Sub-zero temperatures. Arctic animals. Northern lights dancing in the dark winter sky. Wearing layers so thick you can hardly bend your hands. Sounds like fun, right? That’s what Fairbanks is all about in the winter – and so much more! If you’ve considered planning a trip to Fairbanks in the winter, I’m here to answer all your questions, provide travel tips, and even lay out a Fairbanks winter itinerary you can easily do yourself.
I grew up in Alaska, sure, but I wasn’t planning vacations to Fairbanks often – it’s known for sweltering summer heat and bone-chilling winter cold. I’ve visited Fairbanks a few times as a kid, but have been eager to get back. That’s why I jumped at the chance to spend a few days in Fairbanks in February 2020 – right before the world stopped traveling for a while. I spent the last few “normal” days in a winter wonderland – and I hope that by winter 2021 you can do the same!
Here are all my tips for planning a Fairbanks winter itinerary, including what to do during the day, where to see the aurora, what to pack, eat, and drink, and so much more. Bundle up, and be prepared for an unforgettable trip!
Fairbanks Winter Travel Tips
Before I jump into all the incredible winter experiences you can have in Fairbanks, I want to cover a few quick travel tips and FAQ that will help answer all of your questions and plan your itinerary.
Why Visit Fairbanks in Winter?
With average temperatures that range from as low as -15°F to 25°F through the winter months (November through March), you might wonder: why would anyone on earth want to visit this frozen subarctic wasteland in the winter???
Okay, let’s not be dramatic: nearly 100,000 brave souls call Fairbanks and the surrounding region home all year long – if they can live there, you can certainly visit and survive!
The #1 reason people visit Fairbanks in the winter is to see the northern lights. That’s part of the reason I wanted to go back too! But, I also knew there was a lot more to do during the short winter days and wanted to share tips on how you can do it all during your trip.
As you’ll see, there are an incredible number of other experiences and things to do in Fairbanks in winter too. You’ll meet domesticated animals of the north, warm up with local food and drink, and freeze your buttocks off before thawing out in hot springs… But don’t worry, I’ll cover all of this in detail below.
How to Travel to Fairbanks in the Winter
There are three ways to reach Fairbanks in the winter: by plane, by car, or by train.
If you want to fly to Fairbanks, Alaska Airlines is the primary airline that offers year-round flights from Seattle. Flights arrive throughout the day, with arrival times in the morning, midday, and late at night. If you have a choice, I recommend the midday arrival time (when I checked before writing, there’s a flight that arrives between 2pm and 3pm each day and fits my suggested Fairbanks winter itinerary perfectly).
If you fly into Anchorage instead, you can reach Fairbanks by car or by train. It is possible to book a one-way rental car and drive the Parks Highway from Anchorage to Fairbanks; I haven’t done that since I was a kid, but you should expect that drive to take between 8-9 hours depending on the road conditions. (Use the same tips I mention in the next section about ‘getting around Fairbanks’ to choose a car that can handle it!)
A better alternative to driving is to book the Aurora Train on the Alaska Railroad; this train runs 2-4 times each week from Anchorage to Fairbanks and back a few days later (usually Northbound on Tuesday, Southbound on Thursday, Northbound on Saturday, and Southbound on Sunday). You can see the schedule for the Aurora Train on the AKRR site.
Getting Around Fairbanks in Winter
While Fairbanks does have ride-share options, you really can’t enjoy all that the region has to offer unless you rent a car. Luckily, rental car companies do a good job to ensure every car they rent has the basics you need to stay safe on the road. When you arrange a rental, be sure to consider:
- All-wheel drive vs studded tires – Lots of locals drive with just AWD, but I always had studs on my tires when driving in Alaska during the winter while growing up
- Vehicle size – bigger vehicles can be heavier to help with traction but have a different center of gravity
- Remote start – I don’t know if any rental companies offer this, but if they do – it’s totally worth it to have a warm car when you go out to climb into it!
When it comes to driving on snow and ice in Fairbanks, here are some quick tips:
- Give yourself lots of space between you and cars in front. You might need to break suddenly or slide and more space helps prevent an accident.
- Don’t feel the need to rush – locals will drive the speed limit (or more!) on roads they know, but you should always go the speed you feel comfortable driving given road conditions.
- At icy intersections, let the car roll in drive and start slowly rather than hitting the gas. This will keep you from sliding when trying to accelerate.
It can be a little intimidating, but you can totally handle Alaskan winter roads with a well-equipped car and a safety-conscious attitude toward driving.
