We finally made it to Alaska after traveling north along the Alaska Highway for the past few weeks. We left Kluane Lake early in the morning so that we would have plenty of time to get to the U.S. – Canada border and then drive on to Tok, Alaska that day. We had been warned that the last 100 miles in Canada prior to reaching the border and 100 miles after crossing into the United States would be some of the most difficult parts of our drive north. The road has a lot of potholes, frost heaves, and damaged pavement that have yet to be repaired, especially on the Alaska side. We took our time and were able to navigate this stretch of road without any problems. There was a lot of “shake, rattle, and roll” though.
We made it to Tok, a small town, and spent one night there before making our way to Fairbanks. Everyone coming and going to Alaska on the Alaska Highway has to pass through the town of Tok. There is not a lot there but there are several gas stations, a small grocery store, and an information center. From here, you can head north to Fairbanks, west to Anchorage, or south to Valdez. We headed north the following morning to the end of the Alaska Highway which terminates at Delta Junction. We’d driven the entire 1,422 miles of the Alaska Highway!
Fairbanks is a modest sized city of 31,000 people located on the Chena River. We decided to stay there a week so that we could catch our breath after our five week journey from Pahrump, NV. We did some sightseeing but also we restocked our fridge and pantry, did laundry, and took care a various other matters, too. Unfortunately, one of those items was to replace one of the truck tires.
One of the first things that we did was to visit the Visitor Center to get some information on Fairbanks. The Visitor Center is located in a modern building near the Chena River downtown. It is part of a nice park that runs along the river. The people who worked in the Visitor Center were very helpful and friendly. Inside there is a small museum that highlights some of the history of the region and a movie theatre where they show several different movies about the area. While we did not do everything that they recommended, we did take in quite a few of the city’s attractions.
As is the case with many cities in Alaska, Fairbanks was originally a trading post and then became a prosperous town after they discovered gold in the area. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Alaska’s territorial status and also to preserve some of the history of Fairbanks, the city established Pioneer Park in 1967. They moved many of the historic cabins and buildings from their original locations to the park and created a section called Gold Rush Town. Many of these buildings now house shops, eateries, and small museums. In addition, there is a large museum called Pioneer Museum that has many artifacts from the gold mining era.
This park also boasts the original railroad car that President Harding rode in when he came to Alaska to dedicate the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Valdez. There is information about this historic event when he drove the golden spike into the railroad track thereby completing the project.
Another focal point of the park is the SS Nenana, a steamboat that carried passengers up and down the Chena River from 1933 to 1954. It is the second largest wooden-hulled sternwheeler in existence in Alaska.
Pioneer Park is a very family-friendly park with lots of playgrounds and picnic areas. There is a narrow-gauge train that runs around the perimeter of the park and is also a favorite with all of the children, including us! We also enjoyed seeing the Arts Center where they had several exhibits of local artists on display.
One of the big draws of Pioneer Park is a restaurant called Alaska Salmon Bake. They only serve dinner and it is an “all you can eat” buffet of salmon, prime rib, and battered fried cod. Salad, beverage, and dessert are also included in the price. (This is a favorite stop for many tour groups.) It was not dinnertime when we were there so we didn’t stay and eat but we got to talk to one of the cooks who has worked there for the past 11 years. He was taking a break and we asked him some questions about the Salmon Bake. He told us that he works all summer smoking the prime rib, preparing the fish, and making desserts but he doesn’t work during the winters. Originally from the Olympic peninsula in Washington, he has lived in Alaska for many years. He said that -60 degree winters were not all that bad. (The day we were there it was a pleasant sunny 70 degrees.) When I asked what he did during the cold winters, he said “I watch a lot of cable TV.” He also told us that it was illegal to kill crows or seagulls in Alaska because the crows were very important to the Native American culture and the seagulls clean up a lot of environment. He was a very interesting man and we enjoyed chatting with him and also exploring Pioneer Park.
One rainy day we visited the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska campus. It is a very modern museum and it has excellent exhibits of Native American cultures, Alaskan wildlife, information about the Northern Lights, and also art from past and current Alaskan artists. We thought that this museum was definitely one of the best and well worth our time.
We also went to see a section of the Alaska pipeline. There was information about its construction on site. It is truly an impressive feat of engineering.
Fairbanks is proving to be a very interesting city and we are glad that we decided to spend some time here.