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You could say that Fairbanks, Alaska is a location of extremes. Winters may be cold and dark, but it is exactly those conditions that lead to perfect northern lights viewing. Summers are just the opposite – they are not cold or dark – in fact, I think they are nearly perfect. With average temperatures in the low 70’s and low humidity, it is my ideal climate. Good thing that there are two months of constant daylight because it gives you plenty of time to experience the long list of Fairbanks activities under the midnight sun.
Experiencing the Land of the Midnight Sun has always been a bucket list item for me. I was truly curious to know what it was really like to have 24 hours of daylight.
So how was it?
It was Invigorating!
It was Exciting!
It was Energizing!
During the week I was in Fairbanks, I realized just how solar powered I really am. As long as it was bright outside, I just kept going and going like the Energizer bunny. Eventually I would force myself to go to bed because my watch told me it was 1 or 2 in the morning, but my body and my brain were not really convinced it was time to sleep. I did not seem to need as much sleep either and early the next morning, I was up to do it all over again.
For 70 straight days, Fairbanks has 24 hours of non-stop daylight. The sun may dip below the horizon for a bit, but Apollo and his chariot don’t travel very far. As a result, from May 17 to July 27, there is no cycle of night and day, just pure, concentrated bright-as-day light. With 1680 sunny hours of opportunity to discover, play, and eat in Alaska’s second largest city, here are my recommendations for summer things to do in Fairbanks, Alaska (including recommendations for Fairbanks hotels) from my recent visit to this land of perpetual golden summer bliss.
Downtown Fairbanks Activities
Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor’s Center
You will want to start your visit at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor’s Center, and not just to pick up maps, brochures, or a list of Fairbanks attractions. Not only is this the most stunning architecture that I have seen for a Visitor’s Center, but it is also a repository for Interior Alaskan history and culture.
After you’ve had your questions answered by the friendly and helpful staff with Explore Fairbanks about touring the city, take time to discover the exhibits that describe Alaskan life as it is still practiced today. Through the full sized dioramas of a hunting camp or the Elder Hall where you can learn about the Athabascans, the stories here will give you a better understanding of the local culture you are about to experience.
Make sure to also take in one of the excellent movies to learn about the aurora or the preservation of the great Alaskan wilderness.
Here you will also find the Alaska Public Lands Information office where you can get all the information you will need on how to access the remote areas of Alaska.
Be sure to also take the time to walk around the outside of the visitor’s center and enjoy the beautiful and serene garden that surrounds the building.
Make It and Take It
It is not just the architecture that makes the Morris Thompson Center unique. This is also a community space where the local native population come together to teach and share their traditions. For a small fee you can take part in a “Make it and Take It” program where you’ll learn how to make traditional porcupine quill earnings, bead bracelets or a “bear claw” necklace. (This would be an especially fun activity for kids.)
Cultural Connections Show
From early June to early August, you can also enjoy the Cultural Connections Show (three times a day M-F), also at the Morris Thomson Center. Here, local native youth share dances, music and stories about their culture. I was surprised to learn that for these young people, learning these dances and music was an important way to connect to a heritage that in their parent’s generation had been suppressed and marginalized.
Antler Arch and River Walk
The antler arch is on the riverfront, just behind the Morris Thompson Cultural Center and is a popular photo (read selfie) spot. The arch is made up of over 100 moose and caribou antlers that were collected from all parts of interior Alaska.
From the antler arch, you can take a pleasant stroll along the river toward the Fairbanks downtown area and discover a few wonderful sculptures on the way that celebrate local culture and history. The fascinating Alaska WWII memorial commemorates the cooperation between US and Russian pilots as they flew war planes manufactured in the US across Alaska into Siberia and to the Russian front.
In the Golden Heart Plaza, you’ll find a beautiful larger than life sculpture by Malcolm Alexander titled “Unknown First Family” which represents families past, present and future, not just in Alaska, but everywhere. Interestingly, there is also a time capsule buried in the plaza which will be opened on January 3, 2059 – mark your calendars.
