I visited the city in late February and early March 2021 and these are all the wonderful things I found to do in and around Fairbanks:
Chasing the Northern Lights.
My main reason for going to Fairbanks in winter was to see the aurora borealis. Fairbanks is located in the aurora oval (as are Iceland, Finnish Lapland, and parts of Canada), and has a better position than Anchorage, or especially Juneau, for seeing the lights. Even if the activity is a bit lower, you have a better chance of seeing the lights inside the aurora oval than outside it. You can see what I mean by checking the aurora forecast.
So how do you see the northern lights? You need clear skies, dark skies and high activity. The KP index measures the intensity of the auroras on a scale of one to nine. Even if it’s only a two or a three, you have a chance of seeing a faint glow as long as you are within the auroral oval. However, if you are lucky and see a KP 4 or 5, you will see the sky really dance!
Although we flew into Fairbanks and based out of it, the town itself is not a good place to see the lights due to the light pollution in town. I would stay at Moose Mountain, a ski area just outside of town, or head to Denali National Park, as we did (more on that later). You can also go by car or take a trip to see the auroras at Chena Hot Springs, which we’ll talk about later.
While you can take aurora tours, which will take you to the best viewing spots and help you get pictures of the northern lights, the way I’ve always done it is by having a rental car and driving myself. The nice thing about traveling to Alaska in winter is that there aren’t many tourists, and accommodations rarely sell out in advance, so leaving room in your itinerary for serendipity could work in your favor if your main goal is to see the northern lights.
However, I understand that not everyone knows how to photograph the lights, and not everyone is comfortable driving around at night in the snow, so here are some great options for seeing the lights around Fairbanks:
The Aurora Borealis Lodge: Perfectly situated yurts where you can stay while watching the sky for auroras. This experience also includes transportation and learning dog mushing. Arctic Circle and Aurora Tour: Drive along the famous Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle with chances to see wildlife and the Northern Lights (note that most car rental companies do not allow their vehicles on this treacherous road, so a tour like this is your best option).Moonlight Dog Sledding, Dinner and Northern Lights: Have a magical experience mushing at night while watching the aurora.
Castner Glacier Ice Cave.
Castner Glacier Ice Cave is about a 2 1/2 hour drive south of Fairbanks. You’ll also pass through the North Pole, which has Santa Claus themed activities. I’ll talk more about that later, but if you don’t have kids and would rather have an outdoor adventure, the ice cave is super cool (pun intended).
While I’m used to ice caves appearing and disappearing overnight on most glaciers, this ice cave is always there. Even if you visit in the summer, you’ll find an ice cave! See more in the video:
That said, in winter you can walk along the frozen river to access it. I was able to follow a pretty clear set of snowshoe tracks to get to it, so it’s easy to find. However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get to. Although the trail is flat, the snow was very deep when I went, so you had to wear snowshoes. Most people who weren’t wearing snowshoes sank waist deep into the snow and didn’t make it all the way down. I understand that’s not always the case, but it’s hard to know the conditions before you go, so if you have snowshoes, take them with you. It would be a shame to drive all the way and not make it to the cave.
You can find the parking area next to the cave road here.
Denali National Park
Denali National Park is a hotbed of people in the summer. It’s not hard to understand why, as the park is beautiful and Denali is the highest peak in North America. However, even though I’ve been to Alaska twice in the summer, the crowds have kept me away from Denali.
But what happens in winter? Most of the national park is inaccessible in winter, with only the road up to mile 3 cleared. But since 2018, in February they start plowing the main park road up to mile 12.5 (yes, even in 2021 COVID when this post was written). This makes for some amazing views of the surrounding mountains.
Very few people I talked to recommended going to Denali in the winter, but I’m glad I didn’t listen to them. There are still plenty of snowshoe trails, and we only ran into a handful of other people in the park all day. Can you imagine having Denali National Park pretty much to yourself?
The town itself is literally boarded up and everything is closed in winter, even the street lights are out! But there are a few places to stay, like the Denali Lakeview Inn, which I loved. It was very cozy and the balcony was perfect for viewing the Northern Lights. We saw our best show there, and we didn’t have to share it with anyone!
I recommend bringing your own food. The inn has a microwave, fridge, eating area, and breakfast included for each room. We brought sandwiches, soup and salad from the grocery store in Fairbanks and it was perfect.
The World Ice Art Championships
Every winter, in mid-February through mid-March, Fairbanks hosts the World Ice Art Championships.
