A visit to Alaska can be spectacular in any season, and each will bring its own wonder. Most RV travelers make their way here for the amazing summers and will depart as fall and cooler temperatures quickly set in. We were fortunate that we could stay long enough to see the full transition from summer to fall.
Our travels had looped us around Alaska’s interior and brought us back once again to Fairbanks for a final set of northern Alaska adventures. We were back here in the fall because Fairbanks is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights, but you need dark skies which our first visit in mid-summer lacked.
Sean, Tyler, Jim & Isa had rented a home downtown Fairbanks, and we did what many RVers will do when visiting friends and family: we lived in the driveway.
Our lithium-ion Battle Born Battery installation had been rocking and had enabled so many awesome adventures so far. Instead of being tied to campgrounds, or running a generator constantly, we were able to go so many more places and find the wild tranquility that Alaska has so much of to offer. We were excited to share with our Battle Born friends a taste of what that actually meant.
Chena Hot Springs
Our first adventure with this crew took us out east of Fairbanks on Chena Hot Springs Road. We had a perfect clear fall day with cool but comfortable temperatures and the trees were at peak color. A good portion of this drive is the Chena River State Recreation Area which protects this land for outdoor recreation. We pulled off to explore a few places along the road and stopped for lunch along the Chena River and to do a little fly fishing.
We continued our drive to the geothermal-powered Chena Hot Springs Resort at the end of the road about 60 miles east of Fairbanks. Hot geothermal water is used here to generate electricity, heat buildings and greenhouses, and of course soaking.
We had come to enjoy these Alaskan hot springs that are a popular destination year-round. The natural hot springs discharge water at 165 degrees Fahrenheit and in the winter months are a popular destination for those looking to watch the Northern Lights while staying delightfully warm, no matter the outside temperatures.
Aurora Ice Museum
After a soak in the hot springs we decided to explore one of the other attractions on site, the Aurora Ice Museum. As were were waiting in line to enter we were told about the large DC6 aircraft named “Good Grief” behind the museum. It was brought here to retire as a display, as the Chena airstrip is not long enough for it take off again after it made its final landing in 2016.
Having just soaked in the hot waters it seemed strange to bundle up in heavy coats to go hang out in this 25 degree F refrigerated building.
Here, world class ice carvers get to create and display their sculptures for visitors to enjoy year round. There are many different and unique rooms and ice sculptures that were fun to explore, including a functional bar.
We were served apple-tinis in cocktail glasses made from ice, which were extremely hard to hold without gloves!
We had way more fun freezing our butts off in here that we thought we would, but we weren’t brave enough to rent one of the ice rooms in which guests can stay overnight. While we had an amazing time we all left a bit chilled and thinking that perhaps visiting the ice museum before a hot springs soak would have been a more appropriate plan.
Arctic Northern Lights Flight Tour!
The next day we started our adventure mid afternoon by boarding a flight north. While we had already crossed the Arctic Circle and driven the Dalton Highway earlier this summer, we were heading back up once again! We were flying to Coldfoot for a guided tour of the region and to put ourselves in the best possible spot to see the aurora come nightfall.
With the blazing fall colors the flight into Coldfoot was incredible but a little bumpy as we landed in some drizzly weather.
We disembarked from our plane and got on a bus that would take us for an 8 hour ride back down the Dalton highway. This bus was clearly setup for driving this rough remote road with its rugged tires, suspension, auto chains and light bars. We had an excellent tour guide and driver who educated us about the road, pipeline and many other details of the north along our route.
As we traveled south we made a stop at the Arctic Circle where we were presented with a certificate for crossing into the arctic. While we had stopped here before, we had not noticed the birds. This time our guide pointed out the grey jays that were very sociable.
Photo: Tyler Bourns
Photo: Tyler Bourns
We made another stop further south at an observation point called Finger Mountain for a short hike, and we had a blast climbing around on these amazing rocks accented by firery red bearberry!
Photo: Jim Gustafson
Our next stop was for a great salmon burger dinner at the Yukon River Camp and to explore the banks of the Yukon River. Just as we were leaving we saw a large cat standing on the edge of the road. Moving as quietly as we could we were able to approach and get a rare, up-close view of this beautiful lynx.
The sun had just set when we stopped to learn about the Alaska Pipeline. Suddenly, someone spotted a glow on the horizon, and we caught our first glimpse of the aurora! Even the fading twilight it was far more intense than we had previously seen and bode well for the rest of the tour.
