If you love deep, dark winter punctuated by the dazzle of holiday activities, then December can be an exhilarating time to visit Alaska. The days are short, nights are long and—most years—the landscape has been stunningly transformed by a durable white cover. There’s a lot going on, both indoors and out.
What it’s like?
Make no mistake: December is full winter. You may find a foot or more of snow, icy roads and single-digit temperatures at night. But the most dramatic thing you’ll notice is that it’s dark. Dawn blooms at mid morning (about 9 a.m. in Anchorage, later as you go north) with sunset fading about mid-afternoon (about 3:30 in Anchorage, earlier further north.) Out of town, clear nights will turbocharge the aurora viewing, and it’s quiet. But there’s a paradox in towns, especially in Anchorage with its “City of Lights” tradition. With reflecting snow, widespread decorative strings on homes and businesses often completely light up the night. Alaskans embrace this season with high spirits. Restaurants, shops, theaters, malls grow crowded and sometimes raucous. The two weeks between the solstice holidays and New Year’s Day often feels like one continuous festival. It’s a great time to meet locals. While many of Alaska’s famous attractions and visitor facilities are shuttered, you can find plenty of lodges and bed-and-breakfasts operating on winter schedules. Lodging can be less expensive than during summer, though venues sometimes charge more during the holiday weeks. Likewise, while airfares are generally lower during winter, traveling close to the Yule season climax can go for a premium.
What about outdoor sports?
It depends upon snow accumulation and temperature. Cross-country and downhill ski venues usually open by early December, and major rural trail systems often accumulate enough cover to allow snow-machine travel, dog mushing and snowshoeing by late December. Anchorage, Fairbanks and other communities feature extensive groomed trail systems—both multi-use and ski-only—with many kilometers of lighted recreation. (Night skiing is a blast.) But if snow has not arrived, plunging temperatures almost always freeze water bodies and make trails rock hard. Hiking with ice-grippers and ski poles is very doable—no bugs or bears! Studded-tire biking and skating on wild ice are other popular alternatives to snow sports.
Will I see wildlife?
December is not prime time for seeing most of Alaska’s iconic animals. Still, scores of moose often converge on urban Alaska during winter in search of winter browse and easy walking, pushed out of the hills by accumulating snow. Inside Anchorage, they can be easier to see than during summer. Several natural areas like the windswept Palmer Hay Flats and Potter Marsh also concentrate moose. Ravens seem to dominate the sky, with resident forest birds like chickadees and redpolls making appearances in the barren trees. Snowshoe hares have gone bright white, and it’s not uncommon to see the tracks of their nemesis, the lynx, printed in fresh snow. In fact, taking a stroll with a guide to animal tracks can make any fresh dusting into an open book about wildlife activity.
What should I wear?
Bring winter clothing that allows you to dress in layers. Including a warm parka with a hood, combined with insulated boots and a hat-buff-glove ensemble will enable you to comfortably take a stroll or visit outdoor venues. Remember that Alaskans almost always dress in regular clothes when shopping, going out to eat or just engaging in daily life. On the other hand, tackling winter sports might require extra layers or specialized winter gear, especially if you plan to be outdoors for many hours or travel into the backcountry. See our winter clothing guide for tips.
Things to do in December, in cities and towns across Alaska
- The city’s famous groomed ski and multi-use trail system usually goes live in December, featuring everything from leg-burning climbs and swift descents suitable for a World Cup race to leisurely lighted thoroughfares perfect for a stroll. There’s a venue to ski, walk or snow-bike in almost every area of town. Check out the city’s trail guide, a popular local trail report blog or the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club for updates. Ski rentals available at the local REI.
- Catch the city’s Christmas Tree glittering and lit all month in the Town Square Park at Fifth Avenue and F Street, then return on the 31st for the annual New Year’s Eve extravaganza, with a dance party starting at 5 followed by an old-fashioned, kid-friendly fireworks display at 8. Hundreds of people attend.
