Travel Wonders
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Travel Wonders

The ultimate guide to Alaska in winter

Winter travel guide to Alaska

Northern lights & winter activities in Alaska

Our first trip to Alaska was in summer and we found it so beautiful that we wanted to also visit in Winter and take all the beauty in. There is a lot to see and do in the winter ❄️ in Alaska. If Aurora borealis / northern lights is on your list then Alaska is definitely worth a visit in winter. You can enjoy the beautiful white snowy landscape for miles and apart from that if you are like us, crossing the Arctic circle is also on your list and Alaska is one of of the 4 places on the globe where you can cross the article circle.

Having said that you have to plan better because winter days in Alaska are short with only about 3–5 hours of sunlight depending on the month you go in. I did a bunch of research to plan this trip and this article is to share with you that research to help you plan your Alaskan winter adventure.

Let me start with a summary of the trip. Our winter adventure was 9 days including travel time but you can do all the activities I describe here in about 7 days. Keep reading for more details:

Day 1: Reach Anchorage

We flew in. You could also directly fly to Fairbanks. We wanted to take the winter train from Anchorage that only runs on Saturday so we decided to fly to Anchorage to take the train next morning.

Day 2: Winter train from Anchorage to Fairbanks.

This is roughly a 12 hour route starting from Anchorage at 8:30am in the morning and reaching Fairbanks at 8pm. This is spectacular, you see lots of snow and frozen lakes, rivers along the way. The landscape is beautiful almost entire route. It has a pantry coach which serves breakfast lunch and dinner. When you get on the train you can sign up to eat. The service is pretty slow so I would eat breakfast and dinner with some bistro items during the day. You can choose to get all the meals if you like. The train makes a few stops depending on the time of the year and you get the opportunity to go out and take some pictures.

Alaska winter train from Anchorage to Fairbanks

This train also operates from Fairbanks to Anchorage on Sunday. Like I mentioned earlier, if it more convenient for you to fly into Fairbanks and then take the train to Anchorage at the end of the trip, that would work great too. I would advice doing it in the beginning though because you get really tired of the cold by the end of the trip and the train ride is a lot more fun as the first thing to do in your trip. It’s a different kind of excitement. Any way you choose to do it will work just fine.

Breakfast in the train with a beautiful view outside.

Most hotels will pick you up from the train station and airport, check with the hotel before you plan. You can also take Uber/Lyft but they are hard to get and take a longer time to arrive, so account for that.

Day 3: Arctic circle and Aurora tour in the Arctic

We used Nothern Alaska tour company to book a 2 day tour with them called Aurora overnight tour. This includes the Arctic circle, Dalton highway sign, Alaska trans Atlantic pipeline. We started at 9:15 am at the Northern Alaska tour company where we checked in. Most hotels provide transit to Northern Alaska tour company. From there a coach and a driver was assigned for the tour and we started out at around 9:45am. The first stop was the Lemonade stand where. The second stop was the pipeline where we got to see the pipeline up close, took some pictures with it.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline is an oil transportation system spanning Alaska

The third stop was Dalton highway sign where we were able to take some pictures of the only highway in the north that goes up to the Arctic.

Dalton Highway sign on the way to Arctic Circle

Then fourth stop was the Yukon river, we were able to see it frozen, it looks beautiful. The stop is a camp with a tiny restaurant and coffee shop but the day we were there it was closed for food. We could grab coffee though.

While driving to the Arctic circle there was an area in the trip that our guide called enchanted forest. It literally looked like an enchanted forest, fully white, trees looks like big giants with a huge coat of snow on them. It is something I have never seen before.

Enchanted forest, somewhere on the Dalton Highway where we could survive literally 30 seconds outside of the coach.

Then the last stop on the trip was Arctic circle sign. I was very excited for this because only 2% of the world population has crossed the Arctic circle and I can now say that I am one of them 😊 If you are a nerd like me, you have to include this in your trip.

