There are lots of exciting summer activities available in Fairbanks. With its seemingly endless days of sunlight, visitors can enjoy a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, golfing, fishing, and more under the midnight sun. Making the most of your trip to Fairbanks is simple because of the variety of activities offered. For first-time visitors, the midnight sun phenomena offers an incredible experience that is genuinely exclusive to Alaska. We took advantage of the extra daylight to go on a number of fun outings on our trip to Fairbanks.

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if we only seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru

Besides the summer solstice season, they can enjoy a separate Aurora northern lights season in Fairbanks. Fairbanks’ geographical location makes it possible. Ideally centered in the interior of Alaska on the banks of the Chena River, it is often called “The Golden Heart City.” The gold rush spirit endures in this friendly pioneer town.

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Fairbanks Bridge of Flags Photo: Pixabay

Early History of Fairbanks

When gold was discovered in the early 1900s, prospectors flocked to try their luck. Many travelled great distances in search of the opportunity to strike gold. Fairbanks, the second-biggest city in Alaska. It was founded on August 26, 1901, when E. T. Barnette opened a trading post on the south bank of the Chena River. In 1903, the town was formally renamed after Indiana politician Charles Fairbanks. In Alaskan mining history, the richest period came to an end in 1910. The city’s economy began to deteriorate. But the ailing community had a fresh start in 1917 with the advent of the Alaska Railroad. Among the infrastructure developments that aided in Fairbanks’ quick development were the construction of the Alaska Railroad, Alaska Highway, and trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Today in Alaska, Fort Knox Gold Mine is the state’s top gold producer. Since this mine resumed mining in 1996, it has become the state’s leading gold producer. The city of Fairbanks is home to two large military bases: Fort Wainwright and Elmendorf Airforce Base.

Denali Mountain-Talkeetna
Denali South Viewpoint-Parks Highway

Scenic Highways that Connect Fairbanks

You could say that all scenic roads lead into Fairbanks. Fairbanks lies at the intersection of the Parks Highway (Route 3) and the Richardson Highway (Route 2). In the region around Fairbanks, there is forested lowland bordered by the Alaska Range to the south and the Brooks Range to the north, with the braided Tanana and Chena rivers flow through it.

Historically significant, the Richardson highway has spectacular views of the Chugach Mountains and Alaska Range. Originally a gold rush trail to Eagle, the Richardson Highway has been Alaska’s oldest highway since 1898. It is 368 miles long, starting in Valdez and ending in Fairbanks. As the highway descends into Fairbanks, it follows the Tanana river valley. On the way to its terminus in Prudhoe Bay, the Alaska pipeline is visible for much of the drive.

Richardson Highway Views of the cliffs

The Parks highway is one of my favorite scenic drives. The Parks Highway, which provides the best access to Denali National Park and Preserve, links anchorage and Fairbanks. Leaving the vast wilderness of Denali, the highway goes through rugged mountain passes and meandering river valleys before descending into the lowland forests of Fairbanks. Denali is only a short one hour drive from Fairbanks. A simple day trip via the Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star Train or rental car.

Morris Cultural Center-Bear Exhibit-Fairbanks Most Popular Activities
Morris Cultural Center-Bear Exhibit

What Things are there to see in do in Fairbanks?

Here are some ideas of how to incorporate some of the most well-liked activities in Alaska with ease into planning your itinerary.

Get Started at the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitor Center

The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center was the perfect place to begin our visit. It is the go to place for information about Fairbanks. They have numerous brochures and information booklets are available free for many of the popular activities. You can even book tours at this location. In addition to exhibits about wildlife, dog sledding, and Alaska’s history, the museum offers dioramas emphasizing Alaskan life. Located outside on the Chena River is a historical log cabin built around 1910. It is now the headquarters of the Yukon Quest.

Just a few steps outside the Visitor Center is the Antler Arch. They made this arch using over a hundred moose and caribou antlers. It’s not nearly as impressive as the Antler Arch in Jackson, Wyoming, which is a massive structure of deer antlers. It’s a lot of fun to take pictures of this arch! So don’t miss it. 

