Fairbanks, 360 miles north of Anchorage, is at the end of the Alaska Highway from Canada and definitely at the end of the road for most tourists. Though somewhat bland, its central location makes a great base for exploring a hinterland of gold mines and hot springs, and a staging point for trips into the surrounding wilderness and for journeys along the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Ocean oil community of Prudhoe Bay.
Alaska's second most populous town was founded accidentally, in 1901, when a steamship carrying trader E.T. Barnette ran aground in the shallows of the Chena River, a tributary of the Yukon. Unable to move his supplies any further, he set up shop in the wilderness and catered to the few trappers and prospectors trying their luck in the area. The following year gold was found, a tent city sprang up, and Barnette made a mint. In 1908, at the height of the rush, Fairbanks had a population of 18,500, but by 1920 it had dwindled to only 1100. To thwart possible Japanese attacks during World War II, several huge military bases were built and the population rebounded, getting a further boost in the mid-1970s when it became the construction center for the trans-Alaska pipeline, causing the population to reach an all-time high. The city's economy dropped dramatically with the oil crash, and unemployment hit twenty percent before government spending put the city back on track.
The spectacular aurora borealis is a major winter attraction, as is the Ice Festival in mid-March, with its ice-sculpting competition and open-sled dog racing on the frozen downtown streets. Summer visitors should try to catch the three-day World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in mid-July, when contestants from around the state compete in the standard dance, art, and sports competitions, as well as some unusual ones like ear-pulling, knuckle hop, high kick, and the blanket toss.
Fairbanks suffers remarkable extremes of climate, with winter temperatures dropping to -70°F and summer highs topping 90°F. Proximity to the Arctic Circle means over 21 hours of sunlight in midsummer, when midnight baseball games take place under natural light, and 2am bar evacuees are confronted by bright sunshine.