Motorhomers who are traveling north this year will want to put these attractions on their sight-seeing list.
By Karean Lee Ensley
You’ve dreamed of traveling to Alaska for years. The stacks of brochures covering your desk show fabulous mountain vistas delicately frosted with snow, a huge moose meandering across a highway, and smiling people alongside their motorhomes. With such a multitude of interesting activities, how do you choose?
If you’re planning to travel up the Alaska Highway and on to Fairbanks, consider five stops hidden in the travel brochures that you won’t want to miss while in that area.
The first has to do with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, one of the largest pipeline systems in the world. It is approximately 800 miles long and travels from Prudhoe Bay south to Valdez. Nearly half of the length of the pipeline is buried underground, while the remainder is elevated in areas to protect permanently frozen soil (permafrost) from thawing. At this special stop near Fairbanks, you can see the pipeline emerge from underground to rise onto its elevated crossbeams as it continues its journey south to Valdez.
At the Alyeska Trans-Alaska Pipeline viewing station you can stand underneath the massive supports and touch the pipeline. Notice that the crossbeams and zigzag pattern give the structure flexibility. This lets the pipe expand or contract due to temperature changes, and also allows for movement during earthquakes. As the pipeline traverses the state, it crosses three mountain ranges and makes 34 major river crossings. Animal migration and maintaining the stability of the frozen soil also require special accommodations. Would you believe the soil around a section of the buried line is actually refrigerated?
The viewing station is 8 miles north of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway and is open daily year-round. A visitor kiosk is staffed between early May and mid-September, Monday through Saturday. Tours and presentations are free. Ample, free motorhome parking is available.
After you’ve seen the pipeline with its so-called “black gold,” venture to the largest genuine gold display in the state. The University of Alaska Museum of the North is one unusual place, too. You’ll figure that out quickly as you are greeted at the museum’s Gallery of Alaska by Otto, an 8-foot-9-inch preserved brown bear that lurks near the entrance.
Here you will find 2,000 years of Alaskan native art, including ancient ivory carvings and intricately woven Aleut grass baskets, which can contain more than 1,000 stitches per square inch. Even these artifacts are recent compared to Blue Babe, a 36,000-year-old mummified steppe bison. Reactions between the phosphorus in the extinct mammal’s tissue and the iron in the soil caused the creature’s skin to turn a brilliant blue when exposed to air, thus his name. Discovered just north of Fairbanks, Blue Babe is a rarity “” only two other large mammals have been recovered from permafrost to be reconstructed and displayed anywhere in the world.
Other exhibits showcase the effect of world cultures upon Alaskan history, including Russian Orthodox ceremonial objects representing the influence of early colonization.
Military history enthusiasts will want to peruse the display of Japanese memorabilia from World War II. It is a reminder of the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands and the difficulties American forces endured. The Aleutian campaign to banish the Japanese invaders from the U.S. territory resulted in the establishment of 13 U.S. military bases in the Aleutian Islands chain, construction of more than 1 million square feet of runways, and the completion of the Alcan Highway through Canada to Alaska.
The museum recently underwent a renovation that doubled its size and added an extensive art gallery. It is open daily year-round; summer hours (May 15 to September 15) are longer, from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Call (907) 474-7505 for more information, or visit www.uaf.edu/museum. Visitor parking is free, but admission is charged: $10 for adults, $9 for seniors (60 and up), $5 for youths 7 to 17, and free for children 6 and under.
You won’t have to travel far for the next stop on your must-see list, as it’s right in Fairbanks. Pioneer Park was built for the Alaska 1967 Centennial Exposition and emphasizes historical Fairbanks while also serving as a community park.
This 44-acre attraction appeals to everyone, regardless of age or interests, as it offers so much to see and do. Start at the National Historic Landmark sternwheeler S.S. Nenana, which traveled Alaska’s rivers from 1933 to 1952, carrying supplies and passengers. Or the Warren G. Harding Rail Car, on which the former president rode in 1923 to celebrate the completion of the Alaska Railroad. If you’d like to ride on a railroad, an amusement park train makes a short loop around Pioneer Park. Youngsters and the young-hearted will enjoy a playground, two miniature golf courses, and an old-fashioned carousel that plays music from an 1890 Berni band organ. A picnic area also is on-site.
The indigenous Athabascan culture is highlighted in the park’s Alaska Native Village Museum. Displays include masks carved from whale vertebrae and a walrus-hide blanket. The latter was used for a “blanket toss” “” several people would hold the edges of the blanket making it taut, and, like a trampoline, would propel a hunter high into the air so he would be able to spot wild game.
Be sure to visit the original log homes and buildings that have been moved to Pioneer Park. They now house a variety of shops where you can purchase local crafts, such as a hunter’s knife with a handle made from elk antlers. The park chapel was originally built as a mission church in 1904 by Presbyterians, who were the first to hold religious services in the Fairbanks area. The building is still in use today for Sunday church services. While visiting the park, tourists may witness a wedding at the tiny chapel.
A portion of the park is designated as Gold Rush Town and includes shops, restaurants, and, naturally, a saloon. It is here at the Palace Theater and Saloon that you can watch a nightly performance of a musical comedy about Fairbanks called the “Golden Heart Revue.” Palace Theater shows are provided nightly at 8:15 p.m.; call (907) 452-7274 for reservations.
