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When people learn that I grew up in Alaska, one of the most common questions I receive is: how was it living in the dark for half the year?!
Actually, it’s not dark half the year in Alaska, but there are certain times of the year when it’s darker than others and the days are much shorter. December is one of those times, and in fact, the shortest day of the year occurs on December 21st, so it’s arguably the darkest time to visit Alaska among any of the winter months.
But don’t let that deter you: December is a great time to visit Alaska, and there’s plenty to do. You can even stay warm if you know how to pack and dress properly. In this post, I’ll tell you all you need to know about visiting Alaska in December, including what to pack and what to do during those short, precious daylight hours (and how to fill your nights).
If you’re trying to decide whether to plan a December trip to Alaska and just need a bit of extra info to help you choose, hopefully, this covers it all as I say in the title! If you still have other questions, please let me know in the comments below so I can answer and add extra sections to this guide as needed.
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that is the traditional lands of many Alaska Native groups, including the Aleut, Athabascan, Haida, Inupiat, Tlingit, and Yuit peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in September 2022, and was updated in September 2023.
Weather in Alaska in December
To talk about the weather in Alaska, we need to look at a few different areas of the state since the weather varies quite a bit across the huge geography that comprises The Last Frontier. Specifically let’s look at two of the biggest cities, and the ones I recommend visiting during the winter: Anchorage (in Southcentral Alaska) and Fairbanks (in Interior Alaska).
Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and sits (more or less) on the southern coast. This means it tends to be more temperate and receives more precipitation. During December in Anchorage, average high temperatures are around 25°F (-4°C) and average lows sit around 15°F (-9°C). It’s cloudy around 40% of days during the month, and snows about 9-10″ (23-25cm).
Fairbanks is located about 260 miles north of Anchorage – not far, right? In Alaska, this makes a big difference in the weather! In December in Fairbanks, average high temperatures are about 5°F (-15°C) and average lows are about -10°F (-23°C)… brrr! It’s cloudy about the same number of days (35%), but there’s only half the average snowfall – 5″ (13cm) – compared to Anchorage.
As you can see, that means the temperature and weather in Alaska in December ranges a lot if you travel around the state – which I recommend in my Alaska winter itinerary. In Alaska in December, the average highs can range from 5°F to 25°F and lows range from -10°F to 15°F; it’s cloudy a little less than half of the days in December, and you might experience anywhere from 5-10″ of snowfall during your visit.
Below, I cover more about how to pack for this wide range in temperatures and weather, which is really the most important takeaway from knowing these stats.
Daylight Hours in Alaska in December
Another factor to keep in mind when visiting Alaska in December is the darkness; December is the darkest month of the year, and the darkest day of the year occurs on December 21st, the winter solstice.
This means you’ll have very limited daylight during your December trip to Alaska. And that varies a lot by geography too:
- In Anchorage, the longest day in December has about 6 hours of daylight, and there are only 5.5 hours of daylight on the solstice.
- Further north in Fairbanks, the longest day has only about 4.75 hours of daylight, and there are 3.75 hours of daylight on the solstice.
- South in the capital of Juneau, the longest day has almost 7 hours of daylight, and the solstice has just 6.5 hours of daylight.
In general, the further north you go during the winter months, the shorter the days and the longer the nights. And if you plan to head above the Arctic Circle, be prepared for no daylight!
These shortened days mean two things: you need to plan ahead to take advantage of daylight hours, and you should also plan activities that can be done at night. I recommend some further down in this guide.
7 Events to Attend in Alaska in December
I probably could write a huge list of things to do in Alaska in December as there are so many unique experiences and they vary from one area of the state to another. Instead, let me just share my top five specific to December to help inspire you to plan your trip.
Anchorage International Film Festival (Dec 1-9)
Is there anything better than snuggling and watching movies during the winter? I doubt it. Movie lovers can’t miss the chance to attend the Anchorage International Film Festival. It’s a great opportunity to explore a less-known scene in the world of movies. The festival program includes independent movies from Anchorage’s filmmakers as well as a diverse selection of international films.
Skagway Yuletide Ball (Dec 9)
Visiting Skagway during the darkest month? That’s no reason to hibernate; instead, don your best outfit, grab a partner, and hit the dance floor. The Yuletide Ball is a time-honored celebration of music and dance. Locals and visitors are transported to a bygone era, providing an opportunity to waltz in nothing less than historical Skagway. The event takes place in the Happy Endings Saloon and tickets cost $10.
