Itineraries

How to Plan the Perfect Alaska Winter Itinerary

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Green lights dancing in the sky. Ice crystals on eyelashes. A steaming bowl of soup and a cold pint of craft beer. Now sing it with me: “these are a few of my favorite things.” That’s how the song goes, right? Well, it will be for you, once you make your first trip to Alaska during the winter!

If you want to experience a winter wonderland, there’s almost no better place than Alaska. It’s a short flight for most people living in North America, and you can unlock incredible winter experiences that I guarantee you can’t find at home – even if you live in New England or the northern Midwest.

Alaska Winter Itinerary Hero

I grew up in Alaska and know a thing or two about what it takes to survive in the frigid, frozen Last Frontier – and I travel there frequently enough to have the tips other travelers need to know too. In this post, I’m sharing my ideal Alaska winter itinerary, inspired by my own trip to Alaska during the winter of 2020.

If you’re planning a winter trip to Alaska, look no further. This post will break down everything you need to know – from what to pack to where to go to answering important questions about how dark it really gets and where to see the northern lights when it gets that dark. Read on to plan your own perfect Alaska winter itinerary, and you’ll come home singing my ‘favorite things’ song too!

In this post, I promote travel to parts of Alaska which are the traditional lands of the Dena’ina Ełnena, Tanana, and Dënéndeh 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.

Alaska Winter Travel Tips

I always start my itinerary posts with a bit of general travel information. This helps answer some common questions I often get, and will hopefully ensure that this post gets you 90% of the way through planning your own Alaska winter itinerary. If you do have any questions after finishing this post, I’m happy to answer them in the comments.

Alaska Winter Weather

Ah, winter in Alaska: there’s a reason you need to survive a few before you’re allowed to be called a “Sourdough” by fellow Alaskans… Alaskan winters are tough!

With short days – ranging from 3-12 hours of daylight depending on when you visit and how far north you travel – and cold temperatures, you might be feeling a bit intimidated. Never fear: people visit Alaska every winter and survive. In this itinerary, I recommend focusing your time on the big cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks, and here’s what you need to know about each one:

Anchorage

Further south than Fairbanks, Anchorage receives just 5.5 hours of daylight on the winter solstice (December 21). That increases to 12 hours by the equinox on March 21st, with just 6.5 hours of darkness that day. Here’s the chart I use to check daylight hours in Anchorage when I’m planning a trip.

Anchorage is also warmer than Fairbanks. The average high in November is 32°F (balmy!) dipping to 23°F in January and rising back up to above freezing my March. Here’s where I check average temperatures in Anchorage each month.

Fairbanks

The shortest day (the winter solstice/December 21) has only 3.75 hours of daylight; by the equinox on March 21, there are only 5.75 hours of true night. The daylight changes quickly heading into winter and equally fast coming out of it. Be sure to check the daylight hours during your planned trip to get a sense for how much light/dark you’ll experience.

In terms of temperature, Fairbanks can range a lot due to its location in Interior Alaska. The average high in November is 16°F, dipping as low as 2°F in January before rising again in February.

Getting Around Alaska in the Winter

Driving on snow and ice makes many people nervous, but it’s the best way to get around Alaska in the winter. The reality is that Alaska lacks good public transit options – even during the summer. While there are more options for private transportation between places in Alaska during the snow-free months, many people still choose to rent a car.

In this Alaska winter itinerary I’m suggesting, here’s how I recommend getting around:

  • Rent a car for Days 1-4 in Anchorage
  • Ride the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks (more on that below)
  • Use a shuttle to visit Chena Hot Springs (Day 5-7)
  • Rent a car for Days 7-8 in Fairbanks.

All of the major car rental agencies operate out of both Anchorage and Fairbanks, so you can choose whichever you prefer.

Aurora Viewing in Alaska

Alaska Northern Lights Trip Hero

For many people, the main reason to visit Alaska during the winter is to see the northern lights or aurora borealis. If you’re among that group, you’ll be in good company! I have a whole guide to planning an aurora trip in Alaska if that’s your top priority, so I recommend checking that post out too as you plan.

