Back in my younger days, I used to keep journals, both online and offline. For someone with a photographic memory that seems to degrade over time, it was nice to be able to go back and re-read what I had done and re-remember it all. This post is one I’ve planned for some time: a log of my three days in Fairbanks, Alaska in September 2021. I will also go into how I prepared myself for the trip, both as a person who hadn’t travelled solo in 4 years and as a photographer. I’ll also detail a bit how I prepared my kids for my absence, but a longer post on that will come later.
Alaska has been on my travel list since 4th grade. I know it was 4th grade because at the time I was reading a lot of Jack London books. We also had a new student in my class that year whose family had just moved to my town in Wyoming from Ketchikan, Alaska. She and I bonded over being the new kids and she would tell me all about life in Alaska while teaching me the jump rope tricks she knew. Truly simpler times.
Before kids, I used to travel a lot, both solo and with my husband or friends. Heck, that love of travel is half the reason I chose this name for my business. I had planned to keep that up once we had kids because I’m a huge believer in the benefits of travel for teaching kids about the world around them and how it can encourage a growth mindset.
And then a global pandemic happened and we barely left our house for 18 months.
So after I got my vaccine in April 2021 and things started to feel kind of okay again, I started more seriously considering a solo trip again. Like so many parents, virtual school and being mostly homebound really did a number on me. It was harder for my kids, especially my oldest who’s autistic and whose world came to a screeching halt in March 2020 and never really got going again until April 2021.
It was time for a break.
I follow a few flight deal sites like Secret Flying, always on the lookout for good flights or hotel deals in places I might want to go. In May and June, I saw a ton of deals on Alaska to Anchorage and Fairbanks. And the wheels started turning.
Initially, I was considering Anchorage for ease of transport around the city and the cost of the flight to get there. But the more I thought, the more I realized I wanted to go back to somewhere closer to Montana — a little remote where I can be out exploring and not just wandering around a city. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I wanted me time that could be done entirely at my own pace and mostly on my own.
And then I realized Fairbanks is one of the best places to see the aurora borealis.
So I started researching. I looked at other travel blogs and read a ton of the blog posts and scouted the aurora tracker on Explore Fairbanks. Some travel blogs had people going to lodges in the middle of nowhere, and I’m sure they’re lovely places but I ultimately decided on staying in Fairbanks proper and just renting a car. The one thing on which I did splurge was an all-inclusive aurora spotting tour at Chena Hot Springs. Both from research and from a safety perspective, I figured going on a tour my first night to see the aurora was the better bet.
Astrophotography — and specifically, photographing the aurora — has been on my list of things to do for ages but it’s always been a bit of a challenge. Having little kids, it’s harder to just go out and be up all night (or take power naps) and then come back, ready and raring to be on and focused on them all day. Hashtag momtog challenges. Plus, I figure once I learn how to do it, I’ll be better prepared when I finally get to do it in Norway.
Setting An Itinerary
Planning trips is way up there on my list of favourite things, right above “sitting on a beach and watching the water” and just below “sleeping past 7 A.M.” I’m fairly flexible once I’m on my trip but I like having a big list of activities/places to go so I can take the days as they come.
For Fairbanks, I got to use the full range of features on Wanderlog. I’d already been using it to keep track of where I wanted to go on our big extended family trip to Norway but with no real timeframe for that trip, it’s mostly been a repository of ideas.
I like Wanderlog because it imports lodging, transportation, and activities and can help you map out the best route in which to do them. This isn’t sponcon, I promise; I just really like the app and I’m fairly picky. Using Wanderlog helped me get a better handle on how I might structure my days there, factoring in drive time and giving myself space for R&R.
Once again, I read a lot of blogs but also made use of the recommended activities feature on Wanderlog. People can also publish guides and while there were only like, two for Fairbanks, it was nice to get an idea of what others had done on their trips.
Prepping For Aurora Spotting
I don’t know if you know this, but the Alaskan interior is quite cold. So prepping for Alaska meant prepping for a slightly colder Montana. I basically prepared to take things I would take for being outdoors in Montana in late October/early November, figuring that Alaska is about a month or so ahead of Montana in terms of weather. As I booked my trip, I realized I’d be there likely during or right after the first snow of the year. And honestly? I was stoked. Love a good first snow.
My aurora adventure at Chena Hot Springs included a big yurt where we could all stay, warm up, and have hot beverages, so it was really dependent on us how much time we wanted to spend outside. I still decided to pack the following:
- Sleeping bag
- Winter clothes: hat, gloves, jacket, warm sweater, base layer, wool socks, snow boots (all detailed in my outdoor gear guide)
- Stanley thermos (for solo spotting later that weekend)
- Lots of packages of Blendy cafe au lait (my favourite pre-made bottled coffee in Japan)
- Rechargeable hand warmer
For photographing the aurora, I brought:
- Sony a7ii body
- Rokinon 20mm f/1.8
- Extra batteries and memory cards
There are a ton of guides out there about photographing the aurora, but the most important thing is that you need a lens that’s at most 20mm (so you can capture the full sky) and at least f/1.8 (lower aperture means more light comes in).