- Get caffeinated. Kaladi Brothers and Steamdot are favorite local hangouts when it’s time to warm up. Both have multiple locations.
- See local wildlife at The Alaska Zoo. Open year-round, and a special event that begins each year the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Check out Zoo Lights, where the zoo is lit up with colorful Christmas light displays, Thursday - Saturday until January 31.
- Take in a University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves hockey game. Wear yellow and green if you’ve got it!
- Enjoy a show. Anchorage’s Performing Arts Center and local theatre scene amps up. The Anchorage Concert Association hosts at least one major production during the holidays, while smaller troupes—like Cyrano’s and Alaska Junior Theater also have shows. Holiday concerts are held throughout the month. Check out PAC’s calendar for December.
- Learn more about Alaska cultures and history. Alaska has an amazing history, which you can explore with an exclusive Alaska Native Heritage Excursion with Salmon Berry Tours. Or spend half a day at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmussen Center or the Aviation Museum.
- Ride the rails on the Aurora Winter Train. View the snowy backcountry on a weekend trip to Talkeetna or Fairbanks. The train heads north on Saturday and returns to Anchorage Sunday. (Or you can ride one way to Fairbanks, spend a few days, and fly back with RavnAir).
- Escape: Head to Alaska Escape Rooms, and spend an hour solving to puzzle so you can "escape". A great family activity, especially if the weather outside isn't ideal!
- Drive up to GlenAlps for aurora viewing. If the forecast calls for good aurora viewing in Anchorage, you’ll want a close spot where you can get away from the city lights. The Glen Alps parking lot is a popular spot, and it’s just a 20 minute drive from downtown.
Let the fur fly. Check out the sport of dog sledding with Salmon Berry tours or Alaska Mushing School.
- Meet marine mammals. Tour Resurrection Bay by boat with Seward Ocean Excursions or visit the Alaska SeaLife Center to see seals, sea otters and more.
- Curl up with a coffee. Local hangouts include the SeaBean and Resurrect Art Coffee House.
- Winter Sightseeing in Resurrection Bay. Weather depending, take a winter day cruise with Seward Ocean Excursions.
Cross Country Skiing. Maintained trails, and a special luminary ski held on New Year's Eve.
- Explore dining hot spots. Head to The Double Musky for Cajun Alaskan, Jack Sprat for “fat & lean world cuisine,” and Chair 5 for pizza and pub food.
Downhill Skiing. On New Year’s Eve, the Alyeska Resort sponsors Torchlight Parade, where skiers and snowboarders descend the mountain with torches in hand. Plus fireworks and parties.
Visit the animals. Tour the Wildlife Conservation Center (open year-round, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. this time of year) for guaranteed wildlife viewing.
- By train, by plane. Year-round flightseeing tours around Denali are one highlight of this picturesque community, which you can get to on an easy train ride from Anchorage.
The month-long Winterfest launches on the first weekend of December with a competition to crown the real Wilderness Woman with contestants hauling five-gallon buckets of water, chopping wood and driving snowmachines up and down Main Street. That evening, the town’s bachelors get auctioned off to single women in a rowdy, world-famous event that raises money for social services and student organizations. Other Winterfest moments include the ceremonial lighting of the Christmas tree, a parade of lights and a progressive dinner showcasing the village’s many restaurants.
- Explore the trails by snowshoe. Borrow a pair at the Murie Science & Learning Center, open 9 am–4:30 pm.
- Gobs of things to do near the visitor center every winter day. Many visitors bring their own equipment for snow biking or cross-country skiing. Anybody can take a winter hike and then eat lunch in the indoor picnic center.
- Chill out at a free campground. Riley Creek campground is about 1.5 miles from the Science Center, but go prepared (the average low temp is a chilly -3!)