Arctic Circle, the dividing line between the Northern Temperate zone, to the south, and the Arctic to the north.

Since we did a 2 nights Aurora overnight tour, at this stop we had a transfer, Coldfoot camp 🏕 staff came to pick us up and drove us about 1 hour further north on the Dalton Highway to Coldfoot camp which was going to be our home for the next 2 nights.

If you only did a day tour then you turn around and drive back to Fairbanks in the same coach. There are options — we did 2 nights Aurora overnight, you could just do one night overnight and do Aurora viewing after reaching Coldfoot the same day. We did 2 nights to increase the chances of catching the lights. Coldfoot is a great spot to see the lights from, it is almost guaranteed that you will see the Northern lights here.

Once we reached Coldfoot at around 6 pm our Coldfoot guides asked us to meet at 11pm for Aurora viewing. We did an additional tour where they took us to a nearby village at Wiseman, away from the camp lights to see the lights. They also had a heated camp there with an outdoor wood heater to see the lights comfortably in freezing cold. Trust me these things are important and they made the viewing experience better. It is really cold and not fun to wait around outside.

Aurora viewing from Wiseman village near Coldfoot camp

One more thing about this — You could do this trip on your own, it takes around 6 hours from Fairbanks to Coldfoot. You can book additional activities are coldfoot when you get there or prior. We just chose to do it with a tour because the drive from Fairbanks to Coldfoot is not that easy, the road is icy in a lot of patches and since we were on vacation we wanted to spend more time enjoying the views than worrying about skidding.

Day 4: Coldfoot Camp — Arctic mountain safari and Aroura viewing

At Coldfoot camp they have got a lot of activities that you can book. We took the Arctic mountain safari that takes you further up north on the Dalton highway up to the Atigun pass. It is a high mountain pass across the Brooks Range in Alaska and is the highest pass in Alaska that is maintained throughout the year.

Top of the Atigun pass, extremely windy yet magical spot with everything covered in snow.

This was a 6 hour drive, back and forth which included some walking on the frozen Dietrich river, locating mountains, spotting wildlife, — we saw a few caribou’s. All in all it was a good use of 6 hours driving more north into the Arctic and see the harsh conditions on the pass.

Later that day we just watched Aurora on our own right outside the camp.

Day 5: Snowshoeing at Coldfoot camp

We booked a snowshoeing tour which Involved a small drive to a trail head and then snowshoeing adventure began for about 2 hours. We walked through the gorgeous and serene white forest covered in snow and beautiful snow covered mountains in the background. This was a treat both because it was a nice and short activity and snowshoeing was fun! Even if you have done snowshoeing before the landscape in this area is gorgeous so I would recommend planning to do this if possible.

Snowshoeing at Coldfoot camp, Alaska

Then there was time to leave Coldfoot in the afternoon. The trip back was in a small 7 seater plane from Coldfoot airport (right beside the Coldfoot camp) to the Fairbanks airport. It is a short 45 mins flight with beautiful views of the Yukon rivers, brooks mountain range and the Yukon swamp that looks gorgeous with 1000’s of frozen ponds from the top. We reached Fairbanks around 5pm and stayed the night warm and dry in the hotel.

Tiny flight from Coldfood camp to Faibanks, Alaska

Day 6: Chena hot springs northern lights package, hot springs, ice museum

Chena hot springs are about an hour from Fairbanks, we booked a package with them directly on their website that included Aurora viewing. Again the idea is to get as many chances to see northern lights because we were very focused on maximizing our opportunity to see the lights.

Chena hot spring as the suggests is well known for their hot springs, if you have not been to a hot spring before, this is definitely worth checking out. Our package included pickup and drop off from the hotel in Fairbanks. We started at 3pm and were dropped off at 3am. At the same price you could be picked up sooner such as 11am or 1 pm and dropped off at 3am.

After reaching we had time to grab dinner at the restaurant. The ice museum tour was at 7pm which took us into the ice museum and we had a drink there in an ice glass. Got to break the glass after the drink which was fun.

