While most travelers plan Alaska visits for the peak season of summer sun and fun, those who wander north for Alaska’s winter are welcoming by a surprisingly warm vibe, as well as many unique winter outdoor opportunities and special surprises. Winter travelers can break out their warm winter jackets, a fleece hat and some toe-roasting snow boots and by taking a tip from Alaska locals to just wears some layers, they will be perfectly comfortable even in the wildest and whitest winter conditions. Life certainly feels slower and more relaxed here in the winter, but it’s far from boring. In fact, certain memorable, if not unforgettable, Alaska experiences can only be enjoyed in the white of Alaska’s winter months.
Experience the Magical Northern Lights
Of course, the biggest – and brightest – reason people visit Alaska in the winter is for a chance to witness the brilliance and spectacle of the Aurora Borealis or northern lights. These seemingly magical and mystical lights illuminate even the coldest, darkest winter nights with their shifts in movement, color and intensity. Photos and videos of their activity can be jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring, but even the best of those can’t do true justice to this amazing natural wonder – they just have to been seen to be believed.
Alaska’s northern position and its many hours of seasonal darkness make it a perfect place to see the aurora’s natural lightshows. The lights can be spotted across the state, but scientifically they are more likely to appear and dance in Alaska’s Interior and further north. Hiring professional guides to take you to the lights are game-changers – these folks are dialed in on when and where the lights will shine brightest and most often on any given night.
Then again, timing, luck and weather are factors, too. You could feel like a fruitless night of no lights has passed only to be awoken in the early hours by a phone call from your hotel’s front desk, informing you of a northern lights display just outside your window. Yes, many Alaska hotels, bed and breakfasts and local hosts do that for their guests.
Winter Sports in Alaska
An entire winter trip to Alaska could be focused on admiring the aurora, but there’s so much more to do in between the light shows. And most of the best activities take place outside, in the white and wonderful winter elements. Playing outdoors and basking in the best of winter is how many Alaskans stave off cabin fever; for some, winter fun is the reason they live here. For visitors who are elite athletes, weekend warriors or just curious and adventurous, there’s no end to outdoor winter recreation fun.
For some, winter trips to Alaska are strictly centered on spending every waking moment skiing or snowboarding. There are excellent groomed downhill areas sprinkled across the state, all offering a variety of terrain and all easily accessible from Alaska’s most populated cities. And then there’s the endless canvass of white, wild and world-class downhill adventures offered by Alaska’s backcountry. Skiers and snowboarders get to these pristine peaks by riding in a snowcat, hopping in a helicopter, or simply putting skins on their skis and climbing, earning every turn in sweat. The one thing they all share: the exhilaration, adrenaline and freedom of cruising on slopes and in snow of downhill dreams. Of course, even the most hardcore powder hounds can’t carve lines all day. Luxurious lodges in the quiet backcountry and quaint accommodations amid urban fun provide the full range of rest and replenishment options.
Other fun ways to explore on a winter day include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice climbing, fat tire biking and ice skating. Plenty of Alaska outfitters love nothing more than gearing up excited visitors for a day or the entirety of their stay.
Alaska Festivals and Winter Events
Prefer watching the action? There’s probably a hockey game taking place on a rink at most hours and the niche yet suddenly popular sport of curling has always been an Alaska favorite. In Fairbanks, the International Curling Bonspiel brings in stone throwers from around the world. And then there are the creative, elaborate and fragile ice sculptures, which are chiseled with precision by incredible international artists at Alaska festivals and championships.
Like the northern lights, fireworks are more easily seen in the dark of Alaska’s winters. That’s why big bang pyrotechnics are always big draws to Alaska’s winter festivals like Anchorage’s Fur Rendezvous and New Year’s Eve and Winter Solstice parties in towns of all sizes. These winter carnivals feature all sorts of fun and food to keep attendees warm and smiling, including the Running of the Reindeer and snowball fights in Anchorage, outhouse races north of Fairbanks, snow sculpture and ice carving competitions at many events, big community dances and concerts, and almost always an array of Alaska arts and crafts.
Dogsledding and the Iditarod
Alaska history is rooted in sled dog rides and racing, and that dog-centric community remains strong in Alaska even today. These tough and competitive teams of mushers and dogs were born to run and battle through some serious challenges. Distance dogsledding teams compete in events that endure slow but steady travel for hundreds of miles through the harshest weather and across some of the most unforgiving landscapes in Alaska (the world-famous Iditarod, from Anchorage to Nome) and across northern countries (the Yukon Quest travels a route between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Canada). Both events, and other smaller races, draw big loud crowds and for their starts and finishes. Sprint teams blaze across shorter distances in high-speed, high-profile, multiday events on courses that cover spectator-friendly urban streets and trails (the Open World Championships in Anchorage, the Open North American in Fairbanks, along with dozens of smaller races in regions across the state).
Want to feel the horsepower of dog power? When they aren’t racing or training, most professional mushers operate kennels where they host tours to proudly show off their dogs (cuddle with the puppies!) and even take visitors for front-seat rides in their sled baskets.
Snowmobiling, Flightseeing & Polar Bear Plunges
Rolling with the rovers makes for fast and furry fun, it’s nothing like the feeling of speed and ferocity of holding the handles of a speedy snow machine. Operators across the state take explorers on day-long snow machine tours into the wild, traversing frozen lakes and rivers, fast and flat tundra, and even cruising around breathtaking glacier formations.
Another way of motorized exploration in winter is flightseeing tours, with a few operators carrying over their activities from summer. Imagine circling Denali, blanketed in bright snow, or above an endless web of immaculate glaciers and ice fields, on a bluebird winter day. Bring sunglasses and plenty of memory on your camera. Travel through winter at a slower, more peaceful pace along the Alaska Railroad, which operates certain passenger routes through winter, as well as offers a handful of one-day-only winter themed party rides.
Some summer visitors’ trips wouldn’t be complete without getting into some Alaska fishing action. Same goes for winter visitors hoping to land a lunker. In wither, the seemingly endless options of summer angling are cut considerably since most water surfaces are covered by ice, but there’s still plenty of fishing to be found. Ice fishing is popular around the state and a few outfitters and guides will provide the gear and know-how needed to find the fish, stay warm and have a great time. There are even a few popular open-water opportunities to catch a prized king salmon during winter runs in Kachemak Bay and other areas.
And yes, there’s the ultimate winter water bucket list item for the few and the frigid: Polar Bear Plunges. Alaska communities host a handful every winter, most raising funds and awareness for non-profit organizations. They draw hundreds of jittery jumpers and even more splash-happy spectators. Cannonball if you dare …
Alaska’s winters also offer a rare, and sought-after, calm and quiet. Travelers can feel a million miles away from any hustle, bustle or distraction when they cozy up in a cabin, lodge or other accommodations. There’s a new level of relaxation found sitting next to a crackling woodstove or fireplace, favorite warm beverage in hand, partner or close friends nearby, as snow falls outside and the sun sets with a pink alpenglow flourish.