Is there anything more comforting than wrapping your hands around a hot mug, soaking in the heat after a day spent out adventuring in the cold winter air? If this sounds like the dream to you, there’s a place I know – Alaska – where this can be your everyday experience. Alaska’s big cities are the perfect base for a winter trip, and there are a delightful number of things to do in the biggest city of Anchorage in the winter.
I grew up in the Anchorage area and spent 15 winters there. I’ve bundled up many times to head out to enjoy a winter activity in fresh air and sunlight – when the sun is up, that is. I’ve also spent countless nights watching the aurora, which is visible from the Anchorage area.
In this post, I’ll share everything you need to know about visiting Anchorage in the winter. If you’re considering a trip to Alaska in the winter – or have already booked the tickets and wonder what to do next – this post will help. By the end, you’ll understand how to fill your time and take advantage of the natural wonderland that surrounds Anchorage each winter.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Dena’ina Ełnena 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.
Achorage Winter Travel Tips
Before jumping into the list of Anchorage winter activities, I have a few quick tips to help you plan the best trip possible.
Why Visit Anchorage in Winter?
While the vast majority of people visit Anchorage in the summer, there are plenty of great reasons to visit Anchorage in the winter – and lots to do (which I’ll detail later in this post). In addition to escaping crowds, you can get a sense of local life in Alaska, both past and present, through events and activities that have a long heritage in the state.
Sure, it’s cold – Anchorage temperatures range from an average high of 32°F in November/March as winter begins and ends to an average low of 13°F in January, the coldest month – but that doesn’t stop Alaskans from enjoying the winter wonderland they live in – and it shouldn’t stop you either.
After each day of soaking in the cold and snow, you can warm up over delicious food and local craft brew or spirits, making for a lovely routine for your time in Anchorage in the winter.
How to Travel to Anchorage in the Winter
Like in summer, the way to visit Anchorage in the winter is by plane: Alaska Airlines offers flights year-round from destinations in the Lower 48. You can also spend more time in Alaska than just Anchorage – the Alaska Railroad runs a train between Anchorage and Fairbanks during the winter, so you could also arrive in town that way.
Getting Around Anchorage in Winter
You’ll need a car to make the most of your time in Anchorage in the winter; roads are snowy and icy, so opt for something with 4-wheel drive and studded tires (which most locals also use). Having a car will allow you to get out and explore more, though it’s possible to not need a car if you book an Anchorage winter itinerary that includes only tours that also provide transportation.
What to Pack for Alaska in the Winter
As I’ve mentioned, Alaska is cold in the winter, so you’ll need to bring the right clothing – and lots of good winter layers – to stay warm. Here’s what to pack for Alaska in the winter.
I wrote that packing list before my most recent winter trip to Anchorage and Fairbanks; I packed exactly what I suggested, and was (mostly) warm the whole time. It was particularly cold during my visit, so I recommend buying a box of hand and foot warmers once you arrive in Alaska to keep your extremities comfortable.
Best Things to Do in Anchorage in the Winter
1. Aurora Viewing
Anchorage receives as little as 5.5 hours of daylight during the winter months (on the winter solstice), so there are plenty of hours to try and see the northern lights when they’re dancing overhead. Aurora activity peaks around September 21st and March 21st (the equinoxes), so the best time to visit is early March if you want to enjoy some of these other winter activities in Anchorage and have a chance to see the aurora.
On my most recent trip, I took a great tour with Alaska Photo Treks, which includes getting some incredible photos of the aurora as souvenirs.
2. Downhill Skiing
Most people associate winter with skiing, and yes, Anchorage has that too. I tried my hand at snowboarding for several winters before the falls and subsequent aches convinced me this isn’t my preferred winter sport – but if you love to catch some fresh pow, Anchorage is the place to do it in Alaska!
