Located in Interior Alaska, Fairbanks is often the northmost destination people visit on their Alaska itinerary. While home to only about 30,000 people, there’s far more to do than you might suspect. Whether you’re interested in history, food and drink, outdoor adventure, or all of the above – Fairbanks has at least something for everyone.
I’ve been fortunate to visit Fairbanks a few times recently; once in February 2020 and again in August 2021. Both trips gave me a chance to sample all of the fascinating experiences Fairbanks has to offer.
In this post, I’ll break down the best things to do in Fairbanks during the summer; I also have a post about things to do during the winter if you’re planning a trip during the dark, snowy months. Read on to learn how to fill those long – seemingly endless – sunny summer days in Fairbanks, Alaska.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Tanana peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
1. Explore the Morris Thompson Cultural Center
While it’s hard to say that there’s any one best thing to do in Fairbanks, but there’s definitely one best place to start if you’re visiting Fairbanks: the Morris Thompson Cultural Center.
Located in the heart of Fairbanks’ downtown district, the Morris Thompson Cultural Center has a lot to offer visitors. First of all, it’s the official visitor center, so it’s the best place to visit if you have questions about what to do in Fairbanks (after reading the rest of this post!) or the availability of tours/activities during your Fairbanks visit. There’s also a small museum that will introduce you to life in Interior Alaska, the Alaska Native cultures of this area, and the more modern history and industry of the Interior. This is an excellent primer if you haven’t done any research into Fairbanks’ history or the city’s role in Alaskan history.
Finally, there are other experiences to have in the Morris Thompson Cultural Center. Specifically, there are some Alaska Native artists who have workshops in the building, so you can go and learn about traditional Native arts and crafts, and buy hand-made gifts. This is an especially nice way to ensure that your souvenirs are Alaska Native-made and support local artists.
2. See the Antler Arch
Adjacent to the Morris Thompson Cultural Center, taking a photo at the Fairbanks Antler Arch is one of those must-do things – it’s like going to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and missing their famous arch.
Unlike the one in Jackson which is made of Elk antlers, Fairbanks’s arch is built out of moose and caribou antlers – a very Alaskan interpretation, and perfect for the ‘gram. In case you didn’t catch it, my featured image for this post shows me standing under the Antler Arch during the summer, while the photo at the top of this section was taken during winter.
3. Visit the Museum of the North
I used to say I wasn’t a museum person when I traveled (or ever, really), and then I started visiting museums in Alaska and discovered how awesome they can be. The Museum of the North is one such museum like that; it’s a manageable size and focuses specifically on relics and artifacts of life in this part of the world/Alaska.
Located on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, the Museum of the North is housed in a beautifully designed building – it’s another must-see photo spot – and also overlooks the city of Fairbanks and as far as the Alaska Range. On a clear day, you can even spot Denali!
Inside the Museum, you’ll discover a number of fascinating artifacts; there’s Blue Babe the 36,000-year-old preserved mummified Alaskan Steppe Bison, a huge display of gold in its many forms (gold in the area earned Fairbanks its nickname as the Golden Heart of Alaska), and a few quirkier galleries with more modern art and a very elaborate Alaskan outhouse.
Like the Morris Thompson Cultural Center, the Museum of the North is a really good stop to make if you enjoy learning about the history of the place you’re visiting. It doesn’t take more than 2 hours to visit, either, which fits nicely into almost any itinerary.
4. Wander at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
Okay, one more museum, but I promise this one’s really cool. When I visited Fairbanks in February 2020, I was less than enthusiastic to learn that my itinerary included a stop at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. If I don’t consider myself much of a museum traveler, I’m even less of a car buff… so a museum about cars? Didn’t sound like me at all.
Then I got inside, and discovered that the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is so much more than a car museum. Home to almost 100 cars manufactured between 1898 and the 1930s, each one is more like a work of art than a vehicle – though they’re all operational and maintained by the staff of the museum.
Additionally, each vehicle is paired with a vintage dress or outfit from the same time period; turn of the century cars feature Victorian-era dresses, ’20s and ’30s cars pair with art deco styles, and everything in between. The pairing of cars and fashion – and let me be clear, I’m also not a fashion person – is so interesting, I have yet to meet even the most ardent anti-museum, anti-car, anti-fashion person who wasn’t converted to fascination by the end of their visit.
Also don’t miss the photos of cars and fashion in Alaska that line the walls – they bring the whole experience to life!
5. Soak at Chena Hot Springs
One of the top attractions in the Fairbanks area, Chena Hot Springs gets mixed reviews online – but I think they’re mostly unfair or written by aggrieved locals. To be clear: Chena Hot Springs is not a five-star spa resort experience… but you won’t really find many experiences of that caliber in Alaska. (To me that’s part of what makes Alaska fun – it’s rustic and challenges everyone, whether they’re a luxury traveler or up for the most backcountry adventure.)
Instead, Chena Hot Springs is a locally-run establishment that has survived and thrived throughout the years by providing the opportunity to soak in manmade hot spring pools channeling naturally flowing waters. The outdoor soaking pool is especially popular in the winter, but the springs are open year-round.
