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Alaska is a popular travel destination. With glaciers, an abundance of wildlife and the tallest mountain in North America, the diversity of things to see and do is as big as the state. But for most people, an Alaska journey usually takes place in the summer months. Not for my husband and I. Always on the lookout for unique travel experiences, we chose to visit Fairbanks in winter.
Fairbanks’ northern location in central Alaska has two great things going for it: it gets 70 nonstop summer days of midnight sun and it is perfectly situated under the aurora oval which makes it ideal for Northern Lights viewing. It was to see the Fairbanks Northern Lights that we were visiting Alaska in the middle of February.
After doing a lot of research about where to see the Aurora, Fairbanks rose to the top of our list. Sure, it could be as cold as -30 F, but the region had a great record of clear skies. And the fact that by February there would be 8 hours of daylight meant that we could also enjoy daytime activities, especially the World Ice Art Championships that are held in Fairbanks in February and March every year.
We chose to fly into Anchorage (that was a better flight option at that time of year for us) and drive to Fairbanks, which allowed us to also spend some time in Denali National Park as well. We planned the following basic one week itinerary:
- Day 1 – fly to Anchorage and stay near the airport
- Day 2 – drive to Denali, stay near Denali
- Day 3 – explore Denali National Park; drive to Fairbanks, stay nearby in North Pole, Alaska
- Day 4,5 – in the Fairbanks area, stay in North Pole
- Day 6 – drive back to Anchorage and take the red eye flight back to US east coast
- Day 7 – arrive home and catch up on sleep
Our Denali Winter Experience
It may have been the middle of winter, but the drive from Anchorage to Denali was easy. We had a sunny – and yes, cold – day and the road was clear, well plowed and well maintained. Once we left the city, it wasn’t long before we started having spectacular mountain views. In fact, we were able to see Denali from over 150 miles away. It loomed over the horizon as we drove toward it, not really seeming to change size as we got closer. It just continued to tower over everything else around it.
With clear blue skies and snowy mountains on both sides of the road the drive was incredibly scenic so the 4.5 hour drive to our B&B went quite fast and was very pleasant.
There is an abundance of lodging options around Denali in the summer months, but not so much in the winter. The town closes up and rolls up its sidewalk once the cold weather sets in. I felt fortunate to find the Denali Dome Home B&B which was a 20 minute drive from the Denali park entrance and visitor’s center. With its large geodesic dome shape, this was a really unique property to stay at, regardless of the time of year. Our room was large and comfortable and warm.
The B&B’s common areas were extremely welcoming with a huge fireplace, many seating areas, expansive windows and a coffee, tea and beverage station. The full hot breakfasts were delicious, and since there were not many open restaurant options at that time of year, we also really appreciated the optional home cooked chicken marsala dinner, which was very comforting on a cold winter night.
The best service though was the offer to give us a wake up call if the northern lights showed up. This meant we could sleep instead of sitting outside, waiting, looking and waiting some more. Sure enough, around one in the morning, a knock on the door jolted us from a deep sleep. We quickly put on layers and boots and ran outside. A bright ribbon of electric green light was dancing across the sky over our head. We were getting a perfect classic view of the Northern Lights on our first nigh in central Alaska! Mother Nature’s light show lasted about half an hour and then slowly faded away to nothing, and we went back to bed.
We started the next day exploring what we could of Denali National Park. Even in the summer months, only the first 15 miles of the 90 mile Denali Park Road are open to private vehicles. In the winter, even less of this road is accessible.
We toured the visitor’s center and then headed over to the dog kennels to meet the four legged furry employees of this National Park. Denali NP is the only National Park in the US that maintains its own sled dog teams. Sled dogs have been used at Denali since 1922 to help patrol this vast 2 million acres of designated wilderness. In the winter months, the dog teams break trails for recreational use, haul equipment for special projects and help the rangers access remote areas.
On the day we visited, most of the dogs were out roaming the park, enjoying the snow and clear blue skies. However, there were a handful of pups lazing in their doghouses. One or two jumped up on top of their houses, ready for some action and attention, while others just continued to snooze away. Wondering what happens to a sled dog when they are ready to retire? If you have an active lifestyle that can keep up with one of these athletes, you can apply to adopt a retired Denali sled dog.
