New Years Eve in Fairbanks, Alaska

by Mike Still
New Years Eve in Fairbanks, Alaska

Fairbanks is one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis and quickly topped my list for new years eve destinations, especially after I committed exploring Alaska rather than flying elsewhere. With Chena Hot Springs and great winter sports available too I knew that I would have fun. The only problem is Fairbanks also happens to be one of the coldest cities in the country.

Thankfully my brother and a few of our country dancing friends were crazy enough to make the trip north with me to ring in 2019 in true Alaskan style!

The drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks is just over 300 miles and took us about 7 hours. There are plenty of scenic stops on the way with Denali National Park being the most famous. Along the way, we took a short detour to look for the “Doctor Suess House” but were sent back to the highway by some locals and no trespassing signs.

Road trip sing-a-longs, plenty of snacks and a brief pit stop (where I found taking a bathroom break knee deep in the snow) were all that stood between us and the far north. My new dancing friend, Robyn, grew up in the North Pole and gave us plenty of ideas for how to enjoy this trip to Fairbanks.

New Years Eve in Fairbanks, Alaska

After checking into the Regency Fairbanks we went out for Thai food at Lemongrass Thai, a restaurant that Daniel had heard about while in Thailand so we knew it must be good! The wait staff was friendly and the food lived up to our high expectations.

Everyone chuckled when the waitress brought over the spicy tray and a special “slap yo momma” spice.

After dinner, the crew donned winter gear and piled into the cars for our first aurora hunt. The Aurora Borealis Notifications Facebook Group suggested we head to Murphy Dome for a 360° view of the night sky and it did not disappoint.

Aurora Borealis at Murphy Dome, Fairbanks

Murphy Dome on Google Maps
FREE

It was overcast down in the city but by the time we got halfway up the dome stars and aurora borealis started popping through the clouds. The road is easy to follow and the aurora dance grew in magnitude the higher we climbed. Green lights danced through the stars as faint reds and purples mixed between them.

The sky illuminated in a brilliant display as we pulled into the parking lot and quickly set up our gear. The northern lights dazzled to the north and west before coming directly overhead like a brilliant phoenix!

Dress warmly with many layers when visiting Fairbanks in the winter. Without clouds to trap the heat in, temperatures continued to drop and somewhere around -7°F Aaron posited that we were just as far from “freezing” as a 70°F summer day!

The light show continued for another hour or so fading slowly over time and reminding us that we had plenty of other things to do in Fairbanks so we piled back into the cars thinking it would be a quick drive home. But we spotted a car stuck in the ditch before we even got out of the parking lot and pulled over to help.

A couple of extra hands and a tow rope helped this Oregonian couple get back on their way. Driving back down the dome we spotted another vehicle in distress and jumped to the aid of an SUV on the side of the road, they pulled over too far and the right half of their vehicle fell through the snowpack. We brought the tow rope out one more time as another van skidded to a halt ahead of us. It was easy to convince them that their vehicle probably wouldn’t make it to the top and if you’re heading to Murphy Dome I HIGHLY recommend a 4 wheel drive vehicle and a driver with some winter experience!

Be prepared for the conditions in Fairbanks, Alaska. Roads are difficult and can be lethal if you get stuck overnight in sub-zero temperatures!

Fun things to do in Fairbanks other than the northern lights

Chena Hot Springs

Chena Hot Springs on Google Maps
$15 per person or $100 for a 10 pack

Our first full day in Fairbanks sent us on an hour drive to Chena Hot Springs. We’d had an incredible aurora display and now the main thing on my list of what to see in Fairbanks was these natural geothermal pools. I’ve heard mixed reviews of the hot springs so we arrived with low expectations which were blown away by these natural hot tubs.

(front) Daniel, Mike, (Middle) Aaron, Maile, Haley, Jenae, Ben (Back) Jake, Stephen

The rocky pool was surrounded by snow and ice but full of 106 degree water. We played around with the freezing temperatures above and I even climbed a rock to try and roll around in the snow before a few of us attempted some acro moves.

