There’s something magical about your first experience of winter in Alaska. Maybe it’s spotting the alpenglow on mountains as your plane descends down to land; maybe it’s stepping off the plane onto the jetway and seeing it covered in snow. No matter what, you probably won’t forget those first few moments in The Last Frontier in the snowy months – a true winter wonderland.
Having spent 15 winters in Alaska growing up, I well remember the short days, the biting cold, and the awe inspired by a fresh layer of snow to go out and play in no matter your age. Visiting Alaska in January is a great option if you want to enjoy that true winter weather, but want to escape the crowds that visit during other times of the season (though admittedly, these crowds are far smaller than those that flock to the state during the summer months).
If you’re planning a January trip to Alaska, below you’ll find all the basics you need to know: weather and daylight hours, activities and places to visit, and what to pack to stay warm enough to enjoy it all. Don’t forget to also consult my Alaska winter itinerary for non-January-specific tips, and – of course – to have a great time.
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 January
Talking about the weather in Alaska is tricky given it varies considerably depending on the region. This said, I’ll focus on the weather you can expect in Anchorage (in Southcentral Alaska) and Fairbanks (in Interior Alaska), which are the bigger cities I recommend visiting in January in Alaska.
Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and sits on the southern coast. Consequently, it enjoys a more temperate climate and receives more precipitation. Winter weather peaks in January in Anchorage, and is the city’s coldest month of the year. During January, Anchorage’s average high temperatures are around 23°F (-5°C), while average lows are around 11°F (-12°C). The sky is overcast about 60% of the month and snows about 5” (13 cm) over the course of the month.
Fairbanks sits about 260 miles north of Anchorage. Don’t be fooled by the short distance! This has a huge impact on the weather. In January in Fairbanks, average high temperatures are about 5°F (-15°C) and average lows are about -12°F (-25°C). It’s cloudy about 40% of the time and the average snowfall is 2” (53mm).
As you can see, you should never underestimate the impact that a few (hundred) miles can have on the weather in Alaska. In January temperatures range from an average low of 9°F (-13°C) to an average high of 22°F (-5°C) in Alaska. It’s clear about 60% of the days, so you should be able to see what little sun is visible (only about 5-6 hours per day on average).
Daylight Hours in Alaska in January
You’ll also benefit from knowing how many hours of daylight Alaska gets in January. While January is not the darkest month of the year, most towns in Alaska still don’t get to see the sun very much during this month.
Just like the weather, sunlight varies a lot depending on the geography:
- In Anchorage, days have about 6 hours and 30 minutes of sunlight on average. The shortest day of the month is January 1st with 5 hours and 40 minutes of daylight. The good news is that days start to lengthen from here, reaching a total of just under 8 daylight hours by the end of the month.
- In Fairbanks, the shortest day of the month also is January 1st, with just over4 hours of daylight. The longest day, which is also the last one, has almost 7 hours of sunlight.
As a general rule, the further north you go during the winter months, the shorter the days and the longer the nights. If you’re traveling above the Arctic Circle, be prepared for no daylight!
Destinations to Visit in Alaska in January
If you’ve read my winter itinerary, you’ll already know that I recommend sticking to Southcentral and Interior Alaska during your trip. Below you’ll find the destinations I suggest you visit during your visit to Alaska in January.
A great base for any Alaska trip, Anchorage thrives during the summer, but it also does during the winter. This city has the best winter activities in full swing during the snowy months. You’ll be able to enjoy the winter wonderland that surrounds Anchorage with unique activities, like seeing the northern lights, 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
No matter the time of the year, most people want to include a visit to Denali National Park during their trip, which leads to the following question: is the park open in the winter? The short answer is… kind of. If we take a look at 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.
However, there are a few considerations.
- The Park Road closes at Mile 3, meaning you can only access so far by car. For the intrepid traveler, there’s the option of getting a permit to ski, snowshoe, or hike back into the park at your own risk.
- If you’re driving, you can also book accommodation in Healy, a community 11 miles north of the park entrance 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 (or don’t want to drive in the snow), the Alaska Railroad you can consider the flag stop 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. As a heads up, there is no accommodation in the Denali area during the winter, unless you plan on camping.
Fairbanks is another excellent destination to spend time in during your visit to Alaska in January. If you ask me, I think Fairbanks is Alaska’s top winter wonderland. There are plenty of things to do in Fairbanks in the winter, which, in my opinion, are a lot more fun than the activities you can enjoy during the summer.
