We have a bit of a thing for trains. No, not like an inappropriate thing , we just like them. We even hired out a steam train for our wedding reception! So we were pretty stoked when we found out that the Alaska Railroad runs a winter service between Anchorage and Fairbanks called the Aurora Winter Train. Admittedly, the train ride does take 10 hours, but we couldn’t resist the opportunity to weave through some of the more wild parts of the state and see some amazing wilderness. Sadly our views of said wilderness were a little hampered by our ~3.5 hours daylight and the low cloud that obscured our views of Denali (this was devastating). Despite the poor conditions, though, we still saw several moose, plus the other types of locals on snow mobiles (snow machines if you’re Alaskan) or cross-country skis. We also saw enough trees to last us a lifetime, and a veritable feast of icy rivers and snow-covered mountains. We figured the train would pass through some remote parts of the last frontier state, but we were gobsmacked that there are people living in these remote areas who rely on the twice-weekly train for transportation and even mail delivery! As so many people rely on the train for transport as a result of the lack of road infrastructure through some areas, the train also runs as a flag stop service and will drop off and pick up passengers wherever. This does add to your journey time and makes the scheduling a little bit tricky, but catching a train running a flag stop service is a pretty unique experience that every train enthusiast should try at least once. The train also boasts a bar, and nothing quite beats watching a frozen world whip past you as you sip on your gin and tonic. Seriously, if you enjoy your train rides, the Aurora Winter Train is a fun and unique way to spend a day and a cool way to get from Fairbanks to Anchorage or back.
A major drawcard to Alaska and especially Fairbanks is the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. This notoriously elusive phenomenon attracts people from all around the world outside in the freezing cold just to catch a glimpse. Fairbanks is located in one of the world’s sweet spots when it comes to auroral activity and is why the Alaska Geophysical Institute set up shop here to study this amazing event. Their website provides forecasts of auroral intensity as well as a live sky cam which we eagerly checked every night hoping for the right conditions. With one of us being a huge space nerd, seeing the northern lights was one of the most highly anticipated activities ever. But after our previous bad luck with space-related activities including the cancellation of mountaintop stargazing in Hawaii and the absence of the Apollo 11 capsule in Washington DC we were concerned that our space-related bad luck might come in threes. Apparently if you spend more than three days in Fairbanks your chances of seeing the aurora jump to over 90%. This was becoming increasingly difficult to believe as we obsessively checked the sky cam each overcast night on our stay. Then, on New Years Eve when we felt all was lost, we checked the weather forecast and saw the persistent clouds that had plagued our visit were clearing. Checking the sky cam we finally saw what we’d been hoping for: stars and a faint wavy line snaking across the camera. Our AirBnb host suggested we head north of the city to the intersection of Skiland Rd and Fish Creek Rd, which is a popular viewing spot with the locals that is well away from the light pollution of Fairbanks. We knew we had found the right spot when we saw lots of parked cars and people with cameras staring at the sky. We leapt out of the car and hurried across the slippery terrain to join them. Even at this point we were worried we had missed our window on the 30-minute drive to get there. But lo and behold, there it was! An ever-changing curtain of green light stretched across the sky, slowly but endlessly folding, disappearing, re-emerging and altering in intensity. It is difficult to put into words what it is like to witness. but it was truly magical and we feel so lucky to have brought in 2019 beneath it.
While C’s big drawcard for Fairbanks was seeing the northern lights, J’s was a bit closer to the ground. And fluffy. We’re talking of course about dog sledding, which is a hugely important sport in Alaska and one of those must-do things when you visit. We chose to do it at Black Spruce Dog Sledding, just outside of Fairbanks, who provide a ‘tagalong’ sled so you can have a shot at driving, or you can sit in the sled throne at the front and be driven around your icy queendom a la Chronicles of Narnia. We had a team of 10 dogs pulling our sled who we also got to have a shot at harnessing up before we went sledding. Seriously, nothing prepares you for the huge jolt forwards that you feel as the dogs take off. These pups are so strong and are just superstar athletes. The tour takes you on a short loop around a mile long through spruce forest and up onto a ridge where you stop to take photos. The views are stark but absolutely spectacular. At the end of the ride you get plenty of time to take more photos and just hang out with the dogs. Sadly C said we couldn’t take any of them home with us which is a shame because they were amazing animals and I’d take all of them with me if I could. Our only criticism of our sled ride was that it wasn’t longer although on really cold days we can see how a longer trail could be uncomfortable or even downright dangerous for ill-prepared visitors. Keep an eye out on the trail for moose and other animals!
Things you definitely do not expect in a city of 32,000 people in Alaska’s interior? World-class museums. Yet Fairbanks has a couple that are definitely worth checking out. Aside from sounding like it’s straight from Game of Thrones, the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks boasts a small but impressive collection of items that covers Alaska’s past and present. This is a good place to brush up on your Alaskan history and get a sense of what the state is all about. The museum also has an art gallery featuring a range of Alaskan artists. A more unexpected Fairbanks find was the Fountainhead Vintage Car Museum, which was recommended to us by our AirBnb host. The museum began as a private collection that was opened to the public in 2009 and now boasts over 80 cars from 1900 through to 1940, as well as women’s and children’s clothing from those periods. Honestly, even if you’re not a car fan, it’s difficult not to be impressed by this collection. Also, the cars are beautifully and lovingly restored in house by the collection’s owner and a small team of enthusiasts, and all the cars still run. You can even dress up and get your photo taken in one. Our favourite part was seeing how many features we take for granted in car technology today were gradually introduced to car models as cutting-edge features. Keep an eye out for the car where brakes were a $10 optional extra!
Soaking in a natural hot spring in below-freezing temperatures, surrounded by stunning views of snow-covered hills sounds like a good way to spend an hour or two, right? Chena Hot Springs is a hotel and resort about an hour’s drive from Fairbanks. They have a number of activities/amenities on the resort which seem to be mostly for their resort guests, but the major drawcard is the natural hot spring pool which anyone can enter for a fee. The hot spring pool is lovely, although some of its surrounds have been sadly resort-ified, including the covered walkway leading into the pool from the locker rooms. Try to look past these tacky additions and just enjoy the weird experience of being hot and cold at the same time, and things like having the steam rising off you condense in your hair and freeze. Just make sure you drink plenty of water or risk getting very dehydrated and almost passing out. Not that we’re speaking from experience…
If you’re after a craft brew during your Fairbanks visit then HooDoo Brewing is a good bet. Like most breweries in Alaska HooDoo began only recently, having only made their start in 2011. As a young brewery we felt like they were still finding their feet. Their lighter beers seemed to lack the body of similar styles from more established breweries but that could also be due to the fact we were drinking lighter beers in the depths of winter. Their darker beers however were outstanding winter warmers with roasted coffee and toffee flavours abound. The tap room was absolutely buzzing when we visited, so it’s clearly a popular local watering hole.