We spent Labor Day weekend in Alaska, exploring Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Denali National Park. We went on an Alaskan cruise four years ago that served to whet our Alaska appetites, and I was thrilled we could head north again to explore parts of the interior and a new national park.
We flew into Fairbanks Friday evening and spent Saturday morning walking along the Chena River, driving to a few nearby sites, and grabbing lunch before heading toward Denali. Fairbanks was quiet and sleepy while we were there – perfect for wandering around on a partially cloudy morning. Here are a few of the highlights from our brief time there.
Things to Do In and Around Fairbanks
Walk along the Chena River. We stayed across the street from the Golden Heart Plaza in downtown Fairbanks, a few steps from the Barnette and Cushman street flag-lined bridges. We had lovely views of the Chena River and Immaculate Conception Catholic Parish from our hotel window. The night we arrived there were quite a few people experiencing homelessness in the park, but in the morning we had the place almost to ourselves.
We walked the path along the river, first toward the east and the Alaska Antler Arch at the Morris Thompson Cultural Visitor Center. Made of 100 moose and caribou antlers donated by hunters throughout the interior, this installation was one of Brian’s Roadside America finds and pretty interesting to see.
Later we walked the path west past the bridges. The western walk included several information plaques featuring Fairbanks history, including how the area quickly evolved during the early days of the Gold Rush. There were some beautiful flower beds still in bloom and older buildings along the street to admire, and a number of people were out running and walking their dogs.
Drive to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint. After we checked out of our hotel, we happened to do a quick look at some of the other sites we had tagged around Fairbanks and noticed there was an Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint only 15 minutes north of town. This quick drive took us out of the relatively cloudy downtown up into the blue sky hills outside of town.
The viewpoint has a small parking area off the highway with several informational displays about the pipeline project. I was fascinated to learn about the engineering that keeps the hot pipes from melting the permafrost they traverse. Brian knew right away about the rusted pig on display (the device that cleans and inspects the inside of the pipes). Well worth the short drive to visit!
Wander around Pioneer Park. Our final stop in downtown Fairbanks was Pioneer Park, which is an interesting combination of cheesy theme park and actual historical buildings and artifacts. We didn’t end up going in the museums, but we did walk around the Gold Rush town area, which features old houses that have been relocated from throughout Fairbanks to this park.
I also really enjoyed walking through the “Harding Car,” which President Warren G. Harding rode in when he visited Alaska in 1923 to drive the Golden Spike for the Alaska Railroad, and walking around the STR Nenana.
The Riverboat Nenana is a sternwheeler, nicknamed the “Queen of the Yukon.” She was commissioned by the Alaska Railroad and built in 1933. Her parts were made in Seattle and then shipped to Nenana, Alaska where she was constructed. She plied the Tanana and Yukon Rivers from 1933 to 1954, and her primary run was between Nenana and Marshall — a distance of about 858 miles.https://www.alaska.org/detail/pioneer-park#map
Pop in to Skinny Dick’s Half-way Inn. Just outside Fairbanks on the drive toward Denali National Park is a ridiculous roadside attraction called Skinny Dick’s Half-Way Inn that my brother-in-law recommended we pop in to see.
This brief stop included wandered around a small space that’s part bar, part Spencer’s-style gift shop. The ceiling, walls, and basically every other exposed space is covered in dollar bills with people’s names and well wishes on display.
The woman working inside pointed us to several poster boards featuring photos of Dick, who she said passed away about 15 years ago. He was in fact quite skinny and looked like the life of the party at this now relatively deserted roadside stop that’s been operating for about 60 years.
Places to Eat and Drink
We weren’t in Fairbanks long but did enjoy a few good places to eat and drink:
- The Library. The night we got in we walked several blocks away from the river to the Library, a local spot that features cocktails with literary titles! I enjoyed “The Rye in the Catcher” as well as a delicious caramelized onion and mushroom flatbread we shared as a snack. Highly recommend!
- Lemongrass. My brother-in-law recommended we make time to eat at Lemongrass, a Thai restaurant in a strip mall not far from Pioneer Park. We popped in for an amazing lunch of Thai basil fried rice and pad kee mao before heading toward Denali. Highly recommend!
- Bagels and Brews. I am a total sucker for a good NY-style bagel. Brian was a champ and walked 2.5-miles roundtrip with me to get a bagel and coffee for breakfast, navigating closed bridges, car accidents, and uninteresting concrete sidewalks along the way. If you like bagels, I’d recommend driving through and grabbing one to go!