Another park highlight is the Pioneer Air Museum. The northernmost air museum in the United States, it houses original aircraft from long ago as it chronicles flight in Alaska. You can don a helmet, climb into a stationary Bell “Huey” helicopter, and check out the controls. Also, see the remainders of a plane that belonged to famous bush pilot and Arctic aviation pioneer Carl Eielson. He and Australian explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins, in 1928, made the first flight over the polar ice cap from the North Slope to Greenland.
Pioneer Park is open daily, and admission is free. Small fees are charged for some activities, however. Gold Rush Town and the museums are open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Plenty of free parking is available, and motorhomes can park overnight for a fee. No reservations are necessary for camping. For more information, call (907) 459-1095 or visit www.co.fairbanks.ak.us.
Eielson Air Force Base was named after aviator Carl Eielson and is located 23 miles south of Fairbanks, along the Richardson Highway. Arrive by 10:00 a.m. on a Friday between Memorial Day and Labor Day and you can enjoy a fascinating, free, 90-minute tour of the facility. The tours do require reservations by the preceding Thursday, and you’ll go through a brief security check (valid photo identification required) when you arrive. At 10:30 a.m. you climb aboard a military bus and learn about the base from an Air Force employee. One story you may hear pertains to the “Lady of the Lake,” a WB-29 aircraft that lies partly submerged in a pond. And you’ll see the second-longest runway in North America, and possibly watch military personnel on the flight line. You may even be lucky enough to watch the F-16 fighters speed down the airstrip.
As your tour continues, you will see what life is like on the 63,195-acre facility. Base residents have their own ski lodge, ski slope, and even a fast-food restaurant. A miniature pipeline meanders around the base while the Trans-Alaska pipeline is also visible at the compound’s edge.
The tour stops at Heritage Park, where you can get off the bus and have a close look at aircraft on display. Walk along the flag-lined pavement and enjoy these pieces of aviation history. You also get to see the training hangar, where you can take a personal look at an F-16 Fighting Falcon and an A-10A Thunderbolt II.
The base offers free parking, but be advised that it’s best to take a towed car, as the potential exists for some tight maneuvering for motorhomes. For tour reservations, call the Public Affairs office before 3:00 p.m. on the Thursday prior to your visit: (907) 377-1411.
Your fifth and final stop is in the town of North Pole, the nearest community to the base. North Pole is actually 1,750 miles from its namesake at the top of the world, but only 9 miles from Eielson Air Force Base.
Letters from children all over the world are mailed here to the home of Santa Claus. The little town embraces the idea, with street names such as Santa Claus Lane, Kris Kringle Drive, and Snowman Lane. The streetlights even have a candy-cane motif.
Stop on St. Nicholas Drive to see the Santa Claus House. Outside stands a Santa who is more than 40 feet tall, so it’s easy to find. Two of Santa’s reindeer, Dasher and Blitzen, live outside where you can get a close view. Reindeer facts are posted for visitors to learn interesting tidbits about these domesticated caribou. Did you know that reindeer are able to lie down on snow without melting it or getting wet?
The Santa Claus House is filled with Christmas-oriented and Alaska-oriented gifts and souvenirs. Santa himself is there during the off-season. The store is open year-round and closed on some holidays. Plenty of free parking is available. Call (800) 588-4078 or (907) 488-2200, or visit www.santaclaushouse.com for more information.
Be sure to ask Santa for something special if you see him … maybe another, longer trip to Alaska!
From the continental United States to Fairbanks, Alaska, road conditions are relatively good. Some portions of the road seem to be under construction every summer. For up-to-date Alaska road conditions, visit http://511.alaska.gov. This site is regularly updated and encompasses all major routes in the state.
Overnight parking at rest areas is illegal in British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, but is permitted in Alaska unless posted. Proper vehicle maintenance is important. Be sure to check all systems and the inside and outside edges of every tire. Border crossing information and plenty of travel information is available from the Alaska travel bureau:
Alaska Travel Industry Association
2600 Cordova St., Suite 201
Anchorage, AK 99503
For Fairbanks information, contact:
Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau
550 First Ave.
Fairbanks, AK 99701
The following is not a complete list, so please check your campground directory or the campgrounds listed in FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Several state recreation areas and state parks are in the Fairbanks region; some can accommodate RVs, and site sizes vary, as does the availability of hookups. For details, contact:
Alaska DNR Public Information Center
3700 Airport Way
Fairbanks, AK 99709-4699
Chena Marina RV Park
1145 Shypoke Drive
Fairbanks, AK 99709
Offers free “Klondinental” breakfast, cable TV, and a free car/RV wash. Has Wi-Fi, showers, full hookups, a store, propane, laundry, and pull-through sites.
River’s Edge RV Park
4200 Boat St.
Fairbanks, AK 99709
Located alongside Chena River. Has 190 sites, including pull-throughs. Wi-Fi is available throughout the park.
Riverview RV Park
P.O. Box 72618
Fairbanks, AK 99707-2618
Located between North Pole and Fairbanks, this park has full hookups, cable TV, many pull-throughs, laundry facilities, showers, a store, fuel, and more.
Santaland RV Park
125 St. Nicholas Drive
North Pole, AK 99705
This campground is next door to the Santa Claus House and offers full hookups, laundry facilities, showers, cable TV, a dump station, and a car wash.