This article originally appeared on Matador Network.
Alaska feels like another country. Its delicate but unsympathetic landscape, its neighborly but weather-tested residents, and its strange history as a Russian territory turned 49th state make Alaska unlike any other place in the U.S.
Fairbanks is the jumping off point for a journey into Alaska’s interior. Go during summer solstice. You might need toothpicks to keep your eyes open because you’ll have 24 hours of daylight above the Arctic Circle and 22 in sub-arctic Fairbanks.
1. Cruise the Chena River and visit an Athabascan village
The three-hour tour with Riverboat Discovery is a thorough and fascinating introduction to Fairbanks, Alaska. As we meandered down the Chena River, our Garrison Keiler-esque guide shared the history of the town and we made stops along the way to hear from locals on the riverbank. From the comfort of the boat, we witnessed dog mushing, salmon fishing, and a speed boat race in progress. We disembarked at a replica Athabascan village to learn about native culture and life.
2. Drive the Dalton Highway
Oil is the only reason there is a two-lane road to the Arctic Ocean; it’s for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The pipeline opened up both transportation and tourism to the virtually uninhabited bush country above the Arctic Circle. While you can drive yourself in the summertime, we hopped on a bus with Northern Alaska Tour Company for the leisurely 12-hour drive north from Fairbanks. We stopped at points of interest, like the Yukon River and Coldfoot Camp.
3. Cross the Arctic Circle
The sign marking the start of the Arctic Circle is where we collected certificates for being the 1% of visitors to Alaska who make it this far north. We made the trek on June 21st – the summer solstice – which is the longest day of the year with 24 hours of sunlight.
4. Overnight at Coldfoot Camp
It takes a hearty and eclectic staff to operate the northernmost truck stop in the world. Coldfoot Camp is a no-nonsense last stop for fuel, food, and phone calls before you enter the Brooks Range headed toward oil-rich Prudhoe Bay. Its transient inhabitants are truckers, prop plane pilots, tour guides, and cooks (don’t call them chefs). You can stay overnight in the camp, which was in the ‘70s for pipeline construction workers.
5. Experience the Majestic Brooks Range
We left Coldfoot and took a half-day drive to the Brooks Range. This mountain range stretches from Canada to the western coast of Alaska. We passed over the highest point of any road in Alaska, zipped by the edge of the Boreal spruce forest and entered a land of glacial-fed river, and green and black mountain peaks. In the Arctic Circle, the land is sparsely populated by humans but is home to bears, moose, sheep, and hares. There are also tiny towns established during the Gold Rush, but there is no cell service, no electricity, and nothing to obstruct the views of nature in its purest form. The highlight was the most stunning views of the snow-capped mountains.
6. Drift down the Koyukuk River
Our leisurely trip down this Arctic river allowed us to sit back, enjoy the views, and even spot a moose and her twin calves on the riverbank. The calm waters of the Koyukuk are flanked by green pines and the Brooks Range. We scanned the hills for signs of Dall sheep and kept our eyes open for bears. Our guide was a fearless young adventurer, who had spent two months solo trekking from Canada through the Brooks Range.
7. Visit the gold mining town of Wiseman, population 11
Founded by gold miners and eventually abandoned in 1908, Wiseman was a ghost town until it was repopulated in the ‘90s. Its few inhabitants are a transient mix of miners and tour guides who work from Coldfoot. There’s little to do in Wiseman, but if you want to see what real Arctic life is like, visit the museum: a simple cabin with relics from its past.
8. Fly over bush country in a 9-seater plane
Our exploration of the Arctic Circle ended with a flight from Coldfoot back to Fairbanks. Our pilot gave us the history of the area and personal anecdotes during the one-hour tour.
9. Celebrate the summer solstice at the Midnight Sun Festival
Downtown Fairbanks comes alive for the Midnight Sun Festival, a day of revelry, food, music, dance, crafts, and carny rides for the kids. Celebrating 22 hours of sunlight in the two months of summer helps balance eight months of winter darkness and temps down to 50 below zero.
10. Party through Fairbanks in the Midnight Sun Run
If you’ve ever wanted to dress as a superhero — or even a VW bus (watch my film for proof) — and run through town, this is your 10K. Starting at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the Midnight Sun Run weaves across the city’s bridges and streets. Whether you sprint it or drunk-run down the street, there are prizes for best costume.
11. Visit the University of Alaska Museum of the North
The sculptural architecture is reason enough to visit the University of Alaska Museum of the North, but its historical and modern exhibits show a rich picture of life in Fairbanks, at the end of the road. You can get good views of Fairbanks from the museum at the top of the hill.
