Focus on Fairbanks : Gold Rush History, Native Cultures and Northern Lights

Published: November 2, 2022

For travelers considering a foray to the Alaskan city of Fairbanks, let its well-known moniker nudge you North: The “Golden Heart” City. Fairbank’s nickname is partially given for obvious geographic reasons, as the community is set in the center of Alaska’s Interior Region, where there’s a mix of tundra and domes, ridges and rivers, small communities and off-the-grid homesteads. “Golden Heart” is also a nod to the town’s Alaska Gold Rush roots and history as a buzzing business hub for gold prospectors and entrepreneurs seeking their respective motherloads. More recently, with Fairbanks’ modern evolution to a world-class travel destination, the city encapsulates the welcoming spirit of locals, who proudly share their area’s unique attractions, Alaska Native cultures, Northern Lights fame and year round appeal.

For most visitors (and even many Alaskans), Fairbanks is as far north as traveling gets. It’s certainly the northernmost outpost of any sense of real city living in Alaska – everything further north is a town, village or roadside stop. It’s even the end of the line for the Alaska Railroad. Fairbanks is a space of independent and hardworking living. It’s a place of extremes, from weather to history to outdoor offerings. And it’s even a surprising site of incredible culture and entertainment, history and natural sensations like hot springs, geology, wildlife and those amazing northern lights.

The Land of the Midnight Sun

Fairbanks also lives up to another inviting nickname: “The Land of the Midnight Sun”. The town’s northern setting places it in perfect positioning under the summer sun’s warm, bright rays for long days and nights. Locals and visitors revel in that late-night, good-times, outdoor energy.

the Midnight Sun hangs above the horizon over spruce trees and water

Experience the Midnight Sun in Fairbanks (Bill Wright/Explore Fairbanks)

Fire Up the Fun at a Fairbanks Festival

Locals host festivals here that celebrate the sun (the Summer Solstice and Winter Solstice are local holidays), the town’s history (summer’s Golden Days), and regional culture (World Eskimo Indian Olympics). And while it’s tough to go indoors when the sun shines so bright, Fairbanks’ museums and Alaska Native cultural centers are excellent ways to spend part of a summer day. The University of Alaska Museum of the North is world-class, with galleries exhibiting the geography, wildlife, culture and history of each region of Alaska. At the Morris Thompson Cultural Center immersive exhibits like a recreated summer fish camp and winter cabin introduce visitors to traditional Alaska Native life in the Interior.

World Championship Ice Art festival in Fairbanks.

Chena River Rafting, Fishing and Riverboat Tours

One place to enjoy Fairbanks’ indoors and outdoors treasures is the beloved, kitschy, and old-timey Pioneer Park, formerly known as the Alaskaland. A classic Alaska riverboat and train car are parked here, while art and historic items are on display in numerous spaces, and sweet treats and salmon dinners are served with outdoor picnic tables and seating and paths along the Chena River. The Chena River cuts through the middle of town, and is the center of some genuine Fairbanks fun – historic riverboat rides, exciting fishing trips, and mellow canoe, raft or innertube floats, with pitstops at riverside restaurants and taverns along the way. Or you can skip the water and go for a scenic walk along the riverbanks, learning about the town and northern tales from signs and statues.

a sternwheeler river boat next to the bank of a river

Cruise the Chena and Tanana Rivers on an authentic sternwheeler (Riverboat Discovery)

Sightseeing in Fairbanks

Downtown Fairbanks certainly captures the area’s welcoming vibe and historic charm, with touches of modern flair at coffeeshops, bistros and breweries. That sizzling sun helps make for massive gardens and berry bounties, which locals use to complement the filling of their freezers from fishing and hunting outings. And unlike a big city setting, here travelers find the thrill of playing on boats, snowmachines, four-wheelers and bush planes by day while dining on delicious meals infused with local flavors by night. The city is also a viewing point for one of American’s manmade industrial marvels: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which cruises by the town on its 800-mile journey from Alaska’s North Slope to the port of Valdez.

Gold Panning in Fairbanks – HAL Collection

Fairbanks’ location also makes it a perfect jumping-off point for daytrips (or overnights) of hiking or rafting a few hours south in Denali National Park, or flightseeing or a charter ride a few hours north to the Arctic Circle and Yukon River. An hour’s drive will also take you to the famous Chena Hot Springs. Wherever you go in and around Fairbanks, be on the lookout for moose, caribou, and beautiful birds. Fairbanks is the summer hangout and turnaround spot for many migratory birds, making it a birdwatchers’ paradise. The Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival is held in Fairbanks each August to celebrate the migration of thousands of sandhill cranes.

And not to be missed…The Northern Lights

The Midnight Sun is long forgotten in the depths of Fairbanks’ cold, dark winters. As busy as it is around here in the summer, Fairbanks is equally quiet in the winter but just as vibrant, just in different ways. Fairbanks is the winter hotspot for travelers excited to experience the dazzling and dancing aurora borealis. Watching these dazzling and ever changing natural lightshows never gets old, even for local Sourdoughs.

Northern Lights aurora tour near Fairbanks, Alaska

And while the Northern Lights are worth the trip alone, they aren’t the only thing happening here in the winter: there is also world-championship ice sculpture carving, dog-sled and snowmachine rides, cross-country and downhill skiing, indoor concerts, and fireworks for almost any special occasion.

Come discover Fairbanks for yourself, a microcosm of Alaska’s natural treasures, unique Native cultures and rich history.