On our visit, the road was open past the dog kennels for a bit, so we continued as far as we could. Luck was with us because we came across two young men who were getting their own dog sled teams ready to go out into the park for a three week back-country trip. These hearty mushers had spent the fall leaving caches of supplies and food (mostly for the dogs) throughout the park in preparation for this excursion. These adventurous souls were going to enjoy Denali in winter as few people do.
We watched in fascination as each dog was taken out of the transport truck and attached to their rightful place in the line. They knew what was coming and they couldn’t wait. Sixteen dogs were barking furiously and jumping up and down with excitement. The noise level was almost deafening.
A tree trunk acted as an anchor to which the sleds were tied so that the dogs couldn’t start running until their humans were ready. These dogs were young and healthy and very strong. Their owners had to hold them by the scruff of the neck with the front legs off the ground so that they could control them as they were getting harnessed. Attaching the dogs to their appropriate harness was a challenge at which the humans won, but just barely.
Once the dogs were connected, and the supplies loaded up, the mushers let them loose. In under five seconds, both sleds were totally out of sight as the dog teams took off to do what they love best – run in the snow.
Our Fairbanks Aurora Experience
From Denali, we continued our 2.5 hour drive to Fairbanks and our accommodations in nearby North Pole, Alaska. We picked a cabin in the hamlet of North Pole because it put us further away from the city lights and potentially closer to dark, open viewing locations to see the aurora.
We drove around the area for a bit, looking for a good spot to go to at night that had unobstructed sky views. As planned, we were close to the Chena Lakes Recreation area and its frozen body of water. During the day, ice fishermen were hunkered down on top of the lake in wooden huts, trying to make a catch. At night, the open space on the ice made for good 360 degree views of the sky.
After a quick dinner, we went to bed early since we had the alarm set for 11 PM. Sunset was at about 6 PM and our bodies were still on East Coast time which was four hours later, so going to bed by 8 PM was not too hard.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature does not provide a playbill to let you know when the Northern Lights are going to be putting on a show. The aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere (or aurora australis in the southern hemisphere) is the result of the oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the earth’s atmosphere reacting with intense solar energy. While I had phone apps that predicted the probability of an aurora sighting and the strength and position of the aurora oval, they did not provide the time of a possible sighting. So, we would just have to go out there and look and wait.
For the next three nights, our routine was basically the same: eat dinner, go to bed around 8 PM, wake up at 11 PM, put on our many layers of clothing and then drive to the potential viewing site. We would then sit in the car and occasionally turn on the engine to get a little warm, and stare at the sky until the aurora showed up. Then we would get out of the car and jump up and down to try and stay warm as we watched the northern lights do their thing, and I would try to get pictures (not easy in the cold and dark). When it looked like the show was over, we headed back to the cabin (about 2-3 AM or so) and slept late into the morning. And repeat.
We were very lucky because we had clear (and cold) weather each day, so we did see the northern lights on each of these three nights to some degree. The first night we saw the typical ribbons again, this time in green with some red edges. The display was intense and varied from moving ribbons to curtains to a broad expanse of color and then back to a tight ribbon again. For an hour we stood there on the frozen lake, ignoring how frozen we were getting as we stared in awe at the sky above us. I have photos, but they do not come close to capturing the beauty of the colorful ballet of lights that we saw that night.
The second night, the lights were less intense and less focused, though more spread out across the whole sky, and did not last very long. We stayed in the car, but no amount of waiting brought them back.
The last night was the most memorable though. The aurora was barely visible to the eye, and it covered the whole sky in thin criss-crossed lines that looked like a green net that was holding an endless supply of stars. We were fortunate to be in an area without light pollution, or we would never have been able to see such a faint display. Yet it was this last night with its almost invisible dome of light from horizon to horizon that is most etched in my memory and that took my breath away. It was not a scene I could photograph, yet I will always remember it vividly.
Things to do in Fairbanks in winter
Once we woke up again late morning and had brunch/lunch, we went out to explore the area. By this time the temperatures had warmed up into the mid 20 degrees F which was actually considered a heat wave in Fairbanks in the winter. For the locals, the cold was clearly not an issue because here it was business as usual. People were outside, going to work, to school, to the shops – they were used to this cold.