What to Pack for Alaska in the Winter
If you’d prefer to look more like the left picture than the right, here’s what to pack for Alaska in the winter.
I wrote that packing list before my most recent trip, packed exactly what I suggested, and was (mostly) warm the whole time. (The only thing I would add is to buy a box of hand and foot warmers for extra help keeping fingers and toes comfortable!)
The Best Things to Do in Fairbanks in the Winter
While the nights are long and days are short, you might think that seeing the northern lights is the only thing to do in Fairbanks during the winter… but there’s so much more!
1. Aurora Viewing
Obviously, aurora chasing is the top thing to do, and you’ll see that my 3-day Fairbanks winter itinerary has plenty of opportunities to do so. There are plenty of epic spots to see the northern lights in Fairbanks, including:
- Chena Hot Springs Resort (if you’re staying there)
- Aurora Pointe Station
- Borealis Basecamp (if you’re staying there)
- On an aurora photography tour with Aurora Bear, led by amazing astrophotographer Frank Stelges
- All over Fairbanks, depending on how strong the aurora is!
I’ve put a few suggestions in my itinerary to help you make the most of each night during your Fairbanks winter trip. I also have a whole post about planning a northern lights trip to Alaska.
2. Dog Sledding
Switching from nighttime to daytime activities, I’m pretty sure the second most popular Fairbanks winter activity is dogsledding. There are plenty of tour operators to choose from; I went out for a 30-minute ride with Paws for Adventure – and trust me that 30 minutes in a sled is more than enough to freeze your eyelashes and chill you through the marshmallow snowsuit and bunny boots they give you!
After your ride, you can meet the dogs on your team and say hi to others at the kennel, too. Yep, you can also get pup kisses if you want ’em!
(During the summer, many of these dog sledding teams run tours using ATVs that the dogs pull instead of a sled.)
3. Reindeer Walking
If you love animals, dogsledding is a must – but you can also meet reindeer and walk with them in the woods.
Jane from Running Reindeer Ranch is one of the most enthusiastic advocates for reindeer and the by-appointment-only tour she offers on her property will teach you about reindeer before you head out to meet her herd to learn their names and take a stroll with them. It’s an easy walk and there are pretty epic photo opportunities with these super chill animals.
(Running Reindeer Ranch offers summer tours, too!)
4. Ice Fishing
Switching gears a bit, animal lovers might not love ice fishing – but it’s a pretty Alaskan experience that you can definitely plan into your Fairbanks winter itinerary if you want to!
Alaska Fishing & Raft Adventures offers a number of ice fishing tours, including one that ends with aurora viewing. You bundle yourself into a semi-permanent structure on the freshwater Chena Lakes, drop your line into the water, and… wait. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a fish right away, which your guide can fry up for a snack.
On my ice fishing experience, I caught my first fish in two minutes… and spent the next two hours waiting for nothing. ?
5. Museum Hopping
Guys, I’m becoming a museum person… or maybe it’s just that museums are getting way cooler in the past few years! Fairbanks is home to some really cool museums, and they’re a great place to warm up between outdoor winter adventures.
Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center
The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center is home to the Fairbanks tourism information desk, an info desk for the state and national parks near Fairbanks, and an amazing gift shop with Native Alaskan arts and crafts.
It’s also home to an awesome free set of exhibits (I think you could call it a museum) that will teach you all about what brought people to Fairbanks throughout history; why people live and work here today; and what life is like in Fairbanks year-round.
I was really impressed with the exhibits given this is technically just part of a visitor center – if you want to get yourself oriented to what Fairbanks is all about, this is the place!
Museum of the North
The Museum of the North is not a Game of Thrones thing… Instead, it’s a museum operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and has the city’s most historic galleries and exhibits. There are a number of different sections in the museum, including one with historic and natural artifacts and another with Alaskan art of all mediums and styles.
Within the Museum of the North, there are two really interesting items to make sure you see:
- Blue Babe – A 36,000-year old mummified steppe bison that was found in the Alaskan permafrost; proof of the transit of animals and humans across the Beringia land bridge millions of years ago.
- The Alaskan gold display – One of the largest public displays of gold in its many forms, this explains what drove men crazy to come north during various Gold Rushes throughout Alaska’s history
You can also see traditional Eskimo and Tlingit clothing and artifacts and other animal and fossilized remains.
The Ice Museum
The Ice Museum is located out at Chena Hot Springs Resort and can be booked through their Activity Center if you’re visiting for the day or an overnight stay. This year-round museum is both made of and displays ice in many forms and structures – including some really incredible sculptures that range from small handheld pieces to huge figures and even rooms where you can spend a chilly night.