Discover Fairbanks Street Art
Like many cities, the walls of various Fairbanks buildings are adorned with colorful murals. But the creativity does not stop there. As you walk around the streets of downtown, you’ll see many large vent pipes painted with colorful scenes. How many can you find?
Eat at the Crepery and the Fudge Pot
If you have time to eat in only one restaurant in Fairbanks, make sure it is the Crepery (523 2nd Ave.) In fact, I liked it so much that I ate there twice, and I had the smoked salmon crepe each time (it’s Alaska-you have to eat salmon). They have some sweet crepes on the menu that sounded amazing (brie and pear, or cranberry and feta), but frankly, I was too stuffed from the salmon crepe to try one.
This is a small and casual local eatery, but be prepared for lines and a wait if you get there at prime meal hours.
Down the street from the Crepery is the Fudge Pot (515 1st Ave.), another small and intimate shop. I had a really good salmon chowder and sandwich combo, though I really went to get some of their 30 flavors of home made fudge, like the blueberry chocolate and the cranberry chocolate.
Stay at the Bridgewater Hotel
The newly refurbished Bridgewater Hotel is ideally located in the heart of downtown Fairbanks, which makes it very easy to see the sights in the center of the city. Don’t have a car? Not a problem. The hotel offers a 24 hour courtesy shuttle to and from the airport as well as the railroad station.
My stay here was quite pleasant and comfortable in the clean and newly redone room.
Things to Do at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks Campus
The University of Fairbanks at Alaska has a number of interesting sights to visit.
Museum of the North
Sitting on top of a hill on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) with commanding views of the nearby mountain ranges, the Museum of the North is the perfect place to continue your explorations of Alaskan history and native cultural heritage. The building itself is a piece of art, evoking images of icebergs, whale’s tails or a ship’s prow. Inside, you’ll find the Gallery of Alaska which gives a great overview of Alaska’s five geographic regions and their nature and culture. Upstairs in the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery you’ll see 2000 years of beautiful Alaskan art in all of its forms.
UAF Large Animal Research Station
A few minutes’ drive downhill from the Museum of the North is the Large Animal Research Station (LARS). Here may be your best opportunity to ever see one (or many) musk ox up close and personal. A musk oxen’s native habitat is the Arctic tundra found in Greenland, Canada and northern Alaska. Its super thick and long fur coat has made the musk ox ideal for surviving the extreme cold temperatures of its habitat range. LARS takes care of this colony of musk ox for research and educational purposes.
During the summer months, naturalist tours are available three times a day. If you miss the tour times or are visiting in the off season, you may be able to view this unique herd from the parking area.
UAF Georgeson Botanical Garden
The Georgeson Botanical Garden is another gem on the university campus that is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It may not get very warm in this part of the world, but with continuous daylight for months at a time, plants can grow extremely large – like the heads of cabbage that are the size of a basketball which greet you as you enter this garden.
The garden is named after Charles Georgeson who established a number of experimental farms around Alaska (including Fairbanks) in order to study what could be grown in these subarctic conditions that had continuous light with cold soils due to the permanent layer of permafrost.
The Georgeson Botanical Garden continues the research with experimental plots, but it is also a display and play garden. The day I visited, a number of local families were enjoying the extensive children’s garden.
Things to do Around Fairbanks
Bear Lodge at the Wedgewood Resort
The Bear Lodge and the Wedgewood Resort are beautifully located on 105 acres, 45 of which are the resort’s own wildlife sanctuary. Here you can enjoy a quiet nature walk around Wander Lake and maybe you’ll be lucky and see a moose.
The Bear Lodge has all the amenities needed for a comfortable stay with large, clean rooms that have very effective black out curtains. A restaurant serves meals all day and fitness center helps you work off the calories. If you need extra space, 1,2, and 3 bedroom suites are also available at the Wedgewood Resort. And if you don’t have a car, a shuttle drops you off at some of the main attractions in Fairbanks.
