Alaska’s 2nd largest city with a population of over 80,000 when you take in its surrounding area, Fairbanks lies at the confluence of two rivers: The Tanana and the Chena. Boarded by thousands of miles of subarctic wilderness, this area known as Alaska’s Interior is considered to be the last frontier of the Last Frontier – the appropriate nickname for America’s 49th state.
Its close proximity to the Arctic Circle – just 150 miles south – is less of a surprise than its summer temperatures which can soar to over 32°C (90°F). However Fairbanks experiences staggering extremes in climate and winter is a different thing altogether where temperatures can drop to -57°C. The disparity in daylight hours sees the sun barely dip below the horizon at the time of the summer solstice; while during the winter solstice the sun barely puts in an appearance. There is some consolation during the long hours of darkness during the winter – they provide an excellent opportunity to view incredible displays of the Northern Lights.
Fairbanks is regarded as "The Golden Heart of Alaska," a reference to the character of the people as much as to its location or to the discovery of gold in 1902. The city’s fortunes are attributed a year earlier largely to the misfortunes of a trader by the name of E.T. Barnette. His ship ran aground in the shallows of the Chena River and unable to move his supplies, began trading in the Alaskan wilderness. He set up a temporary trading post consisting of two log buildings which would later become the heart of Downtown Fairbanks after gold was struck. Today’s city still plays an important supply role due to its proximity to the Arctic region and North Slope oil fields, oil having taken the mantel over as Alaska’s 21st century gold rush.
Fairbanks has grown quite substantially since Barnette’s original trading post days – it is now very much the bustling city at almost 35 square miles but it still remains very Alaskan at heart, never losing its identity as a frontier town. It’s friendly, laid back, ready to move with the times and has never been tempted to put on airs and graces. The modern university campus gives the city a young, forward-thinking mindset but one where its gold is still taken very seriously with plenty of mining and prospecting still very prevalent in the city’s psyche. It embraces its quirkiness as much as its solitude yet is proud to share its energy and warmth, its abundance of attractions and a love of the great outdoors.
Things to do
Top tips for visiting Fairbanks
1. What to wear
• If you are taking the sternwheeler cruise, or just visiting in general, it’s important to be aware that Alaska weather can be unpredictable so it’s best to dress in layers, which will allow you to stay warm and dry as the outdoor environment changes. You should also bring comfortable walking shoes and a jacket that can protect you from light wind or rain.
• Don't forget your camera and binoculars for the many photo opportunities along the way.
2. When to see the Lights
• Although sightings of the Aurora Borealis begin as early as 21st August and continue all the way through to 21st April, the best time to see the Northern Lights at their most spectacular is in the heart of winter.
• Remember: the closer you are to the winter solstice, the less hours of daylight there will be.
3. How to photograph the Aurora
• To get the best photos of the Aurora Borealis, locate a dark area with minimal light pollution.
• Compose your medium-distance foreground with a fixed object such as trees, hills or a cabin.
• Use a digital camera with manual settings and a solid tripod.
• Bring extra camera batteries, a flashlight and bring clothes for lengthy times outdoors.
• Manually set your camera on its highest ISO setting, widest focal point and lowest aperture.
• Expose each shot for 5 to 10 seconds. Longer exposures will result in brighter images, but stars will streak and the aurora will soften. Short exposures may have sharper detail, but dimmer images.
4. The Visitor's Centre
• Not only beautiful but informative, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors’ Centre has a wide variety of brochures, maps of all kinds, walking and driving tours, WiFi and Internet access as well as free daily films on Alaska’s natural and cultural history. Knowledgeable staff are on hand to answer any questions you may have.
• In addition there is a free 9,000 square foot exhibit hall featuring outstanding displays about Interior Alaska’s people, wildlife, landscapes and seasons.
5. University of Alaska Fairbanks
• Fairbanks is home to Alaska’s main university campus. This means the best museums (such as the Museum of the North), endless cultural events and all the entertainment that you get with a college town.
• Opened in 1922 with just six students, today there are almost 5,000 students who attend the 2,500-acre campus.
6. Natural hot springs
• Interior Alaska is a mecca for visitors wishing to experience its many natural geothermal hot springs, the resultant of water seeping down through bedrock where deep inside the earth it is heated and returned to the surface.
• Over 100 years ago, gold miners and early pioneers took advantage of the healing properties and rested their weary bodies in the warm waters of the area’s hot springs. Today, many can be reached within a couple of hours of Fairbanks.
• Chena Hot Springs at 58 mile Chena Hot Springs Road is a developed facility with hot springs pools and an outdoor rock lake and activities, including northern lights viewing.
• Manley Hot Springs at Mile 151.2 on the Elliot Highway north of Fairbanks is slightly less developed but also has year-round access.