Be sure to purchase the extra appletini cocktail to enjoy at the Aurora Ice Bar from an icy martini glass!
If you love ice and happen to visit in February or March, be sure to also plan a trip to the World Ice Art Championships (they ran from February 15th to March 31st in 2020).
Ice artists from around the world – as far as Mongolia, Monaco, and even Mexico – compete in a number of categories to create epic ice sculptures and scenes. It’s definitely worth squeezing into your itinerary if you’re visiting whale the event is ongoing.
Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
One last museum, and this one is arguably the least expected and most delightful. The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is home to almost 100 rare cars from the early 20th century – and vintage period clothing pieces to match each era of human history
Owner Tim Cerny and his wife combined their passions (his for cars, hers for clothes) to create an incredible museum collection. Today you can stroll the museum floor (usually 65-75 cars are on the floor at any given time) and even pose in one car for photos. They also offer tours if you really want to have information overload and your mind blown with the history of these incredible artifacts.
6. Warming Up in Hot Springs
In addition to warming up in Fairbanks’ impressive museum scene, you can let nature do the work of warming you up at Chena Hot Springs Resort. Since an ownership change in the late 90s (after my first trip in the mid-90s), the owners have converted the entire hot springs system (and the resort) to geothermal energy. The pools are now incredibly relaxing and give the Blue Lagoon in Iceland a run for its money.
You can visit and purchase a day-pass or spend a night or two in one of the property’s various rooms; if you stay overnight you have unlimited access to the hot springs.
7. Sampling Local Food & Drink
In between adventures, you’ve got to stay fueled up! Without digging too much into Fairbanks food and drink scene, here are the meals I had on my trip, to help you choose your own.
- Lulu’s Bread & Bagels – Great for breakfast, their bagel sandwiches, coffee, and tea are good to give you energy for a day outdoors.
- Chena Hot Springs Resort – The resort has an on-site restaurant that offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner options.
- Pagoda Chinese Restaurant – One of the best options in North Pole, Alaska (more on that below!), this is some epic Chinese food pretty far from China!
- Thai House – Fairbanks is home to a number of great Thai restaurants due to a large Thai population. Phở is perfect to warm you up.
- The Pump Room – A classic Fairbanks institution that harkens back to the city’s history and the gold rush era.
There are also plenty of drink options, detailed a bit more below too:
- Sunrise Bagel & Espresso – A drive-thru coffee hut where you can grab a bite and drink before heading out on an adventure.
- Hoodoo Brewing – Fairbanks’ local craft beer watering hole, this place gets hoppin’ at happy hour – and the beer is the reason.
- Hoarfrost Distilling – Making traditional vodkas and infusions, owners Toivo and Natalya help you taste the special cultural and historic relationship between Russia and Alaska.
Okay, so given how much there is to do, let me try to string it all together into a 3-day Fairbanks winter itinerary for you!
A 3-Day Fairbanks Winter Itinerary
Before jumping into my suggestions for how to spend three days in Fairbanks in the winter, let me give you one quick tip: you need to either take one night off from aurora chasing or let yourself start later in the morning each day (no earlier than 10am). Based on my trip in February 2020, I was completely wrecked by the third day of aurora chasing until 3am each night and rising early for 8am breakfast and subsequent tours. Given that caveat, here’s a suggested 3-day winter itinerary in Fairbanks.
Day 0: Arrive & Settle In
I normally start any of my 3-day itineraries on “Day 1,” but as you’ll likely arrive in the afternoon (or late at night), you really need to count your arrival day as “Day 0” of this three-day Fairbanks itinerary. As I mentioned above, I recommend trying to get the Alaska Airlines flight that arrives between 2pm-3pm so you have time to settle in before heading to your accommodation.
Assuming that you do arrive in the afternoon, grab your rental car and head straight to Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center.
There, you can get oriented to Fairbanks’ history, check on any tours you need to arrange and the upcoming aurora forecast and weather, and just generally get your bearings.
On this night, I recommend staying at Chena Hot Springs Resort, which is an hour drive from Fairbanks. Head out there for dinner, a dip in the hot springs, and then book an organized aurora tour up the mountain.
You’ll ride a snow cat to a yurt and can pop in and out of the building to watch the aurora dance in the sky if it’s visible. (Be aware that the tours typically run until either 2am or 3am so this is a late night!)
Day 1: Hot Springs, Ice Fishing & Aurora Chasing
After a late night, have an easy morning, sleep in, and get up for breakfast at the resort restaurant.