Beyond that, all you need is a good nap during the day and lots of patience at night.
Preparing The Children
As I said above, I’ll have a longer post on this later that will include both what I do to prep them for a family trip and what I do to prep them for me being gone. But here’s what I did for this trip:
We’re big believers in using books to prepare for things. I asked friends and other local mums what books were helpful for their littles when they went away on trips. I got some great ideas but the best one we found was “Meet Me at the Moon.”
In addition, I grabbed some books by Shelley Gill about Alaska to show them where I’d be and what sorts of things I’d see. We also watched a lot of “Molly of Denali” (which is just fantastic on its own and you should watch anyway).
Each day, I made sure they had something to look forward to that would visually help them count down the days. I took a page from Daniel Tiger and made the following:
- Map: I printed and laminated a map of the western US and Alaska and put a velcro dot on Seattle and Fairbanks. I also printed and laminated a little airplane so they could move the plane to see where I was, then move it back the day I was coming home.
- Love-You Loops: We’re big “Daniel Tiger” fans here. My oldest uses it as a way to understand and process things, so I make use of it whenever and wherever I can. For each day, I drew a little picture on the inside of what I’d be doing: plane (travel), stars (aurora spotting), mountains (hiking), etc.
- Camera: I also bought them each a kids camera. I told them I was going to Alaska to take pictures and I wanted them to do the same to show me what they did. Once I got home, we could show each other what we’d seen.
HOKAY, that was a lot to get here! This will hopefully go quicker!
Day 0: Landing in Fairbanks
I landed at midnight in Fairbanks and took a cab from FAI to my hotel, the Westmark Fairbanks. I had thought about an Airbnb but ultimately decided that it would just be easier and safer to check into a hotel at 1AM instead of an Airbnb. It was the start of the off-season so it was fairly empty and I got a good deal on a fancy room. Travel off-peak, y’all.
Day 1: Museum of the North
The morning before I picked up my rental car from Turo, I decided to do a walking tour of Fairbanks. The Westmark was close enough to downtown that hoofing it wasn’t bad, and it had only just started snowing the night before so I didn’t have to worry much about ice. Downtown was also about as big as Bozeman’s downtown and not too daunting to wander around. I attempted to find a coffee shop that came highly recommended but it appeared to be closed! So I just called a Lyft and got my rental Jeep and then some Starbucks. I tried.
My first actual stop was the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska – Fairbanks campus. I was incredibly impressed with how the exhibits were laid out and the collaboration with the Alaska Native populations. So often, museums can fall victim to museifying peoples and places, especially Native peoples and their objects (especially sacred objects). The most impressive exhibit was one on how the Aleut people were also placed in concentration camps along with Alaska’s Japanese population during World War II. Literally have a degree in Japanese history and somehow did not know this!!
I wanted to check out the Large Animal Research Station and also Running Reindeer Ranch but was crunched for time with lunch and a nap before Chena Hot Springs. Next time.
For lunch, I decided to get takeout from Spice it Up. It came highly recommended on all the blogs I read and I have to say, some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had?? I got half butter chicken and half tandoori chicken. It haunts me to this day.
NIght 1: Chena Hot Springs
Mostly fully rested after a good meal and a good nap, I hopped in the van out to Chena Hot Springs. Another advantage of staying at my hotel: they were a designated pickup spot for the van transport out.
Chena Hot Springs is 30 miles outside of Fairbanks. Because it’s so far out, they need to generate all their own electricity as they’re not connected to any services. Our driver, Janet, who was just beyond lovely to talk to, was telling us how everyone who lives outside a city basically needs to be self-sufficient. Chena Hot Springs generates all their electricity from the geothermal energy from the hot springs. There’s a whole demonstration about it in the activity center. It’s v neat.
I booked my tour to include a tour of the Aurora Ice Museum. Everything inside is, as you’d expect, carved from ice and naturally you need to bundle up to go in. You can book a night’s stay in there, much like the ice hotels in Scandinavia. I don’t think I’d last in there.
Your tour also comes with an appletini in a glass made of ice. This was the whole reason I booked this tour because it sounded hilarious. The chairs at the bar were made of ice. The glasses were made of ice. It’s almost kitschy.
After the ice museum, I took a dip in the hottest hot springs I’ve ever been in. Literally never been in a hot springs that hot, probably won’t again (until I go to Norway). After a quick dinner (well, the dinner was quick, the wait was anything but), I headed to the activity center for the aurora tour.
Night 1: Aurora Spotting
Here’s the thing: to see the aurora — really see the aurora — you need to be far away from any settlements. So that means going to the top of a mountain, usually. And to get to the top of Murphy Dome, you need to off-road. So the tour takes you up in a series of de-commissioned SUSV (Small Unit Support Vehicle). It’s exactly as bumpy as you would imagine, but it’s also heated and in the middle of the night in the snow, it’s very welcome.
We got to the yurt and scoped out where we’d be. It had been snowing for most of the day since I landed so the chances of seeing the aurora were low. But all you really need is a few minutes of the clouds clearing to see them.
