Seeing the Northern Lights in Fairbanks, Alaska
Everything the RV Renter Needs to Know
Everything the RV Renter Needs to Know
For many avid travelers, a chance to see the northern lights is a bucket list dream, and there’s perhaps no place better in the United States to see aurora borealis up close than in Fairbanks: Alaska’s second biggest city. Don’t let that designation give you the wrong impression, however; Fairbanks offers a truly authentic piece of Alaska in a place that combines excellent restaurants, world-class attractions like the Chena Hot Springs Resort, and the rugged nature Alaska is known for. Visiting Fairbanks by rented RV is the best way to see the northern lights and experience untamed Alaskan wilderness. Here’s everything you need to know to make your Fairbanks RV trip a memorable experience to last a lifetime.
Capturing the aurora borealis as it drapes the land in a blanket of green light is one of the ultimate challenges for any photographer, amateur and professional alike. At Fairbanks, where visitors have such a high chance of seeing the lights on any visit of three nights or longer, photo fans come from all over the world to set up and try to get the best possible picture of the delicate ballet on display in the skies.
Fairbanks’ tourism website offers some fantastic photography tips for anybody hoping to grab a shot of the lights. They recommend using a digital camera with manual settings you can manipulate (phone cameras might not yield the best results in other words). Capturing the lights in the dark requires at least five seconds of exposure, which means you’ll want to bring a tripod with you so you can grab a steady, clear, yet bright photo.
There are several lodges throughout Fairbanks where you can view the aurora in style. Appropriately called “auroriums,” these facilities often double as hotels—not that you’ll be needing that, but you might enjoy the option of having a comfortable place to see the lights for an evening. Take, for example, Aurora Borealis Lodge. Located atop a hill and designed with aurora viewing in mind, the lodge offers 360° views on its wide-open deck.
Aurora Borealis Lodge offers two types of tours. The first is their “Premier Aurora Tour,” which starts with a free shuttle ride from your hotel or RV site and takes you to the main lodge from 10:30 pm to 2:00 am where you can wait to see the lights, or step outside for a clearer view when the show begins. There’s also a self-drive aurora tour, which might just be the perfect option for the RV crowd; it’s the same as the main tour, but you transport yourself to the lodge.
For more info on other lodges and auroriums in Fairbanks, visit the Explore Fairbanks website.
Few activities can capture the spirit of Alaska like dog sledding, and there are several companies offering just that experience—made perfect under the lights of the aurora. One of the best services focused specifically on creating a combined mushing and aurora viewing adventure is Sirius Sled Dogs. They’ll pick you up anywhere within Fairbanks city limits (or, if you’re staying elsewhere, either meet you in town to take you the rest of the way or work with you on transportation) and take you out to their home. There, you’ll get to meet the sled dogs, go on a ride, and then cozy up inside with soup and wait for the lights.
But there are many options for sledding tours, ranging from 30-minute rides to all-day tours. For a full list of providers, visit the Fairbanks website’s page on dog mushing.
Coinciding with aurora season, wintertime in Fairbanks is also the perfect time to go ice fishing. Some anglers like to fish from inside of warm shacks with amenities like stoves and space heaters, while others enjoy staying out in the elements. Either way, the trout, arctic char, salmon, grayling, and burbot that live in the lakes in and around Fairbanks work as a pretty great reward for any fisherman who braves the cold. There are three lakes in the area—Harding, Birch, and Quartz—where ice fishing is a popular pastime.
And since so much of fishing is about waiting for a bite, why not double dip on your waiting and go ice fishing at night when you have a chance to see the aurora? You can find your own spot to fish overnight, or you can hire a tour to take the guesswork out of your aurora ice fishing trip. Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service offers guided Aurora Ice Fishing trips out to a private shelter with electricity and a perch above the lake, so whenever the lights come out, you’ll have a great view.
When gold miners and European pioneers first came to Alaska more than a century ago, they were drawn to Fairbanks specifically because it was near plenty of fresh water—including some incredible natural hot springs. What better way to relax your tired muscles and warm up after a day of mushing and ice fishing (or a long, cold night of aurora watching?) than with a dip in the hot, mineral-rich waters? Chena Hot Springs Resort is the main destination in Fairbanks for hot springs, and it’s open year-round.
You can always drive yourself up to the hot springs yourself in your RV, but there are several tour operators and guides in Fairbanks that make Chena Hot Springs Resort an important destination in their tours. 1st Alaska Tours is the top company in Fairbanks proper. If you travel just outside to North Pole, Alaska, Alaska Aurora Adventures and Alaska-Wildlife-Guide offer dog sledding and vehicle tours out to Chena Hot Springs Resort.
Just 10 minutes outside of Fairbanks in North Pole, Alaska, Riverview RV Park is a top-rated Good Sam Club resort. Of the park’s 160 RV sites, 154 have full hookups, and there’s Wi-Fi and cable available for free throughout. Enjoy the river views and fun on their three-hole pitch and putt mini golf course.
River’s Edge RV Park & Campground in Fairbanks is an excellent home base for your entire Fairbanks vacation. Located right on the Chena River, River’s Edge offers transportation and ticketing services for many of Fairbanks’ top attractions, so you never have to unhook. There are 167 sites at River’s Edge and excellent shower facilities free with your stay.
A very affordable option is Tanana Valley Campground, also about 10 minutes away from downtown Fairbanks. With 50-amp hookup sites for $35 a night and prices that just go down from there, it’s a beautiful place to stay nestled in the pine forests Alaska is known for. Hiking and biking trails are easily accessible from the campground, making this a great place for outdoor enthusiasts.
Not to be confused with the longer, more distant Chena River State Recreation Area, the Chena River State Recreation Site in Fairbanks is home to an excellent campground perfect for the RV crowd. There are 60 vehicle-friendly campsites, many of which offer hook-ups for RVs, which are allowed with no-site limits. Enjoy the on-site boat launch and riverside trails during your stay.
Part of the Chena River State Recreation Area (yes, this is very confusing), Granite Tors Trail Campground is a great secondary public camping option outside of Fairbanks. It’s a 40-minute drive from the heart of the city, but it does put you close to Tors Trailhead, the gateway to excellent hiking trails in Chena River SRA. There are 24 RV-friendly campsites available.
If you’re looking for an authentic taste of Alaskan cuisine, Alaska Salmon Bake & Palace Theatre is your spot. Come out for the fire-grilled wild salmon and fried halibut, stay for the comedy revue show. The Pump House Restaurant and Saloon is a National Historic Site offering fresh local seafood and game—a true slice of genuine Alaska.
There’s a vibrant brewing and distilling culture in Fairbanks, as well. Brewpubs like 49th State Brewing Company and HooDoo Brewing Company offer great eats (sometimes from food trucks) and a long menu of craft brews. Ursa Major Distilling, Arctic Harvest, and Hoarfrost Distilling all offer quality spirits made from local ingredients and used in world-class cocktails.
For a complete list of restaurants and other eateries in Fairbanks, check out this list from the Explore Fairbanks website.