My stay here was comfortable in a very large double room that I think would easily fit a family of four. The location was convenient and it was easy to drive to all the attractions and activities. My room had very good blackout curtains which helped me sleep during the night even though it was still light out.
Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
You do not have to be an car connoisseur to enjoy the Fountainhead Antique Automobile Museum, which is located on the property of the Wedgewood Resort. You could easily spend a good part of a day here admiring the large collection of antique cars, all paired with perfectly preserved vintage outfits from the same time period. The 70+ vehicles on display span the time period from 1898 to 1936, and all but three in the collection still run and are driven regularly.
You’ll see examples of some of the first cars that were driven in Alaska at the beginning of the 20th century. You’ll also see a very early example of an all- electric car that was marketed specifically to the female driver and came with such built in details as a vase holder and overhead hat net.
What I found especially fascinating was being able to see the vintage dresses up close. It was interesting to see how much the women’s clothing styles changed in a relatively short time span – from the ultra-conservative Victorian and Edwardian corsets and heavy layers at the turn of the century to the short and shapeless dresses of the 1920’s to the crisply tailored styles of the 1930’s.
Across the road from the Wedgewood Resort is the 2000 acre Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl refuge where you’ll find trails that take you through wetlands, fields and forests. The land was once part of the Creamer family chicken ranch and the farmstead buildings still stand and are used today as a visitor’s and environmental education center.
Here I had the unique experience of hiking the trails through woods and across wetland at 10 o’clock at night in bright daylight. And I was not alone. Couples were walking their dogs, families with kids were out enjoying nature and joggers were working out on the trails. It was hard to believe I was in the middle of a bustling city at “night” as I listened to the birds and walked past fields covered in bright pink fireweed flowers.
Panning for Gold With Gold Dredge 8
Taking a tour to Gold Dredge 8 is actually three activities in one. First, you get to see a portion of the trans-Alaska pipeline and learn about its history and construction. The pipeline is quite an impressive feat of engineering. It is 800 miles long and crosses three mountain ranges and over 500 streams and rivers. Besides these challenges the engineers also had to account for building into permafrost as well as the extreme cold winter temperatures.
Next you board a replica of a narrow-gauge Tanana Valley Railroad which takes you to Gold Dredge 8, one of the remaining gold dredges from Alaska’s gold mining days. The dredge is now listed as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark and it is fascinating to tour inside it. On the way you’ll be entertained with stories about Alaskas’s gold rush history.
Once the train reaches the Gold Dredge 8 camp, you get to try your hand at gold panning. Everyone is guaranteed to find gold in the bottom of their pan. My haul was worth around $15 – good enough to pay for a few beers if I cashed it in.
If you are looking for a place to go and hang out with the locals, then HooDoo Brewery is your best bet. I enjoyed one of their flights of house made craft beers outside on the patio as I mingled with the young and old enjoying a beautiful evening out.
Alaska Salmon Bake and Palace Theater
You have to eat freshly caught salmon cooked over an outdoor wood fire grill while you are in Alaska, and the best place for that in Fairbanks is at the Alaska Salmon Bake in Pioneer Park. Besides salmon, the all you can eat buffet also offers beer battered cod, slow roasted beef and a huge salad bar. After 40 years, this is still a family run business, using recipes that have been passed down through many generations. (Yes-I did go back for seconds).
After dinner, you can head next door to the Palace Theater for a rollicking musical comedy review that will give you an entertaining perspective on Alaska’s history.
The Riverboat Discovery is one of the most popular attraction is Fairbanks, probably because it offers so many interesting activities during the three hour cruise on the Chena River. This river runs long and deep in this 5th generation family run business, and you can feel their love for Alaska as you listen to the commentary on the sternwheeler.
The tour starts with a bush plane demonstration. These little planes and their spunky pilots helped open up the Alaskan interior. Even today there are many parts of the Alaskan wilderness that are only accessible by these small planes.
