Since the end of the Cold War, nobody comes to Fairbanks by bloody accident anymore. Fairbanks has become a destination. People go there on purpose. Fairbanks is no longer a pit-stop where a Pope and a President meet at the airport on a red carpet like President Reagan and Pope John Paul II did on May 2, 1984 with 5,000 Alaskans witnessing the meeting.
Crissie, the blogger at Granola and Grace came to Fairbanks because her sister’s husband is stationed at Ft. Wainwright, a base east of Fairbanks. She had asked me a bunch of question prior to her visit. Some of these questions may be also of interest to other Fairbanks travelers.
Must-sees in Fairbanks
Like many things in Alaska, what to do or what you can do in a week worth of time while in Fairbanks depends on the season you are visiting. In this post, I start with January to March. I will cover other months in later posts.
January is the coldest month. According to the statistics, temperature is 40 below zero every 500 days. Just looking at the number gives you already the insight that one can’t live by statistics. Weather is what you get climatology is what you find in tourist catalogs. This year we had 40 below for a couple of days. The event before dates back to winter 2012/13.
Even when you are not lucky to visit on a 40 below freezing day, you can still experience the cold in the ice museum. However, it is a bit different than the actual 40 below. In the cold room, humidity is much higher than it is usually in Fairbanks at 40 below days.
Every even years, the Yukon Quest starts its 1000 miles (1600 km) race to Whitehorse on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks. In even years, you can see the teams arriving after the 9 to 14 days tour. The mushers start with 14 dogs. In the days prior to the start there is a meet-and-greet with the mushers. It takes a snow machine and several men to keep a team in start position. The dogs know they are in a race and want to run. A team must still have 6 dogs upon arrival. Mushers can leave dogs at the check points when the dogs don’t feel well. But once dropped they are out for the entire race.
In February and March, many Japanese tourists come to see the aurora. When you come in summer, you can’t see the aurora. To view the aurora, March is best. It is the driest month, which means likelihood for clear sky is high. Days and twilight are about 14 hours leaving enough time for dark skies with a dancing aurora. Of course only when weather allows and the Sun was very active.
March also brings the International Ice Championship. In a park, ice carving artists produce beautiful sculptures. You can read more about how these ice sculptures are made at the link. Timing is key. While the exhibition is open for about a month, in the early stage only few sculptures are there, while towards the end the very whimsical one may have already the delicate parts sublimated, broken off, or melted in the spring sun.
Once in a blue moon, you may be lucky that due to low snow conditions in the Anchorage area, the Iditarod re-starts in Fairbanks. This race hits the trail with 16 dogs. The Iditrod trail is 1150 miles (1850.746 km). This year, Fairbanks is lucky to have the Iditarod on March 6 around lunch break.
Things to see in town
Museums worth visiting
I already mentioned the Ice Museum where you can see ice sculptures and test-drive the cold. Another museum to visit, is the Museum of the North on the UAF campus has a great Alaska art collection, many stuffed Alaskan animals, and Alaskan Native art work like grass and root baskets. The Alaska gallery introduces Alaska’s five major geographic regions in highlights of geography, artifacts, people, wildlife, and history. In spring, there is an exhibit on university hibernation research.
The Fountain Head Antique Car Museum is my favorite. Don’t think the cars of the 50s and 60s. No, real old cars like an Argonne, Argo Limousine, Columbia Mark XIX, McFarlan Type 125, or a Heine-Velox Victoria automobile. However, it’s not the cars that make this museum my favorite. It’s their historic fashion collection. It encompasses an assortment of motoring clothes, and everyday wear and formal dresses. There are items from the 18th century to the mid 20th of American style.
Pioneer Park itself is a museum of houses and buildings from the Gold Rush time. In the park itself there is a museum featuring the gold rush years in photos and items, and an airplane exhibition. However, in spring, you can only see the houses, but not enter them. To do so you must visit in summer. Nevertheless, it is nice to visit the park at night because of the colorful twinkle lights that adore the historic buildings. Yes, not very original, but nice.
Watch an ice hockey game
When you like ice hockey there are two teams in Fairbanks. The UAF Nanooks playing college ice hockey, and the Fairbanks Ice Dogs who play in the North American Hockey League.
Enjoying the outdoors
Watching dog races is one thing, but actually sitting in a dog sled with the snow flashing in your face is another. There are several kennels in Fairbanks and its outskirts that offer sled dog rides for tourists. If you are a real outdoor enthusiast – I’m not – you have to go for a ride.
Snow machining is a big thing. Rent a snow machine and take a ride on the frozen river. However, avoid the area between the Princess and the power plant! There the ice is thin or not even there because of the waste water. I have seen a snow machine breaking thru the ice of the Chena and going under in March a couple of years ago.
Go skiing. The university ski trails are great for cross country skiing. The Birch Hill Ski Resort has downhill skiing. There is light at night. There is also a great place outside of town on the road to the Poker Flat Research Range. When you come with a large group you may try to arrange for a tour of this university owned rocket port at the public information office of the Geophysical Institute.
What you most likely can’t do, is building a snowman. The snow in the Interior is rarely sticky enough to keep the snow together.
When you are visiting in March, you can read at the link what to expect weather wise and how to dress for the weather.
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Photos: G. Kramm if not indicated otherwise
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