When I was invited to a Society of American Travel Writers meeting in Fairbanks in February 2022, I was excited but thought how cold and dreary Alaska could be in the winter and wondered why they had chosen February of all months.
Although I grew up in cold Cleveland, I now live in California and didn’t even know if I would have the right clothes, boots and base layers to take a trip to Alaska, but I signed up to go in Fairbanks and started the preparations. . Digging up jackets, sweaters, woolen socks and boots and packing a huge bag, I really didn’t do much research on what awaited us in this northernmost state.
1. Fairbanks is a 24-hour city.
My first clue as to why Fairbanks in winter should have been the odd hours of flights arriving and departing from the lovely little airport. I left Sonoma County for Seattle, then took an Alaska Airlines flight to Fairbanks which arrived around midnight. When I left Seattle the stores were closing, but when I arrived in Fairbanks the airport was very busy. Shops and restaurants were open, taxis and shuttles were waiting, and the surreal worry I had when wondering if I could get into my hotel room quickly evaporated when I saw the shuttle for Pike’s Waterfront Lodge parked at curb.
The hotel offer is not very extensive in Fairbanks, but you will find some of the big chains like Hyatt Place, Candlewood Suites, Hampton Inn, Best Western and La Quinta. Pike’s Waterfront is a good choice for location, a hearty free breakfast and a free scoop of ice cream every night, and their Aurora viewing room and library devoted to all things “Alaska.”
Vacation rentals are readily available, whether in more populated areas or in the great outdoors. Read the fine print to avoid situations like a “honeypot” in the bathroom for your nighttime needs and an outhouse for all other bathroom activities. Yes, that was the fate of a Houston mother and daughter I met while ice fishing who endured this primitive life for four days before moving to a more civilized hotel.
Pro tip: Although it may seem counterintuitive, the ice cream is outrageously popular and the quality is higher in this freezing town, as it seems to be in all of Alaska. Just keep your eyes peeled and count the number of ice cream shops you see throughout your visit.
2. Winter means Northern Lights viewing is in season
The 24-hour vibe in Fairbanks is easily explained as the main attraction of this Alaskan winter destination. These are the aurora or aurora borealis, which is a must see sight for thousands of people making the trip north. The Northern Lights are a weather phenomenon and, although unpredictable, sightings are most reliable during the winter months when the days are shorter and the nights longer.
While seeing the Northern Lights isn’t a guarantee, hearty ones should succeed. Prepare to stay up all night, bundle up and hunt for the best views of the elusive aurora. If you stay up late enough, you might get lucky and see the Northern Lights without much effort. Of course, there are also several companies and apps that have been developed to help budding viewers get an edge on viewing.
Apps include My Aurora Forecast, Northern Lights Aurora Forecast, and Aurora Now. Booking a tour through an outfit like Aurora Seekers or heading to a specially designed viewing location like Aurora Pointe not only means you’ll increase your chances of seeing the elusive Northern Lights, but also that you’ll be educated about this phenomenon and the best way to hunt it.
3. Ice fishing fun without the cold
I’ve always wanted to try ice fishing (just like I want to try all types of fishing!) but I never imagined I’d be one of those hunched over a hole in the ice shivering in a hut. But, ice fishing near Fairbanks in a town called North Pole, Alaska is fun and not at all the uncomfortable experience sometimes depicted in the movies.
Rod’s Alaska Guide Service is perfectly organized for even the youngest – or in my case, inexperienced “ice fisherman” – with its sturdy cabins and warm indoor wood stoves. The rods are tiny things laced with bright pink shrimp like bait that are dropped into a pre-cut hole ready for a bite. And the fish bite. After a tasty barbecue of reindeer sausage cooked on the wood-burning stove, all the fish caught by the fishing guests are cooked with butter, garlic and pepper wrapped in foil and grilled on the same stove. Guests chat, compare the size of their respective catches, and feast on two unique Alaskan specialties.
Evening ice fishing also offers the chance to search for the Northern Lights, making this the perfect two-in-one experience for those looking to stay up late.
