Fairbanks, Alaska—named for former Indiana Sen. Charles Fairbanks—is truly a frontier. The gateway to the Arctic is spread out on a seemingly endless plain in the Tanana Valley, with only a few downtown high-rises and plenty of log cabins dotting the residential districts.
Fairbanks, 125 mi/200 km south of the Arctic Circle and the northernmost large U.S. city (as well as Alaska's second largest), is a hub for interior Alaska's commerce, education, arts and, more recently, tourism, even in winter. It makes up for the dark winter months, though, by almost constant daylight in summer.
One of Fairbanks' main draws in winter is the northern lights, the colloquial name for the aurora borealis, which means northern dawn. The multicolored displays illuminate the night sky for hours, in colors ranging from yellow to blue to green and even red. Because of the long daylight hours, most summer visitors do not see the northern lights from late May to early August.
Residents cheerfully joke about their weather and field their visitors' endless questions about daylight, or lack of it. The Fairbanks nickname of Golden Heart City, because of its gold-rush history, could just as easily apply to its residents.
Spread out along the forested floor of Tanana Valley along the banks of the Chena River, Fairbanks is fairly easy to navigate. However, do watch out for a number of one-way streets in the downtown area.
The city's most obvious geographical feature is the Chena River (pronounced CHEE-nah), which winds through the city mostly in an east-west direction. Airport Way lines the southern edge of the city, and College Road forms the northern border. Cushman and Barnette streets, and Steese Highway are the city's main north-south arteries. The heart of downtown sits squarely on the waterfront.
More industrial areas lie north of the river, with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to the northwest on College Road. Highway 3, the George Parks Highway (Alaskans tend to use road names rather than speaking in numbers), crosses the south side of town, eventually leading to Denali National Park to the southwest and to Anchorage, 358 mi/576 km away.
The Fairbanks area was originally a fishing zone for native Athabascans. When the gold rush arrived in the Klondike, prospectors flocked to the region in hopes of striking it rich. In 1901, E.T. Barnette was dumped off his sternwheeler at the present location of First Avenue and Cushman Street when the river became too shallow for the ship to continue up the Chena River. He had planned to start up a general store farther north, where miners were finding gold.
Right after Barnette got off the boat (the landing marked by a small monument and plaque in the yard of the downtown visitors center), Felix Pedro ran into him. Pedro, the Italian responsible for the Fairbanks gold rush, was looking for supplies, and his chance appearance helped push Barnette into building his store where he was rather than move north. Within a year, the gold rush—led by Pedro's discovery—sprang up around Barnette and his trading post, the first non-Native building in the area.
In the early years, Fairbanks turned out more than US$200 million in gold (as much as US$9 million in one year). Many of the men who went there to work their claims built homes and took their families to stay with them. Within five years of its founding, Fairbanks was a town of 12,000 people, with two hospitals, a library, post office, schools, newspapers and various other businesses.
Though the city's economy began to decline, it received a boost in 1911 with the arrival of the Tanana Valley Railroad. The Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines was established in 1922 (it became the University of Alaska at Fairbanks in 1935) and also provided a slight boon for the city.
However, it wasn't until 1968, with the construction of an oil pipeline, that Fairbanks saw considerable growth. In the two years it took to build the 800-mi/1,300-km Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the city's metropolitan population nearly doubled to 65,000. Today, Fairbanks is a gem for visitors and offers many opportunities to peek into the history of this former gold-rush town.
Although Denali National Park is a top sightseeing draw for visitors to Fairbanks, the frontier town itself and the immediate surrounding area also have much to offer. Visitors can relive the gold-rush days at the Gold Dredge 8 or witness firsthand how pioneers made their way north on the sternwheeler Nenana
. Pioneer Park offers museums and historic mementos to create the aura of days long past, and the Alaska Native Village Museum harks back to a time before the first European settlers paddled upriver.
Fairbanks also has its share of fine museums, including the renowned University of Alaska Museum of the North, with more than 1.4 million artifacts. Nature lovers will also be pleased by the area's parks and gardens. The Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station offers a peek at Arctic wildlife—including musk oxen, caribou and reindeer—and the Georgeson Botanical Garden will astonish you with the diversity of plant species found in interior Alaska.
Fairbanks is clearly not Los Angeles, New York or even Seattle when it comes to nightlife, but it does offer some nice options for cooling your heels at the end of a busy day.
There is no central clubbing zone, although you will find many hole-in-the-wall bars downtown. Stick to bars in the nicer hotels if you're looking for wine. For most quality nightlife, you'll have to drive beyond the downtown area.
For a listing of events, call 907-456-4636 or look in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. https://www.explorefairbanks.com/explore-the-area/local-destinations/downtown-fairbanks.
About an hour by plane from the port city of Anchorage, Fairbanks is a great place to get fresh seafood. Still, restaurants offer plenty of red meat and a number of fine options. Asian cuisine is popular in Fairbanks, which can be a nice way to have a lighter meal or find some vegetarian options. With the growing number of Asian tourists, hotels are also beginning to add some Asian dishes to their menus.
Although there are quite a few restaurants in the downtown area, some of the best choices are farther from the city center. Each of these is worth the cab fare or driving time, so go explore and enjoy the Golden Heart City with a full stomach.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$30; and $$$$ = more than US$30.
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