Visiting Fairbanks, AK is a dream trip for many, especially those who haven’t been to the state’s second-most populous city before. But one of the toughest questions—other than how are you ever going to make yourself leave such a beautiful place—is what time of year to visit.
While many people go in the summer when the weather is at its best, others choose the colder months for the chance to see the northern lights. But one of the most unique times to visit is during Midnight Sun season, which runs from mid-April to mid-August, when the sun never seems to set and the long days of light give you even more time to explore the Golden Heart City.
I’ll admit that it is a little disconcerting to look outside when you should be sleeping to see people going about their day even though it is the middle of the night. But what’s especially great about this time of year is that it coincides with ‘green-up’—the time when the snow finally starts melting and plants begin to bloom, and the entire landscape comes alive with signs of spring.
What to Do with So Much Daylight?
There is always something to do in Fairbanks, whether you want to spend time in one-of-a-kind museums, learn more about Indigenous culture, hike the great outdoors or just bask in the midnight sun.
One of my favorite places to visit is the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, which not only has 102 stunningly restored vintage cars in its collection —all but three of which are operable—but also showcases Motor Age fashion—clothing from the late Victorian Age to the 1930s, many of which were created specifically to reflect the freedom and movement of this new automobile-driving generation.
From cumbersome coats, bonnets and veils to protect riders in the early days of the automobile—when many cars didn’t have windshields—to the sleek and stylish flapper dresses that echoed the faster, sportier cars of the Roaring ‘20s, this museum highlights how fashion and the automobile were intertwined.
A visit to the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center is an excellent stop to learn about the Alaska Native culture and those who live in Interior and Arctic Alaska. The free museum includes exhibits on the different Native tribes that inhabit the state, subsistence living, products made from the land and many examples of handcrafted art.
Another unique way to experience the Alaska Native way of life is to take a Riverboat Discovery cruise along the Chena and Tanana Rivers, which includes a guided walking tour of the Chena Village Living Museum. The reconstructed Athabascan village includes a riverside fish camp, sled dog kennel, trapper’s cabin and more. The riverboat also stops on the water to visit with Trailbreaker Kennel on shore, the home of late four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher and her many sled dogs.
The Museum of the North, located on the University of Fairbanks campus, offers a look at the area’s history, cultures, and diverse wildlife as well as boasts more than 2,000 years of Alaska art. Rising out of the landscape like a giant iceberg, the collection inside is as impressive as its massive exterior.
When you’ve got roughly 70 days of extra light, why wouldn’t you spend some of it outside? Every day, Fairbanks gains four more minutes of light, which means that there are things that you can do at this time of year—like watch a 10 p.m. Midnight Suns baseball game that may last until 2 a.m. on the summer solstice—that you can’t do at any other time of year. And they don’t even need stadium lights!
If a hike is more your style, you can visit Running Reindeer Ranch, where you can wander the taiga with the local herd. While there’s something disconcerting about standing in the Alaska wilderness beside a 250-pound reindeer named Poppy, it’s a truly unique way to learn more about the state’s wildlife, flora and fauna. Not to mention, it provides amazing photo ops.
Or you can try to strike it rich with a visit to Gold Daughters, where you can learn how to pan for gold. While you think this may be easy, it’s not; it seems counterintuitive to let almost all of the slurry out of the gold pan, thinking you’re washing your riches away! When you do find gold, you get to take it home with you for a one-of-a-kind souvenir.
Taking the Alaska Railroad to Denali
No trip is complete without a ride on the Alaska Railroad, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2023. One route, the Denali Star, travels to and from Denali National Park, located 110 miles outside of Fairbanks.
The railroad itself is less a mode of transportation than a destination—there’s nothing quite like experiencing the beauty of Alaska from the comfort of its upper-level, glass-domed viewing platforms, which are offered as part of its Gold Star package. Stunning vistas are around every corner, and while it’s a little scary at points (looking down over sheer drops from the rails atop the cliffs), it’s one of the most memorable ways to see places that aren’t otherwise accessible. The Gold Star package also offers a full dinner and drinks in the dining car, making it a wonderful way to spend the four-hour trip.
Once you reach Denali, there’s no real way to describe what it’s like to see North America’s largest peak in person. Pictures don’t do it justice, and words can’t really convey how astounding it is to see such a massive, terrifying mountain. It’s beautiful and also ominous, and if you’re lucky enough to get to see the peak (in summer, it is only visible 30-40 percent of the time due to weather), it is an experience that you’ll never forget.
While visiting Denali, you can ride the Savage River Shuttle to the Mountain Vista Trail for an easy half-mile walk, or take it for the full two-hour loop to see more of the park. You can also visit the kennels, where you’ll see a sled dog demonstration as well as get the opportunity to visit with the dogs, who are more than happy to receive tummy rubs from visitors.
Despite the wealth of things to do in the Fairbanks area, there is one drawback to visiting during the Midnight Sun Season—even with all that daylight, your stay won’t seem long enough. The good news is that you can still visit the rest of the year….but that’s another story.
For more information, visit https://www.explorefairbanks.com.