Alaska Planning: Should I Visit Anchorage or Fairbanks (or both?)

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A common question when starting your planning is whether to fly into Anchorage or Fairbanks. This article will cover both areas in-depth and help guide you to the right decision.

I have over 25 years experience in Alaska and love exploring this beautiful state. In my opinion, there’s one city that’s better, but I’ll provide all the information needed for you to make the best decision for your trip!

Article Summary

If you don’t have time to read through this entire article, here are the main takeaways.

Fairbanks is best for witnessing the northern lights and exploring Denali National Park. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve & the Arctic Circle are also popular places to visit. I typically recommend Fairbanks for more off-beat travel and most notably for some of the best northern lights viewing in the world. It’s also a good option for people who have already been to Alaska.

Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska and the best hub for most quintessential Alaska experiences. From here, you are an hour or so to epic glaciers, world-class hiking and fishing, and you’re near the ocean. There’s more variety of wildlife due to the bays, inlets, and oceans nearby (think whales, porpoise, sea lions, and sea otters along with all the land animals as well). It takes longer to get to Denali National Park than Fairbanks, about 5 hours away. Anchorage is my recommendation for your first Alaska trip!

Should You Fly to Anchorage or Fairbanks?

Making the decision to choose Anchorage or Fairbanks will largely depend on which activities you want to do and which areas you want to visit (more on that in the next section). It will also depend on how much time you have to explore.

For example, within a few hours of Anchorage, you can be kayaking alongside sea otters in Resurrection Bay and hiking to glaciers. Whereas from Fairbanks, you are closer to Denali National Park and Gates of the Arctic National Park.

If you have at least 14 days, you can fly into Anchorage, explore the area, then drive to Fairbanks and Denali NP and explore that area as well. If you only have 7 days, though, I’d stick to one region.

The two largest airports in Alaska are Anchorage and Fairbanks. Anchorage has over 300,000 residents while Fairbanks only has about 32,000. Anchorage has a much larger airport with more planes flying to it daily, although neither airport qualifies as large by any means.

For the most part, it’s cheaper to fly into the Ted Steven’s International Airport in Anchorage.

Turnagain Arm Drive Rainy Summer Alaska
Turnagain Arm near Anchorage

Anchorage vs Fairbanks: Best Launching Point for Your Trip

Many people will claim that both cities offer a wealth of experiences and things you can do. While that is true, Anchorage has a huge advantage over Fairbanks.

Geography & Scenery

The reason Anchorage is better boils down to geography. Fairbanks is located in an area known as the ‘Interior’ of Alaska. If you fly into here you may be surprised that there aren’t towering mountains surrounding the area. The Interior of Alaska has more large valleys and even gets flat as you continue north toward the Arctic Circle.

Anchorage is in Southcentral Alaska. The city sits on the Cook Inlet waters with the imposing Chugach Mountains as a backdrop. Anchorage provides much more scenic views and is what most people think of when it comes to Alaska.

Activities

Because Anchorage is in Southcentral Alaska, it’s close to the Kenai Peninsula, an area loaded with glaciers and hiking and whales and every epic experience you can think of. Honestly, the only popular thing this area doesn’t have is Denali National Park.

Things you can do here quite easily that you can’t in Fairbanks include hiking on a glacier (or many), hiking to glaciers, whale watching, other wildlife viewing, kayaking on an inlet, and participating in world-class fishing on the Kenai or near Homer.

Seward Alaska Boat Cruise Major Marine Tours Glacier

There are many activities you can do in and around Fairbanks, but it’s not fair to say they both offer the same amount of things to do. There’s just way more to do within a few hours of Anchorage than Fairbanks.

But if you do want to fly into Fairbanks, perhaps for easier access to Denali NP, you can easily make an entire trip out of it. You could visit nearby Chena Hot Springs, drive a few hours to Denali, take a tour to the Arctic Circle, visit the town of North Pole, and even head south to explore the Cassner Glacier.

City Offerings

If you’re flying all the way to Alaska, I wouldn’t spend too much time in either city. Alaska is full of mountains, wildlife, glaciers, hiking, fishing, and more, which is best experienced outside of the larger towns and cities.

That said, there are a lot of things you can do within each city.

Population

Anchorage is the largest city in the state with roughly 300,000 people. Fairbanks, on the other hand, has about 30,000 people and roughly 97,000 when you include the surrounding areas.

Food

Both cities (using that term loosely) have a surprising amount of fantastic restaurant options.

North Pole – Santa Clause House

Is Anchorage or Fairbanks More Expensive?

Overall, Fairbanks is more expensive to fly into than Anchorage. This is because there are more flights and Anchorage has a larger airport. And often, flights to Fairbanks (FAI) will first stop in Anchorage (ANC) and then head to Fairbanks.

Vehicle rentals are less expensive in Fairbanks. In Anchorage, however, you’ll have many more options to choose from.