After cruising along the Chena for a little bit, the sternwheeler stops alongside the home and kennels of four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher. Standing on the boat’s deck, you’ll get a great view of the dog mushing demonstration as you learn all about the challenges of this sport. Good thing I was on the boat or I might have come home with one of the adorable puppies playing nearby.
Finally, the boat stops for almost an hour at the Chena Indian Village. This is a reproduction Athabascan village where guides will take you around and explain the local native way of life. You’ll see reindeer up close, a fish camp, and get an explanation of how they used the furs and hides of the many animals found in the area. My favorite part here was the questions and answer session with the sled dogs and their trainer.
Dinner at the Pump House
At the Pump House you’ll find fine dining in a historic atmosphere. Here you will have a chance to experience the historic gold rush setting from the 1890’s as you are surrounded by true antiques from that era. Besides tasting the local fresh Alaskan salmon, there are also other unique regional meat options like reindeer sausage or meatballs (my choice) and elk meatloaf.
The Pump House is not far from the Riverboat Discovery pier, so you could easily enjoy both places in one day.
Summer Fairbanks Events and Festivals
Fairbanks locals take advantage of every moment of summer sunshine and it seems like they celebrate the long days with some sort of event every weekend. During the week and weekend in July that I was there, I was fortunate to experience both the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO) and Fairbanks Golden Days.
Around the third weekend of July, Fairbanks celebrates its gold rush roots with a number of fun Golden Days activities. Events include Alaska’s biggest parade, a street fair in downtown Fairbanks with craft and food vendors, and the climax, The Rubber Ducky Race.
Over 8000 yellow rubber ducks are released on the Chena river and race down with the current. Each duck has a pink and yellow raffle ticket associated with it. The official duck committee captures the first 40 winning ducks at the finish line.
With top prizes of $5000 and $10,000 and odds at only 1 in 200, you can bet that I bought a few rubber ducky tickets. Though I did not win anything, it was fun standing along the riverbank with the rest of the townsfolk and watching the little yellow guys make their way down the river to the capture point.
World Eskimo – Indian Olympics
Also held during the third week of July are the unique World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO). This combination of athletic and cultural events is a fascinating and authentic glimpse into Alaska’s native heritage. There are dance demonstrations, craft vendors and competitions of athletic prowess that reflect important skills once critical to the survival of the Eskimo people. A competition such as the blanket toss tests the ability of a jumper to get as high as possible and look out over the landscape to spot wildlife or possible dangers. I really enjoyed this very fascinating event and attended on three different nights to see a variety of competitions and highly recommend attending this if you are in town. (Longer post about this to come)
A little further afield – Things to do Near Fairbanks
Coffee at Polar Expresso
With a name this cute, I had to stop at this coffee shack and pick up a quick cappuccino and donut on my way to Santa’s House in North Pole (Alaska). (Hmmm, maybe I should have picked up some goodies for the big man himself as well to make sure I was still on his good list).
Visit Santa Clause in North Pole
Fairbanks is about a 20 minute drive from the Santa Clause House in North Pole – the town of that is. It would be a shame to be this close and not see THE MAN himself. (Note though that during the summer, Santa takes off Mondays and Tuesdays – he’s entitled I think).
Besides a personal visit with Santa, you can also set up to have Santa and his elves send a personalized Original Letter From Santa at the holidays to a special someone in your life (you can also set this up on the Santa Clause House website). You can also get some of your Christmas shopping done early amid the huge selection of holiday themed gifts and ornaments.
Sadly, it was Santa’s day off when I visited this time, but I had met Santa before on a previous winter visit to Fairbanks a few years ago. He even gave me his business card. (You can read my story about that unique encounter here).
Chena Lakes Recreation Area
I went to the Chena Lakes Recreation Area to get photos of the sort-of sun set over the lake. Even though the sun dipped below the clouds and the horizon, it did not go very far because it still stayed very light.