In Fairbanks, aurora season goes from August 21 to April 21; further south in Anchorage, the season is more like late September to early April. The best times to see the northern lights in Alaska are in those dark months when the skies are clear, but aurora activity peaks near the two equinoxes (September 20/21 and March 20/21). For this reason, late February to late March is the most popular time to visit Alaska during the winter if you want to see the northern lights.

That’s not to say you won’t see the aurora if you’re visiting at another time though – as long as the skies are clear and dark and you stay up late enough, you’ll see the aurora almost every night of the winter!

What to Pack for Winter in Alaska

As mentioned, it’s, well, absolutely freaking frigid in Alaska during the winter – especially in Fairbanks! (When I visited in winter 2020, there were several days that the daytime highs didn’t reach above -5°F!) How do you pack for that???

I have a guide for what to pack for Alaska in the winter, but my general advice for packing for Alaska is the same in winter and summer: layers! Invest in good base layers, wool socks, and a hat/gloves/scarf, and then add on winter-rated activity-appropriate clothing on top. Then you can add/remove layers as needed to stay warm – as shown in my photos above. You can also stop by a local shop in Fairbanks or Anchorage to buy hand and foot warmers if the temps are truly heart-stopping during your trip.

An Alaska Winter Itinerary: Quick Glance

Before jumping into the details, I wanted to share a quick overview of my suggested Alaska:

Activities
Day 1Arrive in Anchorage
Day 2Hit the Trails near Anchorage (Snowshoeing/Nordic Skiing/Fat Tire Biking)
Day 3Get Out on the Ice (Ice Skating/Fishing/Climbing, Museums)
Day 4Day Trip to Girdwood
Day 5Aurora Train to Fairbanks
Day 6Day at Chena Hot Springs
Day 7Explore Fairbanks’ Great Outdoors (Reindeer, Dog Sledding)
Day 8Explore Fairbanks’ Great Indoors (Museums, North Pole)

In the rest of this post, I’ll cover all of the above activities each day in exquisite detail to help you plan.

Start in Anchorage or Fairbanks?

In this itinerary, I recommend starting in Anchorage and ending in Fairbanks, but you might be wondering: can I reverse the order? Can you start your Alaska winter itinerary in Fairbanks and end in Anchorage? Absolutely!

I chose to start in Anchorage because I think it’s better for getting acclimated to Alaska’s winter weather (Anchorage is warmer than Fairbanks), and has good aurora-viewing prospects – but I want to end with the grande finale under the incredible aurora you’ll see in Fairbanks.

You can certainly do the opposite and start in Fairbanks, ride the train to Anchorage, and fly home from Anchorage.

Riding the Aurora Winter Train

In this Alaska Winter Itinerary, I recommend taking the Aurora Winter Train between Anchorage and Fairbanks. This train does not operate daily, so you need to check the schedule for the train first, then book your tickets to Alaska, then arrange the rest of your daily activities. I’ve included the link to the train schedule below, but seriously: plan your trip around the train!

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    Day 1: Arrive in Anchorage

    With such short winter days, you might find that your first day in Alaska has limited options for activities; most flights arrive in Anchorage later in the day. Additionally, Alaska has its own time zone, four hours behind Eastern time – so you might also experience some jet lag. All this to say: take it easy on your first day in Anchorage.

    The only exception I have for this advice is that if the aurora forecast is really strong (Kp+4), plan to either head out to a dark location near Anchorage to try and see the northern lights or book an aurora tour. (If the forecast isn’t strong, call it an early night and rest up for late nights on the rest of your trip!)

    Day 2: Hit the Trails near Anchorage

    Anchorage in the Winter - Nordic Skiing

    Rise and shine for your first day exploring the winter wonderland that surrounds Anchorage! As I shared in my guide of things to do in Anchorage during the winter, there’s a lot to enjoy in the Anchorage area – and most of it is outdoors, so bundle up!

    Unless you are visiting Anchorage for one of the popular winter events (such as Fur Rondy or the Iditarod), you’ll need to fill your days with these outdoor activities. In most cases, I recommend booking a tour to do any adventures you’re interested in; most people don’t have the experience to do them on their own, and it’s just easier to have a tour guide arrange transportation, gear, and safety for you. (Some exceptions to this advice are activities I recommend for today.)