For hotels and accommodations, Fairbanks will be slightly higher as there aren’t as many options. Food costs are about the same or slightly higher in Fairbanks simply due to its location so far north compared to Anchorage.

Seward Alaska Boat Cruise Major Marine Tours Glacier
Major Marine Glacier Tour in Seward, Alaska

What About the Northern Lights? Where Should I Go?

Fairbanks is much further north than Anchorage and has less light pollution. It’s also in a region of the world known as the ‘Auroral Oval’.

Your chances of seeing a stunning aurora show are best around Fairbanks. Here are some of the best places to stay for the northern lights.

If this is the point of your trip, skip Anchorage and go straight to Fairbanks. If you’re reading this and you already booked your trip to Anchorage, it’s still possible to see the northern lights from Anchorage. Here are the best viewing locations from Anchorage.

I also have a winter itinerary that starts in Anchorage and ends in Fairbanks (via the Alaska Winter Train).

Northern Lights Fairbanks Chena Hot Springs Alaska
Chena Hot Springs

Note that you can only see the northern lights when it’s dark enough outside. The best times to see the lights are September – early April. The sky doesn’t get dark in the summer months in Alaska so it’s impossible to see the northern lights during the summer (May to mid-August).

There’s a slightly gray area between August and mid-September where you could catch a show, but I wouldn’t plan my trip around it as it’s incredibly unlikely. If you happen to see the lights at that time of year, consider yourself very lucky!

Northern Lights in Petersville, north of Talkeetna

How Much Time Should I Spend in Anchorage?

I recommend a day or two at most. Even if you only have a few hours, you can accomplish a lot (here’s a list of things you can do). If you’re flying all the way to Alaska, I’d recommend getting away from the city and exploring the glaciers (here are 7 you can drive to from Anchorage), wildlife, mountains, and exploring small towns. You can visit other, much better cities elsewhere in the world.

As far as cities go, my honest opinion is Anchorage is an okay city with a decent amount to do. But you’ll get a far more authentic Alaska experience by heading away from it.

Westchester Lagoon Anchorage Alaska Summer

What Should I Do While in Anchorage?

If you have a day to kill before your flight back or decide to stay one night and explore Anchorage, there’s plenty to do. This article lists 19 things you can do in and around Anchorage.

  • Westchester Lagoon and Coastal Trail – A beautiful park area with a large lagoon popular with birds and kayakers. It’s connected to the popular coastal trail which spans 11 miles along the inlet.
  • Flattop Mountain – A popular hiking trail that also provides beautiful views of Anchorage, the Inlet, and beyond.
  • Point Woronzof – A great spot to get that iconic picture of downtown Anchorage
  • Kincaid Park – A large park covering nearly 1,500 acres right on the inlet near the airport. There are lots of trails and parking areas.
  • Walk downtown and visit the shops & restaurants – There are a lot of shops with local ‘Made in Alaska’ items (look for the sticker!) and also many fur shops. My favorite restaurants include Humpy’s (try their halibut burger), Tent City Taphouse (any burger and beer is good), Pangea (Mediterranean food with good drinks), and Club Paris.
  • Ship Creek – There’s a fish hatchery here and it’s a popular fishing spot right in town.
Kincaid Park

Denali National Park: Should I Fly to Anchorage or Fairbanks?

You can get to Denali National Park from either Anchorage or Fairbanks.

Fairbanks is much closer to Denali and is about a 2 1/2 hour drive (122 miles, 196km). If the entire point of your trip is to visit Denali, you could simply fly into Fairbanks, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice.

There is so much more to Alaska than just Denali with mountain ranges everywhere. Also keep in mind that typically you can only see the mountain about 30% of the time (I’ve seen Denali the most from Anchorage and Eagle River, about 130 miles as the crow flies).

Denali National Park
Denali National Park

For a trip that includes Denali and other areas of Alaska, one option would be to fly into Fairbanks then make your way to Denali and down south to other popular areas then fly out of Anchorage. Or do the reverse. This way you wouldn’t be backtracking and driving the same route more than once.

But rental vehicles could make Fairbanks cost-prohibitive. As a rule of thumb, you should book your vehicle rental at the same time or even before you book your flights. Most people are shocked at how expensive they are (typically at least $100-200 a day).

Denali National Park Summer Mountain Image Alaska
Denali National Park

From Anchorage, Denali National Park is about a 5-6 hour drive (don’t let Google Maps fool you, it’s much longer than 4 hours). Along this route, you could stop in the historic town of Talkeetna for a few hours and also at many of the pull-off areas along the highway.

You could easily make a day of this drive (one way that is). It’s important to note that you’re covering a lot of ground, about 240 miles, so if there’s construction or an accident or anything, it could really add to your drive time.

From Denali, you could turn around and head back. Alternatively, you could make you’re way north to visit Fairbanks. From there, you can head on to the town of North Pole and then head south to Valdez. This would be one epic road trip and I’d only recommend this if you love driving. But you’d cover a lot of the drivable areas of the state in one trip.

