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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.
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, 6 minutes of daylight, and there are only 5 hours, 28 minutes of daylight on the solstice.
- In Fairbanks, the longest day has only about 4 hours, 40 minutes of daylight, and there are only 3 hours, 42 minutes of daylight on the solstice.
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.
Destinations to Visit in Alaska in December
As you might have guessed, especially if you’ve read my Alaska winter itinerary, I recommend focusing your December trip to Alaska in Southcentral and Interior Alaska, rather than visiting other regions (like Southeast, which is cold, rainy, and grey and just generally not as wintery). Here are the destinations I recommend planning your trip.
Anchorage is a great base for a winter trip to Alaska, including in December. Anchorage is bustling during the cold, snowy months, and there are plenty of activities to enjoy that you can’t do during the summer months – like snowshoeing, skijoring, winter hiking, ice climbing, and more.
I’ve got a complete list of winter activities to do in Anchorage, and I recommend giving yourself at least two nights here to enjoy them.
Denali National Park
Lots of people want to visit Denali National Park all year long, and are curious if the park is open in the winter. The short answer is… kind of. According to the National Park Service, Denali National Park is open during the winter, and there is staff available to support the park and visitors who make their way.
The Park Road closes at Mile 3, meaning you can only access so far by car – but if you’re an avid outdoors person you can get a permit to ski, snowshoe, or hike back into the park at your own risk. With your car, you can also book accommodation 11 miles north of the park entrance in Healy, a community that is active year-round (unlike the tourist-oriented Nenana Canyon area that closes in mid-September each year).
If you don’t have a car, the Alaska Railroad does offer flagstop service to Denali Park as part of the Aurora Winter Train; this means you can book a ticket to/from Denali in advance, or flag down the train. It’s important to note that there is no accommodation in the Denali area during the winter, unless you plan on camping.
The other great destination to spend time in during your Alaska trip in December is Fairbanks; in some ways, I’d say Fairbanks is a better winter destination, as there are tons of fun things to do in Fairbanks in the winter, and I personally find them more enjoyable than the things you can do during the summer!
However, you will absolutely need to rent a car to make the most of a winter trip to Fairbanks; unlike Anchorage where you can get by on shuttles, public transit, and tour pick-up/drop-offs, Fairbanks’ best activities aren’t connected on public transit and don’t offer shuttles. Be sure to rent a car with studded tires to help you better drive on the snow and ice!
Top 5 Things to Do 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.
First and foremost, seeing the aurora borealis or Northern Lights is hands down the top reason to visit Alaska in December – or any part of the winter. The long, dark nights are perfect for spotting the aurora, and December’s longest nights of the year give you even more opportunities.
I’ve got a separate resource on planning an aurora trip to Alaska that I highly recommend reading if this is your top reason for planning your Alaska trip. (On my winter trip in 2020, 100% of people I met were there for that reason, so you’re not alone!)
Dog-sledding is a fantastic winter activity because it’s the only time of year when you can actually ride on a sled in the snow – and not on a glacier or using an ATV/land trailer like during the summer months. There are kennels across the state including near Anchorage and Fairbanks that allow visitors during the winter months; some might be training for the upcoming Iditarod in February which is also fun to learn about.
Be sure to bundle up if you decide to do this activity – I’ve never been colder in my life than when the wind was whipping my face as the dogs high-tailed it (literally) across the snowy countryside outside Fairbanks.
During the short daylight hours, December is a great time to get out and do some winter hiking or snowshoeing depending on your fitness level and interest.
In Anchorage, there are a couple of outfitters that rent snowshoes (Alaska Outdoor Gear Rental and Alaska Mountaineering & Hiking are two good options), and plenty of nice trails around. My favorite place is out at the Eagle River Nature Center near where I grew up as the trails are flat and easy for most people; you will need a car to reach this spot.
Up in Fairbanks, Trax Outdoor Center rents snowshoes too; Creamer’s Field on the edge of town is a nice area for a flat walk in the snow.
If you’re an avid machine-sports enthusiast, snowmobiling – not “snowmachining,” according to ll Alaskans!) – is another great activity, and can be done later in the day even on short days since most snowmobiles have lights to guide you as dusk sets.
Soaking in Hot Springs
I used to say there weren’t many hot springs in Alaska, but that’s slowly changing. While some are only available during the summer months, there are now two spots where you can soak and warm up fully after days of adventure in the cold:
- Chena Hot Springs near Fairbanks is by far the most popular hot springs in Alaska; it’s developed a lot since I was a kid and now has a really cool constructed outdoor pool where you can soak in the naturally heated water.
- There’s a new option south of Anchorage: the Nordic Spa at Alyeska Resort. I had the chance to visit the spa during my August 2022 visit, and I think it’s going to be even better in the winter months than it is in summer. They have different dry and wet saunas, hot pools, and cold plunge pools, with more options planned soon.
Best of all, both of these experiences can be done by day or night, so they can be a great way to fill a short afternoon as the daylight wanes.
You also need a car to reach both of these spots, so get your head wrapped around the fact that you’ll be doing some winter driving during your December trip to Alaska!
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 8pm.
- In my hometown of Eagle River (about 10 miles north of Anchorage), they celebrate from 6-8pm.
- South of Anchorage in Girdwood, the Alyeska Resort holds a torchlight parade with live music starting at 7pm.
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!