In Fairbanks, a land of extremes in Alaska’s Far North, the difference between summer and winter can be akin to the difference between day and night. Quite literally, really – summer is lit by the inescapable, seemingly never-setting Midnight Sun while its winter is cloaked by darkness, with slivers of sunlight by day and appearances of the Northern Lights by night over the area’s domed horizon.
Fairbanks is a fun and fascinating Alaska vacation destination year-round, of course, offering adventures and experiences for all forms of travelers – this is the “Golden Heart City”, after all. But its two dominant and dramatically different seasons – summer and winter – attract travelers seeking very different types of indoor and outdoor experiences.
So should you visit Fairbanks in the Summer or in the Winter? Which season is best to experience all Fairbank’s attractions? What happens when Fairbanks’ seasonal attractions go head-to-head pitting Alaska’s Summer versus its Winter? (Spoiler alert: they’re all winners!)
Which Burns Brighter for You: The Midnight Sun or The Northern Lights?
Featuring brightly in Fairbanks’ two unique seasons, these are two very special experiences for summer and winter visitors. In the summer, the Midnight Sun, its light and warmth, are on full display practically all day and night. Perpetual daytime allows travelers to do more each day and creates an energetic, exciting and giddy atmosphere where it’s easy to have fun and lose track of time. For some, it’s not so easy to sleep – blackout blinds are a must for many visitors and even longtime locals. The Midnight Sun fuels local festivals, lights up late-night baseball games, extends fishing and canoeing trips, and heats up outdoor deck dining. In a setting this far north, the summer sun’s power and presence to impact your travel experience are unique.
But perhaps as powerful in impact as summer’s Midnight Sun are winter’s Northern Lights. Fairbanks’ dark skies welcome these colorful and whimsical attractions that travelers around the world come to see. There’s a science behind the northern lights, of course, but most Alaska visitors come for the mystical and magical experience itself. Fairbanks’ longitudinal and latitudinal position on earth and its climate put it a prime-time position for displays of the northern lights. Many hotels and hosts even direct staff to alert guests for middle-of-the-night wakeup calls if they choose to s that they can catch the Northern Lights when they arrive.
Traveling to Fairbanks in the Summer vs. Winter: Travel Tips
During the summer, the variety of local attractions in Fairbanks are at their max. Once planes, buses and the Alaska Railroad deliver visitors to this gateway to fun, visitors can choose a diverse range of things to do and see both indoor and outdoor! This is when the Golden Heart of hospitality is at its most welcoming. Tourism operators and friendly locals are eager to help visitors find what they’re seeking and provide their knowledgeable insights about local opportunities the typical traveler might not know about. Hotels are bursting, downtown is bustling. And that aforementioned Midnight Sun makes it seem like there’s always something going on. With all the activity in the summer in Fairbanks, it’s easy to catch a case of FOMO – fear of missing out.
Winter is a quieter time in Fairbanks but just as full of incredible and “only in Alaska” winter sports fun. For those that love the season of the winter, there is nothing like Alaska. There are winter-only offerings from dogsledding and ice fishing to snowmachine fun and snowshoeing to flightseeing and drives to the Arctic Circle, the perfect adventures that attract travelers who don’t mind a little cold. Hotels and rental cars typically have winter rates, too, so this is a great opportunity to find great values. And with the crowds gone, winter also makes it easier to soak up Fairbank’s museums and cultural centers, hot springs, and find seats at popular restaurants – just not out on the restaurant decks that are so popular in the summer.
Hot Springs Soaks: Perfect for Summer and Winter Alaska Travelers
About an hour east of Fairbanks is Chena Hot Springs, a Fairbanks attraction for both out-of-state travelers and locals, year-round. Taking a dip in Chena’s warm natural hot springs any time of year brings a feeling of relaxation along with a sense of experiencing nature at its finest. That said, summer and winter experiences at Chena are very different.
Summer is the most popular time at the hot springs, so these wonderful waters are most often packed with bathing suited up visitors bobbing around Chena’s many steaming pools. The warm waters combined with the rays of the Midnight Sun combine to make it extremely tough to get OUT of the water, in fact, or to stress about anything which might trouble you. Chena Hot Springs Resort is always alive with backcountry hospitality and rustic charm, including a nearby group of sled dogs and puppies available for pats. And if things get too warm for you summer visitors, you can always cool off in the Ice Bar, a tavern literally made of ice.
In the winter, you can also enjoy the Ice Bar as it is open all year, but its even more fun to jump into the hot springs when its really cold outside. Being a little cold is part of the fun! What’s more refreshing than deeply breathing in freezing winter air while the rest of your body is submerged in hot mineral waters? You can even dip your snow frosted head into the hot spring’s warm waters and then emerge to feel Alaska’s energizing cold breezes, blast you again. So cool! Overhead, it’s not unusual to see the Northern Lights if the steam coming off the water isn’t too thick. You can also choose to book an Aurora Borealis tour from Fairbanks during the winter to enjoy after you’ve toweled off at Chena.
