On most bucket lists and the kind of destination that not only gets you back to nature, but allows for a one-of-a-kind experience, Fairbanks, Alaska, paired with the 2014 Toyota 4Runner is a match made in heaven.
Add Denali National Park to the mix and you will have the "trip of a lifetime," I know because I did this past June.
I have been to Fairbanks in both the summer and winter and this past summer I arrived on June 21 with the chance to experience a bit of the midnight sun.
Arriving at a little after midnight, the sun was still in the sky and I certainly wasn't sleepy - neither are the locals. In fact, the locals know firsthand how to take advantage of the daylight hours since come winter it's the exact opposite, translating into a lot of darkness.
Fairbanks sits at the top of the world and while in the summer you can't see the northern lights that many people visit this area to experience, if you decide on a winter trip there is a good chance you might get a glimpse. I didn't see the aurora borealis during my most recent trip, but during the winter a few years ago I experienced it and it's a sight you will never forget.
Surrounded by wilderness the outdoor adventure lover can kayak, canoe, hike, fish and camp in the Fairbanks area and in the winter add to that dog sledding snowmobiling and snowshoeing too.
Back to that glorious endless sun, from the Midnight Sun Run, which I attended a few days after my arrival to an annual baseball game called the Midnight Sun Game there is lots of action going on 24/7 in this northern part of the United States.
Regarding the Midnight Sun Baseball game, this is a great place to get to know the locals and the game doesn't even begin until 10:30 p.m. and is usually over around 1:30 a.m., have a beer or too as you enjoy the daylight hours.
The Midnight Sun Run draws folks from around the country on the same day as the baseball game and in the past the run has seen as many as 3,500 participants and most of them dressed up in crazy outfits. No matter what your running level, there are elite runners, walkers having a good time and even parent's pushing the kid's stroller, all are invited to participate.
There is also a Midnight Sun Festival during the festivities, a single day event that draws crowds from all around. This year was the 33rd year the festival has been going on, so if you can arrange your time in the summer to visit Fairbanks, around June 21 is the time to do it.
First thing's first, however: I picked up a 2014 Toyota 4Runner from Kendall Toyota of Fairbanks.
Taking the 4Runner out and about for a week in Fairbanks, I found it to be the perfect set of wheels for my adventure. On or off the road, the 2014 Toyota 4Runner is more than capable of making magic and it's a strong engine and new this year and impressive styling with a bit of redesign on the exterior too.
Competition for this more than worthy mid-size sport utility vehicle includes the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Dodge Durango, all three however, are worthy road warriors even if not all as modestly priced.
The five-passenger 2014 Toyota 4Runner comes in three trim levels, the SR5, Trail and Limited. On the SR5 and the Trail there are options to choose from that also includes a base or Premium style version. While it is standard with five passengers another choice you can opt for is the 50/50-split on the third-row seat for the SR5 and Limited trims. With this option you can then seat seven.
Under the hood this Toyota 4Runner has a 4.0-liter V6 engine with 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. Expect a five-speed automatic transmission, but the SR5 and Limited also have rear-wheel or four-wheel drive options and the Trail trim can be had in 4WD only.
On the SR5 the four-wheel drive is part-time with a low-range transfer case and the Limited has a 4WD system low-range. The Trail trim has the standard 4WD and that also comes with a locking rear differential and various electronic terrain systems.
Inside the 2014 Toyota 4Runner it's comfortable and you will feel right at home. There is a new instrument panel, which enhances the interior design. Overall too, the entire design looks and feel easy to connect with and it's more than straightforward to find whatever you need at your fingertips. The 2014's also have a touchscreen audio interface with a variety of functional choices depending on the trim level.
The third row optional seats are snug, but the cargo space overall is 47 cubic-feet behind row number two and that's plenty of space for hauling goodies or when all the seats are folded down you get 90 cubic-feet. When all is equipped as needed, the 2014 Toyota 4Runner can easily tow as much as 4,700 pounds.
The 2014 Toyota 4Runner I drove was a Trail Premium 4X4 with 17 miles per gallon in the city and 21 miles per gallon on the highway and with a price tag of $41,325.