In addition to the hot springs, there are accommodations on the property, an adventure agency that can book tours ranging from northern lights experiences (in the winter) to hikes (in the summer), and an ice museum where you can sip their famous appletini from a cocktail glass carved from ice (more on that below!).
It may be kitschy and rustic, but there’s no experience quite like Chena Hot Springs in Fairbanks (or the whole of Alaska!).
6. Visit the Aurora Ice Museum
As I just mentioned, the Aurora Ice Museum at Chena Hot Springs Resort is another must-visit – so much so that I wanted to call it out separately.
This Ice Museum is, as the name suggests, literally carved out of ice – and doesn’t melt during the summer.
You’ll need to arrange a tour time when you arrive at Chena Hot Springs; at the appointed time you’ll be escorted in to admire the ice carvings inside. Some of these are preserved from each year’s World Ice Art Championships while others are carved on-site specifically to decorate the museum. You’ll also see literal bedrooms made of ice (which are available to book if you’re up for the adventure) and can sit at the bar to enjoy your appletini.
If you’re visiting during the summer, this is your best excuse to layer up all the jackets you brought to stay warm inside!
7. Ride the Riverboat Discovery
If you’re looking for an easy way to experience a lot of Fairbanks’ history and culture on a single tour, check out the Riverboat Discovery and Chena Indian Village Living Museum. On this three-hour tour, you’ll board the historic paddle wheeler Discovery III, take a ride up the Chena River, stop for a river view of Trailbreaker Kennel (more on them below), and stop off to learn about Alaska Native culture and tradition at the Chena Village attraction. Once back off the boat, there’s a huge souvenir shop, ice cream shop, and even a 40-below room.
I’ll be honest: the Riverboat Discovery and Chena Village were not my favorite experience in Fairbanks. They crossed my personal line into “Disneyland-ish” in terms of being shepherded from here to there and the mass-tourism aspect of the experience. I think the experience was – on the whole – interesting, but I would rather have experienced the river and learned about the Alaska Native traditions of the area in a more intimate way. (I will say that the ice cream shop was the only place I discovered birch brittle flavored ice cream and it was awesome.)
This is a really common attraction in Fairbanks though, and I didn’t want to omit it just because it wasn’t my favorite!
8. Run with the Reindeer
Ever wondered where Santa’s reindeer go during the summer months? Turns out, they might be incognito in Fairbanks at the Running Reindeer Ranch. This tourist attraction was started by Jane and Doug, whose love of these funny animals in the deer family runs very deep.
Open year-round, Running Reindeer Ranch allows visitors to literally walk among the reindeer on their property; after a talk about reindeer and their habits/lifecycles, you’ll head out into the woods on the property with the reindeer – and no, there’s no leashes or harnesses involved. A short stroll through the woods will give you the chance to appreciate these animals and how they’ve adapted to this part of Alaska – and plenty of photo opportunities with them too.
Note that my photos were taken on my winter tour, but swap the white snow for leafy green leaves and you’ll get the idea.
9. Tour a Sled Dog Kennel
Like many Alaskan communities, Fairbanks has a long history and heritage of dog sledding. There are a number of sled dog kennels you can visit in the Fairbanks area, and almost all offer hands-on riding tours to enjoy, as well as meeting the dogs and any puppies they have at the time. Trailbreaker Kennel and Paws for Adventure are the two biggest, and I’ve visited both.
While they each offer something different, Trailbreaker Kennel has the advantage of being four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher’s home and kennel, now run by her husband and daughters. That gives them an extra special place in the heart of most Alaskans. There are a number of other kennels too, if you don’t find availability at these two first.
10. Explore Pioneer Park
Looking for a family-friendly way to learn about Alaska and Fairbanks’s history? There’s no place like Pioneer Park.
Sprawling across 44 acres east of downtown Fairbanks, Pioneer Park is a historical amusement park, with a number of attractions that give you a sense of life in the Last Frontier. There’s the Pioneer Museum, which houses a huge number of artifacts from the many chapters of Alaska’s history. Or the Palace Theatre where you can attend a show that brings history to life. The S.S. Nenana Sternwheeler Riverboat is on display, another chance to see the boats that helped reveal Alaska to American explorers.
My favorite part is the Salmon Bake, a rustic restaurant option where you can choose from a number of dishes including snow crab, halibut, salmon, and prime rib.
11. Learn History at Gold Dredge #8
Photos courtesy of Gold Dredge #8
For a more in-depth look at one chapter of Fairbanks’ past, Gold Dredge #8 helps explain better why Fairbanks is known as Alaska’s Golden Heart. As a kid, I was big into mining history, so my parents took me to Gold Dredge #8 for a tour of this hulking historic artifact.
Today, the gold dredge that pulled up millions of ounces of gold between 1928 and 1959 is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for tours. During a tour, you’ll see the entire facility, as well as have the chance to explore the Living Mining Museum and – naturally – try your hand at gold panning.
