Welcome to Fifty Grande’s Best of the U.S. Bucket List series. This is your one-stop travel guide to the best, most unique and quintessential experiences of a city, state or event. Curated by experts, vetted by in-the-know locals, this is all you need to have the best trip ever. If we’ve written a Bucket List, we recommend you go. If it’s on this list, it’s the best the city has to offer right now. Consider this your one-stop answer to “What are the best things to do in Fairbanks, Alaska?”
While today Fairbanks is the second-largest city (population: 30,000) in the nation’s largest state, its founding was something of a fluke. In 1901, a trading-post merchant, E.T. Barnette, accidentally got stranded in the Chena River while bringing supplies to the Tanacross gold fields. He decided to set up shop there, a gamble that paid off when gold was found a few miles away; shortly after, a boomtown sprung up around his shop. Seven years after he’d run ashore, 18,000 people lived in the Fairbanks Mining District.
It wasn’t the only boom. Fairbanks saw its population grow during WWII and the Cold War because it was an important staging area for the military. After oil was found in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, it saw another pop, as it was a vital construction conduit for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Today, the city is witnessing another boom: tourism.
With the Northern Lights in the winter and the midnight sun in the summer, there’s no wrong time to visit Fairbanks (granted, some times will be warmer than others — the city sees the largest seasonal temperature swing in the nation). At any bar, you’re just as likely to sit next to a pilot as you are to sit next to a reindeer herder, a miner, a distiller or someone whose business card reads “Explorer” (and each, without a doubt, will be wearing XTRATUF boots). It’s an endlessly fascinating place, though perhaps not your typical vacay spot. Its various booms have shaped its personality. What it lacks in sex appeal, it makes up for in gritty realness. Fairbanks, and its people, will never pretend to be something that it’s not. Here are some of our recommendations of things to do to understand the quirky Alaska city a little bit better.