One special place that you won't want to miss while in Fairbanks running around in your 4Runner is a place called Running Reindeer Ranch (www.runningreindeer.com). I visited and walked with the reindeer when I was in Fairbanks and few winters ago, but visiting in the summer is an entirely different experience. The reindeer are all shedding the thick winter hair, don't wear black when you visit. Overall, the owners will give you a two-and-a-half-hour tour to meet the reindeers, walk with them and at the end it's homemade cookies - in the summer out on the verandah - taking in the sweeping views of the boreal forest.
Every time I visit Fairbanks I have to check out the Museum of the North, highly recommended. While the museum is home to some wonderful Alaskan exhibits from paintings to displays, I always end up in the room called "The Place Where You Go to Listen." There is no other place like this that I have found anywhere in the world as you enter a silent and still room with changing lights and then you can listen to the earth in real time. Created by Fairbanks composer John Luther Adams, the environmental movements of the moon, sun, earthquakes and the aurora determine the sounds you hear and the changing colors.
Adventures in Denali National Park
During my stay in Fairbanks this past summer I took part in a tour with a high-end group called John Hall's Alaska and Cruises (www.kissalaska.com). We spent most of the time in Denali National Park, a must for any traveler to Alaska. The adventure began quietly enough as we took a bus into the park and headed into the back country to spend a few nights. The folks with the John Hall group both the lady in charge who was extraordinary, as well as the driver of the bus in Denali and the folks on the tour itself were amazing.
On the way to Denali we took the train from Fairbanks, which was the least interesting part of the trip as the train is not comfortable, but then we boarded the John Hall coach and drove into the park. There is a chance to see Dahl sheep, bears and moose, which we did see and if you are lucky, wolves, which I did not see. Driving, driving, driving and then we ended up in the furthest part of Denali National Park at BackCountry Lodge in Kantishna.
In Kantishna there is a chance to relax the day away, enjoy a spa treatment at the lodge or hike, fish and pan for gold. We had planned to take a small sightseeing plane to check out the area from the sky the first evening, but it began to rain so that idea got nixed pretty quick.
And, when it began to rain, well, that is roughly when the trouble began.
Actually, the trouble turned into one of the best stories I have to tell of my adventures as a travel writer and so it begins.
First of all, when you are in Alaska, just expect the unexpected. At the BackCountry Lodge my lovely little cabin was backed up to the loveliest little stream. However, on the second day I woke up after 24-plus hours of rain that lovely little stream had turned into a big 'ol raging river and the water was rising by the minute. Realizing that we were 95 miles inside the park and this was not Disney Land the group leaders thought it best we leave as early as possible that morning to be sure we got out of the park safely.
As everyone from the group boarded the bus, and I just have to say again that this was the nicest group of people I have ever met, the driver drove us up the hill about five miles and then we stopped.
We stopped because the one road out was no longer a viable exit option. The rain had been coming down from higher ground very about 24 hours and a very large tree had been knocked over onto the road so basically we weren't going anywhere. Even if the tree had not been in the way, up the road a little more we found out that the road had been washed out by a raging stream that was quickly becoming dangerous and blocking anyone into or out of the end of the park we were now stranded in near Kantishna.
In the very large bus the driver expertly maneuvered the bus backwards all the way to the BackCountry Lodge for a plan B discussion. As we got off the bus once again we went into the main lodge area and waited. I looked again out the window and saw the happy little stream had become a very unhappy river and was become unhappier every minute. In fact, I watched fascinated as things like very large metal barrels and even larger trees came thundering down the river passing me and then I noticed my feet were beginning to get damp as the water continued to rise around me.
Before long the entire dirt parking lot where the bus stood ready for instructions became a pond of water - that water rising by the second. The cabin where I stayed was now being filled with water from the river and we heard that the employee cabins were already flooded and one employee at a cabin on the other side of the river was now stuck there and couldn't get back across.
