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North Hills Monthly

Walk with Reindeer, Revel Under the Northern Lights in Fairbanks, AK

Nov 29, 2019 12:25PM ● By Vanessa Orr

At the Running Reindeer Ranch, visitors can have an interactive animal experience.

We all know that traditional holiday tale: every year on Christmas Eve, Santa and his reindeer travel from the North Pole, bringing gifts to those who have been good. But did you know that you can actually travel to North Pole, AK, and walk among the reindeer at any time of year?

Even better, if you visit the Fairbanks region during Aurora Borealis season, which runs from August 21-April 21, you can see one of nature’s most stunning light shows—a display so awe-inspiring that it far surpasses any sparkling holiday décor.

So let’s start with the reindeer. There’s nothing quite so exhilarating—and yes, slightly terrifying—as walking among a herd of 300- to 400-pound beasts that occasionally want to spar with each other during a hike through Alaska’s boreal forest. Luckily, the people at Running Reindeer Ranch are well-versed in dealing with the animals, most of whom they’ve raised from calves. It’s a truly surreal experience to be wandering through foot-deep snow, accompanied by Olive, Daisy, Buttercup, and Rocket, among others, while learning about Alaska’s environment and the animals that survive in such conditions—in Fairbanks, for example, the temperature can range from -66 degrees F in the winter to 96 degrees F in the summer. 

What’s really fascinating is that you’re experiencing the animals in their natural element; while the dominant reindeer is on a lead, the others are free to roam, which means you have to pay attention to where you’re walking to avoid an errant antler. Interesting fact—out of the 45 species of deer, reindeer are the only ones where both the male and female of the species grow antlers.

And while these reindeer aren’t pulling Santa’s sleigh, you’ll still have the opportunity to see the big guy. Stop into the Santa Claus House—which, not surprisingly, is located in the city of North Pole—to find the spirit of Christmas year-round. If you’re ever at a loss for a holiday-themed gift, this is the place to go; if they don’t have it here, it doesn't exist. You can’t help but get in the mood once you walk into the massive cheer-laden space; wandering through the artfully decorated trees and seeing baubles hung from every nook and cranny is the perfect way to become inspired. And don’t forget to write a postcard or a letter to a loved one while you’re there—who wouldn’t appreciate a missive postmarked from the North Pole?

If a sleigh isn’t your vehicle of choice, a visit to the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum at Wedgewood Resort might be more your style. From horseless carriages to electric cars to 1930s classics, it’s a shock to see this kind of collection—all but two of which are drivable—housed in an area known for its ice roads. The largest collection of historic vintage cars on display in the U.S., the 137 cars you can see are only 20 percent of the entire collection of pre-WWII vehicles. 

What really intrigued me, however, is that the car collection is accompanied by a first-class fashion collection showcasing how women’s clothes had to adapt to the auto age—somehow the juxtaposition of fancy clothes and elegant cars completely works in this unexpected locale.

Speaking of surprising things, a must-stop is the Aurora Ice Museum at Chena Hot Springs, where you can enjoy a (very) chilled appletini in a glass made completely of ice before jumping into 106-degree Rock Lake to warm up. The museum, which was created from more than 1,000 tons of ice and snow, stays at a brisk 25 degrees year-round, and features ice sculptures carved by Steve and Heather Brice, both world champion ice sculptors, who also offer classes on the property.

And no need to worry about washing dishes; once you’re finished with your drink, you can just toss it on the ground and watch it shatter.

To learn more about Fairbanks and its history, as well as the Athabascan and Inupiaq Eskimo Alaska Native cultures, stop into the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center, which offers a wealth of information as well as fascinating dioramas and displays that explain how Alaska’s second-largest city came to be. I also highly recommend the University of Alaska Museum of the North for a look at the area’s history as well as its impressive art collection—the building itself is worth a visit as it resembles a massive ice sculpture rising out of the tundra.

The importance of nature can be felt everywhere in this far north city, and its accommodations reflect this as well. Most hotels, such as Chena Hot Springs Resort and A Taste of Alaska Lodge, offer Northern Lights tours, or have special warming facilities built where you can stand outside to watch the show and then hop inside to take the chill off. 

Some are even designed to make the most of the experience; Borealis Basecamp, an ecolodge about an hour out of Fairbanks, lets you stay in dome-shaped igloos with specially designed acrylic ceilings that are completely open to the star- or light-filled night. While the hotel is completely off-grid, you’d never know it from the delicious, locally sourced meals served in its luxurious yurt—and where else are you going to get the experience of sleeping under that wondrous Alaska sky when it’s 30 below?

To learn more about Fairbanks, including where to stay, how to get there, and all that there is to do (and I’ve barely scratched the surface), visit