The stretch of road from Valdez to Palmer is one of the prettiest drives in the state (aside from Anchorage to Seward).

My Personal Recommendation

If you’re choosing between the two cities, aside from the Northern Lights, you’ll want to go with Anchorage over Fairbanks. Anchorage is the launching point for most of the popular activities in Alaska.

This includes towns to the south such as Girdwood, Seward, Homer (with the famous Homer Spit), Kenai (famous for the Kenai River and fishing), Cooper Landing, and also areas to the north such as Hatcher Pass, Talkeetna, and Matanuska Glacier.

While Fairbanks is closer to Denali, you can still drive up (about 5-6 hours) north from Anchorage to reach Denali.

Anchorage is set between the Chugach Mountains and the waters of Cook Inlet, making it a spectacular starting point.

Fairbanks is 360 miles north in what’s known as the Interior. There are mountains but they are further out as Fairbanks sits in a valley.

While I personally recommend Anchorage as your starting point, there are many popular things to do in and around Fairbanks. The popular tourist town of North Pole is nearby. Chena Hot Springs is about 90 minutes northeast. Denali is a few hour’s drive.

Within Fairbanks, there’s the Tanana River, great food, the famous Ice Art Championships, festivals, a few museums, and a small-town atmosphere.

To Wrap Up…

Overall Anchorage is the best choice when deciding where to start your trip. There are more flights and more activities within a few hours of the city. But if you plan your visit for the Northern Lights, then Fairbanks is a better choice.

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4 Comments

  1. Actually Fairbanks and nearby areas has 100,000 population. For a medium-small city there is alot to explore, see and do here. For example this week and into the next week is the Eskimo world Olympics in Fairbanks-definitely not to miss. There is also this weekend the Ester fest with music and food- an Alaska experience. While you are in Ester this Thursday and Sat is live music and dancing at the Malemute Saloon – a very Alaska venue. This Friday is a live music festival at the Boatel- classic venue here in Fairbanks. We also a proud of several other meeting places such as Hoodoos, and Blackspruce brewery-tasting venues among others. Next weekend is Golden Days with food and live music downtown all day and into the evening at our downtown. There is also the Goldpanner local semi pro baseball team near banks of the beautiful Chena River. Also dont miss our fantastic local farmers market Wednesdays and Saturdays in summer. Food is locally grown near Fairbanks and in the Delta area further south. In winter go to the University Pub for live music and a causual fun atmosphere. UAF also has operal, classical music, native arts festival, plays and many other live performances expecially during the fall, winter and spring. We arguably have the best snow for x-country skiing anywhere, with tons of trails to explore. Alpine areas with loads of blueberries can be had atop our domes such as Murchy Dome and only a 20 minute drive from town. And this is just a touch on what we have here. Come here and enjoy the unique interior Alaska culture.

    1. Hey John, thanks for the information! This article was written for people visiting Alaska and not moving to the state. Here in Eagle River and nearby Palmer, we have some fun festivals, but they are really more local. And with only 7 or 10 days in Alaska, I’d suggest doing bigger experiences over walking around a local festival (i.e. walking on a glacier, hiking, dog sledding, whale watching, etc). But I agree there’s definitely a lot of value in also having local experiences vs just the tourist stuff, and some people prefer doing that instead. These are great ideas, and I plan to add an article with things to do in Fairbanks if people have some time there.

  2. As an older couple who have traveled most of their adults lives we now just like peace , quiet aand tranquility. What would be a good destination in Alaska to just unpack , enjoy small town atmospher and beauty of the state and just be at peace enjoying nature. Thank you. Jerry and Gloria Novak North Carolina

    1. Hi Gerald, I highly recommend staying in Seward or Homer. Seward has a smaller population and is more compact, so you could book an Airbnb with views of Resurrection Bay in town and get around on foot. It is a cruise port stop though so it can get quite busy during the day. The bay typically always has sea lions, sea otters, and even whales. The town has a nice (but short) walking path along the water and nice areas to hang out. I personally love the area of Lowell Point, about 2 miles past Seward. It’s quiet and so peaceful. It’s not a town as there’s no infrastructure, but it’s an area along the water full of homes, rentals, cabins, and camping (I have an article on Lowell Point). Homer is larger (don’t get me wrong, it’s still a small town) and there are many more Airbnb options. Many of which have fantastic views of the bay since the town sits on a hill. Homer gets more sunlight and has a fantastic beach (Bishop’s Beach). There are many great restaurants, breweries, and even a winery. The town is more spread out, so you’ll want a car to get around. They’re within a few hours of one another, so if you have the time, I’d recommend exploring both towns. In my experience, I find the animal watching to be better in Seward.

      Valdez also fits the bill but it’s much further from Anchorage. As of now there aren’t cruises and it’s less touristy. There’s not as much to do but it’s also a beautiful spot and great for wildlife viewing and enjoying a beautiful setting. Hope this helps!

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