Golden Heart Plaza Statue
Golden Heart Plaza

Central Golden Heart Park

Near the Morris Thompson visitor center, just a short walk along the Chena River, you’ll find Golden Heart Park. This gold-rush era landmark was built in 1987 where the center of gold-rush activity occurred. In the central part of town, along Cushman Street, the primary thoroughfare, between Chena River and 1st Avenue. Golden Heart Plaza is a gathering spot for popular events in Fairbanks, such as the winter Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. The most dominant feature is the statute of the Unknown First Family by Malcolm Alexander. The water fountain is dedicated to all families of the past, present, and future. The 2.5-mile walking path also has the “Welcome to Fairbanks” sign shows the miles to 76 different cities and the Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Monument dedicated to the airmen who flew during WWII.

Morris Cultural Center
Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitor Center

Find the Frontier Spirit at Pioneer Park

A replica Native American village, authentic pioneer log cabins, mining equipment, and a huge drydocked sternwheeler are among the sights in this theme part, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska from Russia.

Water Tower Pioneer Park Fairbanks Alaska

There is no fee to enter the park, though some buildings do request donations. Pioneer Park seemed like an ideal place to stretch our legs. Most of the buildings date from the gold rush era. They dismantled and reassembled many here. A few have boutique gifts inside. Other historic buildings, some of which have been converted into museums, show how people in the Fairbanks area lived in the past. The quaint village of log cabins was a lot of fun to walk through-they’ve marked every house with information about where it originated and the owner.

Riverboat Nenana Pioneer Park
Riverboat Nenana Pioneer Park

As a train enthusiast, my favorite building was the Tanana Valley Railroad Museum. Inside there is a collection of vintage train engines and cars. The original coal and wood-fired steam engine-the Crooked Creek & Whiskey Island RR, which you can ride around the perimeter of the park.

Artist Studio Shop in Pioneer Park

The original train car that President Warren Harding rode in when he traveled to Alaska in 1923 was on display. He used it when he drove the “Golden Spike” in Nenana to complete the Alaska Railroad. Moreover, you can find the Alaska Aviation Museum in the ‘Gold Dome’, where there are several planes exploring Alaska’s important military and transportation history.

We did not have the time to dine at the Salmon Bake but saw that the reviews were reasonable. Pioneer Park is touristy, but we had a good time here.

Pioneer Park-Fairbanks-Locomotive-Fairbanks Most Popular Activities
Pioneer Park-Fairbanks-Steam Locomotive

Visit Santa Claus House in North Pole

There are few places that are “more Christmas” than Santa Claus House. in North Pole. Everything is Christmas themed with Santa in residence. It’s like walking into a Christmas village anytime of the year. Within the building is a Christmas shop full of decorated trees, Christmas knick knacks, and ornaments of every kind imaginable. It was 80 degrees outside, but we took some time to have a hot cocoa and homemade fudge in Mrs. Claus’ kitchen. Throughout the year, you can sit on Santa’s lap, take your pictures, and share your wish list with him. You can find the antler Academy with real reindeer across the parking lot in the barnyard (Tours/feedings $$).

The place every kid at heart should check off their bucket list. Remember to pick up a few postcards so you can mail them to your family and friends, with a postmark from the North Pole Post Office!!

Fairbanks Most Popular Activities-Riverboat Discovery
Riverboat Chena River

Steam boating on the Riverboat Discovery on the Chena River

 On the Chena and Tanana Rivers, you can take a cruise aboard the Riverboat Discovery. Sights on the itinerary include an authentic Athabascan Indian village and the Trail Breaker Kennel, former home of Susan Butcher, a four-time winner of the prestigious Iditarod dogsled race.

Denali Sled Dog Kennels
Sled Dog Kennels

The authentic sternwheeler boat cruises for about 3 hours. The scenery was great and the best part was a float plane that lands and takes off right next to the boat. Riverboat Discovery III is a beautiful river boat with amazing views on each level. However, the front deck left side has the best views. You get free hot coffee and tea and FREE Delicious blueberry donuts.

Alaska Cache in the Spring

We then cruised to where the Chena River met the Tanana River before turning around and stopping at the replicated Athabascan Chena Village. There you have about 20-30 minutes to walk around on your own enjoying the different stage events.

