Location/Climate: At confluence of Tanana and Chena Rivers and junction of George Parks Highway (AK 3), Alaska Highway (AK 2), and northbound highways. 12"/yr. precip., -22°F72°F.
Population: 32,655 (9.2 percent native).
Travel Attractions: Historic city, mining history, Trans-Alaska Pipeline exhibits, museums, Alaskaland theme park, hot springs, Tanana River, charter air center, travel services.
Getting There: Scheduled air service from Anchorage and other points; vehicle access via George Parks, Alaska, Elliot, Steese, and Dalton Highways.
Information: Fairbanks Visitors Bureau, 1st Avenue near Cushman (log cabin in park on south bank of Chena River), (800) 327-5774, 456-5774, www.explorefairbanks.com.
It’s not uncommon for the towns in Alaska to be relatively unattractive, particularly in the Interior and Far North where extreme winters demand functional architecture and construction. Fairbanks is no exceptionit isn’t hard to see it as a small, ugly town grown big. But looks are not everything, and this vital, active, and rapidly growing city serves as a center for trade, transport, and culture for much of the state. The main campus of the University of Alaska is located here, while two busy military bases operate nearby.
The history of Fairbanks is awkward. In 1901, E. T. Barnette was on his way to establish a trading post at Tanacross, where the mining route from Valdez to Eagle crossed the Tanana River. Unfortunately, the sternwheeler Lavelle Young could not manage the shallow Tanana above its confluence with the Chena, so the captain put a disgruntled Barnette ashore and headed back downriver. Less than a year later, prospector Felix Pedro discovered gold in the area, instigating the "Pedro Dome Gold Rush" in 1902. Barnette saw his chance, set up shop, and became Fairbank’s founding father. He convinced the miners to name the town after Charles Fairbanks, an Illinois senator who later served as Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president. Barnette left his position in 1911, retiring to California. The bank went under a year later, swallowing the savings of hard-working miners and earning Barnette an evil reputation.
Miners were also frustrated by the fact that much of the region’s gold was buried under thick layers of gravel and frozen mud, and was consequently difficult to extract by hand. It wasn’t until the completion of the railroad in 1923 that companies began mining on a large scale, melting the frozen ground then dredging the placer layers to sluice out the gold. Despite these challenges, the town was soon established as a center of trade and government.
Modern Fairbanks is all things to the Interior and Far North, providing supplies, government, higher education, transport services, and more. The Parks, Richardson, and Steese Highways all reach the city, while the Elliott Highway, Dalton Highway, and Chena Hot Springs Road begin nearby. Fairbanks is a true crossroadsbut let the roads tempt you, not the crossing. Stays should be short and oriented toward launching your next adventure.
Fairbanks visitors can lodge at one of the countless B&Bs, enjoying downtown history and nearby mining sites, trails, rivers, and hot springs. The University of AlaskaFairbanks has several attractions, including the museum and Walk in the Woods described below (call the University Relations office for walking tours and information, 474-7581).
Things to See and Do in Fairbanks
AlaskalandIt’s hard to know quite what to make of this odd little theme park with its easy blend of historic buildings, museums, gift shops, eateries, and theaters. Yet this ultimate assemblage of Alaskana seems completely fitting and makes a good walkabout for an hour or two. Information is available at the gate and admission is free. Rides include an old carousel and the toy-sized Crooked Creek and Whiskey Island Railroad that makes 12-minute loops through the grounds. Check out the SS Nenana, the second-largest wooden vessel in existence and the largest sternwheeler ever built west of the Mississippi. It’s permanently moored in a large pond. The Pioneer Air Museum features old aircraft and a history of Alaska’s pilots (451-0037, $2). Besides several picnic areas and food stands, there is the Alaska Salmon Bake, offering a complete meal for $20 (open daily, 800-354-7274, 456-5960). Nearby is the Palace Theater & Saloon where the Golden Heart Revue offers happy melodrama to all comers nightly at 8:15, (800-354-7274, 452-7274, reservations recommended). Inquire about the 10 p.m. weekend show "for adults only." Check out the Bear Art Gallery for rotating exhibits with an Alaskan theme. It’s upstairs in the civic center building, 456-6485.
