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Alaska: Exploring the frontier city of Fairbanks

A two-day itinerary in the central Alaskan city of Fairbanks

As we left the high peaks of the Alaska range behind and move deeper into the Interior the mountains are replaced by rolling hills. Fairbanks is the largest city in Alaska’s interior and the 2nd largest in the State after Anchorage and was originally founded in 1901 as a trading centre. In 1902 gold was discovered in the area which resulted in an explosion in the population. Today Fairbanks has evolved from a gold rush town into a modern city – albeit somewhat sleepy. 

We had two days to enjoy the area and we packed in as much as we could. The long summer days made this all the easier.

Day One

  1. Visiting the Ice Museum in Fairbanks to watch ice carving.
  2. A journey back in time to the gold rush of Alaska at Gold Dredge 8.
  3. Wander through the reconstructed street of Old Fairbanks at the Pioneer Park and explore the S.S. Nenana paddle boat museum.

Day Two

  1. Visit the wonderful Museum of the North and get to grips with the Alaskan culture and the first people
  2. Finding out more about the muskox and other the wildlife of Alaska and the Large Animal Research Station.
  3. A trip to the North Pole to meet Santa and Mrs Claus.

Day One

1. FAIRBANKS ICE MUSEUM

Our first stop of the day was the Fairbanks Ice Museum, which is somewhat homespun but great fun. We are treated to a demonstration of ice carving using a combination of hand and electrical tools. After an amazingly short time, the artist produces an ice fish statue. This museum used to be a cinema and they have retained the seating, but around the sides and the front of the theatre, they have built glass-panelled rooms. In these rooms, which are refrigerated, are the most fantastic ice sculptures of walruses, bears, Inuit Eskimos, musical instruments and many other creations. Going into these rooms was marvellous but rather chilly. The finale of our visit is a film about the World Ice Art Championships which takes place in Fairbanks every March. Teams of carvers from all around the world brave the cold March weather and use local ice hewn from frozen lakes (Fairbanks apparently has the best quality ice in the world) to create wonderful creations, some reaching two storeys high.

Address:500 2nd Ave, Fairbanks, AK 99701
Website:http://icemuseum.com/
Telephone:T:(907) 451-8222
Hours:

9:00 AM to 10:00 AM — Aurora Morning Show

10:00 AM to 7:00 PM — Ice Museum Programs

( Programs start on the Hour )

8:00 PM to 9:00 PM — Aurora Evening Show

Hours do vary through the year so check the website for the latest information

Admission Fees

Ice Museum
Adults…………………..$15.00
Kids (age 6-14)………$10.00
Groups (10+)…………$12.00

Aurora shows
Adults…………………..$10.00
Kids (age 6-14)……….$8.00
Groups (10+)………….$8.00

2. GOLD DREDGE 8

After experiencing the Ice Museum we headed north out of Fairbanks towards the artic circle to Gold Dredge 8. We hopped aboard a narrow-gauge train to start our two-hour tour of the Gold Mine to learn all about how 100,000 gold rushers fought the permafrost in their quest to get rich.

The tour began as we boarded the train and traveled to a historic, working gold mine that looked as it would have when gold fever first swept across America. Our conductor Earl Hughes played songs from days gone by and span yarns about early Alaska as we travelled below ground to a permafrost tunnel and met a gold miner. Further on we passed by several exhibits of prospector’s cabins and mining equipment.

Our final stop was a working gold camp where the real fun began. We met local miners Dexter and Yukon Yonda, a couple that has been operating small mines for more than 25 years, who taught us all about modern mining techniques. We then got to try our hand at gold panning, with success guaranteed. It was a short walk to the gift shop where we got our samples weighed. We decided to collect together our hard worked for gold dust and put it into a necklace charm to give to Jack and Emily’s grandmother as a gift. The best thing about the end of this tour was the complimentary coffee and fresh-baked cookies.

Address:1803 Old Steese Hwy N, Fairbanks, AK
Website:https://www.golddredge8.com/
Telephone:T:(907) 479-6673
Hours:

Daily departures at 10:00am and 1:45pm

Admission Fees

Adults…………………..$45.95
Kids (age 3-12)………$29.95

3. PIONEER PARK

After experiencing the Ice Museum we headed north out of Fairbanks towards the artic circle to Gold Dredge 8. We hopped aboard a narrow-gauge train to start our two-hour tour of the Gold Mine to learn all about how 100,000 gold rushers fought the permafrost in their quest to get rich.

