Strolling Around Downtown
Exploring downtown won't take more than an hour or two, but there are a few interesting spots in addition to the ice museum and community museums. Start with the exhibits at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center at 101 Dunkel St. The visitors bureau there lends audio players with spoken tours for the other sights.
A graceful footbridge spans the river. On the other side, peek into the lobby of the Doyon Native corporation offices to see Native cultural displays from all over Alaska, the traditional Athabascan tool collection, and the colorful modern art hanging from the walls and ceiling. Downriver, toward Cushman Street, is the town's most interesting building, the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception. The white clapboard structure, built in 1904, has ornate gold-rush decoration inside, rare for its authenticity, including a pressed-tin ceiling and stained-glass windows -- an appealing, if incongruous, mix of gold-rush and sacred decor.
Crossing back on the Cushman Street Bridge, you'll see on the left a large log cabin with a sod roof, the headquarters of the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race, where you can get race souvenirs and see displays of equipment that teach about the race and dog mushing. Next door, the Golden Heart Park is a waterfront plaza with a fountain and a bronze statue of a Native family, where community events often occur. Farther downriver, at 1st Avenue between Kellum and Bonnifield streets, St. Matthew's Episcopal Church is an old log church with a working rope-pull bell. It was founded by missionary and dog-sled explorer Hudson Stuck in 1904, who organized the first successful climb of Mount McKinley. The original church burned; the present structure dates from 1948.
Fairbanks has a lot of museums for a town its size, including those at the University of Alaska, at Pioneer Park, and at the commercial tourist attractions, all described later. Here are three unique museums to visit; the first two are within walking distance downtown.
At 500 2nd Ave., the Fairbanks Ice Museum (tel. 907/451-8222) aims to show summer visitors a bit of Fairbanks ice carving. A big-screen, high-tech slide show plays hourly, explaining the annual World Ice Art Championships, and four expansive freezers with large picture windows contain ice sculptures with an ice artist usually at work. Admission is $12 for adults, $11 for seniors and military, $6 for children ages 6 to 12, $2 for ages 5 and under. It's open from 10am to 8pm daily from May to September.
The Fairbanks Community Museum, in the old city hall at 410 Cushman St. (tel. 907/457-3669), is well worth a stop for the charming historical exhibits and the sense of local pride it contains. A series of cramped galleries offers up old photographs, maps, newspapers, and other bric-a-brac, as well as skillfully created explanatory exhibits focusing on the 1967 flood and the area's gold-mining history and development. An exhibit of whimsical photographs shows how modern-day Fairbanksans entertain themselves in the winter. Volunteers run the museum, open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm, with reduced hours in the off season. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. It is usually closed during April.
Beyond downtown, the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum (tel. 907/450-2100; www.fountainheadmuseum.com) is on the grounds of Wedgewood Resort, with more than 50 historically significant American cars predating World War II, many of them involved in Alaska history. Interesting displays show how Alaskans modified their vehicles for different tasks, such as cutting firewood, powering a boat, traveling on snow, and riding railroad tracks. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 ages 3 to 12, free 2 and under. It's open mid-May to mid-September Sunday to Thursday 11am to 10pm, Friday and Saturday 11am to 6 pm; in winter, open only Sunday noon to 6pm.
Built for the Alaska purchase centennial in 1967, Pioneer Park (formerly Alaskaland) is the boiled-down essence of Fairbanks on grounds at the intersection of Airport Way and Peger Road (tel. 907/459-1087; www.co.fairbanks.ak.us/pioneerpark). It's called a theme park, but don't expect Disneyland or anything like it. Instead, Pioneer Park is a city park with a theme. It's relaxing and low key, entrancing for young children, and interesting for adults if you can give in to the charm of the place. Admission to the park is free, and the tours and activities are generally inexpensive. The park is open year-round, but the attractions operate only Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day, daily from noon to 8pm. Pick up a map and schedule when you arrive; here I've listed the highlights, but there is more to see. Depending on the pace you like to keep and the age level of your group, you can spend anything from a couple of hours to most of a day here.