I spent a good portion of the night in the yurt, going out about every 15-20 minutes to check on the clouds while simultaneously checking my weather apps to see when the skies might clear.
At about 12:30, I could see the clouds clearing just enough to start to see the stars. I and another photographer took our stuff outside and camped out, ready to start snapping photos the second the skies were clear enough. We heard a group taking photos with their phones cheer and immediately pointed our cameras at the skies.
And wouldn’t you know it, there they were!
Good thing: saw the aurora! Bad thing: forgot my tripod. So when it came time to start shooting, I laid down on my sleeping bag in the snow, used myself as as a tripod, held my breath, and started shooting. That was our only chance to spot the aurora that night and I’m so thankful I got to see them.
Day 2: Wandering Fairbanks
The van dropped me back off at my hotel at around 5AM and while I planned on sleeping in, I don’t seem to know how to anymore. After waking up far earlier than I planned, I got coffee and headed to the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center downtown. It’s a beautiful visitors center, detailing the Native history of the Alaskan interior and I wish I’d had an entire day to spend there.
I went back to my hotel for another nap and then back out for lunch at Soba. This was another place that came highly recommended and I was so excited to try it as I’d never had Moldovan food before. I got the Bătută because I can’t resist a good schnitzel. It was fantastic, as was the Cușma lui Guguță, sour cherry crepes with sweet cream and chocolate. Try Moldovan food if you haven’t.
With a ton of time to kill, I headed to Pioneer Park. A friend’s brother lives in Fairbanks and he recommended this as a spot to go. While everything was mostly closed. (no fish fry, boo!), it was nice to wander around and take pictures of the snow.
I also drove up to Cleary Summit to gauge how slick the roads might be later that night if I decided to go aurora spotting on my own. While the roads were mostly clear, it was still snowing and I didn’t feel confident going on my own in case I slid off the road coming back. I do sort of regret it now but I’d rather play it safe than not when I’m on my own in effectively the middle of nowhere.
NIght 2: Bar Hopping
The sun started to come out, so I headed over to HooDoo Brewing for a beer outside in the chilly September air. They had a gose that was certifiably pretty good (I rated it a 3.5 on Untappd) and while I thought to stick around, I decided to head to The Pump House for dinner, instead.
It was naturally packed for a Saturday night but I just managed to get a seat at the bar. It truly pays to travel solo. The crab mac and cheese was absolutely heavenly, as was the peanut butter pie I got for dessert. Fully stuffed, I rolled myself back to my Jeep and back to my hotel for some sleep.
Here’s the thing no one tells you about traveling solo after you’ve had kids: you have to learn to make your own noise. It was so weird having it be quiet in my room when I was alone. Not unsettlingly quiet, just odd.
Day 3: Photo Loops & Flying Home
I had planned to return my Jeep early that morning but decided to extend it for a few more hours when I saw the sun was coming up that morning. I wanted to visit a couple spots around Fairbanks and see if I could get better shots (or just any shots with some blue sky).
Happy to report that I did. First up: Creamers Field. It’s a big migratory bird sanctuary on an old dairy farm with lots of trails to walk. My snow boots kept eating into my ankle so I didn’t get to hike it like i wanted. Again, next time.
Last stop before the airport was Tanana Lakes, which were absolutely stunning in the daylight. The Alaskan interior is more gorgeous than pictures might have you believe.
Said goodbye to my lovely Jeep Wrangler and headed back to the airport. I did also manage to see Denali but only on takeoff as we zipped over the clouds.
The End & Next Time
And that’s it! A fairly packed three days in Fairbanks, Alaska. I have a big list of things I still want to see the next time I go, because there’s definitely going to be a next time. I absolutely fell in love with Alaska. As I said, I’ve wanted to go for a solid 30 years now and it surpassed everything i had imagined about it. I’m already planning at least two trips back: one on a plane and one on the car ferry from Bellingham in a few years. Once I get more experienced at backpacking, I’d also kill to backpack in Gates of the Arctic National Park.
I hope that wasn’t too boring and gave you some good ideas for your trip to Fairbanks! Some final takeaways:
- Definitely rent a car. Rideshare services are there but scarce, and it’s easier to just go on your own schedule in a car.
- Pack for the weather. It’s always easier to take off layers than add them back.
- Know how to drive in the snow. Go in the summer if you don’t, or stay at a place that will transport you there and back.
- You don’t need a fancy camera to see/photograph the aurora, but it helps. Practice with it before you go, and be willing to experiment with your settings on the fly while you’re there.
- Be prepared to come back multiple times because odds are, you’re going to fall in love with Alaska, too!
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post or any of my photos from Alaska, I have them for sale in my print shop.
Wonderful read. dare I say a grade above Conde Nast Traveler. I too long to visit alaska one day and take my very own photo of the aURORA with plenty of bar hopping to boot. ^-^
Oh, that’s so sweet of you to say, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it! Definitely take a trip up to Fairbanks to see the aurora, you won’t regret it! It’s absolutely gorgeous and an incredible experience.