However, renting a car is a must if you want to enjoy your Fairbanks winter trip to the fullest. Fairbanks isn’t like Anchorage, where the best activities are connected on public transit. You’ll see the city doesn’t offer shuttles, public transit, and tour pick-ups/drop-offs. 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 January
There’s no shortage of things to do in January in Alaska, and each area has activities that are unique to them. However, I’ve narrowed this list down to my top five activities as a sort of inspirational itinerary to help you plan your own for this trip.
Alaska is known for uncountable reasons, but one stands out: it is one of the best places in the world to view the northern lights. Luckily, viewing the aurora or northern lights is one of the top things to do in Alaska in January.
The long, dark nights are ideal to see the lights dancing above your head and invading the sky with their pretty colors. If viewing the northern lights is the main reason you’re visiting Alaska, check out my guide, planning an aurora trip to Alaska, to help you organize your trip.
Many winter activities are centered around animals in Alaska. While animals may seem a purely ludic activity for travelers, they have been crucial to Alaskan communities, serving as means of transportation or the base of commercial activities.
Dog sledding is a must-do when it comes to animal experiences in the winter. In fact, it’s the only time of year when you can actually ride on a sled in the snow. There are numerous kennels near Anchorage and Fairbanks offering winter excursions.
You can also book a reindeer walking tour to learn about these wonderful animals and take a stroll with them.
Nestled in the Matanuska Valley, Musk-ox Farm offers the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Musk oxen. They take you on a 45-minute tour to learn about these unusual creatures. Musk oxen are relatively shy, so they don’t always come out of the surrounding forest, but if you go in the early afternoon you may catch a feeding time, and then they do emerge to eat.
Snowshoeing/Fat Tire Biking
Snowshoeing is a great way to fill the short January days. Which one you choose will depend on your interest and fitness level. Snowshoeing is more challenging so it may be a better fit for experienced or regular hikers.
Wondering where to rent snowshoes?
- In Fairbanks, Trax Outdoor Center rents snowshoes. Head to Creamer’s Field on the edge of town for a nice flat area to walk in the snow.
- In Anchorage, there are a couple of outfitters that rent snowshoes, with Alaska Outdoor Gear Rental and Alaska Mountaineering & Hiking as two popular options. There are also 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.
For a more adrenaline-filled option, you can also do fat-tire biking. There are a number of fat tire biking tours in Anchorage as well as an outfitter in Fairbanks (Beaver Sports) if you’re up for trying to stay on two wheels in the snow.
Skiing is a classic of the winter season and is another popular activity to make the most of the daylight hours you get in January.
During the snowy months, the 100 miles of trails that Anchorage has turned into a winter playground, offering skiing opportunities for all levels and riders. You can go Alpine skiing, commonly known as downhill skiing, at Alyeska Resort, or cross-country skiing at Kincaid Park.
Soaking in Hot Springs
Balancing adventure and relaxation is crucial to any trip, which is why I’ve included visiting the hot springs in this list. Because what’s a better way to relax and warm up than soaking in a hot spring?
Alaska has two spots where you can take a dip and enjoy a peaceful time after all that hiking and skiing:
- Chena Hot Springs – Located near Fairbanks, these are the most popular hot springs in Alaska. Both the community and resort have developed a lot since I was a kid. The property now has a large outdoor pool where you can soak in naturally-heated water.
- The Nordic Spa – Part of the Alyeska Resort, this is a newer alternative. I visited the spa during my August 2022 visit, and I believe this place 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.
Both places allow visitors to enjoy the hot spring by day or night, so you can choose to enjoy a dip in the afternoon before calling it a day or early in the morning to start your day fresh.
Bear in mind you will also need a car to reach both of these spots. Yes, you’ll be doing a fair amount of driving during your January trip to Alaska!
Celebrating New Year’s in Alaska
While it’s been a while since I last celebrated the New Year in Alaska, I’m certain there are always fireworks that light up the dark night, and a unique ambiance that will make you start your New Year off right.
- In Anchorage, people descend to the downtown area where there are all kinds of festivities. The fireworks start at 8pm.
- In my hometown of Eagle River (about 10 miles north of Anchorage), you’ll find fireworks and food trucks at Lions Park from 6-8pm.
- South of Anchorage in Girdwood, the Alyeska Resort hosts the Torchlight Parade, where 300 volunteer skiers and snowboards glide down the mountain with bright, phosphorus flares. There’s also a fantastic fireworks display. Celebrations start at 9 pm.
What to Pack for Alaska in January
Alaska’s weather calls for careful preparation when it comes to packing. That is why I have written an entire Alaska winter packing list so you can see the basics I recommend for any trip. But, if you want the ultimate advice for what to pack for Alaska, it is to bring layers.
Layers allow you to stay warm according to the temperature changes you experience while doing different activities – you want to avoid overheating and sweating as much as you can.
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 visiting Alaska in January? Let me know in the comments below!