Multi-Day Winter Adventure with Traverse Alaska. 3 day / 2 night adventure in Denali, based out of Tonglen Lake Lodge – just 7 miles south of Denali Park Entrance. Try winter hiking or ice bowling or dogsledding with a local musher. Viewing northern lights can be outstanding from the lodge.
- Travel to Fairbanks from Anchorage with RavnAir on a quick flight 1-hour flight. The Aurora Winter Train is an option on the weekend, and sporadic weekdays throughout the winter. Or, rent a 4x4 vehicle with Alaska 4x4 Rentals and drive! Another option would be to travel like a local. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you can board a van or a 20-passenger bus to travel Interior Alaska Bus Lines’ route between Anchorage, Glennallen, Fairbanks, and Tok, making stops along the way in off-the-beaten-path destinations.
- Watch the northern lights. You can check them out on your own, or opt for a guided excursion or overnight experience. Recommend tours: Arctic Circle Day & Overnight Adventures, Aurora Pointe, Multi-Day Winter Northern Lights Tour, Northern Lights & Chena Hot Springs, Borealis Basecamp clear-roofed igloos & Aurora Ice Fishing.
- Visit the Arctic Circle. Fly up with Warbelow’s Air Ventures and you may see northern lights here too.
- Guided Tour to Denali National Park. Join Northern Alaska Tour Company on a guided tour to Denali National Park. Stop in at the Murie Science & Learning Center and enjoy a guided nature walk.
- Warm up naturally. Visit Chena Hot Springs to take a soak, see ice sculptures, and try dog sledding or snow machine tours when there’s enough snow (usually by end of month).
- Learn about the north. Fairbanks has great museums for chilly November days.
- Walk with Reindeer. Visit Running Reindeer Ranch, the home of local Alaskans Jane and Doug. Take the reindeer for a walk, pause for photos, and learn about these magnificent animals.
- Zoom into the country on a snowmachine. Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service and Alaska Wilderness Guide offer 1-2 hour tours that can catch the afternoon sun. No experience is required—you’ll have a thorough orientation before hitting the trails.
- Ice fish. Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service offers a chance to catch trout, pike or grayling through a hole augured into lake ice from inside a semi-permanent, heated structure. At the end, you’ll get to pick a fish to filet and eat on the spot!
- Join the 40 below club. When the mercury plunges to this very chilly level (or below,) you have the opportunity to join the elite 40-below club. It’s easy. Don your best bathing suit or beach attire, and stand in front of the University of Alaska Fairbanks thermometer sign!
Christmas in Ice. Enjoy ice carvings, an ice maze, ice slides, and more in the winter ice park of North Pole, Alaska. Open from Dec. 1 through the first week of January, this amazing display is next door to North Pole’s famous Santa Claus House.
- Catch a King! Take a charter to fish for Feeder King salmon and halibut in Kachemak Bay.
- Enjoy winter sports. Skiing and snow machining are favorites if there’s enough snow. The Kachemak Nordic Ski Club maintains some of the best cross-country ski trails in the region. Check with Ulmer’s Drug & Hardware Store for equipment rentals.
- Take in a live performance or art show. Look at the Homer Arts Council calendar.
Get back to nature. Learn about the area’s natural history at the Pratt Museum and the Islands and Oceans Visitor Center.
- Stop at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum for a better understanding of Juneau's cultural heritage and community history. During the winter months you'll enjoy programs from local experts and artists that allows you to really experience the local culture.
- Two noteworthy tours. A trip to the Alaska State Museum and the Alaskan Brewing Company.
- Sing your heart out. Or just listen at the Thursday night Open Mic at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar.
- Visit Mendenhall Glacier. One of Alaska’s most accessible glaciers becomes even easier to view once its lake freezes solid and winter trails get packed. The visitor center is open winter weekends, Friday to Sunday, 10am – 4pm.
- Downhill ski with an ocean view. Just 25 minutes from downtown Juneau on Douglas Island, the Eaglecrest Ski Area generally opens by early December and offers trails for all levels.