Photo: Tyler Bourns
Photo: Tyler Bourns
After our first sighting at the pipeline we were all very excited for our next stop around 1AM at the Arctic Circle Trading Post. The night was getting cold but our tour included hot beverages and snacks in this cozy heated cabin. But the real treat was simply looking up.
What is the Aurora Borealis?
The incredible display we were seeing is present here in the north most times, however you need dark clear skies to see it. The aurora borealis, also know as the Northern Lights, occurs in the northern hemisphere, where as when it occurs in the southern hemisphere, its called the aurora australis.
Over the years the aurora borealis has had many legends told about them by northern peoples, however modern science has come to find that these mysterious lights are created by the solar winds. Charged particles ejected from the sun slam into earths magnetosphere. Some get trapped and accelerate along magnetic field lines eventually crashing into the atmosphere and create rings of light around the poles. These particles excite oxygen, nitrogen and other gasses causing them to glow in much the same way that a neon light works.
Photo: NASA Image Library
The colors you see are typically in bands that can be hundreds of miles tall and reach as high as the orbit of satellites. When you get directly beneath them, you can look up through the individual curtains as we were seeing here.
The lights were so good that we watched them for longer than we expected. It was very late when we reluctantly boarded our bus to complete our journey back to Fairbanks. By the time our bus got us back to our car at the airport it was after 4AM in the morning. But even though we were all deliriously tired, we all were smiling and amazed at what we had seen.
Visiting the North Pole
Since we had been up all night the next day we took it easy and explored the immediate Fairbanks area. This included driving a short distance south to the next town of North Pole, Alaska.
This unique Christmas-themed town has year round red, white, and green decorations and street names like Santa Claus Lane, and Kris Kringle Drive. Its largest attraction, however, is the Santa Claus House that has been in operation since the 50’s.
Here they sell Christmas lights, ornaments, and toys all year long. You can visit Santa if he’s in and check out a few letters to Santa that are received here in the hundreds of thousands every year.
We had fun letting our inner child out, exploring the store and watching the reindeer team they have onsite at the Antler Academy of Flying & Reindeer Games.
Denali National Park
Our final adventure with this crew was another trip back to Denali National Park. Denali is about a 2 hour drive south of Fairbanks on the Parks Highway, and we had such a great visit the first time we wanted to see it again in the fall. We happened to arrive on the last day they were running shuttles into the park for the season and hopped on a bus bound for the Eielson Visitors Center at Mile 66 of the Denali Park Road.
As we had seen earlier the tundra turns a bright red here, and even though we were a bit past peak colors, the scenery was spectacular!
Regardless, we very much enjoyed the drive and as before saw plenty of wildlife.
Photo: Jim Gustafson
The next day we said goodbye to the Battle Born crew as they were flying out, and we were starting our drive south. Although we were going to be heading back through Canada and British Columbia, we had a completely different route planned southbound than when we did northbound. Many new places and exciting sights still awaited us!
So far on the trip we had only entered and exited Alaska via the Top of the World Highway, but this time we would stay on the Alaska Highway as we headed for the border.
Before crossing into Canada we decided to stay one last night in Alaska in the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge which mainly serves to protect the habitat of migratory birds that travel long distances to the warmer winter temperatures in the south. We stayed at Deadman Lake Campground which turned out to be an incredible stop. It had interpretative trails and even canoes available for visitors to use, free of charge. There were no hookups, but like the majority of this trip that suited us just fine.
Which tour company did you use for your aurora tour package?
Thursday 22nd of October 2020
thank you for sharing this adventure with us! I am wondering, what camera, gear and settings did you use to capture the aurora? I'm a total newbie at this!
Thursday 20th of February 2020
Love the video and blog! Which tour provider did you use to fly to Coldfoot and see the Northern Lights?
Friday 21st of February 2020
The tour provider was Northern Alaska Tour Company and the tour was the Fall Aurora Fly/Drive http://www.northernalaska.com/aurora-fly-drive/
Thursday 16th of January 2020
Thank you for all the awesome articles & videos you have produced.
A question about your Northern Lights (nearly) overnight excursion - Where did you leave your dogs while you were away (for what seemed to be a fairly long excursion) ?
All the best to the 4 of you.
Monday 20th of January 2020
We left them at home and used a pet sitting service called Rover to come let them out and check on them periodically throughout the day.
Wednesday 8th of January 2020
Wow, many awesome adventures here!! What a beautiful land!! Thank you for sharing :)