How to Dress for a Trip to Fairbanks: Short Sleeves and Shorts vs. Layers on Layers
Summer and winter travelers take much different approaches to packing their bags for Fairbanks.
Summers are surprisingly warm here, so it’s not necessary to wear your parka. Shorts or pants with comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots will get you far. Bring some sunblock if you plan to spend time under the Midnight Sun, but also remember bug spray. A ball-cap and lightweight long sleeve shirt can help with both the rays and the bugs. Also, this being Alaska, it’s always wise to prepare for some sudden weather fluctuations. Bringing along a windbreaker-and-hoodie combo (and wind-pants if you have them) will likely protect most bodies.
Winter follows an entirely different dressing regimen. For that season, it’s long sleeves and long underwear, heavy winter jackets, thick winter socks, the warmest winter hats and gloves you own, and anything else you love allowing you to feel warm and comfortable during this season. Most travelers follow the lead of Fairbank’s locals by dressing in layers from neck to toe. You can always shed layers when you’re too warm, but that is always preferred to underdressing and wishing you had worn more protective laysers. But don’t worry, if you get to Fairbanks and feel unprepared or forgot something, or the cold is a little colder and the warm is a little warmer than expected, you’ll be able to find a Fairbanks outfitter who will happily get you dressed for seasonal success.
Outdoor Adventures: Summer Boating, Biking and Birdwatching vs. Winter Snowmachines, Sled dogs and Skiing
“Fairbanksans” love their outdoor lifestyles, from the Zen of gardening and berry picking under that magnificent sun to vigorous cross-country skiing while bundled up in the coldest of winter.
In summer, favored outdoor excursions include river boating or floating by canoe or raft down the Chena River, which weaves its way through town. Fairbanks also has a cool biking and hiking trail system, which makes for fun hikes and exciting mountain biking. And as far as wildlife goes, it’s sweet to see a moose and all, but the thousands of migratory birds that visit Fairbanks every summer are fine, feathered attractions.
In winter, that tremendous trail system is turned over to cross-country skiers – from elite future-Olympians to weekend warriors. And while the area’s rivers and lakes might be frozen, they’re still fun to traverse on a snowmachine. One of the ultimate Alaska winter experiences is hopping into a dogsled and letting a team tug you at surprising speeds through the Interior woods and landscapes. And visiting a sled dog kennel’s husky puppies after the ride will warm your heart even on the coldest day.
Visiting Denali from Fairbanks in the Summer versus the Winter
Just a two-hour drive south of Fairbanks, Denali National Park is a special place that ranks among the top traveler destinations for viewing Alaska wildlife, the state’s remote natural environment, and the park’s majestic namesake mountain.
In the summer, Denali is buzzing with wildlife and adventure activity, from rafting to flightseeing to exploration by bus into the depths of the park. The roads in and around the park are busy, too, teaming with buses and RVs, trucks with campers, and tent campers in cars.
But while Denali is certainly a top summer destination in Alaska, that doesn’t mean you can’t come to see and experience that massive mountain in the winter. On a clear winter day, Denali looms in alpenglow and is easily seen on the horizon from Fairbanks. A drive to the park in the winter is the opposite of a summer experience. Driving along quiet roads, with most businesses closed, access to the inner-park is limited but you can see much more with the Park’s wildlife out and about and backlit by white snow backgrounds. The park and its staff are welcoming and there is even a Winter Visitors Center at Denali National Park for you to explore. And if you’re up for outdoor winter fun, you can snowshoe, fat-tire bike, ski or even hike around the park. You can also link up with nearby dogsled mushers for a ride.
Fairbanks Fun: The Summer Solstice vs. the Winter Solstice
By now, it’s clear that the pulse of Fairbanks life is set by the sun – its summer appearance and its winter disappearance. Locals might not worship the sun, but they certainly spend their seasons cramming in the work and play before it fades in fall, and then counting the days to its return in the spring.
Summer Solstice (on or about June 21) is so important here, it’s celebrated over numerous days. When that Midnight Sun and its light is at its brightest and longest, the parties go all day and night, with “only-in-Fairbanks” Summer Solstice events which include dancing in the downtown streets.
Winter Solstice (on or about Dec. 21) is a heliophysical and emotional turning point for many, when days and nights go from their darkest and longest to the sudden start of gaining powerful seconds and minutes of sunlight each day. And yes, there’s even a Fairbanks festival for the Winter Solstice, which includes fireworks, holiday lights and just about anything that helps add brightness to the dark.
Whether you’re a winter lover or a summer lover, Fairbanks has so much to offer. Don’t miss it on your travels to Alaska!