The SS Nenana is the park's centerpiece. Commissioned by the federally owned Alaska Railroad in 1933, the large sternwheeler plied the Yukon and Tanana rivers until 1952. In 1967, the Nenana came to what was then Alaskaland but was unmaintained and had nearly collapsed from rot when it was saved by a community restoration effort, completed in 1992. Another restoration had closed the upper-deck tours in 2010, but those areas should be re-opened as work is completed. During the work, self-guided entry is open to the ground-floor cargo deck, with its engaging set of dioramas showing all the riverside towns and villages where the boat called, modeled as they looked in its heyday.
Much of Fairbanks's history has been moved to Pioneer Park. A village of log cabins contains shops and restaurants, each marked with its original location and place in town history. Judge Wickersham's house, built around 1904, is kept as a museum, decorated appropriately according to the period of the town's founding. The house is less than grand -- it may remind you of your grandmother's -- but it's worth a stop to strike up a conversation with the historical society volunteers who keep it open. President Warren Harding's railcar, from which he stepped to drive the golden spike on the Alaska Railroad, sits near the park entrance. The Pioneer Air Museum (tel. 907/451-0037) is housed in a geodesic dome toward the back of the park. Besides the aircraft, there are displays and artifacts of the crashes of Alaska's aviation pioneers. Admission is $2 for adults, free for children 12 and under with a parent, $5 for families.
A different kind of attraction shows off Fairbanks winter in summer. 40 Below Fairbanks, at Cabin no. 3, just down from the Palace Saloon (tel. 907/347-5451), puts visitors in an 8X10-foot room at a temperature at least -40°F (-40°C), a chill seen at least once most winters here. While in the freezer, you can use a rock-solid banana to pound a nail and toss a cup of hot water into the air to watch it explode into steam. Admission is $6.
Other park attractions include an illustrated gold-rush show, kayak and bike rentals, a dance hall, an art gallery, and Alaska Native and gold-rush museums. If you have children, you certainly won't escape Pioneer Park without a ride on the Crooked Creek and Whiskey Island Railroad that circles the park twice, with a tour guide pointing out the sights; rides cost $2 for adults, $1 for children and seniors. Kids will also enjoy the large playground, with equipment for toddlers and older children, where lots of local families come to play, and the two 18-hole miniature golf courses. The only carnival ride is a nice old merry-go-round, which costs $1.
Tour groups generally come to Pioneer Park in the evening from mid-May to mid-September for the combined Alaska Salmon Bake, at the mining valley area, and the Golden Heart Revue, at the Palace Theatre (tel. 800/354-7274 or 907/452-7274; www.akvisit.com). Cost for all-you-can-eat prime rib and fish (halibut, cod, or salmon) is $31, $15 ages 3 to 12, or $6 for child's hot dog plate. Beer and wine are available. The seating area is pleasant, with indoor or outdoor dining. The revue, nightly at 8:15pm from mid-May to mid-September, covers the amusing story of the founding of Fairbanks with comedy and song in a nightclub setting; admission is $18 for adults.
University of Alaska Fairbanks
The state university's main campus contains several interesting attractions and makes a point of serving tourists. The campus is on the west side of town; major entrances are via Thompson Drive off Geist Road and at the intersection of University Avenue and College Road. A widely distributed brochure lists tours, hours, and fees. A free 2-hour walking tour meets at Signers' Hall Monday through Friday at 10 am, June through August (except for 2 days around July 4). Call tel. 907/474-7500 or check www.uaf.edu/visituaf for more information. Several campus attractions are listed below, and more are on the website, where you'll also find a campus map.
Commercial Tourist Attractions
Three major for-profit attractions around Fairbanks owned by the Binkley family pack in visitors by the hundreds of thousands, most of them on group tours. These places are educational and fun, as I've described below, but prices for all are high.
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.