Enjoy long days with the Last of the Midnight Sun and mild temperatures for the beginning of the Aurora Season Story & Photo By Marguerite Cleveland
From September until the snow accumulates is the perfect time to visit Fairbanks, Alaska. The summer crowds have returned home, but you can still enjoy some of the warmer weather activities—and may even see the Aurora Borealis. Give yourself three full days to enjoy this itinerary, which gives you a good overview of the area. Upon arrival in Fairbanks, visit the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center to find information to explore Fairbanks and Alaska’s interior. It’s more than just a visitors’ center and more like a natural history museum. Learn about Alaska’s Native Peoples and check out the world-class exhibits.
Day 1 Chena Hot Springs Resort is your stop for the night. It is about a 60-minute scenic drive from Fairbanks through the Chena River State Recreation Area. The road parallels the Chena River, and wildlife sightings, especially moose, are common along the beaver ponds and sloughs. Insider Tip: There are limited facilities along this route, so plan accordingly. Your stay here is a good opportunity to put away the technology and enjoy the natural surroundings. If you want a truly authentic Alaskan experience, stay in one of the “dry cabins” with no running water and their own outhouse. If that is too rustic, the Moose Lodge has spacious rooms with full baths.
You won’t run out of things to do while visiting this resort. Take a short walk to visit the dog kennels. The nearly 100 Alaskan sled dogs are a bundle of energy and love visitors. Take a kennel tour or enjoy a dog sled ride; options are available year-round. Next visit the Ice Museum. It’s so fun to explore this masterpiece carved from ice. Insider Tip: Splurge for the apple martini served in a glass made of ice. The activities center is the heart of the resort. From here you can book activities or just hang out. It is open 24 hours a day. Lastly, don’t miss the hot springs; what a lovely way to soak off all that stiffness from traveling.
There are two dining options at the resort: the Chena Hot Springs Restaurant serves three sit-down meals a day and is famed for its “Chena Fresh” lettuce and tomatoes, which are grown on-site year-round and is a real treat in the winter months when fresh produce is scarce. The other option is the Aurora Café, which serves soups, salads and sandwiches in the activities center.
Day 2 Plan to spend a full day exploring all Fairbanks has to offer. Stay at the SpringHill Suites in Downtown Fairbanks. It is in the hub of the city with restaurants and shops in close proximity. Across the street are the Chena River and the Yukon Quest Store. It’s worth stopping in to learn about this 1,000-mile dog sled race, which makes the famous Iditarod Dog Sled Race look like a fun run. Also located on-site with the hotel is Lavelle’s Bistro—one of the few upscale dining spots in Fairbanks.
Get an early start from the hot springs and book a morning tour to either Gold Dredge 8 or the Riverboat Discovery. The Binkley family has a long family history dating from the Gold Rush era and owns both businesses. If you are a fan of TV shows like “Gold Rush,” then you will enjoy the train ride to Gold Dredge 8 where you can explore a gold dredge and pan for gold. The Riverboat Discovery will take you on a roundtrip tour of so many iconic Alaska experiences from a bush pilot demonstration, a dog sled demonstration and a walking tour of a Chena Indian Village, all truly memorable experiences.
In the afternoon, book a tour at the Running Reindeer Ranch, where owner Jane Atkinson has created a one-of-a-kind experience. She will regale you with stories of the early days of her reindeer journey and why the ranch is named “Running”—and yes, it does involve runaway reindeer. Atkinson is a gifted storyteller, and her tales are shared while reindeer frolic around you. Enjoy a walk through a boreal forest with plenty of photo opportunities. By the time you depart, you will learn everything you could possibly imagine about reindeer. This is sure to be the highlight of your Alaskan getaway.
The Pumphouse Restaurant on the banks of the Chena River recreates the glory days of the Victorian Gold Rush era. This Fairbanks Treasure is filled with antiques and authentic-to-the-period furnishings, many 150 years old. The food is cooked to order from fresh local ingredients, Alaskan salmon and Certified Angus beef. This place is popular with locals and tourists alike because of the great food and service.
Day 3 Denali National Park is a two-hour scenic drive from Fairbanks. As summer facilities shut down you want to start out with a full tank of gas and plan a substantial picnic to bring with you (enough for two meals). This is an easily doable day trip, and on the scenic drive you are likely to see wildlife on the way to the park.
The bus transportation in the park shuts down on September 12. After this date you can drive to mile post 30 at the Teklanika River. The road is open year-round to vehicles as long as conditions allow. Your first stop will be the Murie Science and Learning Center at mile 1.5 on the park road. This serves as the winter visitors’ center. After getting all the information you need and double checking on the road status, head 1.5 miles up the road to the Denali Dog Sled Kennels. (Note, they are closed on Mondays.) There are no formal programs, but you can get up close to the dogs and learn more about their mission in the park.
People come to Denali National Park for its breathtaking natural scenery. As you begin your drive into the park, keep an eye out for wildlife. If you are lucky you will spot some of the bucket list animals such as grizzly bears, wolves, caribou, moose and Dall sheep. Bring binoculars and a camera with a zoom lens. Watch for cars pulled over to the side of the road or just stopped, as that is a sure sign someone has spotted an animal.
At mile 15 you will come to the Savage River, which is a good place to stop. Restrooms are available, and there is a 1.7-mile round-trip loop trail that follows along the Savage River for a mile before crossing over a bridge and returning on the other side. There is just a slight elevation change, but the trail is rocky. Unlike most national parks, you can hike off-trail in Denali—just be careful and watch your footing. People have died when hiking off-trail here. You can continue your drive until you reach mile 30, the Teklanika Rest Stop, which is your turn-around point. Depending on the weather and the amount of daylight hours, you may have the opportunity to see the Aurora Borealis. It will make for a long day, but if you didn’t see it at the Chena Hot Springs it will be worth it to have this special experience.
Head to Fairbanks for the night and fly home the next morning or take a late-afternoon flight and squeeze another activity in such as the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska.
Where to Stay Chena Hot Springs Resort - ChenaHotSprings.com SpringHill Suites by Marriott - Marriott.com
What to Do
Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center - MorrisThompsonCenter.org Gold Dredge 8 - GoldDredge8.com Riverboat Discovery - RiverboatDiscovery.com Running Reindeer Ranch - RunningReindeer.com Denali National Park - NPS.gov
Where to Eat Lavelle’s Bistro - LavellesBistro.com The Pumphouse - Pumphouse.com