This recreation area offers all sorts of outdoor adventure opportunities. There is a campground, a swimming area, volleyball courts, a horseshoe pit, picnic tables and restrooms. You can also rent pedal boats, row boats, canoes, kayaks and paddle boards.
Stay and Soak at Chena Hot Springs Resort
About an hour north east of Fairbanks and surrounded by wilderness is the Chena Hot Springs Resort which is a year round destination in and of itself that should inspire a visit of a couple of days. As the name implies, the star attraction is the hot springs pool where in the summer you can sit and soak under the midnight sun and in the winter, you can sit and soak under the northern lights.
The Chena Hot Springs Resort has a slew of summer activities you can choose from. Their Activities Center can set you up with hiking, canoeing, paddle boarding, pedal boating, fishing, horseback riding, biking, flight sight seeing, guided ATV tours, dog kennel tours and dog cart rides. You can also tour their Aurora Ice Museum and their geothermal facility.
The resort offers accommodation options to satisfy every need. There are many option to chose from from large and comfortable lodge rooms with en suite bathrooms to family suites to rustic cabins without bathrooms to a campground for RV’s and tents.
Of course, there is a full service restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and a lounge for relaxing with a drink.
Aurora Ice Museum
One of the Chena Hot Springs Resort activities that I enjoyed was the Aurora Ice Museum where I got a glimpse of the type of amazing ice sculptures that I had seen during the World Ice Art Championships which are held in Fairbanks every February. Even in the heat of summer, this perpetually cold space preserves a number of beautifully executed and highly detailed ice sculptures.
For a totally unique experience I had an appletini served in an ice martini glass and sipped it while sitting at a bar made completely from ice. If you can stand the cold, you can also choose to spend the night here in an ice bed. Tours of the museum are offered throughout the day and parkas are available free of charge.
I had my first ever ATV ride at the Chena Hot Springs Resort. The ride was guided which I appreciated since it was my first time and also since I was not familiar with the area. The ride took me into the extensive wilderness area around the resort.
The resort also offers a side-by-side ATV tour which takes you to the top of Dome Mountain (so you don’t have to hike the couple of miles straight up hill) for spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding wilderness. If you are lucky, your guide may find ripe wild blueberries for you at the top as well.
Fairbanks Travel Tips
- Start your visit in Fairbanks at the Morris Thompson Visitors Center and speak with the friendly staff from Explore Fairbanks about things to do and see while you are there
- Many visitors make Fairbanks a short stop at the beginning or end of an Alaskan cruise tour. There are so many choices of Fairbanks activities under the midnight sun that I would suggest spending at least a couple of days to have the time to experience them all.
- You do not necessarily need a car to tour in the city of Fairbanks. If your hotel does not have a shuttle to the local sights, you can easily take a ride share to your desired location. Chena Hot springs Resort also offers a shuttle option.
- If you need it to be very dark while you sleep, I suggest using an eye mask. My hotel rooms had very good blackout curtains, but it was still not totally dark in my room during the night when I was there in July.
- When it is not midnight sun season, that is from about August till April, Fairbanks is also a great spot to see the northern lights.
- For more Alaska travel tips read my Alaska cruise excursions tips post
Some common questions:
When is the best time to see the midnight sun in Fairbanks?
Anytime from May 17 to July 27. Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year falls around June 20-21. But because of Fairbanks’ location close to the Arctic Circle, the sun barely dips below the horizon for those 70 days resulting in 24 hours of daylight.
How long does the midnight sun last in Fairbanks?
The midnight sun season lasts for a total of 70 days, or almost two and a half months during the peak summer season.
Fairbanks has a lot to offer, both winter and summer. I hope this list inspires your extended summer Fairbanks itinerary so you too can experience the midnight sun.
Please note that my visit to Fairbanks was hosted by Explore Fairbanks. All content is my own.
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Thanks for visiting.