Since we were staying in North Pole, we started with a visit with Santa and the Santa Claus House. I guess central Alaska is where Santa goes on vacation to warm up because he was staying in one of the cabins next to us – I even got his business card. Everyone else can meet Santa and his reindeer at the Santa Claus House (and do some early holiday shopping as well).
In Fairbanks, we first went to see the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Just outside of town is a viewing point where a portion of this 800 mile long pipe is above ground. Displays describe how this engineering marvel was built and how it is maintained in the frigid arctic landscape.
We then continued to the Large Animal Research Station (LARS) on the campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. LARS takes care of a herd of musk ox, and this was our best chance to see this ancient arctic species in a natural environment.
Other options for warmer indoor activities are the Museum of the North which is also on the UAF campus and has great exhibits about Alaska’s history and the cultural traditions of the native Alaskan population. In downtown Fairbanks, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor’s Center is a good place to get information about local sights, activities and events. The cultural center here also has very informative exhibits on Alaskan history and culture and great movies about Alaska, including an excellent one about the aurora.
Fairbanks also has a great quilt shop, Northern Threads, so of course I had to check that out as well. And yes, I did leave with a selection of Alaskan themed batik fabric to add to my collection.
The World Ice Art Championships
Our visit to Fairbanks also happened to coincide with the first week of the World Ice Art Championships. This event, which brings world class ice artists from all over the world, is completely run and organized by a huge cadre of volunteers. Besides the competition ice sculptures, there is also a large Ice Park with ice slides, ice castles, ice mazes and other interactive ice themed fun for kids and adults alike.
The Ice Art Championships last abut a month and have a number of competition categories. We caught the One Person event category where a single artist had 36 hours to take a single block of ice weighting 4000 lb and measuring 6 ft by 4 ft by 3 ft and turn it into a stunning piece of art. Like Michelangelo releasing his David from the grips of a chunk of marble, the artists brought out some unbelievably complex figures out of a chunk of frozen water. Sadly, unlike a marble statue, these ice sculptures have a short life span.
The ice sculptures were beautiful to look at during the day, but really came alive once the sun set and colored lights highlighted the many intricate details. These single block sculptures were so incredibly impressive that I can only imagine what grand pieces the multi block and team categories produce when they have multiple blocks of ice to work with.
Tips for seeing the Northern Lights in Fairbanks, Alaska
- The Northern Lights are visible in Fairbanks, Alaska from around August 21 to about April 21, so you do not have to go during the coldest winter months. The Explore Fairbanks website has all the information you need to plan your aurora visit.
- We gave ourselves four full nights in the area to increase our chances of seeing the aurora on at least one night. We were lucky and had clear skies with Northern Lights on each night. The longer you can stay, the higher your probability will be of seeing the aurora. Also, the aurora will look different each time, so being ale to see it more than once will allow you to see its many forms.
- We did this trip on our own because that is how we like to travel. However, if you would like the convenience of having someone else take care of all the logistics, Chena Hot Springs Resort offers a variety of aurora packages. They have yurts on top of Charlie Dome where you can wait in warmth until the aurora appears. They also have a year round Ice Museum where you can see examples of elaborate ice sculptures, including an ice bar that serves up a delicious appletini in an ice glass.
Please note that I was hosted by the Chena Hot Springs Resort on my summer visit to Fairbanks. All content and opinions are my own.
- Be prepared to stay up late into the night and to make up that sleep during the day which will not necessarily allow a lot of time for traditional sightseeing during the daylight hours.
- Fairbanks, Alaska in winter is indeed cold. Nighttime temperatures can be -30 F. Dress in layers-lots of layers. Hand and foot warmers are also extremely effective. Also, bring an insulated thermos style mug or bottle that you can fill with hot coffee, tea or cocoa to drink while you are waiting.
- Bring lots of patience – there is a lot of boring dead time in the dark as you wait for the northern lights to appear. But it is definitely worth it once you get to see them.
My husband and I really loved our Fairbanks winter trip. We were fortunate to see the Northern Lights all four nights that we were there. Fairbanks and central Alaska did not disappoint, but then that was why we chose to go there.
Thanks for visiting.