Most everyone to Alaska visits the accessible triad of Fairbanks, Denali and Alaska’s Interior.
No one’s sure about the meaning of the nickname for Alaska’s second-largest city, Fairbanks. “The Golden Heart”—is it a reference to the area’s brief but vivid heyday as a gold rush mecca? Does it honor the city’s location in the middle of the state + the mellow landscape that surrounds it? Do its residents greet all incomers with a heart of gold? Perhaps all the above; they are all partly true, but overlook the real character of the place.
Few locales in Alaska illustrate the state’s colorful but often confounding character better than Fairbanks. Its weather can surely be cold, a fact for which it’s famous (the record is -66F, in 1961); but it can also be uncomfortably hot, during midsummer days when the san hangs high from 6am to 10pm, the temperature nears 90 and there isn’t a speck of breeze. And in the winter, even when it is below zero, the 50,000 residents like to declare, “But it’s a dry cold!” And so it is; with little wind, low humidity and infrequent snow, winter is usually more benign here than outsiders imagine. I’ve happily ridden snow-bikes in the sun in mid-March; driven dog-sleds through the boreal forest in late February—and plunged into the Chena River downtown for a cooling dip in late June while paddleboarding downstream.
It is also culturally diverse. The town’s main institution, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, draws a profusion of Native students as well as adventurers from around the globe drawn to the exotic sub-Arctic North. UAF’s Museum of the North, a shining ivory facility on a ridge overlooking town, holds amazing treasures of prehistoric and modern art in its Rose Berry Alaska Gallery; the headquarters of Doyon Corporation, a large Alaska Native enterprise; display equally priceless carvings, masks and other indigenous works.
But 10 miles down the road lies North Pole, a nondescript suburb that draws a stream of tour buses to stop at the Santa Claus House, a tourist trap featuring the world’s largest fiberglass statue of Santa. Selfies abound, unlimited gewgaws inside. And the town’s best-known resident is a far-right radio host who has twice come close to winning statewide office.
It’s a colorful place indeed. Fairbanks is more than gold, and it’s more than cold.
Fairbanks is also the gateway to Alaska’s Arctic: Depart the city northbound along the famed Dalton Highway, and 15 hours later you’ll arrive in Deadhorse, the town that serves the Prudhoe Bay oilfields. From Fairbanks, tour companies offer excursions to tiny Arctic outposts such as Coldfoot; polar bear tours on the Arctic Ocean; and float trips on the Yukon River.
Meanwhile, Denali National Park is just two hours south, by rail or road. And right in Fairbanks, Creamer’s Field Migratory Bird Refuge is a marvelous urban park, with unmatched birdwatching, fashioned from a former dairy. Just outside town, you can view muskox at a UAF research facility. Moose abound.
As for gold rush history, still a main draw: You can sail down the Chena on a paddlewheel steamboat and listen to dubious facts and stories from the genial hosts. Or visit a historic, landlocked old gold dredge, tours of which wind up at a gold-panning arena where, amazingly, everyone finds a few flecks of gold in their pan. Yes, everyone. Just as almost everyone who travels here in winter sees the Northern Lights.