It was our first spring break in the United States, and friends and I wanted to venture out and do something crazy - something that typical graduates wouldn’t do. After some research, we decided to head north to explore “America’s Last Frontier” - Alaska - for its beautiful national parks, dramatic landscapes, and the opportunity to see northern lights.
In this post, we will share the best things to do in Alaska and tips for a great experience.
Founded over 100 years ago by two gold mining brothers, Chena Hot Springs lets you soak in manmade hot spring pools with naturally flowing waters. The outdoor soaking pool is especially popular in the winter, but the springs are open year-round.
The average temperature at the pool is 7°C/44°F, slightly higher around the rocks and lower in the center. We visited the resort in January, the coldest month of the year, when it dropped to -31°C/-24°F. You will get ice flakes in your hair if you leave your head above the water for too long. It costs $12 to $15 per person to access the pools.
In addition to the hot springs, there are accommodations on the property, an adventure agency that can book tours, from northern lights viewing to hikes, and an ice museum!
2: Visit Aurora Ice Museum
Home to the world’s largest year-round ice environment, the Aurora Ice Museum is created from over 1,000 tons of ice and snow, all harvested at the Chena Hot Springs next to it.
Inside, you will see an overhead chandelier made of individually carved ice crystals, which change color every 6 seconds to mimic the northern lights, countless sculptures, including a gigantic chess set, life-sized jousting knights, and bedrooms made of ice, and a bar where you can sip fresh martini from an ice-sculpted glass.
The museum stays at -7°C/25°F year-round, and a patented absorption chiller is used in the summer to keep it cool. Parkas are available free of charge to use during your tour.
3: See Northern Lights!
You should never visit Fairbanks without seeing the northern lights! Sitting in the auroral oval, a ring-shaped area around the North Pole, Fairbanks is one of the best places in North America and the world to enjoy this amazing display.
As the northern lights can only be seen at night, you would want to visit Fairbanks when there is the most darkness, from September to April 20. This is also the time when there are frequent auroral displays, clear skies, and milder weather. You can also see the lights in summer, but the visibility is much lower.
The best viewing time is between 11:30 PM and 3:30 AM, with a peak at 1:30 AM in winter and 12:30 AM to 4:30 AM in the spring or fall.
4: Take a tour to the Arctic
If you are feeling adventurous, book a tour to the Arctic! Don’t think you can do it yourself, though. The distance, which is 155 miles from Downtown Fairbanks, the extreme weather, and the bumpy, slippery road will take you over 6 hours to get there one way - it is definitely an exhausting journey.
We drove past the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, designed to carry billions of barrels of North Slope oil to the port of Valdez, and onto Dalton highway, one of the world’s most dangerous roads. There is no phone signal and only a few restaurants, which are miles away from each other. But the view was breathtaking, and so was the thrill.
One myth to debunk about the Arctic is that it is not as cold as most people believe. Bring a thick winter coat, and a pair of snow boots and gloves should do the trick.
5: Try Dog Sledding
Fairbanks is full of unique things to do, and one of them is dog sledding. We booked atour at Alaska.orgfor $80 per person, during which you can drive the team yourself or sit in the sled and appreciate the strength of the team. Be sure to get suited up for the cold: sunglasses, masks, thick winter coats, and gloves!
You will stop multiple times along the way to take pictures and swap positions between sitting in the guide’s sled and driving the tag sled.
The ride was about 4 miles and 30 minutes, after which you will have the opportunity to play with the friendly Alaskan Huskies and take pictures before helping to guide them to their houses.
6: Visit Museum of the North
If you are interested in learning about Alaska’s wildlife, people, and history, check out the Museum of the North! The museum’s main gallery is divided into five geographical regions of the state, with exhibits detailing everything from ancient Eskimo ivory carvings to contemporary paintings (some of which are even made on fish skins!) and sculptures.
The museum’s most unusual exhibit isThe Place Where You Go to Listen, an ever-changing sound and light environment driven by the real-time position of the sun and moon, earthquakes, and aurora activity.
The museum also offers two auditorium shows in summer:Dynamic AuroraandWinter, several times a day, and an audio guide that brings Alaska alive with sound.
