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What is it like to travel to Alaska in winter?

Is it crazy to travel to Alaska in winter?

This is a perfectly reasonable question, and I’m glad you ask it, because I had the same question before I went to Alaska last February.

I was prepared for it to be a rough trip. I was worried about the roads and the extreme cold, but I’m happy to report that my fears were allayed almost immediately. Alaska was emptier, beautiful in a different way, and the dry cold of the interior made it quite easy to travel despite the snow. Are you planning to go in winter as well? Whether you’re chasing the Aurora or want to see Denali National Park empty, here’s what you need to know about traveling to Alaska in winter:

The best time to see the aurora is near the vernal equinox

alaska in winter aurora borealis
The Aurora over Denali National Park

I guess your biggest reason for choosing Alaska in winter is to see the aurora borealis.

I’ve been lucky enough to see the aurora four times, in four different places around the world, including Iceland, Canada, Finland, and most recently in Alaska.

I’ve seen them all at different times of the year, but Alaska in particular offers clearer skies in March, plus the vernal equinox is usually the period with the highest probability of observation.

Alaska is also the cheapest place I’ve gone to see the Aurora. The Nordic countries can be quite expensive, as can getting to the Arctic in Canada. But with Alaska airlines, living on the west coast we have a pretty easy way to get there via Seattle.

For my Alaska winter experience I chose Fairbanks, which is in the interior of Alaska, very accessible and a great starting point for Aurora adventures.

This brings me to the point I need to make about Aurora viewing. If that’s the only reason you have to go to a place, you might be disappointed if you don’t see them, which is a real possibility. So pick a place that also has activities you want to do.

In Fairbanks you can also travel to the North Pole to see Santa Claus, visit Chena Hot Springs, go dog sledding, and in late February you can access Denali National Park up to mile 12.5 and see the World Ice Art Championships.

Plan your itinerary

alaska in winter
This ice cave was great. But we had to snowshoe through deep snow to get to it.

So let’s get one very obvious thing out of the way; Alaska is huge and you’re going to have to narrow it down when it comes to your winter travels there.

You could fly into any of Alaska’s major cities, but Fairbanks is well situated for the northern lights, much more so than Anchorage or Juneau.

We more or less based in Fairbanks, and this is what we saw:

While I’m sure any part of Alaska would have its own special beauty, we liked Fairbanks for its easy access and location on the Aurora Oval. It is the largest city in interior Alaska, easy to get to by plane and well connected.

Some parts of Alaska will be inaccessible in winter

alaska in winter
This brings me to my next point. There are some gravel roads and parts of Alaska that are not drivable in winter.

If you were hoping to drive the Dalton Highway, the Denali Highway, the McCarthy Highway, and other gravel roads, they are generally not accessible during the winter months. Many of the hikes and mountain routes that are beautiful in the summer will also not be as accessible, or wise to try, in the winter months.

We went in winter knowing this to be true.

I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to Alaska and backpacking there twice in the summer, and I knew that winter would be a completely different experience. But that different experience is exactly what I wanted. But if you expected to have the same accessibility in the winter as you did in the summer, then you might be disappointed in Alaska in the winter.

The roads + Renting the right vehicle.

alaska on the winter roads

My biggest concern was what driving in Alaska would be like in the winter – are the roads icy and in good condition? I can only speak from my own experience, but there had been a lot of snow just before my trip and a little during, and for the most part, the roads were pretty well plowed and were often down to the tar.

As a son of Southern California, I avoid driving in any kind of inclement weather, but my boyfriend, who has experience driving in Massachusetts and Vermont, found driving through Fairbanks much easier. Since it’s dry cold and stays pretty well below freezing all winter long, you don’t get as much of the melting and refreezing that causes ice on the roads.

That said, we rented a vehicle with four-wheel drive and snow tires. Since we drove some mountain roads, including Denali National Park and a beautiful mountain yurt in the Fairbanks ski area, we were very glad to have it.

That said, most of the major car rental companies don’t put winter tires on their cars. I only found one, through Alaska Auto Rental, that offered both four-wheel drive and snow tires. Snow tires are important, because even with four-wheel drive, if you don’t have traction you can slip and slide. Renting with this company was a bit of a hassle and more expensive, especially since they don’t have an airport location and you have to Uber or taxi to their office, but I would still rent with them again to get the snow tires.

(Alaska Auto Rental update: The company now offers the option for renters to make reservations to pick up their rental at the Fairbanks airport and avoid the inconvenience of having to travel to their office. Rejoice).

Temperatures and equipment.

alaska in winter

If you are going to visit some of the more northern coastal areas during the Alaskan winter, be prepared to get very cold. I looked at the weather in the northernmost city, Utqiagvik, and saw that they had a much higher percentage of humidity and frequent wind. So, even though the temperature was -8 F°, it “felt” like -33° according to my weather app. yikes!

But in Denali and Fairbanks, even -11° didn’t seem so terrible as it was dry cold. Don’t get me wrong, I still needed snow pants, a heavy jacket, layers of merino wool and boots suitable for those temperatures, but with the right gear we were out for hours at night chasing auroras without feeling uncomfortable.

Read more about the gear I recommend for extreme cold here.

Overall, I’m pleased to say that Alaska in winter impressed me more than I thought it would. I was concerned about the state of the roads, I was concerned that we had to be completely self-sufficient and that there was hardly anything available or open. And even though a lot of things around Denali National Park were closed, we had a great time there, seeing only a handful of people all day.

I doubt anyone in the summer could say that.

So, if you want to see the Northern Lights, want to experience Alaska without the crowds, are looking for the peace and quiet that only winter can provide, and want a true Arctic experience without leaving the United States, Alaska in winter is awesome, and I have a feeling I’ll be back.

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