3 Days Under the Midnight Sun, Fairbanks, Alaska

Golden Heart Park during the Midnight Sun Festival 2004

BY ALLEN COX

In Alaska’s far north, mercury rises with the coming of the midnight sun. Gone are the endless nights, the bone-chilling temperatures and bouts of cabin fever.

In Fairbanks, Alaska, late spring and early summer round-the-clock daylight brings a sense of unleashed revelry that’s contagious. People pack away their winter clothes, plant flowers and gardens, and get ready to celebrate the sun.

This celebration manifests in the city’s Midnight Sun Festival, which takes place on and around the summer solstice. If you plan to visit Fairbanks during the festival, check out the lineup of events on their website, and fill your days and nights with happenings that appeal to you, like the ever-popular annual baseball game, a historic event that commences at midnight on June 21 and celebrates 24 hours of daylight.

If your visit cannot coincide with the Midnight Sun Festival, don’t let that deter you. Fairbanks and Alaska’s far north offer so many attractions and activities, you won’t know when to sleep. Here is an action-packed three-day itinerary with the best Fairbanks has to offer.

DAY 1
Getting around Fairbanks is easiest with a rental car. Once you arrive at Fairbanks International Airport, secure a car and head to your hotel. There are accommodations spread throughout the city and beyond, from downtown hotels to wilderness lodges. Recommended lodging downtown is Springhill Suites, located across the street from the Chena River and close to lots of dining options.

Depending on your arrival time, you may have time to kick off your Fairbanks visit at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center, a five-minute walk from the hotel. If you arrived in Fairbanks after the Center’s open hours, plan to head there first thing in the morning. The Center’s exhibits provide an insight into the life and culture in Alaska’s interior, and you can pick up all the information you need to make the most of your time in Fairbanks.

DAY 2
In Fairbanks and the surrounding area, there are only six people per 10 square miles. In such a place, Nature rules, and there is no better place to learn about the natural world of the far north than the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North. Spend the morning at the facility, one of the state’s most comprehensive natural history museums.

The modern architecture of the striking building suggests contours of mountain ridges, glaciers and river ice. Inside, exhibits cover millions of years of the biological diversity and the major ecological regions of Alaska. These collections form the foundation for the museum’s research, education programs, and exhibits. Highlights include 2,000 years of Alaska art, a 50,000-year-old mummified steppe bison, and an extraordinary exhibit called “The Place Where You Go to Listen”—a sound and light installation powered by real-time natural forces, such as the celestial bodies, seismic activity and the northern lights.

Fairbanks is located about 200 road miles from the Arctic Circle. It would be a shame to be so close and not return home with bragging rights that you went to the Arctic. Northern Alaska Tour Company makes it easy with their fly/drive adventure. In the afternoon, board their small aircraft headed for the outpost of Coldfoot in the Brooks Range, north of the Arctic Circle. You will return to Fairbanks via the Dalton Highway by tour van with a stop at the Arctic Circle for a photo opp. The Dalton Highway is recognized as the quietest, least traveled and most scenic drive in America—the ultimate road trip.

Along the way, you will see the mighty Yukon River and the Alaska Pipeline, and your guide will allow you to walk on and learn about the tundra and permafrost and stop at a trading post. In the summer, the entire trip takes place under the midnight sun, and you arrive back in Fairbanks in daylight at around 2:00 a.m.

Day 3
No doubt, after your Arctic adventure, this is a morning for sleeping in. Today, take your pick from among the best Fairbanks attractions: Riverboat Discovery Tour, Gold Dredge 8, University of Alaska Large Animal Research Station, Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge and Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum.

Riverboat Discovery is a three-hour journey on board a sternwheeler that carries passengers up the Chena River. On the cruise, you will visit the Chena Indian Village—a site where Alaskan Native guides will immerse you in the ancient Athabascan culture—you will pass the kennels of an Iditarod champion and watch the sled dogs in action, and much more. Riverboat Discovery is a great way to see Fairbanks from the river, an important early transportation route before highways.

Gold Dredge 8 is a historic gold dredge operation displaying the process of extracting gold, one of the industries that brought fortune-seekers to the region. At the University of Alaska Large Animal Research Station, you can visit and learn about the musk oxen and other large mammals of the far north. For fans of antique automobiles, the collection at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is a must-see attraction.

If you are a beer drinker, seek out one of Fairbanks’ brew pubs for dinner. Silver Gulch Brewing in the nearby community of Fox has a great craft beer selection ranging from ales to stouts to Belgians and more, and they serve up hearty bistro-style fare. A few distilleries in Fairbanks are also making their mark, so for local craft spirits, check out their tasting rooms; Hoarfrost Distilling, is known for handcrafted premium vodkas and berry liqueurs.

You’ve come all the way to Alaska, so why not take a few more days to explore beyond Fairbanks. Those who don’t have to head to the airport for a flight home should board the Alaska Railroad for the journey south. Make a stop at Denali National Park, the town of Talkeetna, and finally Anchorage to fly home from there.