Museum of the North Credit: Dan-Flickr-2011-CC-BY-2.0

Learn Culture at the University of Alaska Museum of the North

The University of Alaska is a very picturesque campus, with well-manicured grounds and a beautiful view of Fairbanks. The Museum of the North is on a viewpoint that overlooks the city. A visit to UA Museum of the North will provide an insight into the history, culture, and wildlife of Alaska. Plan to spend at least 2-3 hours here, especially if you’re going to watch the movies. The main gallery has expansive natural history displays and exhibits coving the 5 Alaska regions. Most interesting was the Alaska during the Age of the Dinosaurs exhibit.

Aurora Borealis in the night sky
credit v2osk 

The 2nd level of the museum has more artsy exhibits. Definitely a good way to start your tour is to watch the Dynamic Aurora movie made in partnership with the Geophysical Institute. You can’t miss “The Place Where You Go to Listen.” During this audio-visual, musical ecosystem experience, we became immersed in the rhythms of sunrise and sunset, the phases of the moon, the vibrations of the earth’s crust, and the dance of the aurora borealis. You have to experience it to understand how it feels.

Fireweed Alaska Summer
Fireweed Alaska Summer

TIP: UAF offered a free shuttle all summer. You can hop on the shuttle at the Morris Thompson visitor’s center or Pioneer Park. Drop-off points include LARS, Alaska museum and the Botanical Garden! It is a great way to get around town!

 Walk the Georgeson Botanical Garden 

The botanical garden is free to visit, however, a $7.00 donation per person is suggested. We combine our visit to the garden with the Museum of the North. The Georgeson Botanical Garden is on the University of Alaska campus. The well-maintained gardens receive almost 24 hours of sunlight in the summer months, leading to phenomenal growth. The research garden supports Alaskan agriculture. They have an astounding variety of gorgeous plants and flowers. It is worth the stroll. The setting is very pleasant strolling along pleasant walking paths through the children’s garden, a hedge maze and many water features. Open Memorial Day–Labor Day, 8 am–8 pm daily. It only takes an hour to walk through the gardens.

Large Animal Research Facility - Musk Ox-Fairbanks Most Popular Activities
Large Animal Research Facility – Musk Ox

 Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station

We learned about the large animal research station from one volunteer from the Sullivan Roadhouse in Delta Junction. She recommended the facility to us, stating it was one of the top activities to do in Fairbanks. She was absolutely right. The facility is the perfect place to learn about the Musk Ox and reindeer. The up-close and personal tour provides guests with the opportunity to photograph and gain a deeper understanding of how these fascinating creatures are integral to Alaskan culture and environment. The tour was only an hour, but our guide, Corbin, was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the muskox and reindeer. He told us how the species was extinct in North America and that the musk oxen reintroduced to Alaska came from Greenland.

Musk Ox baby Alaska Conservation Center
Musk Ox

Tip: you can get pictures without the tour. However, the tour is worth the small expense to learn more about the animals.

Interesting fact he told us is that Musk ox shed their qiviut each year. The handlers comb the soft down under-wool or qiviut produced by musk oxen. The resulting qiviut yarn is very lightweight and is eight times warmer than traditional wool. Native knitters spin the wool and turn it into incredibly soft gloves, hats and scarves sold in the small gift shop. All proceeds support the large animal research station.

Alaska Gold – Credit: M Beauregard – Flickr: Happy Hobby Hour, CC BY 2.0

Try Your Luck at 3 Daughters Gold Panning

On this trip, we were intent on doing some gold prospecting. There is no better place than the Gold Daughters. It is a great opportunity if you have never panned gold and want to get a start. This is a small family operation, dedicated to giving you an authentic panning experience. They demonstrate how to do the panning and happily answer question.

Man's hand with gold vial on the palm

After we practiced a bit, we purchased the smallest $20 bag of pay dirt and immediately began prospecting. We spent a few hours and ended up finding small flecks of gold. They offered to put the gold in a keychain, necklace, or earrings. If you get “gold fever” and feel the need to indulge further you can try your luck at finding a bigger nugget by purchase larger pay dirt bags (up to $1000) or hit the larger dirt pile included with your $20 entrance fee. I highly recommend spending some time gold panning.