Some of the guests were running with their suitcases alongside employees to get out and a quick decision was made for the John Hall folks to get back on our bus and head to higher ground near where the tree had fallen. It took awhile to get everyone back on the bus and I could see that the bus driver was getting a bit nervous, but he didn't want to be rude. I said rather sternly as I realized Mother Nature had the upper hand here, everyone get on the bus now, the driver said under his breath "if we don't leave now we will be stuck."
As we finally got everyone boarded in what seemed like long 30 minutes, but was likely only about five minutes, the bus door was shut and water was already pouring in onto the first two steps.
We sped away and ended up back where the tree stopped us and then we waited and waited. We heard that workers were making their way with bulldozers to the downed tree, but then they had to get across the raging river that had washed out the road further in the distance. It did not look good as it kept raining.
After about six or seven hours later and a lot of stranded people in addition to the John Hall group, finally small planes were able to fly in and out as the rain let up and the John Hall company decided they were going to have the group of us, about 45 or so, airlifted out. There were two small planes that could take about eight passengers each and it was about a 30 minute flight to and another 30 minutes back for more passengers. No one argued about who would go first, it just happened that everyone knew who needed to go and when.
The first group of folks, two couples that I had already come to know and love from only two days on the trip were going to be four of the first ones out, the two women were crying as they got off the bus. I felt so bad for them, they were terrified to fly in such a small plane, out of Denali in a rain storm. The options however, were not as good as the odds for them so they, and all the other slightly frightened people in the group stoically pushed onward.
My colleague and I ended up on the last plane out and the pilot was getting nervous as we made our way to the makeshift airfield, "if we don't leave now, and hurry, we won't be able to get out," he said rather nervously. He didn't want to get stuck either.
Needless to say we got out, those Denali pilots are the best around. However, as I looked around at the damage that Mother Nature had wreaked on this little piece of Alaska I was once again reminded how fragile we humans really are - just visitors on this earth.
However, with everyone doing everything they could for the safety of the John Hall group, we were with the best in Alaska so I highly recommend these guys to anyone looking for a Denali adventure, because indeed, I got the Denali story of my life.
As for Fairbanks, spend time there, head to Denali and then for me, I went back to Fairbanks to rewind for a few days before heading home.
Summer is magic in Fairbanks and winter even more so, there are festivals going on year round and Fairbanks is always open for business, not for the faint of heart, this area of our country is truly America's last frontier.
Where to Stay:
This year I stayed at the Alpine Lodge (www.akalpinelodge.com) during part of my stay in Fairbanks and if you go on any excursions up north or to Denali for a few days they can also hold your unneeded luggage for you.
Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and Conference Center (www.westmarkhotels.com) is downtown and was a great place to set up for a few nights before heading home with large rooms and a bar and shop inside so everything is at your fingertips.
Where to Eat and Drink:
HooDoo Brewing Company - Even if I am not a beer drinker, I still enjoyed tasting the beer here. This brewing company is owned by a Fairbanks local, Bobby Wilken, who lived in the lower 48 (as they call the states in the US) and Wilken also did some taste testing in Munich, Germany as well. Tours are also available when you come in for a brew - www.hoodoobrew.com.
Pike's Landing Restaurant and Lounge - This is a landmark place to eat in Fairbanks with a variety of dishes and the best Fairbank's chefs around. It is open year round and musts on the menu include the Alaska fish and seafood www.pikeslodge.com.
The Cookie Jar Restaurant - I visited this place several times during my stay and enjoyed a lively outdoor patio and a menu that is good for breakfast or lunch. The big deal here is the homemade cinnamon rolls so don't miss it www.cookiejarfairbanks.com.
Alaska Salmon Bake and Palace Theatre - If you don't know what a salmon bake is then you have to enjoy this at least once in your life with grilled salmon cooked over an open fire and allt he halibut and sides you want. Seating is outside at Pioneer Park so the atmosphere is pure Alaska and afterwards, check out the show at the Theatre in the park, a comedy review highlighting Alaska and the funny anecdotes that make this state such a jewel. www.akvisit.com.
For information about visiting Fairbanks any time of year check out www.explorefairbanks.com.
NOTE: This author does not and will never take any money from any automotive brand or destination/restaurant/activity, etc. in exchange for coverage, the views are strictly the author's opinion.