Fairbanks, Alaska: Downtown and Visitor Center

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Fairbanks might be the second biggest city in Alaska, but don’t think for a minute that it’s a metropolis.  This outpost in the Alaskan interior is very much a small town.  But, since it’s the biggest thing around, it will probably be the focus of at least one day of your Alaska road trip, and that’s okay, because there’s at least one day’s worth of stuff to see and do.

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Any visit to Fairbanks should start at the city’s excellent visitor center, housed in what’s certainly downtown Fairbanks’ most beautiful building.  This place is much more than a welcome center — although it serves that purpose quite nicely.

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It’s also an excellent museum, which tells the story of life in the interior of Alaska.  Exhibits illustrate the seasons — this one, summer, where fishing is a big focus.

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Small planes are a big part of that life, and you’ll find one, hanging overhead. But this plane served an even greater purpose.  Bishop William Gordon was a missionary who served the Native Alaskan population for 30 years, starting in 1943.  He logged hundreds of thousands of air miles in that plane, preaching to congregations around the state.

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Traditional clothing is also on display.

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Outside, you can check out the Walter and Mary Ellen Gould Cabin, which is still located in its original location.  It dates back to at least 1910, and it illustrates a very common home design of the time — small, so it would be easier to keep warm.

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The cabin was locked when I visited, but I could still peer inside.

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From the visitor center, you can easily check out the nice park along the Chena River.

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A mile marker proclaims the center of the city.  From here it’s 1,523 miles to Dawson Creek, British Columbia — the start of the Alaska-Canada Highway. On the other side, it tells you that you’re a mere 194 miles from the Arctic Circle, and 4,527 miles away from New York City.

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A water fountain surrounds the “First Unknown Family” statue in the park.  The statue honors the Inuit people who lived here, long before modern-day settlers arrived.

From the park, you’re practically in downtown Fairbanks, so go ahead and wander that way.

Behind the statue, and just to the left, you can see Fairbanks’ tallest building.  The 11-story Polaris Building is a big problem for the city.  It’s been vacant for more than a decade, and has fallen into severe disrepair.  Efforts to renovate it have gone nowhere, and the cost of demolishing it is more than the city of Fairbanks can afford.  If it’s ever knocked down, Fairbanks has four 8-story buildings that can take the title.

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Fairbanks does have all the major TV networks, including ABC, which comes from KATN, located in the big blue Lathrop Building in downtown.  Fairbanks is a very tiny Nielsen market – it ranks 202 out of 210 nationwide (but it’s not the smallest market in Alaska — that’s Juneau, at 207).

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The Mecca Bar has some nice neon over the front door.  I’ve read that the Mecca’s history in Fairbanks is legendary or notorious, but I’m not really sure why.  I do know that you might catch a glimpse of its iconic entrance in the Sean Penn movie, Into the Wild.  I’ve also read that, over the past few years, a new owner has been slowly restoring the bar to its glory days.

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The Co-Op Plaza is making an effort to bring business activity and art to downtown Fairbanks.  There are a handful of small stores inside…

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… although sadly, when I visited, the Co-op restaurant had shut down.  However, a number of other businesses were still operating.  The Co-op is located across the street from the Springhill Suites hotel on 2nd Avenue, and there’s also an entrance on 3rd Avenue.

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Fairbanks has a rather ugly feature in its downtown district, but it’s trying to make the best of it.  These steam pipes are everywhere, but in recent years, local artists have made them look a lot better.  Local businesses sponsor the “Paint the Pipes” effort, and artists add something colorful and creative.

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In case you’re wondering, the vent pipes provide a fresh-air intake for the city’s underground steam-heat and utility system.

Outside of Downtown

Once you’ve seen everything there is to see in downtown Fairbanks, you’ll probably be looking for some more things to do.

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You can get a good look at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which carries crude oil from the North Slope to Valdez.  There’s a display at the side of the road, north of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway.

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The old Creamers Dairy is now a wildlife preserve, that’s often filled with migrating birds.  A short hike around the grounds is free, and there’s a gift shop and visitor center in the old farmhouse, where you can learn how the early-20th-century farm produced milk in sub-zero temperatures.

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If you want to go hiking, the folks at the visitor center will likely recommend the Angel Rocks Trail, in the Chena River State Recreation Area.   It’s a long drive out of town – about 50 miles, one way, but the hike provides some beautiful views of the Chena River area, from numerous rocky outcrops.

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And don’t forget that Santa lives at North Pole, Alaska — a small town that’s just a few miles outside Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway (Alaska 2).

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