Longing to see the Northern Lights? About to visit Fairbanks and unsure what to do?
This is your one-stop in-depth guide to visiting Fairbanks in the winter – what attractions and tours to take, tips on restaurants and lodging, and a specific “What to Pack” list with links to items to buy.
It wasn’t easy to find a lot of useful, recent information about Fairbanks, so I’ve compiled it in ONE place for you.
For 16 years, I’ve longed to see the Northern Lights, thanks to The Golden Compass.
So when news outlets began proclaiming, “2017 is the last winter to see the Aurora Borealis for 11 years,” I panicked a little. What they really meant was, “The aurora has an 11 year cycle of being more or less frequent, but it can still be seen even during the down cycle; it just might require more luck.”
Miraculously, in under 48 hours, two friends and I booked flights to Fairbanks, Alaska, for the last winter weekend of the year, April 1.
Thus, a girls trip was born!
Now, we’re from Texas. South Texas. Our city shuts down if there’s ice on the road (for good reason). So, preparing to go to Alaska in winter was no small task. I’ve detailed the gear we bought and how we prepped here, for anyone else unaccustomed to snow.
What to do
Fairbanks had a surprising number of activities! We went for four days, and between staying up half the night to try to see the aurora, and packing in two activities each day, we were running on fumes by the end of the trip.
Here are the tours/activities we did (click on them for a full blog post with details):
- Dog Sledding. An obvious must-do activity off of my life list. And it was just as amazing as I’d dreamed.
- Aurora Tours. Have an expert drive you out to the best viewing spots outside of Fairbanks, to learn more about the phenomenon and what to look for.
- Reindeer Farm. Huh? Yup, that’s right. There really is a tour dedicated to walking with reindeer through the forest.
- Snowmobiling. Like riding an ATV, in the snow, but perhaps more temperamental. It reminded me of MarioKart. Then again, I’m not a gifted driver.
- Chena Hot Springs. Out in the middle of nowhere, this “5 star resort” is a glorified motel that happens to monopolize some pretty incredible hot springs.
- ICE Alaska. This amazing Ice Sculpture competition is on display for a month and is truly incredible. You can walk on and interact with some, and even ride down ice slides. While the 2018 one has been cancelled, it should be on again in 2019.
Other things that are recommended (but I haven’t written about):
- The North Pole! A quirky little tourist town that generates income from pretending to be Santa’s home. It’s…interesting and worth visiting, though the most notable sight for us what a still functioning Blockbuster (1 of about 10 in the nation).
- Moose Spotting. A sore spot of our trip. We “just missed” seeing a moose every single day. However, aside from us, everyone we met saw moose(n) so it’s basically guaranteed. Just not for us.
- Pull Tabs. Not really an attraction, but since Alaska is one of only 7 states that doesn’t have a lottery, there are shops promoting “Pull Tabs” everywhere. We weren’t sure what those were, so we finally went in and learned that Pull Tabs are scratch cards. In lieu of Powerball gambling, you can choose from over 50 types of scratch cards in seedy, smokey strip mall shops. I count that as a unique experience.
Where to eat
Food. It’s always on my mind and forms an important part of your traveling experience.
On this trip, we were budgeting and driving so much, that we didn’t eat out very often. However, two spots stood out as exceptional and should absolutely be on your list.
The Crepery. I’m half European and always hated crepes. It’s inexplicable to my family. Having tried them all over the world, you’d think France would have changed my mind. But no, it was Fairbanks, Alaska. The Crepery is a cute little restaurant specializing in just crepes. Sweet and savory, they are fabulous.
Like, we ate here almost every morning fabulous. Like, I still think about their cheesecake crepe a year later fabulous. Just go, okay?
The Turtle Club. When in Alaska, you have to try King Crab legs. Since we were on a budget and heard crab legs aren’t that filling, we opted to eat a light dinner before visiting the Turtle Club.
King Crab legs are their specialty – and their dinner special? Adding a huge slab of prime rib for about $3 more. *Cue hysterical laughter because we are not hungry enough to eat all that – but we totally did.*
It’s not a cheap meal, but it will definitely fill you up and is delicious. The salad bar, crab legs and prime rib were all great. And the dessert tray afterwards? *drool* Yes, we did each eat a full dessert too (true gluttons).
A bit of a drive outside of Fairbanks but well worth it. See their Yelp listing here.
Things to consider
Renting a car. Fairbanks is spread out, and the daily activities are not easy to Uber to. Chena Hot Springs is a full 90 minute drive away. You can either pay for shuttles everywhere (but that is extremely expensive) or rent a car.
Hertz and the other major car companies do offer rentals, but as Southerners, we wanted to be assured that our rental car would have proper snow gear. We rented from Alaska Auto Rental. Their prices were lower, the customer service was great, and the SUV was well equipped. Skip your rewards points this once and rent from this local shop instead.
Now, the roads are bumpy (winter ice causes the pavement to warp every year) so you’ll never drive faster than 40 mph max. At night, go even slower. There’s lot of wildlife, ice and curves.
Airbnb or Hotel? If you’re on a budget, there are some great Airbnb options. This really requires you to rent a car though. We rented this apartment from Vitali on Airbnb and had a good experience. He was a communicative, friendly host with a well setup system.
Still, many people ask about booking at a hotel just for aurora viewing. I don’t see the point. If you choose a hotel in Fairbanks, the aurora has to be stronger than an 8 to be seen with the city lights. Even if your hotel offers to wake you up to see the lights, it’s very unlikely to happen.
If you opt to stay outside of Fairbanks, this could be a good, if expensive, option. Many people stay at Chena Hot Springs for this reason (again, I don’t recommend this based on our experience). There are lodges like the Aurora Borealis Lodge or the Mount Aurora Lodge, which are about 40 minutes away from Fairbanks and will have great nightly viewing. Accommodations fill in advance so check their availability (and keep in mind, to go anywhere, you’ll have to drive at least 30 minutes each way). We also watched the Aurora from Chandalar Ranch, which offers hostel like accommodations.
On a larger budget, I’d have liked to have stayed at a lodge, to get more sleep but still see the Aurora, with the convenience of being woken for viewing. It was exhausting searching on our own for 1-4 hours per night.
I hope this helps you plan the perfect Northern Lights adventure! Fairbanks was a whirlwind trip that left us with lifelong memories and a desire to return to experience Denali in the summertime.
Have you been to Fairbanks? Add your suggestions or experiences in a comment below!