Before checking out, you can go for another dip in Chena Hot Springs, which are magical in a special way during the winter morning light. You can also visit the Ice Museum before leaving the resort property, too.
After lunch in downtown Fairbanks (Thai House is a good option), you could take a walk along the Chena River in Pioneer Park to see the city during the day.
In the afternoon it’s a good time to try your luck at ice fishing, if that’s your thing. If not, the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is a great alternative.
Depending on the aurora forecast, you may want to book an evening at Aurora Pointe Station, which is operated by the same team as Taste of Alaska Lodge, where I recommend staying for the night. You could also book a photography tour with Aurora Bear this night instead if you’re super keen to get great photos of the aurora during your trip.
Day 2: Sled Dogs, Santa, Local Spirits & More Aurora
After another late night of aurora chasing, start your day with a leisurely breakfast at Taste of Alaska Lodge before heading out on your dog sledding tour. You’ll need to bundle up before going out on the sled ride – but it’s worth it to stay a bit warmer! (In any event, the dogs will warm your heart once the running part is over.)
As lunch approaches, head out of Fairbanks to North Pole, Alaska. This town is pretty big into Christmas, and there are huge year-round landmarks like a towering Christmas tree and Santa to match.
Inside the Santa Claus House, you can potentially see the big man himself (depending on the season and day) or browse a truly impressive collection of Christmas and/or Alaskan souvenirs. When you get hungry, head over to Pagoda Chinese Restaurant for their huge lunch specials.
This afternoon, take it easy and try one of Fairbanks’ local craft drink spots: Hoodoo Brewing has great beer and Hoarfrost Distilling is a good option for those who love spirits (or cocktails, which they also offer).
No matter which you choose, you’ll be warmed up from the inside before dinner (try The Pump Room tonight!) and one last night of seeing the northern lights. As you’re at Taste of Alaska Lodge for a second night, this is a great night to spend with Kory and his team at Aurora Pointe Station. If you’re lucky, you’ll have views like this:
Day 3: Museum of the North, Reindeer Walking & Departure
Start your morning with breakfast at Lulu’s Bakery & Bagels before heading to the Museum of the North after they open at 9am. Be sure to spend time exploring all of the galleries on both floors.
For one last activity if you have the time, arrange to do a reindeer walk at Running Reindeer Ranch. This tour is a 2.5 hours long, so you may want to do this before or after lunch depending on your schedule for the day and departure time.
If you’ve timed your flights to leave in the afternoon or evening, it’s time to head to the airport. Fairbanks airport is small airport with only a few food and drink options, so you don’t need more than two hours pre-departure. Then you’re headed back somewhere warmer for the rest of the winter – it all feels warm after winter in Fairbanks!
Where to Stay in Fairbanks
I’ve already mentioned a few places to stay in Fairbanks as part of the itinerary, but here’s a quick breakdown of the places I stayed on my trip.
Sophie Station Suites
Sophie Station Suites is located in town, and is a good option if you’re making this Fairbanks winter itinerary into a family trip. Their suites have enough space for a family of 4-5, plus a kitchen to help you cook a few meals and cut down on food costs if needed.
Chena Hot Springs Resort
If you want to make the most of your time at Chena Hot Springs, it’s worth booking one night (or more) at the resort. You’ll have access to the Activity Center, hot springs, and be able to enjoy the property once the day-tripping crowds have left. Rooms vary in style and modernity based on your budget.
As mentioned above, Chena Hot Springs Resort also has a restaurant that offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Portions are huge and delicious – be sure to try one of the “Chena Fresh” lettuce salads (grown on the property), and the Borealis Martini (“Northern Lights in a Glass”).
Taste of Alaska Lodge
Photos of The Spruce House (interior and exterior) are copyright property of Taste of Alaska Lodge. I was so tired the first night here that I collapsed into bed without taking any photos! ?
I had never heard of Taste of Alaska Lodge before my trip earlier this year, but it quickly became my go-to recommendation – they offer it all! The Lodge has a number of different room options including freestanding log cabins like The Spruce Room, where I stayed. There we had enough space for a large family (or two smaller families), a kitchen, and a beautiful balcony.
As mentioned, you can also view the aurora from Aurora Pointe Station, which the Eberhart family also owns, or right on the property at a yurt.
Ready to plan your own Fairbanks winter itinerary? If you have any other questions, let me know in the comments!
My trip to Fairbanks was supported by Explore Fairbanks and this post was published as part of an agreement with them. However, I am happy to endorse all of the experiences I had on the trip and included them at my own discretion.