Creamer’s Field Holiday Crafts & Luminary Trail (Dec 7-8 & 12-13)
Creamer’s Field prepares tons of activities to make the most of the jolly season. On December 7, 8, 12, and 13, they’ll be hosting the Holiday Craft Nights. On December 9, when the night comes, visitors can enjoy the luminary trail – a wintertime stroll through the landscape adorned with glowing lights. Be sure to check the Creamer’s Field website for all details.
Fairbanks Winter Solstice Celebration (Dec 21)
There’s no better way to embrace the magic of the longest night than Fairbanks’ Winter Solstice Celebration. The event features musical and artistic events and shopping stalls filled with handmade Alaskan items – perfect for finding souvenirs! As darkness falls in the city, get ready for the most-awaited event: the amazing fireworks!
Annual Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony (date TBA)
If you’re visiting Homer in early December, you’ll have the chance to witness one of the most Christmassy events: the Annual Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony. The ceremony takes place in Homer’s central square and marks the start of festivities. You’ll also enjoy local Christmas carolers, holiday-themed food, and drink from local businesses. Oh, and the little ones will be able to see Santa Claus and take photos with him!
Let it Glow in Homer (All Month)
As we all know, Christmas is associated with lights. You can experience the magic of a winter wonderland in Homer with the Let It Glow contest. This is a holiday lights contest that transforms the town’s neighborhoods with enchanting light displays – all put up by the very neighbors. You can come with your family and friends to explore the illuminated streets and vote for the best one!
New Year’s Eve in Anchorage (Dec 31)
Anchorage bids farewell to the year with a bang. Like in most cities, New Year’s Eve festivities include live music, spirited street parties, and, of course, fireworks! Join the locals and fellow travelers from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Chinook parking lot at 3rd Avenue and E Street. Make sure you find a good spot by 8 p.m. when the fireworks display goes up!
Celebrating New Year’s in Alaska
Since New Year’s Eve technically happens in December, I’d be remiss to not mention it in a guide for visiting during this month.
I haven’t personally celebrated the New Year in Alaska since my family moved away in 2006, but I know it’s a good excuse to light up the dark night with fireworks, and a very unique way to toast a new year.
- In Anchorage, there are all kinds of festivities in the downtown area, with fireworks at 8 pm.
- In my hometown of Eagle River (about 10 miles north of Anchorage), they celebrate from 6-8 pm.
- South of Anchorage in Girdwood, the Alyeska Resort holds a torchlight parade with live music starting at 7 pm.
And if you’re planning a trip to Fairbanks for the winter solstice (December 21st), they have a celebration for that including fireworks.
What to Pack for Alaska in December
I have an entire Alaska winter packing list, which is a great place to start to see the basics I recommend for packing, but the absolute best packing advice I have for winter is the same advice I give in the summer:
Layers are the key to staying warm, but also allow you to adjust how much heat you’re keeping in to avoid overheating and sweating. To give you more specific advice on how I layered to stay warm in the Alaskan winter, here’s what I’m wearing in both of the photos above:
- On top, I’m wearing a base layer (I love Unbound Merino), a long-sleeve cotton shirt, my favorite North Face green jacket, and a heavy, down jacket from Columbia. I have links for both of those jackets in my Alaska jacket guide.
- On the bottom, I have a base layer (usually also Unbound Merino) and a pair of UNIQLO jeggings for the day; at night, I added on my snowboarding pants from Burton (recommended in my winter packing list linked above).
- On my feet, I have Smartwool socks; during the day I was wearing my favorite Norwegian-style snow booties, and I switched to heavy-duty snow boots at night when it got colder. Both are linked in my Alaska shoe and boot guide.
- On my head, I’m wearing a simple synthetic beanie. I also have a synthetic scarf (not the best choice, I’d choose a Merino wool today).
- On my hands, I have liner gloves as a base layer, and my snowboarding mittens to layer them up, especially at night.
I also had hand and foot warmers that I tucked into my boots and mittens to help keep my fingers and toes warm at night – I visited at an especially cold time in February 2020 when the lowest temp we experienced was -35°F in Fairbanks! BRRRRR!
Have any other questions about planning a visit to Alaska in December? Let me know in the comments and I’ll help you get sorted and stay warm!