12. See the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
Fairbanks, like Valdez, is located along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline – though the town was here first. That means there’s a great opportunity to see the Pipeline up close, thanks to a viewpoint located about 15 minutes north of town.
At this particular viewpoint (called the “Alaska Pipeline Viewing Point” on Google), there are informational displays and the chance to walk right up to the Pipeline itself. You’ll learn about the $8 billion it took to construct the Pipeline – as well as the 70,000 people who made it happen.
13. Visit the Musk Ox Farm
Curious about Alaskan wildlife? While Musk Ox don’t make Alaska’s Big 5, they are one of the unique animals you can see while exploring the state.
At the Large Animal Research Facility, operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, you can get up close and personal with these wild, wooly creatures and learn about them. Some researchers posit that the musk ox first came to North America some two million years ago across the Bering Land Bridge; today the animals live in the northern tundra regions of the continent.
As you might guess from the name, Musk Ox can be smelly, but their wool also has a prize worth the stench: the inner layer is used to make Qiviut scarves, hats, and more – an incredible Alaskan souvenir if you have the budget.
14. Walk & Go Birding in Creamer’s Field
Here’s an off-beat local experience – instead of meandering with tour groups and crowds at other spots, head to Creamer’s Field.
This former dairy farm near downtown Fairbanks is now managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a migratory waterfowl refuge. That means it draws birds making huge migrations from the arctic to the rest of the continent, including the Sandhill Crane, Tundra Swan, Trumpeter Swan, Snow Goose, Canada Goose, and dozens of others.
If you love birding or just want to stretch your legs, this is a lovely place to do so; it’s not uncommon to spot moose, fox, and even lynx if you’re lucky.
15. Drink Local Beer & Spirits
Like so many great Alaskan towns, Fairbanks has a thriving scene for those who love adult beverages. Here are some great spots to put on your itinerary if you like sampling local craft beer and spirits:
- HooDoo Brewing Company
- Lat 65 Brewing Co.
- Black Spruce Brewing Company
- Fairbanks Distilling Company (Vodka)
- Hoarfrost Distilling (Vodka)
- Ursa Major Distilling (Vodka, Gin, Rum, and Aquavit/”Akavit”)
16. Explore the Greater Fairbanks Area
While there’s obviously plenty to do in Fairbanks, there are some great experiences to have near Fairbanks too. Some of my favorites are detailed below, but other popular things to do near Fairbanks include a visit to Delta Junction (the terminus of the AlCan/Alaska Highway), ice caving at Castner Glacier, and striking out to explore the arctic National Parks in Alaska.
17. Visit the Nenana Railroad Museum
An hour south of Fairbanks, the small town of Nenana is most famously known as an Alaska Native community and stop where President Harding drove the golden spike for the Alaska Railroad.
Today, there’s not much there, but a small train museum has popped up in the old depot. Inside you’ll find artifacts from the railroad and can learn more about Nenana’s role in that chapter of Alaskan history.
18. Visit Denali National Park
There’s so much to do in Denali, I generally advise planning 2-3 days to really experience it all. Even if you only have one day in Denali, the top thing you must do is take a bus tour into Denali National Park; if you have extra time (and the budget for it), flightseeing with a glacier landing on Denali is the other thing I always recommend.
19. Head North to the Arctic Circle Sign
One major tourist attraction near Fairbanks is the Arctic Circle… but I use the term “near” loosely, as it’s a 4 hour, 45 minute drive (one way) from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle sign posted above. Additionally, the sign is located along the Dalton Highway, which most car rental agreements prohibit you from driving.
If you have your heart set on crossing the Arctic Circle, consider a hosted trip instead. Northern Alaska offers a number of Arctic Circle tours depending on the season you plan to visit, and they take care of all the logistics for you. (One of many reasons guided tours are great in many parts of Alaska!)
20. Visit Delta Junction
Alaska Highway sign courtesy of Chris Shervey via Flickr
Located about 90 minutes south of Fairbanks, Delta Junction is a fun day trip for a number of reasons. First, it’s the terminus of the Alaska-Canada Highway (the AlCan), which begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia (some 1,387 miles away by car).
Delta Junction is also the nearest town to Castner Glacier, one of the most accessible glaciers in Alaska. Making the journey to try and hike in the famous ice cave is a great day trip – though be sure to research safety and equipment before you set out.
21. See the Midnight Sun
During the summer months, you basically can’t miss seeing the Midnight Sun – it’s what’s shining all day!
In case you’re not familiar with it, June 20/21 is the day of longest daylight each year in the northern hemisphere. It’s called the Summer Solstice (or June Solstice, to be more accurate) and there are lots of celebrations around Fairbanks if you’re visiting during that time.
But even if you’re not there for the exact solstice, Fairbanks is far enough north that there are 46 days per year where the sun stays up past midnight (thus being the literal midnight sun) and 148 days where it never actually becomes night. Just remember to pack an eye mask so you can sleep at night!
Surely you have enough ideas now for how to spend your time in Fairbanks! Have any other questions about things to do in Fairbanks? Let me know in the comments!
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