When the flood of summer tourists leave Alaska, the state quiets down and the locals prepare for the cold, dark winter. Though the winter days are short, Alaskans know how to make the best of them with a variety of activities and events. If you come prepared, winter is a wonderful time of year to visit the Last Frontier. This article describes some of the best things to do during the winter in Alaska, from family outings to excursions best for adults.
These activities can be done throughout the winter months, so you typically don’t have to plan very far ahead to participate. Reservations are recommended for some activities, such as the flightseeing tour and the train trip.
Relax at Chena Hot Springs
In the middle of the frigid Alaskan winter, there’s nothing better than sinking into steaming hot springs while surrounded by a blanket of snow. Chena Hot Springs Resort, located 61 miles east of Fairbanks, is the perfect place to unwind with friends or family. A day pass costs $12 for kids and $15 for adults. Adults age 18 and older can soak in the natural hot springs, a large pool boasting a toasty year-round temperature of 106 degrees Fahrenheit (a little warmer than a typical hot tub). Families with younger children can enjoy the outdoor hot tub or indoor pool, heated to a temperature of about 90 degrees. For a well-rounded vacation, Chena Hot Springs Resort offers lodging and an array of winter activities — everything from dogsled rides to snow machine tours. Plus, Chena is a great location to watch for the dazzling Aurora Borealis, or at least see some beautiful stars if the Northern Lights don’t show.
Ski or Snowboard in Girdwood
Most of Alaska is untamed wilderness, so if you want to ski or snowboard on an established run, there are only a few places to go. Located on stunning coastline in a glacier-carved valley, Alyeska Resort is the biggest and most popular ski resort in Alaska. It’s in the town of Girdwood, which is about a 50-minute drive from Anchorage. With 76 named trails and 1,610 skiable acres, Alyeska Resort offers runs for all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Alyeska receives more than 650 inches of average snowfall annually, a huge amount when you consider that most resorts in Colorado receive snowfall in the 300-inch range. If you’re looking for a smaller ski area, check out Eaglecrest Ski Area near Juneau or Hilltop Ski Area in Anchorage. Highly skilled skiers or snowboarders should consider heli-skiing: hitting the slopes in backcountry areas only accessible by helicopter.
Ice Skate on Westchester Lagoon
Ice-skating perfectly captures the magic of wintertime — especially at Westchester Lagoon, a lake surrounded by forest and distant mountains. Westchester Lagoon is less than two miles from downtown Anchorage, making it a popular year-round destination for Alaskans, and the best place in town to go ice-skating in the winter. If you don’t have your own ice skates in tow, they can be rented at Play it Again Sports in Anchorage. Westchester Lagoon is a family-friendly location where everyone from toddlers to grandparents can have fun. Every Saturday from January to early March, between 1 and 3 p.m., join “Family Skate” for free skating instruction, games, refreshments, and different themes.
Sled in Hatcher Pass
No matter the time of year, Hatcher Pass Management Area is a breathtaking destination that’s worth adding to your Alaskan itinerary. It’s a wild area of valleys and summits, moose and marmots. You can easily access Hatcher Pass from either Palmer or Willow, not far from Anchorage. In the winter, grab a sled, because zooming down hills at Hatcher Pass is not to be missed. Most people sled from the Independence Mine parking lot, where there’s a $5 fee to park for the day. The hill there is thrilling, and it’s a well-established sledding area that’s an exciting place for an outing with family or friends.
Go on a Flightseeing Tour
If you’ve never hopped on a small plane before (think nine seats tops), it might sound frightening. But once you’re in that plane flying through mountain ranges, over glaciers and the fluffiest snow you’ve ever seen, fear is quickly replaced by pure awe. Getting a bird’s-eye view of the Alaskan wilderness is an unforgettable experience — and luckily for winter visitors, many companies offer flight tours year-round. Flights depart from several different places in Alaska, so do your research and choose based on what you’d like to see most. I’d recommend flying from Talkeetna (through either Talkeetna Air Taxi or K2 Aviation, with prices starting at $220 per person), because you can get up close and personal with Denali and the Alaska Range. It’s hard to imagine the scale of these massive mountains until you’re flying right up to them.
Hop on the Alaskan Railroad
The Alaskan Railroad has a nostalgic feel to it, unlike many trains in the rest of the United States. Something about riding a train in the Last Frontier is so satisfying, and it’s incredibly scenic. In the winter, it’s an especially wonderful method to get from A to B, since driving in snowy or icy conditions can be nerve-wracking. During the winter, the train connects Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Fairbanks and runs on weekends and select mid-week dates. Make sure to research and book ahead to ensure you have seats.
These classic Alaskan events are worth incorporating into a winter visit if they tickle your fancy. Dates are included for winter 2017-2018, but these events typically happen annually if you can’t make it this year.
View Expert Ice Art in Fairbanks
Bring the family to marvel at world-class ice carvings made by international artists. More than a dozen extravagant carvings will be on display from February 19 to March 31, 2018, in George Horner Ice Park in Fairbanks. The event will also feature a kids’ park that includes ice slides and interactive ice sculptures.
Iditarod (and Running of the Reindeer) in Anchorage
The legendary Iditarod is an annual 1,000-mile dogsled race across the Alaskan wilderness from Anchorage to Nome. This winter, the Iditarod presents its ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage on March 3, 2018. Catch a glimpse of the intrepid musher-and-dogsled teams as they start their epic journey, and then grab lunch at one of Anchorage’s tasty restaurants such as Flattop Pizza + Pool (family-friendly), F Street Station (family-friendly), or the Bubbly Mermaid (best for couples or small groups). On the same date in downtown Anchorage, after the Iditarod is underway, check out a wacky Alaskan event called the Running of the Reindeer. Like the Running of the Bulls but way less frightening, participants try to outrun a herd of reindeer while dressed in costumes. Registration is available online for participants 18 and older, and costs $30 per person.
Oosik Classic Ski Race/Tour in Talkeetna
If you love cross-country skiing, head to the little village of Talkeetna on March 17, 2018, for a race called the Oosik Classic. (Though it’s called a race, most participants aren’t competitive, so don’t let that intimidate you.) Sign up for either the 25-kilometer or 50-kilometer route and join hundreds of other skiers for an active day in nature, followed by an optional after-party. The route is changed each year, and on clear race days, Denali and the Alaska Range can be seen in the distance. Online registration begins February 1 through the Denali Nordic Ski Club. Though Talkeetna nights will be cold, don’t forget to step outside for excellent stargazing and the chance to see the Northern Lights. Make sure to bring a GORE-TEX jacket to keep the snow and biting wind at bay.
Winterfest in Denali National Park
This February 20-25, 2018, will mark Denali National Park’s 18th annual Winterfest, a celebration that includes a variety of activities that are fun for the whole family. The activities take place in the park as well as nearby Healy. This winter’s calendar can be found online. While you’re in Denali National Park, go birdwatching or pay a visit to the winter visitor center to learn about the park and rent snowshoes for free. Close to the visitor center there are easy frontcountry trails perfect for snowshoeing, so don’t worry about having to carve your own path.