Fall in Fairbanks: Good fun and few crowds
September 1, 2018
Alaskans annually play a waiting game with winter. The frenzied pace of summer begins to slow around mid-August as kids and grandkids return to school, daylight wanes, and weather patterns become a bit more unpredictable. But should this stop you from exploring the 49th state? Never. Autumn's shift merely indicates an entirely new season of travel, especially in Alaska's Interior region, where crowds thin noticeably after Labor Day.
Fairbanks plays hub to the greater Interior that includes smaller communities like North Pole, Glennallen, Cantwell and Healy (near Denali National Park). With almost 100,000 people living and working around Fairbanks, the borough feels spacious indeed during the non-tourist seasons of fall. And this means some excellent opportunities to visit some of my favorite destinations.
Drive: Roadtrippers who choose to drive either the Parks or Richardson Highways should be aware of early-season snow, and plan accordingly with appropriate tires, extra clothing, food and water. That said, the trip is a fairly easy 5-6 hours depending upon your propensity to stop and photograph the stunning fall scenery. Check Alaska Department of Transportation's 511 website for road conditions prior to leaving home. http://511.alaska.gov/alaska511/mappingcomponent/index
Train: The Alaska Railroad's Denali Star train continues daily service through Sept. 16, then shifts to a weekend-only service (with a few select weekday dates later in the winter), heading north on Saturday and south on Sunday. If you've got 12 hours to relax each way, the train is a delightful mode of transportation. https://www.alaskarailroad.com/ride-a-train/schedules
Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum: Located on the grounds of Wedgewood Resort, this museum is at the top of my to-do list. Gorgeous automobiles that all run, interesting video exhibits, and fashion to fit each era of transportation in Alaska. Note: Those who stay at Fountain Head Hotels receive free admission to the museum. https://www.fountainheadhotels.com/things-to-do.html
Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center: The lazy Chena River winds by the property, and visitors can take advantage of the Chena River Walk just outside the building. Inside, learn about Fairbanks' rich gold mining and homesteading past while taking in the ages-old Athabascan Native culture. On Saturdays, the Athabascan Fiddlers take over the atrium area with their rollicking music, with some players quite young. Also stop here for visitor information with Explore Fairbanks. https://www.fountainheadhotels.com/things-to-do.html
Georgeson Botanical Garden: Fall is a great time to visit the gardens on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. The autumn colors have deepened and the air is rich with the spicy smells of herbs. It's also a site for learning opportunities, and many seminars take place here for the sake of far northern gardeners. We like to take a picnic on sunny days and gaze from the garden across the equally-scenic Tanana Valley the campus overlooks.
University of Alaska Museum of the North: Just uphill from the gardens is the University's world-class museum, another must-see attraction. Open Monday-Saturday between September 1 and May 31, the museum is a tranquil place after a busy summer. Don't miss the art galleries, historical exhibits, and do stop at The Place You Go To Listen on the second floor, featuring a unique rhythmic light and sound show directly from our planet to your ears. https://www.uaf.edu/museum/plan-your-visit/
Pike's Lodge: We always enjoy a stay at Pike's, because this property welcomes Alaskans with open arms. Discounted rates, nightly ice cream, hot coffee, breakfast, and access to downtown. https://www.pikeslodge.com
A Taste of Alaska Lodge: This historic property was once a family homestead, and is still operated by a grandson and his family. Take in the sweeping views from any room and the dining area, including the northern lights (another perk of visiting during the fall -- the aurora can be quite active). Located about 20 minutes from downtown Fairbanks, A Taste of Alaska is best reached via rental car, but some ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft also serve the lodge. https://atasteofalaska.com/the-lodge/lodge-information/
Explore Fairbanks can assist guests with more attractions, lodging options, and dining recommendations. http://www.explorefairbanks.com.
Erin Kirkland is an Alaska guidebook author and journalist from Anchorage.