Note: The State of Alaska released its phased re-opening plan on May 6, 2020. In all phases (currently), interstate travel requires a 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Alaska. If you do not already have reservations, DO NOT BOOK NEW TRAVEL THIS SUMMER.
In the past few years since I started writing about Alaska, I’ve noticed a trend. While I still get tons of emails with summer travel questions, increasingly people want to know why and how to visit Alaska in the winter.
To this end, I’ve written this post of all the reasons you should visit Alaska in the winter months. (I’ve also defined exactly which months are winter in Alaska!). I’m also planning a trip in February 2020 to refresh my memory on what makes Alaska winter travel so special. After that trip, I’ll have new posts, resources, and photos to share about how to book the ultimate Alaska winter trip; sign up for my Alaska mailing list to get a ton of Alaska travel tips plus emails with every new Alaska post I write:
Okay, without further ado, let’s jump into those reasons to visit Alaska in the winter. If you’re on the fence, these five reasons will show you that winter is a great season to visit Alaska – according to someone who lived there for 15 winters!
#1. It’s Not That Cold During Alaska’s Winter Months
I mean, it’s not Hawaii or anything, but whatever you have in mind for how frozen the Great Frozen North of Alaska might be during the winter is probably an exaggeration. Heck, I thought it was colder in Iowa during the winter because of wind chill – which isn’t often a problem in Alaska.
Yes, you’ll need to bundle up (so be sure to check my Alaska winter packing list before you board your flight), but with the right gear and a good attitude, you can handle all the cold Alaska throws at you.
Alaska in October
While September might mark the official start of autumn according to the celestial calendar, it’s really the only month of autumn in many parts of the state. By mid-October, winter weather is setting in across the Last Frontier – and cold, snowy days and nights are not only possible, but expected. In October, temperatures in Alaska range from an average low of 28°F (-2°C) to an average high of 40°F (4°C).
In terms of weather, October is one of the months where you can expect more precipitation – usually this will be snow, but it might be freezing rain if it’s a warmer year. It’s also cloudy roughly 40-45% of days in October.
Alaska in November
By November, winter has fully arrived across almost all of Alaska. In November, temperatures in Alaska range from an average low of 16°F (-9°C) to an average high of 28°F (-2°C). In major cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks, you can expect an average of just 8 hours of daylight per day in November.
Alaska in December
December marks the beginning of winter and also holds the darkest day of the year (the winter solstice on December 21st). If you’re visiting in December, plan for long, dark nights and frosty days (and nights!).
In December, temperatures in Alaska range from an average of 11°F (-12°C) to an average high of 24°F (-4°C). It usually doesn’t snow as much in December as earlier in the winter and you’ll more often find clear starry skies as the winter holidays approach.
Alaska in January
I’ll be honest, January was always my least favorite month while living in Alaska during the winter: it’s cold and dark and Christmas is over! In January, temperatures in Alaska range from an average low of 9°F (-13°C) to an average high of 22°F (-5°C). It’s clear about 60% of days, so you should be able to see what little sun is visible (only about 5-6 hours per day on average).
Alaska in February
February is only a little less cold and a little less dark than January, but one of Alaska’s most famous winter events begin in February (see below!)! In February, temperatures in Alaska range from an average low of 12°F (-11°C) to an average high of 26°F (-3°C). This increase in temperatures is partly because there’s a bit more cloud cover (about 50% of days) and about 8 hours a day of sunlight.
Alaska in March
March is the final month that I consider winter in Alaska – Spring officially begins on March 21st, after all! It’s still cold and you probably won’t find any tulips popping up from the (still) frozen ground – but you’ll experience more sunlight and warmer weather.
In March, temperatures in Alaska range from an average low of 18°F (-8°C) to an average high of 34°F (1°C) – above freezing! There won’t be much snow in March, and you’ll get to enjoy the average 10 hours of daylight per day.
#2. There’s Plenty to Do in Alaska During the Winter
Beyond sightseeing Alaskas greatest sights with a coat of fresh, white snow, what else is there to do in Alaska during the winter? I’ve pulled together a list of events in each winter month; these are the events I would want to attend if I were visiting Alaska during the winter!
Cool Events in Alaska in October
- October 6 – October Fest (Anchorage)
- October 16-18 – Fall Festival (Skagway)
- October 19 – Alaska Day (Statewide)
- October 24 – Go Winter! Expo (Fairbanks)
(These events are in October 2020.)
