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The Fairest of Them All

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

With a rich history, sweeping views, abundant wildlife and world-class seafood, Fairbanks, Alaska, may be the RV trip of a lifetime you’ve  been looking for

With its breathtaking scenery, Alaska is high on the must-do list for many RVers. We go for the state’s coastal riches, its nearly vertical fjords and its stunning mountains but, too often, we ignore interior Alaska. Central Alaska, including history-rich Fairbanks, may just be the unrecognized princess, the Cinderella that’s the fairest of them all.

On a recent trip to Alaska, we flew into Anchorage and rented a 24-foot Class C from Alaska Motorhome Rentals. We took along “The Milepost: Alaska Travel Planner,” our road bible, which gave us rest stops and waysides, places to gas up and interesting mile-by-mile information.

Our first stop was Denali National Park. The George Parks Highway (Alaska 3, aka “the Parks”) is a 362-mile-long paved road that stretches between Anchorage and Fairbanks. It’s the road that most travelers take to reach Denali National Park and the great Denali, at 20,310 feet, the highest mountain in North America. After enjoying Denali, we note that it’s only a couple of hours north to Fairbanks.

We wake early to partially cloudy skies and head north on the Parks Highway. We’re following the glacial Nenana River and, at milepost 215.8, cross the first impressively high Nenana River bridge. We gas up in the little berg of Healy, since fuel is 30 cents per gallon less expensive than elsewhere.

We pass 49th State Brewing Co. where the bus from the cult movie “Into the Wild” is on display. The film was about young Christopher McCandless, who in May 1992 set up camp in an abandoned bus to experience living in the wild. When he became disillusioned with his adventure, he tried to hike out, but couldn’t cross a deep and violent stream. He returned to the bus, mistakenly ate a poisoned plant and died alone in the wilderness. Today, people come to the brewery to see the movie bus and some even hike out to the original bus rusting in the wilderness.

Just outside Healy, we’re stopped for 10 minutes by road construction and it takes another 15 bumping along a gravel road to be free of it. Since weather is harsh and summers are short, summer road construction is common in Alaska and it’s a good idea to keep your itinerary flexible.

All around us are dwarf spruce and aspen forests, their growth stunted by cold winters and permafrost. We cross the Nenana River again, stretched out and looking mild compared to the fast, frothy river a few miles back.
Occasional breaks in the trees give us sweeping views of broad, flat plains dotted with evergreens and lakes. This is wild country, with few businesses and little traffic. Our GPS routinely gets lost, suggesting turns that would take us hopelessly off course. Fortunately, we also carry a good map and a compass, and use our common sense.

We’re only 24 miles outside of Fairbanks, passing through taiga (boreal forest) that covers most of inland Alaska. Taiga is the largest biome, making up 29 percent of the world’s forest cover. In Alaska, the boreal forest consists of spruce (black and white), birch, alder, willow and poplar. Because of the difficult winter weather, low precipitation and poor soil, these aren’t the lushest or prettiest forests, but they support a wide range of wildlife from caribou to black bear.

At milepost 344, we pull off at the George Parks Monument turnout, a great place for expansive views of the Tanana Valley, the Nenana River and, weather permitting, the grand Alaska Range. It gives us a glimmer of the vastness of this landscape.

Fairbanks: Alaska’s Golden Heart

We pull into Fairbanks and the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center where we’re introduced to Fairbanks’ colorful gold rush history. In 1902, prospector Felix Pedro struck gold about 16 miles from what is now Fairbanks. Entrepreneur and con man Capt. E.T. Barnette called the area “Fairbanks” to lure would-be prospectors to his area trading post. Today, Fairbanks, on the banks of the Chena River, is Alaska’s second largest city.

At Morris Thompson Center, we pick up maps and brochures and enjoy the many displays, including “How We Live: The People and the Land,” a motion-activated diorama about interior Alaska’s weather, industry and native culture. We meet an Alaska Native beadmaker who allows us to try on an amazing $30,000 coat made of skins of wolf, marten, wolverine and moose hide with intricate beadwork.

Next, we drive to the Riverboat Discovery, a family-owned attraction that makes twice-daily three-hour cruises in the summer down the Chena River. We board the Discovery II, a 1,000-passenger sternwheeler that was the last to haul freight in Alaska and we slowly edge down the muddy river listening to stories about the area’s history. We watch a small pontoon plane show off river takeoffs and landings right next to our boat. Then, we pull alongside the home and kennel of the late four-time Iditarod champion, Susan Butcher. Susan’s husband, Dave Monson, talks about sled dogs and we watch a dog team tear around the yard pulling a wheeled sled. We also stop and tour a replica Athabascan Indian village where two young native guides tell us about curing hides, smoking salmon and activities of daily life in the Alaskan bush. As we sail homeward, we enjoy tasty smoked salmon snacks.