7: get festive at Santa Claus Village
Since 1952, Santa Claus House has put smiles on the faces of millions of visitors from all over the world. Enjoy a piece of fudge, coffee, or candy from The Sweet Shop while you browse an amazing collection of Christmas decor and ornaments, North Pole apparel, collectibles, and items made in Alaska. Be sure to ask about the Original Letter from Santa while you’re here.
After you have selected the perfect gift, mail it out with a genuine North Pole postmark to your beloved ones back home. There is also Santa’s sleigh outside, and on our way out, be sure to wave goodbye to the world’s largest Santa, which stands nearly 50 feet tall.
8: Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
Located in the 3-star Wedgewood Resort, which also houses a wildlife sanctuary and a waterfowl refuge, this vintage car museum documents the automotive evolution of Alaska from the late 1800s through to Pre-World War II. On display is an expansive collection of over 95 historic vehicles, from horseless carriages and steamers to midget racers and 30s classics.
You will also find tons of photographs illustrating the North’s unique transportation challenges, including navigating glacial streams, avalanche chutes, and extremely deep snow. A vintage clothing exhibit also highlights flapper dresses and high society attire of the early 20th century.
Admission is $15 for 13 and above, $9 for 6-12, and free for 5 and under. Guided tours are also available, costing $28 per person (4 people minimum.)
9: Running Reindeer Ranch
If you want to ride reindeer like Santa does every year, head to the Running Reindeer Ranch for its one-of-a-kind tours, which have been featured in publications like The Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveller, and The Travel Channel.
You can choose between a guided walking tour to see the furry friends leap and bound among the trees and learn the ins and outs of adapting to the polar climate or a reindeer yoga class to take your morning ritual to new heights, with the sights and sounds of nature and the company of reindeers. Or join the 2022 debuted music tour for an enchanting evening under the midnight sun with musicians and reindeer.
The guided tour costs $85 to $100 for adults and $50 to $70 for children. The rest tours are only $20 per person.
10: McKinley Explorer
Operated by Princess Cruises and Holland American Line, McKinley Explorer is more than just a way to get you from A to B. It is an experience you won’t forget anytime soon!
The train’s upper deck features large glass domes that run the full length of the car and allow sweeping views of the passing scenery. Even in the dining room on the lower level, the windows are still large enough to appreciate the views while you enjoy grilled salmon or fresh tacos. This level also has an open-air viewing platform, a gift shop, and restrooms.
The McKinley Explorer dome train provides summer service between Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Denali National Park. It runs two trains daily, one northbound and one southbound.Prices startat $149 per person.
11: Chena River State Recreation Area
This 254,080-acre state park follows the clear-running Chena River and offers year-round adventures for travelers looking to experience Alaska’s great outdoors. It attracts over 150,000 visitors annually and is home to abundant wildlife, from small animals like squirrels, willow grouse, and beaver to large animals like bears and moose.
In summer, hiking, fishing, backpacking, canoeing, rock climbing, and wildlife viewing are popular activities. In winter, come here for cross-country skiing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, northern lights viewing, and dog mushing.
Overnight accommodations are available at the Granite Tors Trail and Red Squirrel Campground, which offer RV hookups and picnic areas.
12: Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge
Standing on the grounds of a turn-of-the-century dairy farm that operated until 1966, this 2,000-acre refuge protects and improves habitat for a diversity of wildlife, particularly migratory birds like ducks, geese, plovers, and cranes, while providing opportunities for year-long wildlife viewing, research, and nature education.
Historical exhibits are showcased at the visitor center, which serves as a trailhead for naturalist-led walks throughout the summer. Several nature trails, such as the Boreal Forest Trail, are also offered to take you past boreal forests, seasonal wetlands, and open fields.
13: Angel Rocks Trail
Angel Rocks Trail starts in the Chena River State Recreation Area and runs along an 8-mile roundtrip loop that ends at the Chena Hot Springs Resort. It provides access to the scenic cliffs of Angel Rocks - unique geologic formations by molten rock forced upward from the deep layers of the earth. The trail then continues to the resort, offering stunning views of Chena Dome, Alaska Range, and Bear Paw Butte along the way.
