For all of Alaska’s buzz about wild summer adventures and busy cruise season, visiting the state during the quieter winter months has a unique appeal that goes beyond the chance to see the northern Lights.
“One of the things I try to explain to people is that we don’t have that black darkness that so many places have in the winter because there’s snow on the ground, and it reflects all the light around,” he says Lexi Qass’uq’s coacha member of Chevak native village who lives in Eagle River near Anchorage. “We have this blue glow all winter long.”
“Living in Alaska is absolutely amazing, but to get through the winter you have to do winter activities you enjoy,” he says.
For tourists, winter activities can be as adventurous or casual as you like, from ice skating on a frozen lake after landing by helicopter and mushing with your dog sled team, to practicing yoga under the Northern Lights or taking in a hydrotherapy circuit in a Nordic-inspired spa.
Interest from travelers curious about experiencing Alaska in winter is growing, says Diane Nigg of Adventures for Alaskansa travel agency affiliated with Virtuoso.
“With better air service than a couple of years ago, Alaska is easier to get to. There are a lot more direct flights to Alaska now,” she says, citing nonstop routes from Lower 48 cities like Dallas and Minneapolis to Anchorage on American and Delta.
Plus, flights to Alaska are much less expensive during the winter (outside of the holiday season) than during the summer, he says. And compared to more popular winter destinations in Scandinavia, he says Alaska is a less expensive destination overall.
“Within driving distance of Anchorage, you can combine things like skiing, dog sledding, searching for the Northern Lights, ice fishing, and flying,” he says. “Here you do more and pay less than in Scandinavia.”
To see the Northern Lights on a budget, he recommends flying into Fairbanks or Anchorage, booking a budget hotel, and renting a car to drive to the outskirts of town to observe the night sky.
Read on for more epic ways to experience Alaska this winter:
Guests can grip the sled’s handlebars and learn to guide their own team of Alaskan huskies across the tundra on multi-day tours with Squid Acres Kennel Dog Sled Tour near Denali National Park. The supplier provides clothing and equipment for extreme cold weather, including sleeping bags resistant to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (even minus 40 degrees Celsius). Nights are spent in scenic camps with tents heated with wood stoves and forays beneath the night skies in search of the Northern Lights.
“Being on the back of a dog sled and watching the dogs trot effortlessly down the trail is practice in being in the present. It’s all excitement and exhilaration,” says Deborah Colby of Missoula, Montana, who took part in a seven-day trip in March 2023. Tours also include more luxurious overnight stays in Susitna Adventure Lodge.
The 11th day, end of February Iditarod and Aurora Adventure with tour operator John Hall Alaska is the trip of a lifetime through a state like no other.
It begins with guests attending the Iditarod Mushers Banquet in Anchorage to meet the mushers embarking on the epic sled dog race more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) long.
Other highlights of this overland bus tour include flying to a remote village en route to meet teams at an Iditarod checkpoint, a photography lesson with a professional Northern Lights photographer, in-flight glacier viewing, sledding pulled by dogs and the possibility of trying to play curling. THE World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks.
Making time for winter wellness can help you weather the Alaskan cold. It’s at Salty roots in Seward, located on a cove along the Kenai Peninsula, guests stay in cozy A-frame cabins surrounded by a spruce forest for two-night winter spa packages that include private yoga lessons and massages, plus more time in the sauna. A recently renovated twin facility, Rusty rootswith rustic beachfront cabins, will open next door in January 2024.
Winter tours in Kenai Fjord National Parka landscape of rugged coastal fjords and glaciers, include winter sea kayaking on Resurrection Bay and snowmobile and snowcat tours with Sixty North Adventure at the glacier lookout at the park’s Exit Glacier Nature Center.
Helicopter landing on a glacial lake for ice skating
There’s ice skating on an ice rink, and then there’s ice skating between towering mounds of ice on a glacial lake that you’ve landed in by helicopter.
New this winter, Alaska Helicopter Tour offers to Winter ice skating by helicopter adventure from which it begins Alaska Glacier Refuge (in Palmer, an hour’s drive from Anchorage) which includes fly-in visits to the Chugach Mountain Range and Knik Glacier. The pilot will search for the perfect glacial lake to land on for a bout of wild ice skating that will spoil indoor rinks for life. The company also offers winter services snowshoe excursions by helicopter to the Knik Glacier.