Then we motor to River’s Edge RV Park (open May 15-September 15), our home-away-from-home for a few days. This 180-site, full-service RV park, the nicest we’ve found in Alaska, is right along the Chena River and offers 30- and 50-amp service, level gravel pull-through sites, a dump station, and laundry and shower house. Best of all, there’s a riverside walking path that leads to Chena’s Alaskan Grill, where we meet our friend, Bill, for a luscious meal of fettuccine loaded with Alaska salmon, scallops, king crab, fat shrimp and artichoke hearts.

We awake to blue skies and balmy weather and park in the generous lot at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. The gleaming, 84,000-square-foot white building with dramatic, curving forms that replicate shapes found on Alaska’s coast, mountains and glaciers is almost as wonderful as the exhibits. There’s a 3,550-pound jade boulder and an exhibition of Alaskan folk art. The Gallery of Alaska explores wildlife, including Otto, an 8-foot, 9-inch-tall Alaskan brown bear. The museum also tells the story of early exploration and the state’s natural history. There’s a special exhibit that explores the 100th anniversary of the first people to climb Denali and we learn that friends and relatives of those first explorers are climbing the mountain as we read about the first climb.

We could spend hours at this world-class museum, but hunger catches up with us. We stop at a farmers market and pick up a couple of reindeer sausages on our way to the university’s Large Animal Research Station. In the summer, it offers guided tours of its musk ox, caribou and reindeer enclosures. Amy, our tour guide, takes us on a walking tour and introduces us to Pee Wee, a 2-year-old musk ox, who happily munches on leaves she offers. Musk ox, one of the only true Arctic mammals, were driven to extinction in Alaska, but efforts by people at the research center are bringing them back.

In the evening, we head for Pioneer Park, a fun, city-owned historical park that celebrates the area’s historic highlights – river sternwheelers, early aviation and the gold rush era. They’ve built an entire town from old cabins and transplanted buildings. There is even a 1904 rail car that President Warren G. Harding rode in when he drove the Golden Spike for the Alaska Railroad in 1923. In the old-time Palace Theatre, we enjoy a fun musical about the early days and then gorge on a surprisingly delicious all-you-can-eat salmon bake. RVers can boondock at Pioneer Park for $12 per night.

Cranes and Antique Cars

After a restful evening beside the Chena River at River’s Edge, we stop by Creamer’s Field, a former dairy farm that’s now a wildlife refuge. Owned by the state of Alaska, it’s a wayside for migrating ducks, swans, geese and cranes. In August, they hold a festival to celebrate the nearly 100,000 sandhill cranes that descend on the fields during the month. As we stretch our legs on the walking paths and snap photos of dozens of cranes and other birds feeding on the grassy fields, it’s hard to believe this amazing bird refuge is right in the middle of Fairbanks.

The final stop of our Fairbanks journey is Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, a real gem even for people who aren’t car buffs. The museum specializes in early and rare automobiles and all but three of these restored-to-showroom-condition beauties run. There’s the only existing 1899 Hertel, reputedly the car that created the transition from horse and buggy to automobile; a 1903 Columbia, the earliest electric car; a 1910 Stanley Steamer that took 45 minutes to be ready to drive; even a “ladies car” that featured a backseat for the female driver that inspired the term “backseat driver.”

Fountainhead has also coupled the cars with the fashions of each era. It displays the largest collection of vintage clothing and other artifacts in the West used during the time the cars were driven. One exhibit of feathered hats, all made with colorful feathers of endangered species of birds from around the world, makes us glad these feather toppers are no longer popular.

We expected to spend an hour at the Fountainhead Auto Museum, but the museum is so fascinating, the hours slip by. Before we know it, it’s early evening and we’re starving. Following our friend, Bill’s, recommendation, we stop at The Pump House restaurant. Housed in a former pump house that sucked river water into gold dredges in the early days, the restaurant is decorated with historic photos, gold mining equipment and other artifacts.

Tomorrow we’ll head an hour or so out of town to explore Chena Hot Springs’ natural mineral springs and experience Chena Hot Springs Resort’s amazing ice hotel and ice sculpture museum. But, tonight, we dive into The Pump House’s creamy, thick seafood chowder and agree that Fairbanks is, indeed, the fairest of them all.


For More Information

Alaska Motorhome Rentals

800-323-5757 | www.bestofalaskatravel.com/alaska_motorhome_rentals/alaska_motorhome.htm

Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Pioneer Park
907-459-1087 | www.co.fairbanks.ak.us/pioneerpark

Riverboat Discovery
866-479-6673 | riverboatdiscovery.com

River’s Edge RV Park
907-474-0286 | www.riversedge.net

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