Cool Events in Alaska in November
- November 1 – Holiday Food & Gift Festival (Anchorage)
- November 7 – Mat Su Holiday Marketplace (Palmer)
- November 13-15 – Holiday Marketplace (Fairbanks)
- November 27 – Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony (Anchorage)
- November 29 – Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony (Valdez)
(These events are in November 2020.)
Cool Events in Alaska in December
- December 4-13 – Anchorage International Film Festival (Anchorage)
- December 12 – White Pass & Yukon Route Annual Santa Train (Skagway)
- December 31 –
- Torchlight Parade & Fireworks Display (Girdwood)
- New Year’s Eve Celebration (Anchorage)
- New Year’s Eve Sparktacular (Fairbanks)
(These events are in December 2020.)
Cool Events in Alaska in January
- January 1 – Polar Bear Dip (Juneau)
- January 5 – Anchorage Festival of Music (Anchorage)
- January 17-20 – Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival (Anchorage)
- January 25 – Winter Brewfest (Anchorage)
- January 26 (-Februray 1) – Iceworm Festival (Cordova)
Cool Events in Alaska in February
- February 6-9 – Winter Carnival (Homer)
- February 20-23 – Alaska Salsa Festival (Anchorage)
- February 22-23 – AlaskaComicon (Fairbanks)
- February 28 (-March 8) – Fur Rendezvous (Anchorage)
Cool Events in Alaska in March
- March 7 – Iditarod Ceremonial Start (Anchorage)
- Through March 8 – Fur Rendezvous (Anchorage)
- March 14 – Shamrock Shuffle (Anchorage)
Hopefully this shows you that no matter when you visit Alaska during the winter, there’s plenty to do in addition to sightseeing!
#3. You can See the Northern Lights
I get emails all the time that read something like:
I’m visiting Alaska in April/May/June/July/August, where can I see the northern lights?
The answer, dear reader, is nowhere. I probably should have led with this, but winter is the only season you can see the Northern Lights in Alaska. Because of axial tilt and other great astronomical facts, the sky is too light to see the aurora during Alaska’s summer months. That means if you have ‘see the northern lights’ on your Alaska Bucket List, you must visit between October and March. Here’s a whole guide I wrote about planning a trip to see the northern lights in Alaska.
Top Places to See the Northern Lights in Alaska
I’ve done a fair bit of research in addition to my own experiences seeing the northern lights while growing up, and here are some of my top spots to see the aurora borealis:
- Outside Fairbanks – Widely considered the top destination for seeing the northern lights in Alaska, Fairbanks is where you can base yourself to optimize your chances to see them on a winter Alaska trip. There are great properties like Borealis Basecamp and Chena Hot Springs which host guests specifically for aurora viewing.
- Near Anchorage – A popular hiking trail, Flattop Mountain lets you get above the city lights for a clear view of the night sky. The parking lot (near Glen Alps Overlook) can work for seeing the aurora, or if you’re feeling ambitious you can hike the trail for an even better view.
- Near Eagle River – I grew up in Eagle River, so this is my favorite spot! There are two parking areas near Beach Lake, and depending on which one you can reach by car (depending on the snow). You’ll be well away from light pollution with great overhead views of the sky and the northern lights.
You can also book the Aurora Winter Train aboard the Alaska Railroad during the winter. This train runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks and back several times per week – it’s a chance to potentially see the northern lights from inside the warm glass-domed train cars!
#4. You will Encounter Approximately Zero Crowds
On a scale of 0-5 for how much tourism Alaska gets each month, Alaska receives approximately zero tourism in the winter months between October and March (source). This means that unlike during the summer when you might have to queue up for great photo spots in downtown Anchorage, you’ll be rubbing elbows with locals instead.
Honestly, if you hate crowds and love bundling up to stay warm, winter is the perfect time to visit Alaska.
#5. Winter is the Budget-Friendly Season to Visit Alaska
Part of the reason to book a trip to any destination in the off-season is to save money. This is true in Alaska too – which is pretty great since a once-in-a-lifetime summer trip to Alaska often requires a once-in-a-lifetime vacation budget. In the winter, you can save some money to stock up on winter weather gear or splurge on meals to warm up after outdoor Alaskan adventures.
I love searching for flight deals with Kayak; they report that the peak season for booking Alaska flights is February to April. This is probably for people planning trips in May through August… so to get the best deal on flights, book your Alaska winter travel between October and January.
Kayak also reports that January is the cheapest month to find hotels in Alaska; the average weekend night is just $90-$110 between December and February – compared to $210-$235 per night in June through August (source).
Are you sold yet? If you have other questions about visiting Alaska in the winter, let me know in the comments!