10 awesome things to do in Fairbanks, Alaska

by | Oct 15, 2023 | Alaska, Northern America | 0 comments

The best things to do in Fairbanks
The best things to do in Fairbanks

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Earlier this year I got to visit Fairbanks with Explore Fairbanks. We spent an amazing week experiencing the best Alaska’s second-biggest city has to offer.

From the breathtaking views of Greenland during the flight to diving into Alaska’s incredible wilderness, experiencing the magic of Northern lights for the first time, and finally ticking Denali National Park off my bucket list, this was a lifetime trip.

Sitting 65° degrees north, Fairbanks is world-famous for northern lights (Aurora borealis) and the midnight sun. It’s the ideal base for trips to the Arctic and Denali, and the perfect start or end point to your Alaska adventure.

In this post, I have compiled a list of 10 epic things to do in Fairbanks, including spotting wildlife at Denali National Park, walking with reindeer, riding the Alaska railroad, flying over the Arctic Circle and so much more!

Northern lights in Fairbanks

Experience the Northern lights

Spotting the Aurora Borealis is by far one of the best things to do in Fairbanks. The moment when the northern lights finally make an appearance in the night sky can only be described as magical!

Fairbanks is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights, thanks to its location under the Aurora Oval, a ring-shaped area far north with lots of aurora activity. In addition, the precipitation and light pollution in Fairbanks are pretty low – two key qualities for great aurora sightings.

The Aurora season in Fairbanks lasts from August 21 to April 21, and if you spend a minimum of three nights in Fairbanks, your chances of spotting the Aurora are more than 90% according to Explore Fairbanks.

If you’re lucky, you can even spot the northern lights from downtown Fairbanks. But I’d recommend booking one of the many Aurora tours around Fairbanks for the most memorable experience.

Seeing the northern lights is one of the most incredible things to do in Fairbanks

The best Aurora viewing tours from Fairbanks

Soak in the Chena Hot Springs

Chena Hot Springs, Alaska’s most popular hot springs resort is only a scenic 1-hour drive away from Fairbanks. The best part of the hot springs resort is the outdoor rock lake, where you can relax in the 40° water surrounded by beautiful nature.

You can easily visit Chena Hot Springs on a day trip from Fairbanks. But if you have more time I’d recommend staying a few nights.

Floating in the hot mineral water while *hopefully* admiring the Aurora above you will make for a very memorable hot spring visit!

The accommodation options at Chena Hot Springs Resort include cosy lodge rooms, rustic cabins, and even yurts! And in addition to the hot springs, you can also enjoy many other activities like dog sled and snowmobile tours, horseback riding, or you can explore the area on one of the many great hiking trails.

You can book your stay at Chena Hot Springs Resort here.

Rainbow above a forest
Woman in traditional Athabascan outfit
Back of a steam boat
Woman in traditional Athabascan outfit
Rainbow above a forest

Take on the Chena River on a river cruise

The Chena River runs through the heart of Fairbanks and plays an important role in local life. You can’t visit Fairbanks without spending some time on or by the river. Hop aboard the riverboat Discovery, an authentic Alaskan sternwheeler, for an awesome 3-hour Chena River Cruise.

The cruise stops at Chena Village, a living museum and replica of an Athabascan village, complete with a dog kennel and reindeer pen. The village offers a glimpse into the life and traditions of the Athabascans.

My two favourite things about the Chena River Cruise were viewing all the amazing houses on the riverfront (one of the prime locations in Fairbanks), and Captain Jim’s Alaska Smoked Salmon, which you can taste and buy on the river boat. It might sound funny but trust me when I say it was absolutely delicious!

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Railway riding past trees
Railway riding past trees

Enjoy a scenic ride on the Alaska Railroad

Riding the Alaska Railroad to Denali National Park was one of my favourite things to do in Fairbanks. The railroad runs from Fairbanks to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, passing Denali National Park and Anchorage.

During the summer months, the Denali Star, Alaska Railroad’s flagship departs Fairbanks daily for the 12-hour trip to Anchorage. While you could do the whole 760 km long journey, I’d recommend tying the Alaska Railroad into a trip to Denali National Park instead.

For the full experience, treat yourself to a Gold Star ticket!

The Gold Star carriages have glass dome ceilings and an epic outdoor viewing platform for even better views. In addition, it includes all meals, drinks, and two alcoholic beverages.

The train ride from Fairbanks to Denali departs in the morning and takes around 4 hours. You’ll start your train ride with a delicious breakfast in the dining room carriage, then settle into your seat under the glass dome ceiling, or pop outside to enjoy the passing landscapes, or even a glimpse of Denali,  from the outdoor viewing platform.

If you’re travelling on a tighter budget, go for the Adventure Class instead. These seats don’t have access to the outdoor viewing platform, but there is one carriage with a glass dome ceiling (it’s open seating and the time per passenger is limited to 20 minutes). Meals are not included, but there is a bistro where you can buy snacks.

The price difference between Adventure Class and Gold Star is around USD 110 for the leg from Fairbanks to Denali National Park, and the experience is absolutely worth paying a little more for a Gold Star seat!
Looking out into Denali National Park

Explore Denali National Park

Visiting Denali National Park is a must on any Alaska itinerary! No matter which way you look, the landscapes at Denali National Park will make your jaw drop. Think of untouched tundra, braided glacial rivers, and massive peaks, including North America’s highest mountain, Denali (Mt. McKinley).

In addition, it is home to lots of wildlife, from caribou and Dall sheep, to moose, wolves and grizzlies. Visiting the national park and scanning the landscapes for all these animals honestly felt like going on a safari in Africa!

Caribou standing in colorful grass
River running through Denali National Park

The best things to do at Denali National Park

There is only one road into Denali National Park, appropriately named Denali Park Road. It reaches almost 150 km (92 miles) into the park. However, there is a road closure at about km 70 (mile 43), expected to last until 2026.

Self-driving is allowed on the first 25 km on Denali Park Road (to Mile 15). Even if it is only a short stretch, it’s definitely worth the drive. You can stop for some walks along the way, and you might even spot some animals.

If you want to get the full dose of Denali, join a bus tour!

The buses are the only vehicles allowed past Mile 15. The buses run between mid-May and mid-September and you can choose between non-narrated transit buses and narrated tour buses:

  • Narrated tour buses offer a fully-guided, informative trip into the national park. You will spend the whole tour on the same bus with a certified naturalist as your driver-guide. The guide will point out and stop for wildlife, and provide interesting info about the national park during the tour.
  • Transit buses are essentially like hop-on hop-off buses. You can jump off your original bus, and flag down any other transit bus. These buses stop for wildlife too, but without the commentary, and are perfect if you want to explore Denali National Park on your terms or a day hike.

Going on a bus tour is a must while visiting Denali National Park. In addition, you can join many other epic adventures around Denali National Park. Join a jeep excursion, hit the Nenana River on a rafting tour, or see Denali up close on a scenic flight.

Where to stay at Denali National Park

  • Perched on a mountain slope above the highway, just one mile from the national park entrance, Grande Denali Lodge boasts some of the best views in the area.
  • Denali Bluffs Hotel sits below Grande Denali Lodge on the same mountain slope and is another great option close to Denali National Park.

While the national park is open all year round, some hotels, including Grande Denali Lodge and Denali Bluffs Hotel close during the winter months.

  • If you visit Denali between mid-September and mid-May, check out Backwoods Lodge in Cantwell. The lodge is surrounded by peaceful nature, and located less than 30 minutes from the park.
Old gold dredge
People weighing their gold

Pan for gold at Gold Dredge 8

The Fairbanks gold rush started in the early 1900’s when gold was found in Interior Alaska. Word spread quickly and many miners headed to Fairbanks, eventually turning the temporary trading post into a permanent, bustling city.

This is only a very brief summary of the Fairbanks gold rush. But visiting Gold Dredge 8 will take you on an actual trip down memory lane into the gold fields of the Tanana Valley.

You’ll tour the area in a replica of the Tanana Valley Railroad while hearing the story of the gold rush and the Alaska Pipeline from a local. The tour takes you past Gold Dredge 8, one of the original gold dredges used during the Fairbanks gold rush (this gold dredge was in use from 1928 to 1959).

After a presentation of gold panning, it’s your turn to give it a go – with some guaranteed gold findings! Once you’ve extracted all your gold, you can also get it weighed to find out exactly how many (hypothetical) dollars you’ve made.