Chena River State Park-Fairbanks Most Popular Activities
Chena River State Park

Get Outdoors at Chena River State Recreation Area

Just a short 60-mile drive away. Traveling by car to the park is only 20-30 minutes. Chena River State Recreation Area feels like it’s a world away. Lots of wildlife is in the park. Along the road, we saw several moose.

Moose on the Park Road

The Aurora Ice Museum is part of the Chena Hot Springs Resort. Open year round, they constructed it from 1,000 tons of ice. The 45-minute guided tour is a unique experience. The reasonable entry fee of $15. They supply gloves and parkas to help ward off the cold. Luckily, we had our own jackets from the morning’s fishing excursion. The gloves came in handy for the hand carved ice martini glass used for the appletini ($15). I thought the fur-lined seats in the bar were a bit much. We walked through the beautiful and intricate ice sculptures. We watched as world champion ice sculptor Heather Brice intricately showed the carving of the ice. There is an ice museum in Fairbanks which we did not have time to tour. 

We read several reviews commenting about how disgusting the locker facilities were. So even though the distinctive hot springs and naturally occurring outdoor rock lakes looked inviting, we chose not to go into the hot springs this trip. But after our trip, I had a friend visit, and they reported having a wonderful time.

Chena River Grayling
Chena River Grayling

Fishing the Crystal-Clear Chena

We went on the half day Arctic Grayling fishing trip on the upper Chena River with Alaska Fishing and Rafting™. The combo wade and river raft float with a guide is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Unmatched scenery surrounds the crystal-clear Chena. Our guide Caleb taught us the best techniques to catch grayling. He did a great job showing us how to handling and releasing the many fish caught. The river is a popular area for canoeing and rafting. So even if you don’t catch any fish, you’ll enjoy the raft ride and the beautiful Alaska scenery.

Popular Activities Fairbanks-Hiking Trail Chena River State Park
Hiking Trail Chena River State Park

Hiking in the Chena Springs

Angel Rocks Trail-The 3.6 mile moderate loop trail starts around mile 48 of the Chena Hot Springs Road. A day pass for Alaska State Parks costs $5 per vehicle, and there is a small picnic area at the beginning of the trail. Make sure you bring mosquito repellent, bear spray in case you encounter any bears, and food and a refillable water bottle. This is a perfect summer hike with stunning 360-degree views of the mountain ranges and the Chena River. The trail follows the river and ends at a rock scramble to reach the top.

Tors near the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Chena-NPS

Granite Tors Loop Trail is a 14-mile loop trail. There is an extremely steep climb on the counter-clockwise route. Go clockwise to descend the steep section. Along the trail you’ll cross streams, trek through spruce and birch, see the panoramic views from ridges, not to mention the collection of giant granite rocks known as the “Tors”. Seeing the “tors” is what makes this hike worthwhile.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline
Trans-Alaska Pipeline

Day Tour on the Dalton Highway

The Golden Heart City of Fairbanks is only 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle. One of the best excursions when in Fairbanks is the Dalton Highway to the Arctic circle. Different groups provide tours along the rugged Dalton Highway to see the Arctic circle. This is the highway made famous in the TV series Ice Road Trucker. The Dalton is the farthest-north road traversing 414 miles, ending in Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay). Built in 1971, they originally called it the North Slope Haul Road. They named it for James B. Dalton, an engineer who figured prominently in early oil exploration of the North Slope.

Rain and mist in the Brooks Range foothills
 Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

We had an amazing professional guide narrate the full-day trip to latitude 66°33° North. The tour van makes a few pit stops along the way. Giving you time to get out and stretch your legs. The midway stop at the Yukon Crossing (MM56) on the east side of the bridge there is a truck stop cafe and gift shop. This is a full service center with lodging, food and fuel.

If you cross under the pipeline to the Yukon Crossing Visitor Contact Station, a side trail leads to better photo opportunities of the 1/2-mile Yukon River bridge. Don’t forget to ask for your certificate to show you made it to the Arctic circle. Throughout the drive, we saw bears, a lone wolf, a lynx, and several other animals.

