The city of Fairbanks in the interior of Alaska is, somewhat surprisingly, a year-round tourist destination. The captivating aurora borealis, the sport of dog mushing, and other winter activities such as snowmobiling, snowshoeing, ice fishing, and skiing bring visitors in the dark days of winter, but summer offers a different set of attractions.
Here are 10 reasons to visit Fairbanks in the summer.
Long hours of sunlight illuminate Fairbanks in the summer. The Midnight Sun Season runs from April 22 to August 20, with the period from mid-May through mid-July seeing daylight 24 hours a day. Although the sun does set, the relatively short period between sunset and sunrise is filled with civil twilight, a time when the sun below the horizon provides enough natural light for outdoor activities without artificial light.
Visitors can take an evening hike, enjoy a late-night golf game, or sit on the patio until the wee hours. If you're worried about being able to get a good night's sleep with all that light, hotels here do have blackout curtains.
A three-hour narrated cruise on the Chena River takes you back in time to the days when sternwheelers were the major mode of transportation in the interior of Alaska. The Riverboat Discovery is owned and operated by the Binkley family whose Alaska steamboating tradition goes back 100 years. Charles M. Binkley started building and operating boats in the area in 1898. In the 1950s, when railroads and airplanes took over most of the freight business, the family began a river excursion concern instead. The captain piloting your cruise is likely to be one of Charles' grandchildren.
The cruise takes you to a recreated Athabascan Indian village. There you'll learn about Athabascan life in nomadic days prior to European settlement, the native method of catching and drying salmon, the ways animal furs were used, and the general tenor of village life. You'll also learn about two other important transportation methods as you watch a bush pilot maneuver a float plane and pause at Trailbreaker Kennels, home of the family of the late Susan Butcher, four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion.
Before the age of snowmobiles, called "snow machines" in Alaska, dog sleds were widely used for local transportation in winter. Since the 1970s, the annual Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome commemorates the role sled dogs played in the settlement of Alaska. Although you won't see dogs pulling sleds in the warmth of summer, you will see the dogs themselves and learn about their care and preparation for races. Cruises run from early May through mid-September.
Gold and oil played significant roles in the history of Fairbanks. You'll find both at Gold Dredge 8. Your tour starts under the shadow of an aboveground portion of the Alaskan pipeline, where your guide will tell you about this engineering accomplishment and its importance to the Alaskan economy. Built in the 1970s to withstand earthquakes and permafrost, the pipeline runs both below and above ground. From there, a short ride on a narrow-gauge railway takes you to the dredge camp. Now a National Historic Site, Gold Dredge 8 operated between 1928 and 1959. After learning how the mining machine extracted gold from sand, gravel, and dirt, you'll have a chance to pan for gold yourself. Tours run from early May through mid-September.
Every July, Fairbanks is host to the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO). The approximately twenty athletic competitions in this four-day event are based on traditional games played whenever there was a gathering of families or villages.
The games display skills necessary for survival. For example, the ear pull in which contestants carry weights from a rope around their ears, is based on enduring frostbite. The blanket toss has its roots in a hunting ritual where strong people would hold a walrus or seal hide and toss someone with good eyesight into the air so they could spot game in the distance. Starting from a push-up position, knuckle hop contestants hop forward supporting themselves only on the knuckles of their tightly clenched fist and their toes. The hop was used to sneak up on sleeping seals.
You will also find traditional dancing at the event as well as native crafts for sale.
Gold Rush Town in Pioneer Park contains historic buildings moved from their original locations to the park. Buildings include many log cabins, a church, hotel, a railway depot and a theater. Placards on the buildings identify their origins. Inside, discover dining concessions, shops, and museums. Concessions and museums are open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
At another end of the park, you'll find the Alaska Salmon Bake, a nightly outdoor dining experience featuring all-you-can-eat wood-grilled salmon, beer-battered cod, and slow-roasted prime rib.
After dinner, take in the Golden Heart Revue at the Palace Theatre. The musical-comedy performance provides a humorous look at the history of Fairbanks and modern-day life in the north. The Salmon Bake and Golden Heart Revue run from mid-May to mid-September.
The unusual lines and striking white curves of the Museum of the North building on the grounds of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks campus evoke images of glaciers, alpine ridges and aurora borealis. Inside this year-round attraction, well-designed exhibits tell the stories of Alaska's people, geography, and wildlife. On the upper level, visit The Place Where You Go To Listen, an ever-changing sound and light environment based on the vibrations connected to the natural world, and the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery.
Another not-to-be-missed year-round attraction is Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. More than 85 antique autos, some dating to the 1800s, are displayed alongside vintage costumes that harken back to the period. Stories about the cars include both engineering accomplishments and bits of social history. All but two of the vehicles are in running condition and are driven regularly to keep them that way.
The Georgeson Botanical Garden is a research and education center focused on high-latitude horticulture. The Display Garden highlights varieties that have performed well in past experimental plant trials. Here you'll find peonies, delphinium, dahlias, lilacs, daylilies, and more. There is a native wetland garden, an edibles garden, a shade garden, a rose garden, and a garden with plants used to create natural dyes.
Fairbanks has a short growing season, but it is intense given the long hours of sunlight. Outside of the Botanical Garden, you'll see the results of this intense season in the large blooms decorating patios and streets and taste it in the fresh produce you'll consume.
Georgeson is open to the public from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
A 60-mile drive northeast of Fairbanks takes you to Chena Hot Springs Resort. Hot springs were discovered in this area in the early 1900s. The waters have drawn favorable comparison to similar to Bohemian mineral waters in the Czech Republic. Today, in addition to the rock-rimmed outdoor hot springs lake, the resort offers a variety of activities that include ATV and horseback tours, bike rentals, hiking and tours of the resort's geothermal plant and of its greenhouses.
Tours of the Chena Dog Sled Kennel are also available. The resort is home to the Aurora Ice Museum, a year-round ice environment. Inside, there are ice sculptures, an ice bar, a circular staircase of ice, and even four bedrooms. You can sit on a caribou fur covered ice stool and drink an Appletini from a ice-carved martini glass.
Fairbanks has an excellent selection of restaurants serving everything from burgers, steaks, pizza, Mexican or Thai food, to reindeer sausage, and Alaskan salmon, crab, cod, and halibut. With all those hours of daylight, what could be better than lingering over dinner on a patio overlooking the river? Sit on the deck of The Pump House, built to recreate an 1890s Gold Rush atmosphere, and watch sea planes land and boats cruise by. The outdoor patio at Pike's Landing is open from spring until moose-hunting season. As you enjoy your dinner in the fresh air, you may see other diners arrive and leave by canoe or motorboat.
Whether you fly directly into Fairbanks or arrive via the Alaska Highway, whether Fairbanks is your prime destination or part of a land package before or after your Alaska cruise, you'll want to allow ample time in the city to explore and enjoy summer in the far north.