Get guidance at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center, in the Morris Thompson Center at 101 Dunkel St. (tel. 907/459-3730; www.alaskacenters.gov). The staff will advise you on outings, provide maps, and answer questions. Three publications you can buy at the Alaska Geographic bookstore (tel. 907/459-3710; www.alaskageographic.org) could also help greatly. The Fairbanks Area Wildlife Watching Guide is a booklet that contains thorough descriptions of the best places to go and tips for success. Outside in the Interior, by Kyle Joly (University of Alaska Press), describes more than 50 routes for a variety of activities and includes detailed maps of each. The Fairbanks Area Hiking and Birding Guide, a map of hiking trails and birding locations in the area, is produced by the local chapter of the Audubon Society. All are for sale in local bookstores as well.
You can rent most of what you need for outdoor explorations around Fairbanks and along the region's extraordinary rural highways from a set of local businesses that have grown up around the needs of adventurers. Some of the outdoor opportunities I describe require a drive on unpaved roads, including portions of the Steese Highway. For ski rentals, see the appropriate sections below.
Alaska Outdoor Rentals & Guides, owned by the knowledgeable Larry Katkin, is located on the riverbank at Pioneer Park (tel. 907/457-2453; www.akbike.com or www.2paddle1.com). The company rents canoes, kayaks, and bikes, and offers pickup or drop-off for paddlers in town or far afield. For an easy in-town paddle -- say, from the park to the Pump House Restaurant and Saloon -- you pay $37 for the canoe half-day, $52 full day, and $19 for the pickup. To go beyond the road system, Larry carries foldable canoes that will fit in a bush plane. He also offers lessons. This is a good place to start a mountain-biking outing, too. Bikes rent start for $19 for 3 hours, $27 for a day.
GoNorth Alaska Adventure Travel Center, 3500 Davis Rd. (tel. 855/236-7271 or 907/479-7271; www.gonorth-alaska.com), rents canoes, rafts, bikes, and camping gear, and offers a shuttle for canoeists and hikers. The firm also runs a tent-camp hostel and campground, and can arrange self-guided outdoor trips.
The Outdoor Adventures Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks's Wood Student Center (tel. 907/474-6027; www.uaf.edu/outdoor) rents a variety of outdoor equipment, including expedition-quality tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, and camp stoves.
Chena Lake Recreation Area -- This is a wonderful and unique place for a family camping trip. A birch-rimmed lake created for a flood-control project has been developed by the local government to provide lots of recreational possibilities: flat walking and bike trails; a swimming beach; fishing; a place to rent a variety of nonmotorized boats; a self-guided 2.5-mile nature trail; a playground; big lawns; volleyball courts; and the terrific campground, with 80 camping sites, from pull-throughs for RVs to tent sites on a little island you can reach only by boat. In the winter, it's a popular area for cross-country skiing, ice fishing, dog mushing, and snowmobiling. Use of the area in summer requires a $4 fee per vehicle. Tent sites are $10 per night, and RV sites are $12. Drive about 15 miles east of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway and take the exit for Dawson Road. Turn left on Dawson, go under the overpass, then turn right on Mistletoe Drive. When you reach Laurance Road, turn left. Signs are posted along the way. For information, contact Fairbanks North Star Borough Chena Lake Recreation Area (tel. 907/488-1655; www.chenalakes.com). Follow the same directions to the Moose Creek Dam Salmon Watch, driving along the dike past the recreation area. This picnic and viewing site was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers atop the flood-control project so that people could watch spawning salmon in crystal-clear water from late June to the end of July. Use of the salmon watch is free, so tell the recreation-area gatehouse you are going there.
Creamer's Field -- This 2,000-acre migratory waterfowl refuge right in Fairbanks is a former dairy farm that was saved from development in 1966 by a community fund drive. In the spring and fall, the pastures are a prime stopover point for Canada geese, pintails, golden plovers, and large flocks of sandhill cranes. Fewer birds are present during midsummer. The Friends of Creamers Field (1300 College Rd.; tel. 907/452-5162; www.creamersfield.org) operates a small visitor center (tel. 907/459-7307) in the old farmhouse, with displays on birds, wildlife, and history, open mid-May through mid-September daily from 10am to 5pm, off season Saturdays noon to 4pm. They offer guided nature walks in summer Monday through Friday at 10am and Wednesday at 7pm. You don't need a guide to explore more than 5 miles of trails through the forest, field, and wetland. The Boreal Forest Trail nature walk is interpreted by signs and an excellent booklet you can pick up at the visitor center or from a kiosk at the trail head. The Alaska Bird Observatory (tel. 907/451-7159; www.alaskabird.org) conducts research and educational programs on the Creamer's Field refuge, including bird walks and bird banding that visitors can observe (call for times). Admission is free and the observatory is open Monday to Wednesday 9am to 9pm, Thursday to Saturday 9am to 5pm, and Sunday 9am to 1pm.
Equipped for the Backroads
Exploring Alaska's gravel highways -- camping and fishing along the way, perhaps launching a canoe in a remote lake -- can be tough for visitors to arrange because of the policies of most car-rental agencies, which don't allow clients to drive off pavement. An exception is Arctic Outfitters (tel. 907/474-3530; www.arctic-outfitters.com), which rents the Ford Escape. The vehicles are equipped with CB radios, maintenance kits, and two full-size spare tires. Drivers must be at least 30 years old and have their own insurance. One-day rental rates exceed $200, with discounts for additional days, and mileage charges start after 250 miles. GoNorth Car and Camper Rental, 3713 South Lathrop St. (tel. 866/236-7271 or 907/479-7271; www.gonorth-alaska.com), rents SUVs, vans, and trucks, and also campers on four-wheel-drive pickups and motor homes. All are allowed on gravel roads, but for the motor homes, there's an extra fee.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.