How to Travel to Alaska in December
If you love deep, dark winter punctuated by the dazzle of holiday activities, December is an exhilarating time to visit Alaska. The days are short, the nights are long, and usually, the landscape has been stunningly transformed by a durable white cover. While the famous attractions are closed for the season, city museums are open, and winter sports like dogsledding and skiing are getting into their seasonal groove.
Alaskans embrace this season with high spirits; restaurants, shops, theaters, and malls grow crowded and sometimes raucous. In fact, the last two weeks of December often feel like one continuous festival. Amid the celebrations, it’s a great time to meet locals.
- December is full winter. You may find a foot or more of snow, icy roads, and single-digit temperatures at night.
- Dawn blooms at mid-morning (about 9 a.m. in Anchorage, later as you go north), with sunset fading by mid-afternoon (about 3:30 p.m. in Anchorage).
- Clear nights will turbocharge viewing of the northern lights.
- Many of Alaska’s famous attractions and visitor facilities are shuttered, but 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.
- Cross-country and downhill ski venues usually open by early December, and major rural trail systems often accumulate enough cover to allow snowmachining, 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 miles of lighted recreation. (Night skiing is a blast.)
- If there's no snow yet, plunging temperatures almost always freeze bodies of water 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.
December is not prime time for seeing most of Alaska’s iconic animals. Still, scores of moose often converge on urban areas; in Anchorage, they can be easier to see than during summer. Natural areas like the windswept Palmer Hay Flats and Potter Marsh also also good spots to see them. 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 to Pack
Bring winter clothing that allows you to dress in layers. Including a warm parka with a hood, combined with insulated boots, hat, and gloves will enable you to comfortably take a stroll or visit outdoor venues. (And keep in mind that Alaskans almost always dress in regular clothes when shopping and going out to eat). Of course, tackling winter sports might require extra layers or specialized winter gear, especially if you plan to be outdoors for many hours or to travel into the backcountry. For tips, see our winter clothing guide.
Things to Do in December
- Hit the trails. The city’s famous groomed ski and multi-use trail system features everything from leg-burning climbs and swift descents to 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 are available at the local REI.
- Try dogsledding. Experience this thrilling sport with Salmon Berry tours or Alaska Mushing School.
- See the northern lights. If the forecast calls for good aurora viewing in Anchorage, get away from the city lights at the Glen Alps parking lot, just 20 minutes from downtown.
- Enjoy a show. Anchorage’s Performing Arts Center and local theater 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 about Alaskan culture. Take an exclusive Alaska Native Heritage Excursion with Salmon Berry Tours, visit the Anchorage Museum at Rasmussen Center, or check out the Aviation Museum.
Other Cool Stuff
- Catch the holiday spirit. The city’s Christmas tree is lit all month in Town Square Park at Fifth Avenue and F Street. Go on the 31st for the New Year’s Eve extravaganza, with a dance party starting at 5 p.m., followed by a kid-friendly fireworks display at 8 p.m.
- See local wildlife. Check out local critters at The Alaska Zoo; come Thursday to Saturday to enjoy Zoo Lights, where the zoo is lit up with colorful light displays.
- Ride the rails. Take the Aurora Winter Train
to see 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 Ravn Alaska).
- See local hockey. Take in a University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves hockey game. Wear yellow and green if you’ve got ’em!
- 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.
- Take a cruise. Depending on the weather, take a winter day cruise out on Resurrection Bay with Seward Ocean Excursions.
- Go cross-country skiing. Enjoy maintained trails and a special luminary ski event 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.
- Go downhill skiing. On New Year’s Eve, the Alyeska Resort features a Torchlight Parade, where skiers and snowboarders descend the mountain with torches in hand. You'll also find fireworks and parties.
- Visit the animals. Tour the Wildlife Conservation Center for guaranteed wildlife viewing.
- Go flightseeing. Take a once-in-a-lifetime flight around Denali, North America's tallest peak. It's just one highlight of this picturesque community, which you can get to on an easy train ride from Anchorage.
- Celebrate Winterfest. This month-long festival launches on the first weekend of December with a "Wilderness Woman" competition and bachelor auction. Later in the month, there's a ceremonial lighting of the Christmas tree, a parade of lights, and a progressive dinner showcasing the village’s many restaurants.
- Go snowshoeing. Explore the trails in a unique way. You can borrow a pair of snowshoes at the Murie Science & Learning Center for free!
- Enjoy other activities. There are gobs of things to do near the visitor center every winter day. Many people 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.
- Take multi-day winter adventures. Traverse Alaska offers adventures from Tonglen Lake Lodge. Try winter hiking, ice bowling, or dogsledding with a local musher. The northern lights can be outstanding from the lodge.
- Chill out at a free campground. Riley Creek campground is about 1.5 miles from the Science Center; just come prepared, as the average low is a chilly minus-3 degrees!
- See 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.
- Check out Denali National Park. Join Northern Alaska Tour Company on a guided tour with a guided nature walk.
- Warm up naturally. Visit Chena Hot Springs to take a soak, see ice sculptures, and try dogsledding or snowmachine tours.
- Learn about the north. Fairbanks has great museums for chilly November days.
- Walk with reindeer. At Running Reindeer Ranch, you can take reindeer for a walk and pose for photos.
- Go snowmachining. Ride with Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service and Alaska Wilderness Guide.
- Try ice fishing. Angle for trout, pike, or grayling with Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service from inside a heated structure.
- Join the 40-below club. When the mercury hits that level, become a member by donning a bathing suit and standing in front of the University of Alaska Fairbanks thermometer sign!
- Get icy. Enjoy ice carvings, an ice maze, ice slides, and more in the winter ice park of North Pole, Alaska, open through the first week of January.
- Catch a king! Take a charter to fish for 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.
- Learn the history. Stop at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum for a better understanding of Juneau's cultural heritage and visit the Alaska State Museum.
- 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.
- Downhill ski with an ocean view. Just 25 minutes from downtown Juneau on Douglas Island, the Eaglecrest Ski Area generally opens by early December.
- Sing your heart out. Or just listen at the Thursday night Open Mic at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar.