucky enough to take a ride in one in Skagway and spent an hour in Vancouver watching their airfield in the harbor.
Watch a Native Village Come to Life
The riverboat will take you to the Chena Village, where you will be given a guided tour to learn about the local Athabascans.
Try Smoked Salmon
Salmon was an essential food for the Athabascans. On the tour, you can see how they caught and smoked the fish. You can taste and buy some back on the boat.
40 Below Freezer
Fairbanks gets cold in the winter. We visited in the summer when the weather was beautiful. If you are wondering what it would be like to visit in the winter when temperatures can go lower than 40 below zero, you can! The visitor’s center at Riverboat Discovery has a freezer to try it out.
Take a Train Ride to a Gold Dredge
I didn’t try this excursion, run by the Binkleys as well, but they are such intelligent entertainers that I am sure it is worth doing. This tour includes a train ride, a visit to the pipeline and gold panning.
Have Breakfast at The Cookie Jar
Try a stuffed Nolan. Trust me. They had some of the best mochas I have had too.
Another auto museum did not initially sound like something I would be interested in, but the four males traveling with me wanted to go.. And it ended up being in my hotel parking lot! In the end, this is my favorite automobile museum I have visited. The museum places their many classic cars into scenes with period clothing putting them together with historical context. Such a unique idea for a museum!
See the Northern Lights
We visited in the summer, so didn’t get to see them (although I have in Iceland), but Fairbanks is one of the best spots in Alaska to see dancing night skies. It is considered one of the best places in the world and the season is long August 21-April 21!
Pro tip: Sorry to say, but I was very disappointed by Chena Hot Springs. I love natural hot springs, even the very touristy Blue Lagoon, but thought these were a long drive for little reward. The pools are very hot and too obviously humanmade. I had hoped for them to be more self-contained and the resort is very dated for the price.
How to Get around Fairbanks, Alaska
Fairbanks is spread out, so renting a car is a good idea. Search for the best rates on cars below. (This post contains affiliate links like this one, which support this site at no additional cost to you if you choose to shop through them.)
Cabs are also accessible and responsive to a phone call in Fairbanks.
Where to Stay in Fairbanks, Alaska
As I said, this is a very spread out city. Staying in downtown isn’t going to help you be close to things, as it downtown doesn’t have a lot to offer.
We chose to stay at the Wedgewood Resort and liked it enough, that when we returned, we stayed again. They have a free shuttle to the airport, the rooms are large apartments with kitchens and are economical. There are restaurants, the car museum and hiking trails on the property. The only negative we had was no elevators.
Big thanks for Riverboat Discovery for my ticket to try out your tour. It was an even bigger hit with my family then I imagined!