North of Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (Mat-Su Valley) hosts the 2024 Arctic Winter Games from March 10th to 16th. The games attract around 2,000 young athletes from Arctic regions, including the Sápmi region of Northern Europe; Northwest Territories of Canada, Yukon and Nunavik; and Alaska – to compete in 20 sports.
Games include historic Dene games such as snow snake and stick shooting, as well as curling, hockey and other winter sports.
One of the highlights of the event is a cultural gala showcasing yoiking (a traditional song form of the Sami people), Inuit throat singing, drumming and dancing from across the circumpolar region.
The state one Alaska Railroad – a year-round lifeline for off-gridders living in some of Alaska’s most remote areas, as well as a vital Alaskan freight route – offers tourists unique winter sightseeing.
From mid-September to mid-May, the Aurora winter train travel between Anchorage and Fairbanks on 12-hour trips with stop service in places like Talkeetna, where you can consider a detour to winter adventures which include dog sledding adventures and fly-in visits to Denali National Park.
Talkeetna is also the starting point for the Hurricane Breakthrough Trainwhich travels a ridiculously scenic inland route through the wilderness of the Indian River Valley, where residents living off the grid in remote hunting and fishing cabins step off the train for the trip back south.
With solar activity set to reach 11-year highs in 2024 and 2025, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are predict strong displays of the Northern Lights.
Visitors can increase their chances of seeing the show by staying in one of the transparent-roofed “igloos” or cubical accommodations outside Fairbanks in Boreal Base Campwhere the colors could drop at any moment right above the bed.
Far from the city lights within a boreal forest, the property will open a new Cube Suite this spring that can accommodate a family of five and features a private sauna. Even though the property is sold out for direct bookings this winter, booking a tour with an operator like Alaska or John Hall’s Alaska Railroad can guarantee your stay.
Off-the-grid provider Arctic hive it’s even further north than Fairbanks, below Auroral Oval, deep in Alaska’s Brooks Range (called the Arctic Himalayas).
“Despite our location, 63 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the remote Brooks Mountain Range, winter is our busy season,” says Mollie Busby, who runs four- to five-night retreats at the property she owns with her husband Sean.
Guests depart from Fairbanks and travel along the Dalton Highway by van, then head inside to rustic cabins heated by Swedish oil stoves where annex-style bathrooms are shared.
Luxuries here come in unique experiences like practicing yoga under the Northern Lights in a geodesic dome (billed as Alaska’s northernmost yoga studio). Or snowshoeing in the fresh snow with the help of sled dogs harnessed to hikers with skijoring harnesses.
“We often stop to admire the view, drink water and give love to the dogs. It’s fantastic,” says Busby. This winter’s packages include a women’s yoga retreat on the winter solstice in December and five days rewilding retreats in February and March.
Sailing to the fjord landscapes around Prince William Sound
Skiers with experience beyond the world of chairlifts can challenge themselves with the backcountry terrain around Prince William Sound on Alaska’s south coast during adventurous small-boat cruises for skiers aboard the 58-foot gondola. M/V Babkin or 42 foot fishing vessel, Alexandra.
Extraordinary adventures runs five-day (or longer) trips from late February through May with captains who guide to world-class cross-country skiing in the region’s mountainous islands and fjords. Guests sleep aboard the boat and can also enjoy fishing, kayaking and glacier viewing along the way.
Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, the state’s largest ski resort, is just a 45-minute drive east of Anchorage and is the only ski resort in North America with mountains, glaciers and ocean views. A favorite among experienced skiers and snowboarders, the property offers heli-skiing, cat-skiing and even some beginner and intermediate slopes in the surrounding Chugach Mountains and sees more than 640 inches of annual snowfall. After destroying the Chugach land, the Alyeska Nordic Spa offers weary skiers hot and cold hydrotherapy pools, saunas and steam rooms in its 50,000-square-foot, adults-only indoor/outdoor spa facility.
To super luxury Monte Tordrillo refugea property 60 miles northwest of Anchorage that accommodates a maximum of 20 guests, the winter ski season runs from February to April.
On seven-night heli-ski trips in the Tordrillo Mountains, slopeside views include volcanic peaks and Denali itself. The lodge’s amenities include a cedar sauna, a lakeside copper hot tub, and 500 bottles of wine to peruse in the home’s cellar.