3. Nordic/Cross-Country Skiing
Anchorage has over 100 miles of trails within the city (municipality) limits, which are popular for walking, hiking, running, and biking during the summer. In the winter, almost all of these are groomed and perfect for winter sports, including nordic skiing or cross-country skiing (whatever you call it).
Kincaid Park is the place to go, with almost 40 miles of trails in that area alone. Some people also enjoy skiing along the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail from downtown Anchorage to Kincaid Park, though that’s a shared trail. The Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage has plenty of trail resources, and you can rent gear at Anchorage Outdoor Gear Rental if you don’t want to check your own on a flight to Alaska.
4. Attending Anchorage Winter Events
Anchorage is the epicenter of winter events in Alaska – though admittedly Fairbanks has some great ones too so you should plan to visit both on your Alaska winter trip. There are several events worth planning a trip around:
- New Year’s Eve, which includes a fireworks display over downtown Anchorage. (December 31-January 1, of course!)
- Fur Rondy – or Fur Rendezvous – which is the modern interpretation of the mid-winter re-supply meeting that used to happen in town. Today you can watch (or participate in) the Outhouse Races and Running of the Reindeer or cheer for the Open World Championship Sled Dog Races. There are also vendors selling local goods and furs as well as other activities across downtown Anchorage. (February 25-March 6, 2022)
- The Iditarod is the crown jewel of winter events in Anchorage – though it naturally brings more crowds than visiting at other times of the season. Watch the ceremonial start of this thousand-mile dog sled race in Anchorage, cheering on teams as they begin an epic journey across The Last Frontier. (March 5, 2022)
- The Native Youth Olympics are a late winter/early spring event that brings together Alaskan Native youth from across the state to compete in traditional sports. (2022 dates not yet announced)
5. Riding the Aurora Train
Riding the Alaska Railroad is one of the top things to do in Alaska, but unlike many activities, it’s not seasonal. In the winter, the AKRR switches from daily trains to a lesser frequency, and the Denali Star Train becomes the Aurora Train. While you most likely won’t see the northern lights from the train since it runs during the short daylight hours, you can catch the train to explore destinations like Wasilla, Talkeetna, Healy, and Fairbanks.
This is the best way to get between Anchorage and Fairbanks during the winter, and there are lots to do in Fairbanks during the winter if you have the time in your Alaska itinerary. (I rode this in reverse – Fairbanks to Anchorage – on my last winter trip to Alaska.)
6. Fat Tire Biking
As mentioned, Anchorage is home to lots of trails that you can hike, walk, or run on during the summer; in the winter, they become the playground of cross-country skiers and …bikers?
Yep, you read that right: biking is one of the best things to do in Anchorage in the winter! Specifically, fat tire biking, which uses super-wide tires to help you get a good grip on the snow and occasional slick patches on the groomed trails. There are a number of companies that rent fat-tire bikes you can ride on your own, or you can book a guided ride with companies like Alaska Trail Guides or Alaska Bike Adventures.
7. Ice Fishing
Growing up in Alaska, my dad used to like ice fishing in the winter; he’d bundle me up, grab our gear, head to nearby Mirror Lake, and drill a hole. We’d sit there for hours, freezing and occasionally pulling up tiny trout. If this sounds like fun to you, rent some gear from Alaska Outdoor Gear Rental – or bring your own from home – and head to one of Anchorage’s public lakes (Beach, Campbell Point, Delong, Mirror, Sand, Goose, and Jewel lakes are all public).
If you want gear rental and help on finding the best spot to hook ’em, Alaska Lakes Guide Service, DT6, Fishtale River Guides, and Fishhound Expeditions all offer guided ice fishing tours in the greater Anchorage area.
(Note: these photos were from my ice fishing excursion in Fairbanks!)
8. Ice Skating
Not letting anything languish just because it’s cold, some Anchorage lakes that aren’t being used for ice fishing – or those big enough to handle people drilling holes in the ice and speeding across it – are converted to outdoor ice rinks. The most popular lake skate in Anchorage is at centrally-located Westchester Lagoon; there are also plenty of indoor rinks if you’re a bit more dedicated to the sport.