Dalton Highway - Arctic Circle Monument Sign
Dalton Highway – Arctic Circle Monument Sign

The Arctic Circle Monument

The above ground sections of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline are often visible from the Dalton Highway as you move through boreal forest. In Canada, this taiga forest is called the land of little sticks for the stunted tree growth. We stopped at the Finger Mountain Wayside. The ½-mile interpretive trail on the prominent ridge gives you a bird’s-eye view of Finger Mountain. Here the landscape gives way to remote treeless tundra.

Fields of cotton grass span the tundra and hills of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo Credit: Danielle Brigida/ USFWS

At the Arctic Circle viewpoint, there is an overlook and an interpretive trail with a picnic area. The tour provided us with a delicious lunch. The spectacular views make you feel quite small in the vastness of this place. It was an extremely long day. If you have the time built into your itinerary, squeeze this into your schedule. I definitely think I would like to do this tour again in the winter so we can view the Aurora Borealis. Added to our bucket list!!

Note: Most rental car companies will not allow you to drive the Dalton Highway. Check with your rental company before doing a self-drive option.

Fairbanks-Pump House Chena River Views-Fairbanks Most Popular Activities
Chena River Fairbanks

Best Place We Dined in Fairbanks

Pump house We stopped for an early dinner at the famous Pump House restaurant. Its gold-mining past intrigued us. The Pump house is in the original 1933 pumping station established by the Fairbanks Exploration Company. At the time, it was Alaska’s largest gold mine. They supplied cripple Creek Valley hydraulic dredges with water from the pump house. In 1958, the company abandoned the building. After extensive renovations, it became a restaurant in 1978. In 1982, they added it to the National Register of Historic Places. The collection of memorabilia and collectibles in the restaurant and bar is well worth a look.

On warm summer days you can sit on the outside deck overlooking the Chena river, while waving at the passing Riverboat Discovery. Today, the only seating available was in the senator’s saloon. It has an authentic gold rush era theme with an old-school mahogany bar. The warm, relaxing atmosphere is an accurate representation of Alaskan heritage. We could not miss the countless selection of liquor, beer, and wine on display. The restaurant offers a wide selection of Alaskan specialties at a reasonable price. Instead of a meal, we just ordered a variety of different appetizers. The halibut cheeks, calamari, and bacon-wrapped Alaskan scallops with a house salad were all yummy! If you are in Fairbanks, be sure to add the pump house as one of your choices for dining.

Mountain Views Richardson Hwy
Mountain View from the Richardson Hwy

Great Harvest Bread Company

On our way back to our cabin, it surprised us to discover this bakery on our way back in the late evening. The Great Harvest Bread Company is a real hidden gem with a heavenly smell. When you first enter through the door, they have a wide variety of bread to sample. We loved the cinnamon chip bread, but honestly, they all taste good. They had a delicious banana nut bread too! The cafe had an eclectic vibe selling kitchen gifts and deli items. Although busy, we got our order quickly. I had a grilled cheese on the cheddar bread and my husband had a BLTA with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado on 9-grain. Would definitely like to try the breakfast sandwiches next time we are in Fairbanks.

Two tundra swans call to one another on a tundra pond.
Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS

Where We Stayed in Fairbanks

We loved everything about the log cabin on the Chena River, especially the solitude, the fishing, and best of all, the closeness to nature. There is a fully equipped kitchen which includes a refrigerator, oven, stove, microwave, and all the other essentials. The Chinook cabin’s lower level is beautifully furnished with a living room, dining area, and kitchen. A queen-sized bed and a full-sized bed are in the upper bedrooms of the cabin. There is a small balcony with a table and chairs just off the primary bedroom. In the summer, this cabin is a great place to watch the sunset. During the winter months, they said this cabin is the perfect spot to watch the Aurora Borealis. Located only a few minutes outside of Fairbanks, the cabin was convenient to Fairbanks attractions and Chena State Park.

Riverbend Cabins-Fairbanks Alaska
Riverbend Cabins-Fairbanks Alaska

Final Thoughts

If you are passing through in the summer, take advantage of some of Fairbanks’ most popular activities. You will not disappoint it sure to be an unforgettable experience. Whether you are chasing the northern lights or the midnight sun, the Golden Heart City is full of epic adventures. Alaska has captured our hearts and we plan to return to Fairbanks on our next trip north.

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