I didn’t have high expectations, and I didn’t have low expectations. I don’t think I had any expectations, but I was very impressed. Although I’ve had the pleasure of seeing ice sculptures before, the way the Ice Art World Championships are set up is great. There’s an area where you can interact with the ice, with games like chess and cornhole, as well as ice slides for the kids. Bring your own sled.
But that’s not all. The competition’s ice sculptures are scattered throughout a beautiful forest, and I was very impressed with what people created. There was everything from whimsical scenes out of a Disney movie to political statements about peace and mutual understanding. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. The $16 ticket was worth it, no doubt. Pro tip: go at night to see the illuminated sculptures.
For this year’s dates, check out their official website.
Chena Hot Springs
As a hot springs enthusiast, when I heard about Chena Hot Springs in Fairbanks, I knew I wanted to check it out. They are self-proclaimed rustic, and I would have to agree. Now I have no problem with this, as primitive hot springs are a favorite of mine (I even took a trip to Idaho just to see the hot springs a couple of years ago), but these were a little too rustic for me.
For only $15 admission (if you drive yourself and bring your own towel), they’re a good bargain. I enjoyed the springs themselves, especially at night, if it’s a clear night and with auroras, and we went early in the morning when there was hardly anyone there.
However the accommodation was not at all pleasant, neither the restaurant nor the changing rooms. Both the food and the rooms offered very little value for money, at $226 all inclusive for the room and $20-50 for the dinner plate. To put it in perspective, we paid the same for two nights at the Denali Lakeview Inn, but the room at Chena Hot Springs was not clean or very nice.
That said, it’s nice to be able to be in the hot springs, away from the city lights, especially in winter when night driving can be treacherous. The springs are about an hour out of town, so being able to run from the room in your bathing suit to the water was quite nice. They also have an ice museum, but admission is $15 and I think the ice art championships are much more impressive.
If you don’t have transportation, you can also book a tour to soak in the hot springs and see the Northern Lights. This might be the best option to avoid the scarce accommodation but still enjoy the night.
Dog sledding is part of the culture of northern communities around the world, including Fairbanks.
At first glance, it might seem like dog sledding is cruel, until you get there and see how crazy these dogs are about doing it. They go absolutely crazy for the chance to run. It’s something that has to be seen to be believed.
I’ve done enough dog sledding around the world to be sick of it, so I didn’t do it in Fairbanks, but if you’ve never tried it, I recommend you do. You can book here.
With the cold weather in Alaska in the winter, snowmobiling becomes another way to get around. Most of the lakes and rivers are covered with ice, providing the perfect road for snowmobiling.
If you’ve never tried it, it can be a lot of fun. And as long as you’re not a complete idiot, snowmobiles are pretty hard to tip over. Just stick to the established trails or, better yet, take a guided snowmobile tour where you’ll get a chance to understand how to use the snowmobiles and be with a guide who will teach you exactly how to enjoy yourself to the fullest.
Visit Santa Claus at the North Pole
Depending on when you visit Fairbanks, you might want to stop by the North Pole, which is about an hour south of town. If you’re visiting the Castner Ice Cave, this will be on your way.
Driving through there, you’ll get the feeling that it’s always Christmas at the North Pole. When I was in Fairbanks, Santa Claus didn’t greet visitors, but he’s there during the holidays and in the summer. You can also visit his reindeer team. This is something the kids would probably love.
Aurora Winter Train
Want to see the Alaskan scenery in winter without having to drive a vehicle? Then the Aurora Winter Train might be for you. I wanted to do it, but the train schedules didn’t match our itinerary. The other thing to keep in mind is that you’ll need transportation when you get to the place you wanted to go. In our case, that was Denali National Park and having been there now in winter I could see that there would have been no options for us if we hadn’t had a vehicle to drive ourselves.
Still, if the trip is enough of a destination for you, just traveling by train can be awesome. You can also take it from Fairbanks to Anchorage and down to Seward. Check schedules and book train reservations here.
Overall, it wasn’t necessarily Fairbanks itself that was the destination for us, but rather all the wonderful things we could easily access by flying there. It’s also a great place if you want to see the Northern Lights, with lots of services and options for car rental (read more about car rental and winter conditions in Alaska here), hiking and amazing things to do.
And although I went in winter, almost all of these options are available in summer as well, with the exception of Northern Lights viewing, for which you need dark skies. In the land of the midnight sun, that can be hard to come by in Alaska.
But regardless of when you go, enjoy the last frontier!
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