Free & Cheap Things To Do In Fairbanks, AK
We spent nearly a week, including the 4th of July holiday, in Fairbanks, AK. This was our introduction to Alaska and the differences in culture between the different parts of Alaska and between The Last Frontier and the lower 48.
What are some of these differences, you ask? Well, it’s not uncommon to have no running water in Fairbanks. You see, they have a little thing called permafrost that far up in Alaska. So it’s really, really expensive to run water lines to anywhere outside of the main downtown area.
So we stayed in two different houses that have no direct water line. One has running water, but they have to go pick it up in a 100-gallon tank and pump it into another tank in the house. The other had no running water and an outhouse, a not uncommon thing in Alaska. So they go get water in 5-gallon containers. You can bet they’re all very water-conscious because, even though it’s only 2 cents/gallon at city water dispensing sites, having to go pick it up is a task.
Another difference…daylight! Holy moly, if you want to screw up your circadian rhythm, go to Fairbanks in the summer. Even though it’s below the Arctic Circle, there’s pretty much still 24-hour daylight. The sun drops below the horizon around 11:30 pm and pops back up around 3 a.m. The hours between are like dusk, making all nighttime sleeping like an afternoon nap (here is a picture taken around midnight and another taken around 3 a.m.). Late nights and early mornings (and lots of coffee) are the norm.
But anyway, here are some of the things we did in our time in Fairbanks, along with a few we didn’t get to do, but that sound like fun.
The 4th Of July Parade in Ester
Obviously, to witness this event, you have to be in the area in early July. If you are, though, you’ll be doing yourself a favor to go see the Ester Fourth of July Parade. Ester, or “The Ester Republic” as they call themselves, is a small town to the northwest of Fairbanks. The town is basically nothing but a post office and a bar, full of “miners and hippies”.
Why this parade? Because it’s basically the antithesis of most 4th of July parades. It starts with all of the local kids tearing down the street on their bikes. Some on normal two-wheelers, some with training wheels, some with parents helping to hold the bike up, some who look like they are terrified of the speed they’re going.
After that come the fire engines, the politicians handing out funny money, the Occupy Sesame Street dogs, the “Dogs Against Romney, Poodle Division,” and the vegetable band. It’s basically a hilarious and fun take on 4th of July, with some light-hearted political humor from the more liberal and libertarian bents, bringing together the small community of Ester, and culminating in a giant potluck at the town park. If you’re lucky, you’ll have some candy or radishes thrown your way.
Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station
The LARS is a 134-acre site to study caribou, reindeer (domesticated caribou), and muskox, a throw-back to the Pleistocene. The LARS offers 45-60 minute tours for $10. Twice we tried and twice we failed. The place was closed the day before and the day after 4th of July. But we did get to see some muskox from the parking lot.
Visit The North Pole
Seriously, just southeast of Fairbanks is North Pole, AK. There isn’t much there except for Santa Claus House, where you can actually get your picture taken with Santa. They have reindeer outside, though none with a red nose, and a giant Santa statue with a 30-foot diameter waistline.
Inside are plenty of Christmas-related items and you can even get a Letter from Santa sent to your kids.
Drink Some North Pole Coffee
This is basically a shameless plug for a coffee company owned by a friend. Scott’s friend Doug in Chicago mentioned that his cousin lives in Fairbanks and owns a coffee company called North Pole Coffee. So we contacted Tom and asked if we could stop by the coffee factory to say hi.
Instead of just saying hi and drinking a cup of great coffee, we ended up with a two or three hour conversation, tour of the facility, and plenty of great coffee. We’re currently working on the Wake Up Call before moving on to the North Pole Blend.
North Pole Coffee doesn’t actually have a coffee shop, but they supply lots of the local places. Get your caffeine fix with some locally roasted coffee that is awesome!
Visit Chena Hot Springs
About an hour or so east of Fairbanks, you’ll find Chena Hot Springs, a natural hot spring that has been turned into a full-on resort. While there, you can soak in the hot spring-fed rock pool out back ($10 day pass or $60 for 10 visits) or use the indoor swimming pool. We’re told the hot spring is a big winter activity because the hot water feels better when it’s -30 degrees than when it’s 75 degrees.
You can also stay at the resort, get a massage, go for a horseback ride, take a dog sled (or dog cart in the summer) ride, tour the kennel, rent a bike, take a hike, go for an ATV tour, tour the ice museum, or spring for a flightseeing tour. We actually swung by Chena Hot Springs after our…
Hike in Chena River State Recreation Area
On the way to Chena Hot Springs, you’ll drive through the Chena Rive State Recreation Area, which is full of outdoor activities, particularly hiking. We were advised to hike to the Granite Tors, but by the time we got around to getting out for the day, it was getting a bit to late to both hike and visit Chena Hot Springs.
Instead, we went with the 3.5-mile Angel Rocks Loop. It seems that you can’t go wrong with any of the hikes in this area though, so just get out and start walking.
University of Alaska’s Museum of the North
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to make it to the Museum of the North either. We basically ended up running around with our CouchSurfing hosts most of the time, riding bikes, eating ice cream, and chowing on Alaskan protein and beer. When we make it to Fairbanks at another time in life, though, this will be on our list.
The museum features 1.4 million artifacts and specimens that:
represent millions of years of biological diversity and thousands of years of cultural traditions in the North. The collections are organized into 10 disciplines (archaeology, birds, documentary film, earth sciences, ethnology/history, fine arts, fishes/marine invertebrates, insects, mammals, and plants) and serve as a valuable resource for research on climate change, genetics, contaminants and other issues facing Alaska and the circumpolar North. The museum is also the premier repository for artifacts and specimens collected on public lands in Alaska and a leader in northern natural and cultural history research.
It’s $10 for admission to see 2,000 years of Alaskan art, a huge public display of gold, and a 36,000-year-old mummified steppe bison, to name a few of the displays.
Float The Chena
Going out for a day float of the Chena River through downtown Fairbanks seems to be a favorite activity of locals. Our CouchSurfing hosts were going to take us out on 4th of July, but we all ended up enjoying the cookout too much to pull away in time.
Nonetheless, you can drop in a kayak or canoe upstream (or rent from one of several outfits, which isn’t all that cheap) and enjoy a leisurely float downstream to The Pumphouse, which we’re told has great food and drinks.
Fairbanks In Pictures
Moose, dogs, sunsets, and a friend with a broken foot being pulled in a small cart behind a bike…what a way to kick off our Alaskan experience!