Land of Extremes
In a land of extremes, Fairbanks offers the best of both whether visiting in the summer or winter
Fairbanks and Denali National Park and Preserve offer experiences of a lifetime and no shortage of ways to make a memory.
Fairbanks is a place of extremes. In the winter, the average high ranges from 3 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. On the winter solstice, there is less than four hours of daylight. Fairbanks life slows down in the winter, but the Northern Lights get active. February and March typically have the fewest cloudy days, and the best opportunity for catching the Aurora. Hot springs and ski trails throughout the Interior also beckon adventurers all winter.
Come summer, temperatures spike, days seem unending, and the city comes alive.
For a couple months each year, Fairbanks becomes one of the warmest places in Alaska, and residents and visitors try to soak up every ray of sun.
In June, July and August, the average high jumps to the 60s and 70s, with temperatures sometimes reaching the 90s. Daylight lasts for more than 21 hours on summer solstice.
I tried to cram everything fun into one summer spent in Fairbanks — after living there for four winters while attending University of Alaska Fairbanks — and despite the long days, it is an impossible task but well worth the effort.
Around the solstice alone, there’s the traditional Alaska Baseball League game that takes advantage of the Midnight Sun and starts at 10:30 p.m., a fun run that starts at 10 p.m., and a festival downtown at all hours of the day.
The rest of the summer is equally busy. The Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival brings performers of all sorts to town and there are endless outdoor opportunities near town, from hiking in the White Mountains to boating on area rivers and lakes. There’s also the rest of the Interior to explore. Beyond daylight and weather, Fairbanks is defined by its geography. There are mountains in almost every direction, making Fairbanks relatively dry year round, and fireprone in the summer, and the city is situated on the Chena River.
Situated in the middle of the state, and as the hub of Interior Alaska, Fairbanks is called the Golden Heart city.
Fairbanks has long been a transportation hub, although its location was something of an accident.
E. T. Barnette, a crook from Outside who came north during the Klondike Gold Rush, was headed for Tananacross in 1901 to open a trading post there, when the ship he was traveling on ran aground before reaching its destination. He opened his trading post “Barnette’s Cache” in what became downtown Fairbanks instead, and in 1903 residents voted to incorporate as a city.
The city’s growth was less accidental. It was close to a variety of resources — originally the gold fields and rich soil and sunlight for agricultural production, later the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was routed nearby and today there are coal and gold mines, and other resource prospects, in the area.
The in-town stretch of the Chena River is perfect for running or biking year round, or for a lazy float trip in the summer with stops
to eat and drink.
Alaska’s first airplane was shipped to Fairbanks in 1913, and city was considered a strategic location for commercial, military and passenger flights throughout the state, and beyond, particularly before statehood.
Fairbanks is also at the center of an extensive road system, with connections in nearly every direction.
My favorites are Denali National Park, 120 miles southwest of town, and the agricultural community of Delta Junction 95 miles southwest of town with the Alaska Range and Granite Mountains towering on either side.
A longer road trip — 500 miles — can take you out the Elliot Highway to the Dalton Highway, which goes north to the Yukon River, Brooks Range and Prudhoe Bay. The Steese Highway travels east to Circle, another Yukon River community.
Closer to town, Fox has the farthest north brewery in America, and the Chena River runs 99 miles from east of Fairbanks to its confluence with the Tanana on the west edge of town.
At the far end are popular hot springs, most famously at the Chena Hot Springs Resort owned by Alaska alternative energy advocate Bernie Karl that largely runs on geothermal power — including the greenhouses that grow vegetables.
The in-town stretch is perfect for running and biking alongside year round — or a lazy evening float trip in the summer, with stops to eat or drink at waterfront establishments.
West of town, the river moves more quickly, requiring some actual paddling around hazards, with a couple of stretches that provide a day of fun.
As an alum, I might be a little biased — but the University of Alaska Fairbanks is home to many of Fairbanks’ most fascinating places.
Established in 1922, UAF is the state university system’s oldest school, and is perched on a hill above town. It houses a variety of recreational opportunities, including cross country ski trails and ice climbing in the winter, and a disc golf course in the summer.
On a clear day, a stroll along Yukon Drive on upper campus offers the best views of Mt. McKinley, which Alaskans prefer to call Denali, and the Alaska Range. A walk around the campus also offers a lesson in Alaska history. The state’s constitution was signed at UAF in 1956 and several buildings are named for important figures in the state’s history — including the Eielson Building, named for Carl Eielson, the “Arctic Lindbergh” who played a significant role in Alaska’s aviation history, and the Gruening Building, named for Ernest Gruening (pronounced Greening), a territorial governor who helped with the push for statehood.
See the sidebar for more information on the University of Alaska Museum of the North on the UAF campus, where one of the newest buildings is a science facility named for Margaret Murie, a naturalist who helped create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Off-campus, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center presents rotating art exhibits and a look at the history of the area, particularly the indigenous Athabascan people.
For all the history and culture in Fairbanks, it’s easiest to understand what drew the early settlers north, or why anyone stayed, when you go outside. My favorite parts of Fairbanks life (collegiate shenanigans aside) were skiing under the Aurora in the White Mountains, paddling the Chena River, and watching moose or migratory birds at Creamer’s Field, depending on the season.
There’s an average of 155 clear days per year in Fairbanks, more than most Alaska communities (although fewer than Nome), and if you’re there for even just one of them it’s hard to spend it inside.
For me, Robert Service summed that up best, in “The Spell of the Yukon”: “Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting “So much as just finding the gold. “It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder, “It’s the forests where silence has lease; “It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder, “It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”
Floating the Chena River is a fine way to pass a warm summer day in Fairbanks.
The 2014 Fairbanks Golden Days Festival will be from July 16-20. Denali National Park and Preserve offers amazing vistas and wildlife viewing.