Ice Museum, Chena Hot Springs

We hit the hot springs after that, the hot springs themselves were really good, 102 F inside and — 20 outside. Our hair had frozen and it was a great experience to see that phenomenon happen. By the time we reached it was already dark, if you are doing a day tour, they have earlier options for you to be picked up at 9am, 11am or 1pm. I would say, pick an earlier option because the hot spring pools would be probably more enjoyable for pictures if there is more day light. Warning: If you are a cleanliness freak like me, it will be hard for you to enjoy this because the shower and changing area to get into the pools is not very well kept.

The last activity at Chena resort was the Aurora viewing at 9:30pm. Their Aurora tour is great, they take you up a mountain on a 45 Mins ride in a military tank looking thing with the chains for wash grip on the snow and ice up the mountain. Up there they have a heated yurt with some hot drinks to keep you warm while you wait for the lights. The day we went, the Northern lights were visible the entire time, it was spectacular.

Northern Lights from Chena Hot Springs Aurora tour

Tip: I would not stay at Chena hot spring resort, just drive up on your own from Fairbanks or book the day tour like we did. The resort rooms are not good and they lack basic things such as hot water and cleanliness. The activities I described are really all you need to checkout which can be done in a day trip without staying.

Day 7: Snowmobile

We reserved a day for snowmobile at Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service. We had a rental car on this day and drove there from Fairbanks. It’s about 20 mins drive. If you have not done Snowmobile before, this was a good activity which we really enjoyed. The beauty of doing it with this company is that their snowmobiles have heated handles, they provide all the gear that is needed. Helmet was also clean and tidy.

Snowmobile in Fairbanks Alaska, Rod’s Akaskan Guide Service

Day 8: Dog Sledging & North pole

Dog sledging was on my list to do. We had a morning sled and was very fun! We booked this through Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service. They give you the outer layer to protect you from cold and the dogs were amazing. We got to pet a few :)

Dog Sledging at Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service

After dog sledging we went to North Pole, Santa Claus house, it’s a gift shot just 10 mins from Rods adventure so we ended up checking it out. I think it was underwhelming because it’s really just a gift shop with an opportunity to take pictures with Santa Claus. I suggest skipping it if you don’t have time.

Then we drive back to Fairbanks and spend an hour at the museum of the north. It was nice to look at the animals from the north. If you have the time, check it out.

Museum of the north, Fairbanks Alaska

Tip to save days/time: You could compile days 7 and 8 to do snowmobile and dog sledging on the same day. This will save you a day and you can still do the museum and North Pole on the same day. We could not find the spots to do both the same day so we did separate days, also we needed a bit of a break from the cold to enjoy those two things on separate days.

Day 9: Fly back home

If you want you can take the train back to Anchorage if you did not do that on your way in. I would not recommend doing this twice. Just once gives you all that you need to take in.

What to pack

This could be its own blog but I am going to share briefly how we planned and prepared for the trip.

  • Clothes- you will be outside in subzero temperatures for a long time watching Aurora and doing other activities, make sure to pack accordingly. Invest in good quality Gloves, beanie, mittens, snow pants, parka jackets, snow shoes.
  • Pack lots of layers — a base layer, t-shirt, full sleeve shirt, light jacket and overcoat will be needed most of the days.
  • Hot hands — carry some hot hands with you to recover your hands and feet from cold.

Conclusion

We absolutely enjoyed our time in Alaska during this winter trip. As I mentioned above, if you have limited time, you can do all these things I mentioned in about 6–7 days. But, since most of the Aurora viewing days end around 4am give yourself some time in between activities so you can recover to fully enjoy.

Let me know if I can answer any other equations for you in the comments below.

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Space to share the wonders of traveling to a different parts of world, what to see, how to plan and things to know before you go!

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Priyanka Vergadia

Priyanka Vergadia

Developer Advocate @Google, Artist & Traveler! Twitter @pvergadia

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