Alaskaland is in full operation daily, Memorial Day through Labor Day, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s open at any time for a walk and a look.
Alaskan Tails of the TrailMusher and author Mary Shields will show you her dogs and describe the life of a musher. Personal, pleasant, and very informative. 7:30 p.m. $25. Call 457-1117 for reservations and information.
Alaska Public Lands Information CenterOne of four in the state, this center is the best place to get information and advice on all of Alaska’s public lands. There are informative displays as well. 250 Cushman Street, Suite 1A, 456-0527. Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Sunday and Monday in winter.
Chena Pump House National Historic SiteBuilt to supply Chena River water to gold-dredging operations in the early 1930s, the building was remodeled to house a restaurant and saloon in 1978. It’s a great place to dine surrounded by educational history. Take Geist Road west from Parks Highway, then take first left and continue to Mile 1.3 of Chena Pump Road, 479-8452 (see Where to Eat, below).
Historic DowntownStart at the Visitor Information Center, located in Golden Heart Park on the Chena River. They have complete information on downtown walkabouts and other sites. It’s also pamphlet-central for food and lodging optionsyou can find and reserve your room or B&B here. 1st Avenue at Cushman, (800) 327-5774, 456-7774, 456-INFO (recorded event information). Open daily in summer, weekdays in winter. No public restrooms.
Ester Gold CampEleven historic structures are preserved in this old mining camp turned tourist attraction. Turn in at Mile 351.7 Parks Highway to reach the hotel, buffet-style restaurant, the Malemute Saloon (where Robert Service composed several poems). Enjoy Alaskan ales while you take in a show that features comedy, music, poetry, and fun (performances daily in summer, WednesdaySunday at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., SundayTuesday at 9 only, $12). Nearby, the Firehouse Theater offers a 40-minute northern lights multimedia show (daily in summer, 6:45 p.m. and 9:45 p.m.; additional 6 p.m. show in July, $6). Call for complete information: 479-2500, www.ptialaska.net/~akttt/ester.html.
Fairbanks BackroadsA fairly extensive system of minor roads surrounds the city north of the Tanana River. Mining sites, views, trailheads, and rivers are interspersed with homes and other private acreage. Use your maps to explore. For ideas, consult with the happy experts downtown at the Visitor Information Center.
Riverboat DiscoveryFor touristic history at its finest, ride the state’s only operating sternwheel riverboat on a four-hour Chena and Tanana River trip. The boat stops at an Athabascan village site along the way. 1975 Discovery Drive, Fairbanks, AK 99709, 479-6673, fax 479-4613. Sailings daily in summer at 8:45 a.m. and 2 p.m., 6:30 p.m. cruises on selected evenings, $40, teens and military $37, children 312 $30. Call for reservations and directions.
Tanana Valley Farmers MarketSee what area growers have to offer. From the Steese Highway or Johansen Expressway take College Road west to the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds at Aurora Drive. Operates Wednesdays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Fridays 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
University of Alaska MuseumEasily Fairbanks’ finest attraction, the museum features outstanding heritage exhibits in five galleries. Displays include totem poles, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and a 36,000-year-old steppe bison mummy, as well as numerous offerings on geology, natural history, native arts and cultures, and the northern lights. The state’s largest gold display is also found here. From Airport Way, Geist Road, or College Road, take University Avenue north to the campus entrance and follow the signs (474-7505, www.uaf.edu/museum). Open JuneAugust daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; May and September daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; OctoberApril weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekends noon to 5 p.m. $5, $4.50 seniors, $3 age 1217, under 12 free.