    On this first full day in Anchorage, I recommend hitting the trails. Anchorage has over 100 miles of trails that are maintained throughout the winter, and are perfect for all kinds of winter fun:

    • Snowshoeing – This is one activity you can do on your own/without a guide. If you love hiking, rent a pair of snowshoes and head out on a hike in the nearby Chugach mountains.
    • Nordic/Cross-Country Skiing – Another activity you can do on your own; if you love cross-country skiing, there are over 40 miles of groomed trails in Anchorage’s Kincaid Park alone!
    • Fat Tire Biking – Arrange a tour for this one! Outfitted with a fat-tired bike, you can ride some of the trails around town for a real thrill – and often epic views.
    • Dog Sledding – If you want an even more unique adventure and have the budget, arrange a dog sledding tour. These will usually include a tour of the kennel, introduction to the pups, and ride in the basket; some companies will also teach you to mush if you’re up for the adventure!

    You can probably only do 1-2 of these activities in a day, depending on which one you choose and how long you want to spend outside.

    Day 3:Get Out on the Ice

    Anchorage in the Winter - Ice Climbing

    After a day on land, it’s time to enjoy another aspect of life in the Alaskan winter: ice! In the Anchorage area, many of the waterways freeze entirely, which means you can enjoy certain activities only available when the temps drop low enough. (A bonus of those nose-hair-freezing days!)

    In the morning, I recommend getting out for either ice skating on one of Anchorage’s frozen ponds, such as Westchester Lagoon, or ice fishing with a charter company. Most ice fishing companies offer half-day and full-day excursions, but I personally find that I only have a half day’s worth of “sitting on the ice freezing my butt off” in me. Alaska Lakes Guide ServiceDT6Fishtale River Guides, and Fishhound Expeditions all offer guided ice fishing tours in the greater Anchorage area.

    In the afternoon, you can either plan another adventure – maybe ice climbing if you’re up for the challenge – or head indoors for a few warm hours. The Anchorage Museum is a must-do in winter or summer, so this is a great option; I have visited several times in the last few years and am always impressed at how much the museum holds, especially with Alaska Native artifacts and art that teach you about the land. It’s easy to spend 3-4 hours here, making it a perfect way to thaw out after a morning on the ice.

    This is a good night to plan a northern lights tour if you haven’t already added one to your itinerary on a different night. Even if the forecast isn’t great, it’s worth getting out away from the city lights to try and see the aurora if it’s visible at all.

    Day 4: Day Trip to Girdwood

    Many Alaska winter visitors are curious about downhill skiing – there are lots of mountains in the Anchorage area, after all!

    While Anchorage (and Alaska as a whole) doesn’t have as many ski resorts as you’d expect given all those mountains, there is one that’s worth visiting if you love downhill skiing or snowboarding – or if you love all the aprés skiing activities instead.

    The town of Girdwood is located one hour south of Anchorage by car, and is home to the Alyeska Resort. While I don’t advocate staying overnight here (based on my own bad experience as well as feedback I’ve gotten from fellow readers), I can vouch for the resort’s caliber as a skiing/snowboarding destination. Depending on which day you visit, lift tickets are $75-$99 and ski/board rentals are $45 for the full day. The resort also rents snowshoes, nordic skis, and fat tire bikes if you want to try (or re-try) those activities.

    If you’d rather not spend the day in the cold, there are options too. You can ride the Alyeska Aerial Tram to the Upper Tram Terminal, where you can walk around and enjoy the views of the valley and Turnagain Arm – or sit inside at Seven Glaciers for a fancy meal.

    Another option is to visit the Nordic Spa, which is set to open… sometime this winter? After many delays, nobody seems to know when it will actually open, but I’ll update this post when it does! In any case, this spa is a level up from average, with hot springs, cold plunge pools, barrel saunas, steam and dry saunas, and plenty more. I’m bummed this has been delayed so much because I really hoped to visit in Summer 2021 – guess I need to plan a return trip!

    After a day at Alyeska, I have one specific dinner recommendation (my meal suggestions for Anchorage and Fairbanks are at the end of this post): stop at Jack Sprat for dinner before driving back to Anchorage. This restaurant is fabulous and easily overlooked but offers incredible dishes from around the world (I had a stunning bibimbap while Mr. V enjoyed a curry) using local Alaskan ingredients.