Like many things to do in Anchorage in the winter, snowshoeing is a replacement for hiking in the summer. While most of the hiking trails in the Chugach Mountains that hug Anchorage are not maintained, you can certainly rent a pair of snowshoes and head out on a nice winter walk.
Alaska Outdoor Gear Rental and Alaska Mountaineering both offer rentals – in case, ya know, you don’t have snowshoes lying around at home that you want to pack for Alaska. (If you want an idea to start researching trails, take a look at the Eagle River Nature Center, which has a variety of good trails.)
This is more of a local’s activity, but if you’re traveling with family and really want to have fun, sledding (or tubing) is the way to go. Grab tickets to the Tube Park at Arctic Valley (which includes tube rentals), bundle up the kiddos, and head out for a day of zooming down mountains in Alaska – way cooler than wherever you might sled at home if you live in that sort of climate.
11. Dog Sledding (Mushing)
As you now know from learning a bit about the Iditarod, dog sledding (or mushing) has historically been one of the most important forms of transport in Alaska. There are a lot of tour operators and/or kennels that offer winter excursions that include both riding in the basket and driving your own team. Here’s a list of Anchorage-area companies with dog sledding tours:
- 907 Tours
- Alaska Mushing School
- Alaskan Husky Adventures
- Greatland Adventures
- Salmonberry Tours
- Snowhook Adventures
As I haven’t done any of these tours (I went dog sledding in Fairbanks), I wanted to include them all so you can choose the one that fits your budget and offers the experience you want to have (they all vary!)
If your idea of adventure involves something with an engine between your legs and a lot more speed, snowmobiling is also an option in Anchorage in the winter. While some companies offer rentals, I suggest opting for a guided ride where everything you need is included. Check out Alaska Backcountry Adventure Tours, Glacier City Snowmobile Tours, Sledtastic Snowmobile Adventures, or Snowhook Adventures if this is your style.
13. Ice Climbing
Stretching way beyond my personal comfort zone, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the most adventurous winter activities in Anchorage: ice climbing. Greatland Tours offers a guided climb, or – and I say this with a big disclaimer that you need to know what the heck you’re doing! – you can rent gear and head out on your own.
A 3-Day Anchorage Winter Itinerary
To help make sense of this list of all the things you can do in Anchorage in the winter, I wanted to include a suggested itinerary. This won’t include everything – so you may want to swap out some activities based on your own interests – but if you have 3 days in Anchorage in the winter, here’s how I’d spend it:
- Day 1 – Start by getting oriented in Anchorage, maybe visit the Anchorage Museum and walk around Downtown Anchorage to get a sense of the city layout – especially if you’re in town for an event like the Iditarod or Fur Rondy that you want to attend later. In the evening, head out to try aurora viewing – be prepared as it will be a late night.
- Day 2 – Sleep in, then grab breakfast at your hotel – or better yet, Snow City Cafe, a local favorite. Head out an excursion in the midday: maybe you want to rent skis and go cross-country skiing or rent snowshoes and go for a winter hike. Come back and warm up over dinner at somewhere great like 49th State Brewing before trying again to see the aurora or heading out on a northern lights tour.
- Day 3 – On your final day, spend more time outdoors. Most Anchorage winter tours are half-day tours, so you could start the morning on a dog sledding tour followed by an afternoon ice skating. Or spend the day downhill skiing at Alyeska Resort followed by a visit to their brand-new Nordic Spa (should open in 2022… someday!)
If you have more time in Alaska, you could then board the Aurora Winter Train to Fairbanks and spend a few days exploring everything there is to do there.
Where to Stay in Anchorage
There are plenty of places to stay in downtown Anchorage, but here are a few I recommend to help narrow your search:
- 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).
Have any other questions about planning a trip to Anchorage in the winter? Let me know in the comments!