To get to the trailhead, take the Chena Hot Springs Road and look for signs pointing to the Angel Rock Trailhead. It often takes 2 or 3 hours to trek this hike, but allow plenty of time to take in the scenery, climb on the rocks, or have lunch at the top.
14: HooDoo Brewing Company
HooDoo Brewing Company was opened in 2021 by Alaska residentBobby Wilken, who started home-brewing while studying for his business degree. It focuses on classic European and American brewing styles like German Kölsch, American IPA, Belgian Saison, and Citra Pale Ale. Seasonal releases and one-off brews are also offered on a rotating basis.
The brewery’s tap room is open Tuesdays through Sundays, selling to-go cans and growler fills, and you can take a tour of it on Saturday afternoons.
15: Georgeson Botanical Garden
Part of the University of Fairbanks campus, this 5-acre garden was started in 1989 to explore the agricultural potential of Alaska. Today, it is open between May and September, with research programs that emphasize domestication and exportation of plants, flowers, and fruits and vegetables, as well as educational programming that introduces visitors to subarctic horticulture. A children’s garden and hedge maze are also offered on-site.
Admission is a suggested $7 per person. And all donations go toward the garden’s programs and operations.
16: Antler Arch
Located on the grounds of the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, Antler Arch was created by local artist Sandy Jamieson, using over 100 antlers collected throughout Interior Alaska. It represents the rich cultural significance and history of hunting in the area and is monitored 24/7 by a live webcam feed accessible via on the visitor center’s website.
17: Large Animal Research Station
Located on a former Yankovich homestead at the border of the UAF’s campus, this year-round station is a great place to see reindeer and muskoxen while learning about adaptations that let these arctic animals survive and thrive in cold temperatures.
Walking tours are offered in both summer and winter, led by knowledgeable tour guides who introduce you to the farm’s history and take you to see the muskox up close. If you’re lucky, you will get to see some of the new babies born each year. Field trips, behind-the-scenes tours, and private special events may be scheduled by contacting the station directly.
Tours cost $15 per person.
18: Pioneer Park
Pioneer Park, originally constructed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the state’s purchase from Russia, features family-friendly educational and community attractions. You will find 4 museums, including Pioneer Hall, the Tanana Valley Railroad Museum, the Pioneer Air Museum, and the Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts, as well as a carousel and train that runs the perimeter, shops, and restaurants.
19: Castner Glacier
Follow the 2.6-mile Castner Glacier Trail to this beautiful ice cave! The trail gets increasingly difficult as you move into the canyon near the glacier, with the sides becoming steeper. The ice cave will be inaccessible via this trail during the spring months when Castner Creek is high due to snow melt. Once you get there, the clear-blue hue will take your breath away.
This trail is also popular for hiking and snowshoeing, and solitude during quieter times of the day.
20: Denali National Park
Sitting at the foot of the Alaska Range, Denali National Park is as wild and wonderful as it was when American conservationist Charles Alexander Sheldon first visited the area over a century ago. Today, it is a popular spot for ranger-led discovery hikes, cycling along Denali Park Road, backcountry camping, or photographing the beauty of one of the nation’s best national parks.
The best time to visit Fairbanks is from July to August, when the weather is warm, with average temperatures between 60 and 80°F (15 to 26°C). It is also the peak season that brings the highest accommodation rates and the largest crowds of the year. Shoulder seasons, including May to June and August through September, are also ideal.
If you are traveling to Alaska, especially between November and February, the coldest period of the state, be sure to bundle up!
Essentials to pack are a thick down jacket, snow boots,touchscreen winter gloves,thermal socks,earmuffs,a cashmere scarf,thermal tops, andfleece-lined leggings. You might also want to bringHotHandshand and feet warmers, action cameras likeGoProto capture your iconic moments, and atripodto stabilize the camera in the cold for northern lights.
Alright, these are some of the best things to do in Fairbanks, Alaska, plus tips for a great experience. Have you been to Golden Heart City? And if so, how do you like it?