    Day 5: Ride theAurora Train to Fairbanks

    Halfway through your trip already? That means it’s time for a change of scenery! Rise and shine early today to catch the Alaska Railroad north to Fairbanks. The Aurora Winter Train offers weekend service all winter and midweek service on select dates in February and March; plan your trip (arrival/departure dates) around this specific activity.

    The Aurora Winter Train departs Anchorage at 8:30am and arrives into Fairbanks at 8:00pm. Make a day of it by planning to enjoy all three meals on the train: the dining car has lovely options with local ingredients like fresh seafood and reindeer meat.

    Best Places to View Denali Hero

    Though it seems like a long day, the Aurora Winter Train is a great way to get between Anchorage and Fairbanks and see some of the rest of Alaska. Along the way, you can potentially see Denali, spot lots of moose (and maybe other wildlife too), and pass through small towns that show you a snapshot of life in The Last Frontier during the winter. On my most recent ride (February 2020), we saw over 110 moose in the 11.5-hour ride and Denali was out in all her glory.

    Once you arrive in Fairbanks, be sure to arrange the shuttle from the train to Chena Hot Springs; this is usually an option when you book your stay there. (My recommendations for where to stay are also located at the end of this post.)

    Day 6:Day at Chena Hot Springs

    Chena Hot Springs is one of the most popular things to do in Fairbanks during any season, but it’s definitely better to experience it in the winter months. This resort is built on an area of geothermal activity, where hot spring water flows up to the surface and melts the surrounding snow all year long. They’ve developed a lot since I first visited as a kid 20+ years ago; today there’s a warm indoor pool (90°F) as well as a more naturally-designed outdoor hot spring. The latter is the place to be: you can soak in the hot water, letting your eyelashes form ice crystals as you watch the steam rise from the 106°F water.

    On this day, I recommend spending the morning in the hot springs – no need to rush into the day, let yourself catch up on some sleep before the next few days of aurora-chasing each night! In the afternoon, you can visit the on-site Ice Museum to try a famous appletini from an ice glass or book one of the other daylight-hours activities they offer on their property (snowshoeing is a popular option if you haven’t tried that yet). While booking your Ice Museum tour and/or other activities, be sure to reserve a spot on the aurora tour that night.

    Fairbanks in the Winter - Aurora Viewing

    After dinner at the on-site restaurant, retire to your room and rest before your aurora tour departure – they leave as late as 11pm to optimize your time under the aurora. While on the tour, you’ll be able to stay warm in a yurt hut where they also have warm food and drink available. Tours can last until 3-4am so be prepared for the late night!

    Day 7:Explore Fairbanks’ Great Outdoors

    After two nights at Chena Hot Springs, I recommend heading back into town for the remainder of your visit; this will give you a chance to experience some of the other things to do in Fairbanks during the winter. Since you took the shuttle from the train to Chena, you’ll need to take the shuttle back to the airport and pick up a rental car there.

    Then head out for other fun activities; my two favorites are Running Reindeer Ranch and Paws for Adventure. At Running Reindeer Ranch, you can take a walking tour in the woods with real reindeer – plus learn about the animals from their caregiver. Paws for Adventure is a dog-sledding kennel, where you can learn about the sport of competitive mushing and ride in a basket. Pro-tip: accept all the extra layers and bunny boots they offer you to stay warm – it can be freezing on that ride!

    After dinner in town, head to Taste of Alaska Lodge for the night. This family-owned property is a perfect spot for your final night in Alaska and they offer two kinds of aurora experience: at their on-site yurt or nearby Aurora Pointe Station. If you have to choose, the Station was my favorite aurora-viewing experience in Fairbanks.