Jake & Maile doing some acro

Dancing Lights and Christmas Music

Dancing Lights at George Horner Park on Google Maps
$10 per car

After Chena Hot Springs we drove to the west side of Fairbanks for a dancing light show. I’d never seen anything like this and although I’ve seen more elaborate light displays these lights were perfectly timed to a radio station playing an hour-long loop of Christmas music. Many of the songs were rock covers of popular holiday music with a few more obscure songs about Santa and his elves mixed in.

A few of us went back to Murphy Dome after for a second chance at seeing the aurora. Tonight the clouds were out a bit more and the lights were weaker but we still saw some glow poking through the clouds.

Big Dipper with some cloud-covered Aurora

Winter Sports at Chena Lakes Recreation Area

Chena Lakes Recreation Area on Google Maps
FREE (Bring your own gear)

An adventure wouldn’t be complete without some outdoor excursion and up here in the great white north, that means winter sports! We piled cross country skies and snowshoes into the cars and drove a half hour to Chena Lakes near North Pole to explore this recreation area.

Mike, Jenae, Haley, Stephen (Front) Ben, Aaron, Daniel (Back)

We saw lots of ice fishing and snow machining while walking across this frozen lake. There are a few benches and picnic tables scattered through the islands and if you head there for midday the sunrise/sunset will bring a continuous golden hour from about 10am-3pm.

Jenae, Ben, Haley & Aaron

Photo by Stephen Bahner

Visit the Santa Claus House

Santa Claus House on Google Maps
FREE entry

North Pole, Alaska is a small winter town a half hour from Fairbanks with plenty of winter trails and home to Chena Lakes Recreation area (see above). Most people who visit North Pole come for the year-round Christmas decorations and Santa Claus House. The house is right off the highway and easy to find thanks to the giant Santa sculpture out front, click the Google Maps link above for directions.

Santa Claus House in the North Pole

Warning: The fudge at the Santa Claus house is DELICIOUS and don’t try it if you don’t wanna buy any! The good news is its buy 3 get 1 free.

Inside Santa’s house, you can take a free photo with Mr. & Mrs. Claus and explore a HUGE gift shop. A few people in our group bought souvenirs and fudge but somehow I managed to walk out without buying any. I did indulge in some artisan wild blueberry hot chocolate instead.

Fairbanks, Alaska Things to do in Winter

  • Look for the northern lights at Murphy Dome
  • Eat at Lemongrass Thai Restaurant
  • Explore Chena Hot Springs
  • Winter Sports at Chena Lakes
  • Visit Santa’s House in the North Pole
  • Pose with ice sculptures at the North Pole
  • Breakfast at the Cookie Jar
  • Enjoy a beer at the Silver Gulch Brewery
  • Country Dance at the Spur
  • Watch the Dancing Lights Show
  • Fireworks at University of Alaska, Fairbanks
  • See the oil pipeline

Ice Sculptures and Reindeer

Next to the Santa Claus house, you’ll find an ice sculpture garden ($9 entry) and a few reindeer hanging out. I didn’t see Rudolph and we opted not to pay the entry fee here but its a great family friendly activity for anyone traveling to the North Pole with little ones. This year there was a huge Santa ice sculpture and sleigh outside the gates that was perfect for a chilly selfie.

New Years Eve Fireworks at University of Alaska, Fairbanks

The University of Alaska Fairbanks on Google Maps

Fireworks are famous on New Year’s Eve throughout the world and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks puts on a fine display for this small town. We managed to park facing the light show and enjoy it from the warmth of our car while other families donned snow gear and sent their kids to play in the snow while waiting.

Dancing the Night away at The Spur

The Spur on Google Maps

The Spur is open Thurs-Sat nights for country dancing.