The tour began as we boarded the train and traveled to a historic, working gold mine that looked as it would have when gold fever first swept across America. Our conductor Earl Hughes played songs from days gone by and span yarns about early Alaska as we travelled below ground to a permafrost tunnel and met a gold miner. Further on we passed by several exhibits of prospector’s cabins and mining equipment.

Our final stop was a working gold camp where the real fun began. We met local miners Dexter and Yukon Yonda, a couple that has been operating small mines for more than 25 years, who taught us all about modern mining techniques. We then got to try our hand at gold panning, with success guaranteed. It was a short walk to the gift shop where we got our samples weighed. We decided to collect together our hard worked for gold dust and put it into a necklace charm to give to Jack and Emily’s grandmother as a gift. The best thing about the end of this tour was the complimentary coffee and fresh-baked cookies.

Address:2300 Airport Way, Fairbanks, AK
Website:https://www.pioneerpark.us/462/Pioneer-Park
Telephone:T:(907) 459-1087
Admission Fees:

No admission fee (Some attractions charge a small fee or accept donations)

Hours:

The SUMMER SEASON is from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day

Open daily, seven days per week during normal hours of 12:00 pm – 8:00 pm

Day Two

1. MUSEUM OF THE NORTH

Today our first port of call was the impressive looking Museum of the North, based at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The museum is housed in a wonderfully modern edifice on a hill overlooking the City of Fairbanks. The main exhibition area is the Gallery of Alaska, which is divided into five regional galleries representing the major ecological regions of Alaska. Each gallery highlights the distinct natural and cultural history of these regions. The displays give a wonderful insight into the history of the Alaskan territory – both good and bad (including a moving tale of the forced evacuation and internment of Aleut Americans during World War II). In addition to the human stories of Alaska, there were exhibits covering the ecology of this vast and diverse State. One of our favourite galleries contained many pieces of Native Alaskan art, both historical and present as well as exhibits of artwork from local artists, including a highly ornate outhouse. Outhouses are still commonplace in Alaska as the frigid temperatures and the hard, permafrost ground make plumbing a challenge. In fact, outhouses are revered and often decorated, there is even a book celebrating the Alaskan outhouse and an annual outhouse race held through the streets of Anchorage. Something about the cold temperatures and constant winter darkness does affect the mind!!

Address:21962 Yukon Dr, Fairbanks, AK
Website:https://www.uaf.edu/museum/
Telephone:T:(907) 474-7505
Hours:

Summer hours (late May to late August) Open 7 days a week: 9 AM – 7 PM

Winter hours (Late August to late May) Open 7 days a week: 10 AM – 5:30 PM

Admission Fees

Adult (ages 13+ yrs) $16

Senior (ages 65+) & Veteran (with ID) $14

Youth (ages 5 – 12) $9 

Children (ages 4 and Under) Free

 

2. LARGE ANIMAL RESEARCH STATION

After a morning of cultural overload, we decided that we needed to follow this with a simpler form of entertainment. Our next stop was only a short drive away – the aptly named Large Animal Research Station. The main reason for coming here was to see muskoxen. These delightful creatures are more closely related to sheep and goats than to oxen but are in their own genus, Ovibos. The muskox was a lot smaller than we had expected, even with the thick coats that protect them from the harsh winter weather. Muskox wool, or qiviut (an Inuit word), is highly prized for its softness, length, and insulative value. The Alaskan muskox story is a little-known conservation success, with the muskox reclaiming some of the ranges it inhabited over a century ago. Muskoxen disappeared from their last remaining strongholds in northern Alaska during the late 1800s. Hunting by humans contributed to their decline. In 1930, the U.S. Congress provided funds to ship 34 muskoxen from Greenland to Alaska. From the first herd established on Nunivak Island, 71 animals were transplanted to the Seward Peninsula, during 1970 and 1981. So far, people have not hunted the reintroduced muskoxen, allowing them to increase at a rate of 15-20% annually. In April of 1992 the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service jointly conducted an aerial survey and found 706 muskoxen on the Seward Peninsula. Our visit coincided with the end of the breeding season and we were very lucky to see some of the calves born in the spring

