Visitors to the Northern Alaska city of Fairbanks are often surprised at the rich tourist offerings this former gold mining boomtown has to offer. Here’s a two-day tour of Fairbank’s best tourist attractions.
If you name the quintessential Alaskan activities, the Riverboat Discovery cruise offers it. From a bush pilot taking off and landing on the river beside the boat to Siberian Husky sled dog demonstrations, to reindeer grazing—this 3-hour tour crams it all in.
Next we slow to a stop to watch Siberian Mush dogs from the Susan Butcher (4-time Iditarod Champion) Kennels pull an All Terrain Vehicle and a bus around a small pond. Then we “oooh” at the gorgeous little Husky puppies struggling to get over an obstacle course made of logs twice their size.
We’re back chugging along the river again on our four-story steamboat for a while before we stop at the Chena Native Indian Village. Here, we disembark and walk around a series of exhibits and shows. We sit on rough wooden benches while we learn about early Athabascan Native Alaskan culture and life from our guides.
We see spruce log cabins, a spruce bark hut, fox and Bear fur and pelts, a salmon smoking shed, a sawmill, a reindeer pen, and a demonstration of Husky mush dogs. An early Alaskan fishing riverboat and full size (stuffed) moose are on display, and our pretty female Athabascan guide models full fur coats.
Our tour over, we wind our way back along the river to the tourist shops, where the gift shop and restaurant await.
This spacious, futuristic looking museum perched on top of a hill overlooking Fairbanks looks like something from a science fiction movie. Packed with historical artifacts and exhibits, the Museum of the North’s galleries give visitors a crash course on Alaska’s Native cultures, Alaskan art, natural wonders, history, and wildlife. I’d recommend you visit this museum early in your Fairbanks tour to get an appreciation of what the town is all about.
The museum’s “Early Years” exhibit has several detailed reader boards about the huge saga of the Fairbanks Gold Rush. You can read about the early gold discoveries and its key players E.T. Barnette, Felix Pedro, and Judge James Wickersham and the tens of thousands of hopeful prospectors who surged to this town, and the hardships they faced.
Gold Rush Town, Pioneer Village
Located in expansive Pioneer Park near the center of Fairbanks, Gold Rush Town is an authentic village of relocated log cabins and homes from the gold rush era. Most of the buildings sell souvenirs or food for tourists like souvlakis, ice cream, and a jewelry store, making it a great venue for families.
Pioneer Hall & Museum at Gold Rush Town
Now, this is my kind of museum! Located on Gold Rush Street in Gold Rush Town, the Pioneer Museum is a repository for anything and everything salvaged from Fairbanks’ past. Exhibits in this former pioneer hall range from furs and men’s and women’s clothing to shoes, ships bells, and wooden sleds and racing sleds. You’ll find furniture, a cash register, an ore cart, canned goods, posters, mining tools and equipment, and carpentry tools lying around in various display rooms.
The Pioneer Museum also houses a red fire pump, a recreated dry goods store and trading post, an old bank safe, radios, books, pottery, and china, and cutlery. Other artifacts include glassware, pianos, bathtubs, irons, gold weighing scales, fishing boats, historic photographs, a gorgeous red stagecoach with yellow painted wooden wheels, and numerous other bits and pieces lying around.
Pioneer Air Museum
Also within the confines of Pioneer Park, an interesting Air Museum located in a circular structure stands towards the park’s center. Unique displays like a crashed airplane (labeled “This Aircraft is Grounded by Order of Maintenance Officer”), an aluminum “flying saucer’ hovercraft, a tiny Osprey II prop plane, and a 1975 Rotoway Scorpion 2-seater Helicopter provide an hour or two of interesting viewing.
Fairbanks History Revue, Gold Rush Town
The resurrected Palace Theater hosts a lively, entertaining comedy revue play about Fairbanks’ history. Played by professional local actors who put heart and soul into answering the vexing question, “Why would anyone want to build a town in the godforsaken swamp and how could that town survive for more than 100 years?”
Before the play, you can attend a great outdoor salmon bake held just across the park. Huge portions of side dishes provide enough grub to feed a hungry gold miner, including a salad bar, baked beans, corn, and desserts. The fire-grilled salmon and slow-roasted Prime Rib is excellent.
Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum (FAAM)
This cavernous, 30,000 square foot repository houses enough of America’s earliest and finest cars from the Veteran, Brass, Nickel, and Classic car eras to make the journey to Fairbanks worthwhile for car enthusiasts, or even those just mildly interested in vintage cars. Indeed, 20,000 people visit Fairbanks annually to tour the museum.
FAAM’s vehicles, immaculately restored and painted and shined to a dazzling finish, are fully operational. “It’s one of the best early collections in the United States”, says Willy Vinton, the affable Museum Manager. “And being a living museum where we drive all the cars makes it unique”.
Inside FAAM, strategically placed overhead lights reveal an impressive array of 67 vehicles arranged in chronological order from 1898 to 1936. Alongside the cars stand dozens of mannequins dressed up in historic fashion clothing and formal dress. Dating from the 1700s through the swing era, these outfits complement the vehicles nicely, making it a lot easier to imagine these automobiles chugging along in their heyday.
Out of Town Attractions
Now it’s time to visit the place where Felix Pedro struck gold—Fairbank’s defining moment. A short drive out of town you’ll find the exact spot where Felix Pedro found his rich deposit that launched Fairbanks. It’s an unassuming creek, two meters wide and six inches deep, with a loose bank of gravel and silt. You often find several people working rockers, sluices, and panning for gold here. Make sure you visit the stone monument opposite Pedro’s Creek for further details about this Italian immigrant.
Gold Dredge 8
After Fairbanks gold mining petered out in 1920, it was revived by the installation of eight enormous gold dredges. Fortunately, one dredge is still open to the public. Gold Dredge 8 is an action-packed tour where you can see gold mining techniques demonstrated and pan for gold.
The self-guided walk through the behemoth, authentic gold dredge is like walking through a machine from a steam punk novel. The Binkley Family, owners of Gold Dredge No.8, have managed to compress all of these activities into a two-hour visit to their site in the Goldstream Valley on Old Steese Highway, a 10-mile drive through the countryside from Fairbanks.
Local microbreweries offer tasty ales and beers at Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Company, and Hoodoo Brewing Company. Silver Gulch, the larger of the two operations, has a restaurant and gift store on the premises. Silver Gulch’s beer tasting menu offers over 100 types of exotic and locally brewed beer.
Fairbanks makes a great family tourist destination. It has the right combination of activities that children and adults alike will find absorbing and interesting. Combine this with the gateway to the Denali National Park, good food, and friendly locals, and you have a great escape “up North”.
When You Go
Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center (101 Dunkel St, Fairbanks, Alaska 99701; morristhompsoncenter.org; 907-459-3700)
This should be your first stop in Fairbanks. You’ll walk out with a handful of brochures and tourist information. The helpful people here will help you plan your itinerary.
Where to Stay:
Bear Lodge at Wedgewood Resort (212 Wedgewood Drive, Fairbanks, Alaska 99701; fountainheadhotels.com)
This lodge is near the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. If you’re an antique car buff, this museum is not to be missed. The lodge has nice rooms, great breakfasts.
Pikes Waterfront Lodge (1850 Hoselton Rd, Fairbanks, AK 99709; pikeslodge.com)
This hotel is located on the riverbank with very nice rooms and excellent meals.
Where to Eat:
Pikes Landing Restaurant & Lounge
The Pump House Restaurant and Saloon
Fine dining in a historic atmosphere overlooking the Chena River.
Silver Gulch Brewing & Bottling Co
Loose Moose Café (Great lunches)