If you’ve actually read through this post then you might recall that our group was comprised of a bunch of country dancers. So naturally, when Robyn mentioned The Spur was a local country bar we had to check it out. We enjoyed some line dances and two-stepping the Saturday before New Year’s and heard New Year’s Eve would bring a live band and champagne with a $10 cover charge and lots of friendly dancers. We took a quick stop at our hotel to freshen up before heading to the Spur where we happily danced our way into 2019.

Breakfast at The Cookie Jar

The Cookie Jar on Google Maps

Our last stop in Fairbanks before driving back to Anchorage was quite possibly the best breakfast spot in town, The Cookie Jar! They serve plenty of traditional dishes and I enjoyed an omelet but was glad that I got to taste Ben’s meal too. He ordered a massive cinnamon roll turned into french toast and covered in a sweet glaze. You can buy cinnamon rolls or cookies the size of your head at the checkout too.

Other Things to do in Fairbanks

Visit Denali National Park

Steam at Chena Hot Springs freezes beautifully in Maile’s hair

Denali National Park is about two hours from Fairbanks and well worth the trip. If you’re driving up from Anchorage like we did you can use the park as a quick pit stop along the way but be warned that much of the park is closed during winter. The Mount Healy Overlook trail gives you a nice mountain view but its impossible to see Denali until the road opens up again after winter.

Enjoy a fresh beer at Silver Gulch Brewery

Silver Gulch is a great brewery and serves food. We didn’t love the food but we did love the beer! There are a few other breweries in town but we didn’t have a chance to check them out. Google will be your best friend if you are looking for more breweries.

Visit the Oil Pipeline

If you’re an engineer, work in the oil industry, or just looking for something a little unique to add to your list then you should take a drive to see the oil pipeline! There are a few transfer stations and other places you can visit but most people simply find a spot where they can see the massive pipes and might even take a selfie.

Drive to the Arctic Circle

Fairbanks is about 200 miles from the Arctic Circle and although we didn’t make the drive many tourists come up to Fairbanks and are incredibly excited to cross the invisible boundary and take a photo with the Arctic Circle sign. Along the way, you might see some wildlife but if you’re hoping for wild animals than Denali is your better bet.

Other Things to do in Alaska

Where to stay in Fairbanks

Fairbanks RegencyWe enjoyed our stay at the Regency, the rooms both had 2 queen beds, were well maintained and affordable, plus we got a cot for free. I reserved them on sale for $81/night over new years and have seen them as low as $68/night depending on the dates. These rooms include free breakfast.

Sophie Station Suites – Sophie Station is a little pricier than the Regency with rooms starting around $100/night. It is particularly well rated among couples on Booking.com.

Wedgewood Resort – A highly rated resort in Fairbanks perfect for a family with a 6 person suite for $175!

Minnie Street Inn – The only 5-star hotel in Fairbanks on Booking.com with smaller queen rooms and a shared bathroom for $70/night or larger suites that are $200 and up.

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Disclaimer: This is the internet and It is safe to assume that links and content contained on this webpage provide compensation to the website’s owner. The opinions here are my own and the information here is accurate as of November 2018. Unless otherwise labeled, all photos and video were taken by Mike Still.

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded www.LiveTravelTeach.com as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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5 comments

Peter Levy January 3, 2019 - 9:12 am

Great adventures! And Photos. How long was the exposure on the Auroras?

Reply
Mike Still January 3, 2019 - 9:46 am

Thank you Peter and happy new year to you and Sandy! The aurora photos were between 5 and 30 seconds long. The more stars the longer the exposure.

Reply
Peter Levy January 3, 2019 - 9:57 am

Best wishes for a great 2019 to you (and Ben & Jenae). Those shots are terrific, as all of yours are.

Reply
Jean Holt January 3, 2019 - 12:29 pm

Great travels to Fairbanks & all + pointers for other travelers!

Reply
Best places to spend Christmas in the Americas - Travel Photo Discovery December 8, 2019 - 12:44 pm

[…] aurora borealis awaits you most evenings this far north. If you’re visiting on a cloudy day try driving to Murphy Dome where you can gain some elevation and find an easy parking […]

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