Panning for Gold Dredge 8 is for sure one of the more quirky things to do in Fairbanks, but it’s a great activity for a rainy day, or if you’d like to learn more about the city’s history.
View of Alaskas landscapes from a plane
Car on the Dalton Highway
View of Alaskas landscapes from a plane
Two planes on a runway
Car on the Dalton Highway

Drive into the Arctic on Dalton Highway

Fairbanks is the ideal base to experience Dalton Highway and the Arctic. The Dalton Highway is a 667 km long stretch of gravel and dirt, that runs all the way to Prudhoe Bay on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The highway is surrounded by some of Alaska’s most remote wilderness, and there are only 3 small towns along the way.

Driving the Dalton Highway is an adventurous and tough drive!

It can be slick, muddy and bumpy. Many rental companies don’t allow driving on the Dalton Highway. But there are some epic guided day- or overnight tours from Fairbanks that take you on the Dalton, across the Arctic Circle, and even to the Arctic Ocean.

I’d recommend booking a tour that includes a scenic flight from Fairbanks to Coldfoot. Seeing Alaska’s vast wilderness, the huge forests, hundreds of lakes and meandering rivers from above is just mind-blowing.

If you do want to self-drive the Dalton Highway, check out Arctic Outfitters, Alaska 4×4 Rentals, Alaska Overlander, or Alaska Auto Rental. Either way, driving the Dalton is one of the best things to do in Fairbanks!

Colorful mural on a building
Colorful mural on a building

Take a stroll around Fairbanks Downtown

To be honest, I definitely wouldn’t consider Fairbanks downtown a charming city centre. The wide roads and various big parking lots reminded me more of an industrial area than the heart of the city. But if you dig a little deeper, there is actually quite a lot to discover!

One of the coolest things to do in Fairbanks downtown is to check out all the amazing murals decorating various buildings. Go for a little stroll, peek around some corners and don’t forget to bring your camera!

When you’re done roaming the city centre, stop for a cup of coffee at McCafferty’s or the River City Cafe, enjoy a sweet or savoury crèpe at The Crepery, or indulge in a delicious meal at Lavelle’s Bistro.

Reindeer peaking out from behind a tree
Reindeer peaking out from behind a tree

Walk with reindeer at Running Reindeer Ranch

One of the cutest things to do in Fairbanks is to visit the Running Reindeer Ranch. On this family-run ranch, you can join the 10-ish resident reindeer on a walk through the surrounding boreal forest, or even do yoga with them.

After a safety talk and reindeer introduction, the owner Jane will take you on a stroll through the fairy-like birch forest. Jane is an expert in all things reindeer, and you’ll be able to ask everything you ever wanted to know about these wonderful animals.

The reindeer will roam freely during the walk, and you’ll be able to observe them leaping through the forest, foraging for food and playing.

You can book your Reindeer Walks and yoga sessions with reindeer (during summer) here.

Visit the Alaska University Museum of the North

If you enjoy museums, visiting the University of Alaska Museum of the North is one of the best things to do in Fairbanks. Extending over two floors, the museum showcases Alaska native culture, natural wonders, art and wildlife.

Have you ever heard of Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless who went to live in the Alaskan wilderness?

I love this story and was super excited to hear that Bus 142, the original bus from the story, is now at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. It was flown out of the Stampede Trail and is currently undergoing some repair and conservation work. You can’t see it yet, but it will soon be featured in an exhibition centred around the bus.

Snow-covered mountains

Where to stay in Fairbanks

As mentioned, seeing the Aurora is one of the best things to do in Fairbanks. While it is possible to spot them from downtown, I’d recommend staying outside of the city centre, where the light pollution is less and your chances of spotting the Aurora are even better!

  • Alaska Grizzly Lodge is only 15 minutes away from downtown. The lodge is surrounded by spruce forests and awesome hiking trails. They offer an Aurora wake-up call, so you definitely won’t miss any great sightings.
  • A Taste of Alaska Lodge is a unique and charming homestead 20 minutes outside of downtown Fairbanks. It sits in a secluded location, virtually free of light pollution – prime conditions for great Aurora viewing.
  • Springhill Suites is a great option if you’d rather stay more central. The hotel is located right downtown, across the road from Chena River. Bonus: Lavelle’s Bistro, one of Fairbanks’ best restaurants is in the same building.
  • Pikes Waterfront Lodge sits on the banks of the Chena River, about 3 minutes from the airport. This is a great option for first or last nights in Fairbanks.
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The best things to do in Fairbanks
The best things to do in Fairbanks


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Welcome to my world!

Hi, I’m Sara, a twenty-something Swiss on a mission to become a full-time travel writer and digital nomad.