Walk in the WoodsThis guided educational walk is an easy summer option with rich results. "Learn the northern niches of plants and wildlife . . . follow a quiet forest path and feel the spirit of the land." The two-hour tour starts in the U of A Botanical Garden at 2 p.m. Take Sheep Creek Road from Mile 355.8 of the Parks Highway and turn right on Tanana Loop Road to the barn and visitor center (457-1117, $20, kids $15).
Where to Stay in Fairbanks
With the unbelievable number of B&Bs and other lodging options available in Fairbanks, it’s highly recommended that you use a reservation service or stop at the downtown Visitor Information Center where Cushman meets the river. There are also a number of chain motels offering predictable facilities.
All Seasons Inn, 763 7th Avenue, Fairbanks, AK 99701, (888) 451-6649, $115$125. Located right downtown, full breakfast provided.
Bed-and-Breakfast Reservation Service, P.O. Box 71131, (800) 770-8165, 479-8165, fax 474-8448. One hundred B&Bs, nine downtown guest rooms.
Billie’s Backpackers Hostel, 2895 Mack Road, (800) 236-5350. $18, $10 tent space, $7 breakfast. Call for free shuttle from airport or train station; Denali/Anchorage van shuttle stops here.
Captain Bartlett Inn, 1411 Airport Way, (800) 478-7900, (800) 478-7900 (AK only). Motel with Slough Foot Sue’s Dining Hall and the Dog Sled Saloon. Rooms $85$130.
Chena River State Recreation Site, University Avenue (north of Airport Way). Nice $12 sites on or near the Chena River in town.
Ester Gold Camp, Ester, (800) 676-6925, 479-2500. Established in 1936, features Malemute Saloon and Bunkhouse Buffet for dinner. There are no phones or TVs in the $50$80 rooms in this renovated bunkhouse.
Fairbanks Association of Bed and Breakfasts, P.O. Box 7334, Fairbanks, AK 99709-3334. You can write for a brochure on area B&Bs or visit their website at www.ptialaska.net/~fabb, which has web, e-mail, and reservation links to dozens of accommodations.
Fairbanks Princess Hotel, 4477 Pikes Landing Road, 455-4477, (800) 426-0500. Luxury option operated by Princess Cruises. Rooms are $200.
Forget-Me-Not Lodge and Aurora Express, 474-0949. Ten miles from town with views of the Tanana. Stay in an old railcar or the lodge. Rooms $80$140, full breakfast included.
Golden North Motel, 4888 Old Airport Way, (800) 447-1910, 479-6201. $80 and up.
Hotel Hotline (reservation service), 1717 University Avenue, (800) 528-4916, 479-3650, fax 479-7951. Serves three fine hotels: Sophie Station, Bridgewater Hotel, and Wedgewood Resort. Rooms for all start in the $65 to $80 range and climb quickly to over $100.
North Woods Lodge and International Hostel, Chena Hills Drive (west of town, free transport), (800) 478-5305 (AK only), 479-5300. Rooms and cabins are $65 and up, hostel bunks $30, campsites $15.
Seven Gables Inn, 4312 Birch Lane, 479-0751. Rooms $50$120. Huge, converted frat house on river. Atrium with waterfall. Excellent choice!
Where to Eat Around Fairbanks
Chena Pump House, Mile 1.3 Chena Pump Road, 479-8452. Diner and saloon in a historic, riverside building. Take Geist west from the Parks Highway to Chena Pump Road.
Gambardella’s Pasta Bella, 706 2nd Avenue. Downtown, pizza, homemade bread.
Hot Licks, 3549 College Road (near University Avenue), 479-7183. Great homemade ice cream, frozen yogurt, soup, and bread.
Pike’s Landing, Mile 4.5 Airport Road, 479-6500. Open 11:30 a.m.11 p.m. Huge deck on Chena River.
Pizza Bella, 1694 Airport Way. Italian, Greek, and American. Near Alaskaland and movie theaters.
Thai House, 526 5th Avenue, Fairbanks, AK 99701, 452-6123. Open MondaySaturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.