4-Day Weekend in Fairbanks, Alaska: Northern Lights, Hot Springs, and Adventures by Dog Sled

northern lights outside of Fairbanks, AK
The northern lights over a lake outside of Fairbanks, AKNotYourAverageBear / Shutterstock

Fairbanks, the only true city in interior Alaska, sits at the crossroads for adventurers heading to all sorts of destinations—it’s a straight shot north to the Arctic, east to Canada, and south to Denali National Park and Preserve. But the city is way more than just a staging point, and if you’re considering an Alaskan adventure, it’s worth spending a long weekend here. While it’s an intriguing place year-round, the winter is a particularly special time in Fairbanks: It’s the best season to witness one of nature’s great wonders, the aurora borealis or northern lights, unfurl streamers of light over the city.

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Fairbanks sits directly under the Auroral Oval, a band that hugs the northernmost part of the globe and denotes where auroral activity is most likely to take place. From September to April, it’s an ideal location for seeing the northern lights. According to the local tourism board, the light display is visible an average of 240 nights per year in Fairbanks.

While nights are indeed long in Fairbanks during the winter months (on the shortest day of the year, there are just 3 hours and 41 minutes of daylight), auroral activity is generally best seen after midnight. So what are you going to do with the rest of your day? We’ve got a few ideas.

Where to Stay

Borealis Basecamp: Without a doubt, one of the coolest places to stay near Fairbanks is Borealis Basecamp, where 15 clear-roofed igloos were custom-built and positioned to maximize your chances of catching stellar views of the northern lights. During the day, staff lead guests on quintessential Alaska adventures like dog sledding, snowmachining (snowmobiling to Lower 48ers), snowshoeing, and more.

Chena Hot Springs Resort: Another popular option is the Chena Hot Springs Resort. It’s a little over an hour’s drive from downtown Fairbanks and remote enough that you won’t have to worry about light pollution interfering with your view of the aurora. It’s also a favorite spot for locals, who make the trip here to watch the northern lights while soaking in the resort’s natural hot springs.

Prefer to stay in town? There are plenty of options, including River’s Edge Resort, Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, A Taste of Alaska Lodge, and Wedgewood Resort, among others.

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What to Do

University of Alaska Museum of the North: This is one of the best museums in the 49th state, and it features exhibits on everything from Alaskan wildlife to Indigenous artwork to a mummified bison from the Ice Age (seriously). You can also see the famous Into the Wild bus on display in the building’s atrium. In 2020, the state airlifted the 1940s bus—where Christopher McCandless lived and mysteriously died in 1992—from its spot in Denali National Park and Preserve and brought it to Fairbanks. Museum staff, engineers, and conservators are now working to restore the bus.

Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum: Seven of the roughly 100 antique (pre-WWII) vehicles at Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum don’t exist anywhere else in the world. All together, the collection represents some of the rarest, most historically significant, and (at the time they were built) most technologically advanced cars ever crafted. It’s surprising that this museum is located in Fairbanks, especially when you consider that when some of these cars were built, roads barely existed in Alaska. All the more reason to see it when you’re in town.

Soak in Hot Springs: If there’s one thing that will lure you into donning a swimsuit on a day with subzero temperatures, it’s the knowledge that it’s only a short walk from the locker room to a 106-degree, spring-fed soaking pool. For that reason, the Chena Hot Springs Resort is must-see attraction even if you’re not staying at the hotel. Beyond the hot springs, other activities include snowmobile tours, ice fishing, dog sled tours, and a tour of the Aurora Ice Museum, which concludes with an appletini served in an ice chalice (Fair warning: They’re potent).

Hike with Reindeer: On Bramble, on Forest, on Rocket and Peanut! Oh, those aren’t the reindeer you’re familiar with? Well, they’re just a few members of the herd that lives at Running Reindeer Ranch. Owner Jane Atkinson will tell you getting a pet reindeer is just what happens when you live in Alaska and tell your kid they can’t get a pony. On most days in the winter, you can take a short hike with the domesticated reindeer (also known as caribou in North America) through the boreal forest at the ranch and watch them search for tasty lichen. The hike wraps up with hot chocolate and cookies.

Go Dog Mushing: Last Frontier Mushing Co-op offers an all-inclusive three-hour experience that includes dog mushing along backcountry trails, watching the aurora dance overhead, and warming up with Alaskan snacks and hot chocolate inside a Mongolian yurt. Where else can you do all that in one day?

Take an Aurora Overnight Tour: If you want to really dive into dog sledding, Arctic Dog Adventure Co. combines overland dog sled travel with superb aurora viewing. Sign up for one of their overnight tours, and you’ll travel by dog sled through the backcountry and spend the night in a cozy mountain cabin. It’s a unique way to experience authentic Alaskan wilderness.

Visit the Arctic Circle: From Fairbanks it’s about 200 miles up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle, a place that the tourism board estimates less than two percent of all travelers to Alaska get to see. While it’s possible to drive yourself, we wouldn’t recommend it—varying road conditions make it a long, difficult trip. Instead, book a “flightseeing” tour with Northern Alaska Tour Company. The five-hour Arctic Circle Air Adventure takes you up over the beautiful Yukon River Valley and steers through the formidable Brooks Range before touching down in Coldfoot, AK for a quick land tour. Once you’re back in Fairbanks, you’ll get a certificate attesting to your Arctic journey—essential for bragging rights when you return home.

Where to Eat and Drink

Fairbanks isn’t necessarily known for its food (it’s hard getting fresh ingredients this far north), but there are a handful of go-to spots for a good meal.

One local favorite is Lemongrass. Don’t let its strip mall location fool you—this restaurant slings some of the best northern Thai food in the state, if not the country. In the mood for pizza? Check out East Ramp Wood-Fired Pizza. If you couldn’t guess, it’s located near the eastern edge of the Fairbanks airport, so you can watch bush planes take off while you wait for your food and beer.

Lavelle’s Bistro is a perennial favorite for an Alaskan version of upscale dining (think honey apple halibut and 25-ingredient meatloaf). Hilltop Restaurant & Marketplace admittedly doesn’t look like much (it’s the first place to grab a bite coming south on the Dalton Highway from the Arctic), but it offers solid comfort-food breakfast options and a truly shocking number of pie flavors.

For libations, you’re in luck: Fairbanks is home to a surprisingly dynamic beer scene. Swing by Silver Gulch Brewery, the northernmost brewery in the United States, for true-to-style lagers and ales, HooDoo Brewing for its massive beer garden and stellar barleywines, and Black Spruce Brewing for a bold and inventive tap list. Midnite Mine is also a crowd-pleaser—the basement is an old-school Alaska dive bar, and upstairs is one of the newest breweries in town. And for cocktails, you can’t go wrong with a visit to The Library Bar & Bites, Goldie’s AK, or Ursa Major Distilling.

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