    Day 8:Explore Fairbanks’ Great Indoors

    Just like that, it’s the final day of your Alaska winter itinerary! Assuming you’ll fly out late tonight (most flights departing Alaska are red-eyes), you have the whole day to explore Fairbanks before you leave. I recommend visiting at least one (or two) of Fairbanks’ surprisingly awesome museums:

    • Morris Thompson Cultural Center – Located in the same building as the Fairbanks visitor information center, this small museum is a great introduction about life in Interior Alaska, and an excellent way to cap your trip.
    • Museum of the North – Located on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, this museum focuses on natural history and art from the Interior and Arctic. Among many fascinating artifacts, you can see Blue Babe, a 36,000 year-old mummified Alaska steppe bison from the Ice Age.
    • Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum – Even if you’re not into cars, hear me out: this unique muesum idea is one of my favorites in Alaska, and way more interesting than you’d imagine – even for non-car buffs. Inside you’ll find cars from the 1900s-1930s, paired with vintage clothing from each time period. Additionally, you’ll learn about auto history in Alaska.

    You can easily visit two museums in a single day, so either do two of these today – or do one outdoor activity and one museum on Day 7, and the same again on Day 8.

    If you’re only up for one museum, you could also spend part of the day visiting North Pole, Alaska. This small community has a real Santa’s workshop and is certainly a unique sight to see in the Fairbanks area!

    Then it’s time to fly home – hopefully at the end of an unforgettable, successful Alaska winter trip!

    Where to Eat in Anchorage & Fairbanks

    There are so many great places to eat in both Anchorage and Fairbanks – and basically all of them stay open in the winter too, so you don’t need to worry about missing out because you’re visiting in the “off” season. Here are my suggestions:

    Anchorage

    • 49th State Brewing – My favorite place to eat in Anchorage, their beer is awesome and their food is better.
    • Glacier Brewhouse – A popular microbrewery, the Glacier Brewhouse combines local food and drink options with a more upscale experience without gettin’ fancy.
    • Humpy’s Alehouse –  A perfect spot for local flavor – both in the food, and the company. This place is renowned and offers good bar food and plenty of rdink selections.
    • Crow’s Nest – A fancy option atop the Hotel Captain Cook, this is a nice place to celebrate a special occasion during your trip.
    • Fletchers – Pub fare, also in the Hotel Captain Cook. They do a great reindeer sausage pizza and have tons of local craft beer on tap.
    • Tia’s Reindeer Sausage – If you spot a sausage stand with a yellow umbrella along 4th Avenue, stop and order one with pineapple salsa!

    Fairbanks

    • 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.
    • Sunrise Bagel & Espresso – A drive-thru coffee hut where you can grab a bite and drink before heading out on an adventure.

    Where to Stay in Anchorage & Fairbanks

    In terms of where to stay on your Alaska winter trip, there are plenty of options.

    Starting with Anchorage, on my most recent trip I stayed in downtown Anchorage at the Voyager Inn. Here are the details for that property as well as a few others:

    • Voyager Inn – Recently renovated, this hotel is in the heart of downtown with a mix of modern and classic touches. Rooms start from $135/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
    • Hotel Captain Cook – An Anchorage classic, the Captain Cook is operated by the same team as the Voyager Inn and is a more traditional option. Rooms start from $175/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
    • Hilton Downtown Anchorage – Another Anchorage institution, and close walking distance from everything. Rooms start from $143/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.

    There are plenty of other choices too, and a number of vacation rentals, including this water view apartment in a great location (from $127/night, also on Booking.com), this apartment right near the Coastal Trail and downtown (from $255/night), and this huge house which is gorgeous and has space for up to two families (from $381/night).

    For Fairbanks, I’ve already mentioned my two top recommendations for where to stay in Fairbanks on an Alaska winter itinerary, but here are the details:

    • Taste of Alaska Lodge – Operated by the Eberhardt family (who also run Aurora Pointe), Taste of Alaska Lodge offers cozy wood cabins and family hospitality. Rooms start from $195/night. Book on Booking.com or directly with Taste of Alaska Lodge.
    • Chena Hot Springs Resort – A must-do Fairbanks experience, they usually require a two-night stay during the winter – which my Alaska winter itinerary suggests anyway. Rooms start from $84/night. Book on Hotels.com or directly with Chena Hot Springs Resort.

    And with that, you’re all set to plan your own Alaska winter itinerary. Do you have any questions about visiting Alaska in the winter or using this itinerary? Let me know in the comments!

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    I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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