The state of Alaska is a diamond in the rough, renowned for gold mining, salmon runs, halibut and crab fishing, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, and the Iditarod. The Last Frontier has a lot of natural beauty to behold: glaciers, enormous snow-covered mountains, swift-moving rivers, serene lakes, stately evergreen trees, and colorful wildflowers. It also has plentiful man-made wonders to explore.
We spent two weeks in the Fairbanks area, the northern point of the main highway system in Interior Alaska and the unofficial end of the Alaska Highway. (The official end is Delta Junction.) Fairbanks offers some truly authentic Alaska experiences. Here are four we participated in and enjoyed:
1. Santa Claus House
No matter what time of year you visit Alaska, the Santa Claus House in North Pole is worth seeing. It’s easily visible from Highway 2, and the small city is extremely inviting with its candy cane-painted street lights and Christmas-themed street names.
The Santa Claus House began in 1952 as a trading post for Con Miller’s merchant and fur purchases. At Christmastime, he dressed as Santa and quickly rose to celebrity status. The store also offered groceries, a soda fountain, and a post office.
Today, the Santa Claus House peddles Christmas ornaments, toys, gifts, keepsakes, clothing, and Alaskan-made crafts. It includes The Sweet Shop, where you can find fudge, cookies, chocolates, ice cream, and coffee. But the best part is Santa’s presence. He’s available for photos and chats.
Bonus: If you want some Chinese food while you’re in North Pole, head to Pagoda. You won’t be disappointed.
2. Aurora Ice Museum
Located at the Chena Hot Springs Resort, the Aurora Ice Museum boasts the world’s largest year-round ice environment, and it’s open every day of the year. For $20 each, ages 12 and older ($15 for ages 6-11) can don a resort-provided parka to enter the 25-degree museum for a 45-minute chilling experience. Be sure to take gloves and a hat.
You can explore four bedrooms that used to be available for rent, crawl in a real igloo, snap pictures of ice sculptures, and watch a worker craft martini glasses out of ice. For an additional fee paid before the tour, you can even sample an appletini out of one of those glasses.
3. Gold Panning
Most people think of California when they hear the term “gold rush,” but Alaska had one too, albeit nearly 50 years later. Gold Dredge 8 gives visitors an authentic gold mining experience. The tour starts under a section of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System with a brief overview of the dredge’s glory days.
From there, visitors board a train and ride the rail to the historical dredge while a narrator continues sharing about the area’s rich history. Workers give a gold panning demonstration, and then you get to deboard the train and prospect for yourself. Each visitor receives a bag of dirt, or poke, to pan for gold.
With a little help, we succeeded in finding the precious metal. Bob uncovered $6 worth of gold, and I got $12 worth. After that, we explored the gift shops, took turns holding a 19-ounce gold nugget, toured the dredge, and enjoyed free coffee and cookies.
4. Riverboat Cruise
If you only have time and funds for one big activity in Fairbanks, this should be it. The Riverboat Discovery is much more than a ride on a paddle-wheel boat like we experienced in New Orleans. It’s a three-hour immersion into Alaska.
Once you board the vessel, before you even find a seat, you can get a free cup of coffee and a donut. Settle in and enjoy the narration about life on the Chena River. After passing a house where Ronald Reagan spent some time, you’ll stop at the home of the late Susan Butcher, four-time Iditarod champion. Her husband shares about the barking dogs behind him and gives a dog mushing demonstration.
Continuing down the river, you’ll learn about reindeer and what makes them different from caribou, and you’ll stop at Chena Village Living Museum, where you’ll deboard to get a taste of village life, a very important part of Alaska’s past and present. There’s a smokehouse, animal pelts, a camping exhibit, authentic dress, and more.
After a considerable amount of time there, you’ll reboard the boat one last time for the journey back to the starting point. As a treat on that leg, guests get samples of Captain Jim’s Alaska smoked salmon, a nice culmination.
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This is the travel blog of full-time RVers Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong.