“Yes, but isn’t fall in Fairbanks just a bit boring?” This from a friend who had never attempted a northern trip to the Golden Heart City in any season other than summer. Truth be told, we hadn’t visited Fairbanks in autumn yet, either, so our mid-September journey was a bit of an unknown. I had visions of grounded leaves, closed businesses, and snow in the air, so I was more than pleasantly surprised when there was none of that. Heading to Fairbanks for a family getaway was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made, and here’s why:
Lodging: Hello! Post-Labor Day, prices go way, way down, leaving visitors with affordable options. We stayed this trip at Pike’s Lodge, located seconds from the Fairbanks airport and right smack on the tranquil Chena River. With a warm, friendly atmosphere, Pike’s really stood out as a family-friendly option, and the walking trail, free ice cream, and fast, fast WiFi just added to the experience. To sweeten the deal, the Alaska TourSaver coupon book offers a Pike’s 2-nights-for-1 bonus, making a weekend rather affordable, indeed. Pike’s offers a free continental breakfast which is rather ordinary but filling, and lunch/dinner during the fall and winter months is available at Pike’s Landing restaurant just across the parking lot. It’s not my favorite sort of place to take children, but the food is solid ( they have a very worthy kids’ menu) and the view, delightful. Despite a rather embarrassing bill mistake by our server, AK Fam felt quite pampered at Pike’s Landing, sampling crab-stuffed mushrooms and sipping wine while AK Kid dove into his chicken tenders with relish.
Crowds: What crowds? Although many tour companies and cruise lines are still in full swing for another few weeks, the tempo and mood of Fairbanks is decidely mellow. We wandered along the Chena River trail, a flat, paved track that allows anyone a few miles of solitude beside this lazy river, ending up at the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors’ Center on Dunkel Street to see new exhibits and enjoy old ones. One of our favorite Fairbanks stops, Morris Thompson is home to Alaska Geographic, the Alaska Public Lands Building, Fairbanks Convention and Vistiors’ Center, and the Tanana Valley Chiefs’ office. Learn about the state’s Interior region, its recreation, subsistence, and geography right here; watch movies about bears, moose, and men who survive and thrive in this harsh existence; and pick up brochures for all things Interior and beyond. We love this place; while visiting, we watched a pack of local children at their weekly fiddle lesson, and I snuck in on an elder Athabascan instructing a very respectful teenager in some advanced fiddle in the sacred, humbling Elders Room, a sight that nearly brought me to tears for the reverence for tradition and musical history living right before me. This would have never happened during a frenzied summer weekend. It was just us and the soundtrack of Mother Earth right there in this room, and I was grateful to be allowed in.
F.U.N.: Some Fairbanks attractions shutter their doors around September 15, so we just missed the Riverboat Discovery, El Dorado Gold Mine, and other “usual” things to see and do, but it was so easy to jockey around to the things still in operation. Take the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, for example; this year-round museum provides a stellar example of how the car/sled/motorcycle/bicycle made headlines in Alaska, along biographies of each machine. Kids will enjoy trying on the antique dusters and hats and playing cars on the rug in front of the lounging area, adults will dig the pristine-condition cars, and we chicks will swoon over the vintage clothing (oh, girls, will you ever!). AK Fam was privileged to ride in a 1936 Packard with manager Nancy DeWitt and photographer Ronn Murray, who teamed up to write a fabulous book about the museum last year. We chugged around Fairbanks, wowing all who came near, that’s for sure!
Creamer’s Field is another perfect spot to take the kiddos before snow flies (and after, too, really). With flat walking paths and boardwalks through the Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Bird Refuge is still teeming with flora and fauna during the autumn months. Crisp air greeted our senses, beautiful leaves made us walk with open mouths, and a great trail guide kept busy AK Kid engaged and “in charge” during the 1.5 mile walk, total. Creamer’s Field also has a great Farmhouse Visitor Center, open on Saturdays, where kids can explore and learn during their open hours. They offer classes and programs, too, all year round, and it’s worth checking out no matter when you visit.
Pioneer Park, operated by the Fairbanks-North Star Borough, is the former “Alaskaland” that many old-time Alaskans remember. During the summer, Pioneer Park is the hub for touristy family fun, with a Gold Rush Village, museum, and salmon bake running during daylight hours (hence, almost all the time). The Tanana Valley RR (a cute little choo-choo & museum) circles the park and shows off the backstory of the park, Alaska, and its rugged individual style, a great way to get kids excited about Alaska. Come fall, however, much of the park falls silent, save for the playground and mini-golf course (operating until weather gets too cold to drive those little balls in the cup). This weekend, however, was the perfect opportunity to wander the little village streets, enter the museum (open now through mid-October), and let AK Kid spank AK Dad in golf (well, not really, but he thinks he did). The sun was delicious, the flowers gorgeous, and all stressors melted away as we soaked in some northern sunshine. Wowsers.
Need more of that bloomin’ autumn goodness? Try the Georgeson Botanical Garden at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Located on the western end of the University property, and boasting a lovely view of the valley below, the gardens are a nice walk for kids and a peaceful respite for parents. Little snakey pathways lead children on mini-adventures, and grownups will be interested in the experimental plants growing there, courtesy of students and garden club members. Stop by the Ohlsen Family Food Garden, for sure, and spy on those enormous veggies growing still growing like crazy, but getting ready for harvest. The University’s farm is on the same swath of land, too, so check out the musk oxen, cows, and reindeer while you’re at it!
When you’ve worn the kids out, return home secure in the knowledge that you have indeed sampled the best of the best in Alaska, the way locals do. Genuine, down-home, and rich, rich, rich.
If you go: Alaska Airlines is offering PFD specials for flights to/from Anchorage. Era Alaska is also providing “Fall-ing” fare deals on its website, plus some frequent flyer deals through their Era Rewards program.
Driving can be tricky this time of year, so be sure to allow ample time for snow, moose, caribou, or other unforseen circumstances. Put those snow tires on the vehicle, too, and take along an emergency kit of food, water, sleeping bags, a shovel, matches, firelog, etc.