4. Walk with a herd of reindeer
Although most visitors to Fairbanks have never seen a real reindeer, Running Reindeer Ranch offers the opportunity to commune with a herd of Santa’s finest. Alaskan Jane and her family raise a herd of reindeer, the alternative to getting the horse their daughter asked for as a teenager. Reindeer are uniquely adapted to the Alaskan climate and are comfortable at age 65 below zero. They are also gentle creatures, and here they were bred almost like pets.
At the ranch, guests gather around a circle dotted with chunks of Alaskan tundra as the herd of reindeer are brought in to meet their visitors. You will now see how the “Running” part of the ranch gets its name. Initially intimidating, these gentle creatures love nothing more than to be petted, and Jane leads visitors on a tour of the ranch, explaining the uniqueness of reindeer and the Alaskan wilderness. It is fascinating to see reindeer in their native environment, munching on plants, prancing through the woods and playing their reindeer games.
Pro tip: Jane likes to extend the tour and has a lot to say, so dress warmly, wear several layers of socks and warm boots. It was the only time I was really cold in the five days I was in Fairbanks, and I totally skipped the hot chocolate and cookies at the end of the tour to warm up inside.
Editor’s Note: Our Alaskan-born editor recommends Cold & Snow Boots from The Original Muck Boot Company for your winter footwear needs!
5. Dog sledding is an exciting cruise through the woods
There are several places around Fairbanks to visit Alaskan husky kennels where dogs are trained to pull sleds for both utility and sport. Originally a means of delivering mail and goods to remote, snowy destinations, today dogs compete with their masters in races like the famous Iditarod and remain a fascination for visitors.
Uniquely in Alaska, dog sledding and sled dogs known as Alaskan huskies, with at least part of their genetic makeup being a Siberian husky, are purpose driven. The dogs are trained to run in teams and seem to love the hunt as much as they crave the cold. If reindeer are happy at 65 degrees below, these dogs find their rhythm at about 50 degrees below zero.
Grouping up and being pulled by a team of dogs is nothing short of a thrill. You’ll be warm and comfortable as you wind through the trees and snowy landscapes, and it’s a ride you won’t want to end. I sled at the Chena Hot Springs kennel, but there are plenty of outfitters in the area, including one inside Denali National Park (north of Anchorage and south of Fairbanks).
Pro tip: While in Alaska, always be on the lookout for moose. These eerie, statuesque creatures appear when you least expect them and are always a wonder. One exception is encountering a moose while on a dog sled which, as you can imagine, throws both dogs and humans into turmoil. Good managers save the day, so there’s no need to be afraid.
6. The Alaska Railroad Train Passes Through Denali in a Wonderland of Scenics
If you have time and like a slow, scenic journey, hop aboard the famous Alaska Railroad and get ready to photograph (on camera) mountains, fields, rivers, and the occasional wildlife while sitting comfortably and having your trip narrated by a professional. .
Although those pesky moose have been known to close the lanes from time to time, take a chance and hop in Anchorage, take the train to Fairbanks, or just take the 4-hour dinner cruise from Denali. Spectacular scenery, a bar, and the dining car can easily keep you busy while seeing parts of Alaska not seen by mere automobiles.
Pro tip: For the best views, sit on the right side of the train as you head into Fairbanks and on the left as you return to Anchorage.
7. Chena Hot Springs: A Hot Oasis in the Cold
This destination has it all. Beginning as a popular hot springs destination in the frigid wilderness outside of Fairbanks, Chena now has an Ice Museum where visitors drink martinis from ice-cold glasses, as well as snowmobiling, viewing the Northern Lights , the aforementioned dog sledding, hiking, fine dining and more.
Staying at Chena Hot Springs means you have a complete interior Alaska experience in a one stop shop. The visit for the day is equally refreshing and comprehensive if you plan your activities to explore the area and then return to the lodge and hot springs before cocktails and dinner at their lovely restaurant. It’s a real immersion in Alaska that you won’t regret. Throwing your frozen cocktail glass in the snow is worth it!
Planning your trip to the final frontier? For more Alaskan inspiration, consider