Slowly but surely I’m catching up on our Alaska trip reports! I already shared our Kenai Fjords cruise story, and blogged about our visit to Denali National Park and even shared new insights (and photos!) of our drive along the Alaska Highway!
Checking these amazing places one by one off my trip reports list is quite rewarding. Today’s report is about a place that’s much smaller but very special: The Large Animals Research Station, or LARS for short. I expect this will be a shorter post compared to my other trip reports but I hope you’ll find it helpful if you’re planning a trip to Fairbanks, Alaska.
What is LARS?
Fairbanks is a university town and it shows. By that I mean that it has several points of interest for travelers. To mention just three that we have visited and are related to the university: The Museum of The North, The Georgeson Botanical Garden and LARS, the Large Animal Research Station.
Science geeks that we are, our family really loves attractions that are operated by universities or research facilities. The exhibits are usually far more interesting and there’s a good chance you’ll get to talk to people who are experts on the topic. That why we loved visiting CERN in Switzerland so much.
LARS is like that. This is not some tourist-trap with a petting zoo on a ranch. LARS is an actual “working” research station that is home for several studies in the field of agriculture. Their mission is to study working with large local animals in the harsh Alaskan climate. Raising regular cows doesn’t work that well during winter so they’re looking into alternatives. Specifically, we’re talking about Caribous (aka Reindeer) and Musk Ox.
What’s there to study about musk ox and caribou?
Local wild animals are hardy and better-adapted to the harsh conditions of Alaskan winter. However, wild animals are, well, wild. If you want to raise them as livestock you have to domesticate them – at least to some extent. And that’s what they’re doing in LARS. They basically raise small herds of Musk Ox and Caribou and study the best ways to make them happy in captivity, and easier to handle.
Domesticating large animals is no small feat. There’s a reason why it’s taken humanity thousands of years to properly domesticate livestock animals. With musk ox, the incentive is quite strong though: Their wool.
Musk ox have an underlying coat of very soft wool. It’s called qiviut and it’s extremely sought after. This is what raw qiviut looks like –
This raw stuff is priced at $35 per ounce! Apparently the garments you knit with qiviut are very warm and light. They have some knits for sale in the LARS shop and we got to feel them during the demonstration too –
This is why Alaska is trying to turn Musk Ox into local livestock and why the university research station (LARS) focuses on these beasts.
We had three full days to spent in Fairbanks so I was looking for fun family attractions. We love animals and we usually like educational tours in universities too. So, LARS was a perfect combo. We get to see two types of large animals that are unique to the north: caribou and musk ox. And we get to learn about them too and even contribute some money to the ongoing research. Win-win!
Visiting LARS in Fairbanks
To visit LARS you have to join a guided tour. We were there 10 minutes ahead of time (as requested) and bought our tickets in the nice little wooden building by the gates.
The cashier was also our tour guide. A young man named Matthew who is a student at the local Fairbank university and very knowledgeable about the work LARS does.
Our tour lasted approximately one hour. Matthew took us to the Musk Ox enclosure and tried to encourage the animals to come near the fence so that we could have a look. He held a branch of their favorite plant and we all waited patiently.
Turns out Musk Ox are stubborn animals. Which is actually a problem that the LARS scientists are trying to work on. Despite their name, these are actually huge grumpy sheep and not cows. They each have their own personality but all adults are cranky, according to Matthew. To get their precious wool, farmers need to comb them – not an easy task with a grouchy 500-pound animal!
At LARS, they’re trying to see whether several generations of being raised in captivity is going to create a more manageable musk ox. With mixed results so far.
After about 15 minutes of offering yummy leaves, Matthew finally tempted one of the younger musk ox to get close.
He was talking to us the entire time, sharing more fascinating information about musk ox and about work on the LARS farm, so we didn’t mind the wait.
Overall, the tour was mostly a lecture by our guide. A fascinating lecture, with a musk ox eating next to the fence for some of the time, but mostly a lecture –
Our guide did use chart prints, photos and even a couple of skulls as teaching aids. Then we moved into a tent where he had hides of caribou and musk ox and samples of qiviut to show us.
So, did we enjoy our visit to LARS?
Yes, very much so. We learned a lot about musk ox and caribou, which are unique to this area of the world. We also got to see them on the farm, even if not too many of them. The caribou weren’t near the fence either. But that was ok.
If you’re considering a visit to LARS while in Fairbanks, keep in mind that this is no petting zoo. Or any type of zoo. This is a research facility and the guided tour is geared towards that. Young children will probably find it boring. Our teenager boys thought it was fairly interesting. We – the parents – thought it was fascinating.
If you appreciate a fascinating outdoors lecture, then this is a great way to spend an hour while visiting Fairbanks, Alaska.
Finally, the technical details
LARS offers regular guided tours during summer months, beginning in early June and ending in early September. They offer guided tours 10am, 12pm, and 2pm Wednesday – Sunday. Note that LARS is closed to visitors on Mondays and Tuesdays!
According to their website you don’t need to pre-register for the tours unless yours is a group of more than 15 people. You can just show up 10-15 minutes before the tour begins and get your tickets.
There is a separate “behind the scenes” tour that we didn’t try. You need to book that one in advance and it costs $400 per group. Your group can be up to 20 people, they don’t care if you’re only 4. At $100 per person, we couldn’t afford that.
The regular tour costs $10 per person and can accommodate up to 40 people. All proceeds go towards the maintenance of the animals and LARS.
Where is LARS located?
The address for the farm and visitors center is:
2266-2268 Yankovich Rd, Fairbanks, AK 99709, USA
That’s about three miles away from the university campus and 7 miles away from Downtown Fairbanks. You need a car (or an uber) to get there but it’s a short drive. There’s plenty of parking too.
Do you have to take a guided tour to visit LARS?
You really need to join the tour. You might be able to view some of the animals from the road but you can’t go inside without a guide. Really, I think 90% of the experience is in the tour, the things your guide tells you and the opportunity to view the exhibits, touch the qiviut etc.
At least during our tour, Matthew was the only LARS employee on the grounds. Which meant that the people who came early for the next tour had to wait at the entrance for our tour to finish. They couldn’t just walk in and spend time in the shop as everything was locked up.
Can you visit LARS during winter?
According to their website you can. After all, they are a working farm and the animals are there during winter time too. There are no pre-scheduled guided tours during winter time though, so you need to contact them and schedule your visit.
And you can buy qiviut!
They have the expensive qiviut yarn in the shop and you can even order musk ox qiviut from the LARS website! You’ll be getting top notch original musk ox yarn and help Large Animal Research Station with its work.
So, what do you think? Is this the kind of place you would incorporate into your visit to Fairbanks? Have you already visited LARS? Can you recommend other similar attractions elsewhere in the world? Let me know in a comment and feel free to ask me anything you like about our own visit!