As well as muskox the Research Station also studies caribou. These large, sub-arctic dwelling deer are still numerous in the interior and north of Alaska. One of the great sights of the animal kingdom is the vast migration herds, numbering 150,000 to 200,000 caribou, that follows a 400-mile route along Alaska’s Porcupine river every year from their winter feeding grounds in the south to the north Alaskan coastal plain where they calve. Along the migration route, the caribou pass through the tundra of the Alaskan interior, where we heard they are molested by swarms of bugs, including mosquitoes and warble flies. The mosquitoes are simply after their blood, but the numbers of these insects are so high the poor caribou can lose pints of blood in a single day. More horrific are the warble flies, which lay their eggs in the skin of the caribou. The larvae hatch and eat their way out of the skin before the metamorphosis process into adulthood, causing a great amount of irritation to the animal. In some cases the warble flies lay their eggs inside the nasal cavity – this can cause a great deal of distress (not surprisingly) to the caribou.

Address:2220 Yankovich Rd, Fairbanks, AK
Website:https://www.uaf.edu/lars/outreach/tours.php
Telephone:T:(907) 474-5724
Hours:

Hours vary by season check the website for the latest information

Admission Fees

$15

3. NORTH POLE – ALASKA

The day continues to go downhill culturally speaking as we round it off with a trip to the town of North Pole, Alaska, where the locals claim the “Spirit of Christmas lives year around”. If you hadn’t read this before visiting then the candy cane shaped lamp posts would have probably given the game away. The town itself is pretty much non-descript but our reason for the visit was to visit Santa Clause House. This is the place where you can get letters posted from Santa Claus, post-marked North Pole – cool eh! Sadly Santa Claus’ House is a store rather than a house (but there were reindeer parked outback) but sure enough, Santa and Mrs Claus are faithfully on duty for photo opportunities and to make mobile phone calls back to little Johnny down in Tampa Bay, Florida. After some coercion, we did manage to get a reluctant Jack and Emily to pose with Santa whilst we did a video message for Laura back in England. Luckily as we’re travelling light we did not have the opportunity to spend money on seasonal tchotchke.

 

 

Best time to visit Fairbanks

The best time to visit Fairbanks is from July to August. Shoulder seasons, including May to June and August through September, are also ideal. Although peak season brings the highest accommodation rates and the largest crowds of the year, it also welcomes the warmest weather, with average temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees. You can save money and still enjoy pleasant, cool climes in the late spring and early fall. For the lowest rates, visit during the offseason, which begins after Labor Day and runs through Memorial Day. If your main objective is to see the northern lights, the late fall and winter are peak viewing times.

Where to stay in Fairbanks

1. AURORA EXPRESS

For our second night in Fairbanks, we had arranged for us to stay at the Aurora Express Bed & Breakfast. The accommodation here is made up of old train carriages from the Alaskan Railway system. Four blue and yellow carriages were owned by the National Park Service but they didn’t have the funds to do anything with them. Two were sent to a transportation museum and two were bought by Mike and Sue Wilson of Fairbanks, who got a real bargain when they bought the two old-style Alaska Railroad cars for only $1 each – if you don’t count the transportation bill. It cost them more than $20,000 to move the two railroad cars to Fairbanks, where they already owned a caboose. Mike and Sue have carefully restored the carriages, a number of which have been themed and named to suit their characters; such as the “Immaculate Conception” and the “Bordello”.

2. ALASKA GRIZZLY LODGE

Located just 7 miles from Fairbanks off Chena Hot Springs Road, this bed and breakfast features rooms with views of the Alaskan wilderness from private terraces. A full hot breakfast is served daily.

Free Wi-Fi and cable TV are included in all rooms at Alaska Grizzly Lodge. A hair dryer and toiletries are provided in the private bathroom.

Guests can enjoy views of wildlife and northern lights from the Grizzly Lodge Alaska terrace. A full kitchen is available for guest use. A laundromat is on-site for convenience.

3. SOPHIE STATION SUITES

Located in Fairbanks, 3.2 miles from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Sophie Station Suites provides accommodations with a restaurant, free private parking, a fitness centre and a bar. This 4-star hotel offers a garden. The property has a 24-hour front desk, airport transportation, room service and free WiFi throughout the property.

All guest rooms at the hotel come with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV with cable channels, a kitchen, a dining area, a safety deposit box and a private bathroom with a shower, a hairdryer and free toiletries. Every room comes with a coffee machine, while some rooms come with a balcony and others also have city views. At Sophie Station Suites all rooms are equipped with bed linen and towels.

 

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