12. Catch the Golden Heart Revue at the Palace Theatre
Housed in a historic theatre, this production is a four-man show musical comedy at the Palace Theatre, with a satirical look at Fairbanks’ origin as a gold rush town. It’s campy and kooky, but the talent has pipes and great timing.
13. Get Stuffed at the Alaska Salmon Bake
You can’t come to Alaska and not eat salmon. Show up hungry to the Alaska Salmon Bake at Pioneer Park; the all-you-can-eat dining experience allows you to see the baking process and eat among the towering pines. Tip: Ask for your salmon medium rare.
14. Soak in the Chena Hot Springs
Take the 90-minute drive from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs Resort where you can get red-faced and steamy in the sulfurous waters, which are believed to be healing. Healing is exactly what two gold-mining brothers were looking for when they set off to find hot springs: one brother was suffering from rheumatism — chronic pain — and needed the warm waters for relief. In 1911, the brothers erected twelve cabins and the Chena Hot Springs became a destination.
15. Sip an appletini from an ice glass
The Aurora Ice Museum located at Chena Hot Springs Resort, is a psychedelic walk through sculptures created by an award-winning married duo. From the building itself to an ice knight on horseback, the space is visually stunning. Put your iPhone down and experience. You can always take pictures at the end of your visit. The museum is complete with an ice bar where you can sip an appletini in a martini glass made from ice.
16. Take in the views of Chena Dome via an ATV
The accommodations at Chena Hot Springs are modest but the views are totally worth it from the top of the Chena Dome, which we reached in an ATV provided by the resort. Our driver and guide carried a pistol, just in case of bears, as we raced up the dirt trail. We didn’t see any bears, but there was a lightning storm circling the dome and casting some of the most beautiful light I’ve ever seen.
17. Hike Angel Rocks Trail
The 3.5-mile round trip trail leads hikers through dense evergreen forests up to the sheer rock faces of the Angel Rocks. You can get beautiful views of the valley in just a couple of hours roundtrip.
18. Pan for the shiny stuff with Gold Daughters
Jordan and Laura Reeves are sisters in their twenties and from a family of gold miners. They have been panning since they could walk. Their love of the process is evident when you arrive at Gold Daughters and see them in action. We were given a bag of rocks — guaranteed to contain gold — a gold pan, and a water trough to try our hand at the profession which put Fairbanks on the map.
19. Grab a Pint at Hoodoo Brewing Company
If you want a taste of locally brewed beer and a chance to mingle with hipsters, head to Hoodoo Brewing Company. The tasting house is a warehouse with indoor/outdoor seating and plenty of opportunity for people-watching. It’s a social event as well as a chance to sample a curated selection of Fairbanks brews.
20. Shop Tanana Valley farmers’ market
Grab a bite to eat, shop for farm fresh veggies, and listen to a local band at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market. Locals peddle their wares from pickled vegetables to handmade crafts and jewelry in this local Fairbanks hangout.
21. Dine at the Historic Pump House Restaurant & Saloon
With pretty views of the Chena River, the Pump House Restaurant & Saloon is the place to go for a slightly upscale dining experience. The Lower 48 may have steakhouses, but Alaska has fish houses and Pump House serves some of the best seafood in the States. Order the salmon with lemon risotto and finish it up with creme brûlée.
22. Visit North Pole, Alaska
The town of North Pole is about 13 miles outside of Fairbanks. You can go there for the bonanza of yuletide cheer at Santa Claus House. I went there just to say I’d been to (the) North Pole. Bonus: there are actual reindeer.
23. Ride the picturesque Alaska railroad
See Alaska’s pristine wilderness from the comfort of a train. The Alaska Railroad runs 470 miles from Fairbanks south to the port of Seward, where many cruise ships depart. The train is comfortable and affords moving views of mountains, rivers, and wildlife. My favorite section is around Denali National Park. Stand in the vestibule or on the observation deck for the complete experience.
24. Spot wildlife at Denali National Park
Denali National Park is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Googling photos didn’t prepare me for the moody, unspoiled beauty of this national park. No vehicles are allowed in the park from a few miles after the entrance, so if you don’t plan to walk or bike in, the bus is your best bet. Our guide pointed out wild bears, moose, caribou, and sheep along our eight-hour tour to Eielson Visitor Center and back. Along the winding road, we stopped to admire the mist-heavy mountains. In June, they were still snow streaked but quilted with green and brown. Mt. Denali, North America’s tallest peak, wasn’t visible, which means I’m even more motivated to return.
[Note: I was a guest of Explore Fairbanks Alaska.]
Have you been to Alaska? Is it on your bucket list?