If you’re up for dealing with full winter conditions, traveling to Alaska during January and February can be otherworldly and adventurous. The spectacle of white mountains against azure skies make it a photographer’s dream, while festivals and sporting events rock communities just about every week. Packed trails crisscross the vast landscape, too, creating doorways into winter recreation of all kinds. Effective daily light expands fast, increasing from about eight hours in early January to more than 12 hours by February’s end.
What It’s Like?
Depending somewhat on where you go, January and February are usually snowy and cold across Alaska, just like you’d expect, with more snow in coastal mountains and deeper cold in interior valleys. Conditions do fluctuate, sure, with a decent chance of hitting a stretch of sunny jacket-and-bare-hands weather. But visitors who want to venture outdoors should be comfortable with the possibility of serious winter—single digits, icy roads, blowing snow. Still, this is a time of austere beauty, with the sun rising earlier and setting later, adding about five minutes of daylight every day. Frigid snaps deliver stunning blue-sky conditions that last for days. The white mass of Denali shimmers on the horizon, visible from Anchorage and Fairbank about twice as often as during the summer. Wilderness travel is often much easier than in summer because wetlands and lakes have frozen, with brush and terrain covered by snow that gets packed into trails. As a result, locals dive into winter sports with passion, making January and February one of the most active periods of the year. The world has a bright, bracing and wide-open feel to it. Every weekend seems to anchor a race or a festival, with spectators and athletes (and howling dogs.) Cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks host a full range of concerts and performances aimed at locals, too. There’s so much to do that deep winter can seem busier than summer.
What about outdoor sports?
Opportunities for snow sports simply explode, making Alaska one of the best places in the country for winter recreation. Cross-country ski systems and downhill ski areas max out with full coverage. The extensive multi-use trails inside Anchorage (and other communities) grow busy with skiers, snow-bikers, joggers and skijoring enthusiasts. Dog mushing—Alaska’s official state sport—hits full stride, with extensive wilderness trails and in-town loops. Many of the classic distance dog sledding races occur in January and February, ranging from 300-mile contests that take place over a weekend to the epic 1,000-mile Yukon Quest between Fairbanks and Whitehorse. People start traveling into the country on full-day adventures on snowmachines, skis, bikes and dog sled. It’s also the season of winter festivals, climaxing with the Anchorage Fur Rondy at the end of February with sprint mushing, carnivals, contests, shopping and ice carvings drawing hundreds into venues all over town.
Will I see wildlife?
Yes, but limited. Winter is not the best time to see most of Alaska’s iconic animals. Still, moose remain remarkably visible, especially once deep snow has driven them into city byways in search of browse and easy walking. (Anchorage is known for moose meandering through neighborhoods during winter, nibbling on trees.) Several natural areas like the windswept Palmer Hay Flats and Potter Marsh also concentrate moose. Gobs of ravens converge on urban settings—it’s not uncommon to see a half dozen cavorting in parking lots—and resident forest birds like chickadees and redpolls flutter through the trees. Any new snowfall quickly becomes littered with animal tracks, opening a window on secretive winter wildlife. Visiting the Alaska Zoo and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center can be a great way to see Alaskan animals in their thick winter coats.
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 typically dress in regular clothes when shopping, going out to eat or just engaging in daily life. Alaska’s low winter humidity can take the edge off frigid temperatures, making it seem warmer than the same temperature in many Lower 48 locales. 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 during January and February, in Cities and Towns Across Alaska
- The city’s famous groomed ski and multi-use trail system usually bomber by early January, 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.
- The Anchorage Fur Rendezvous is a ten-day celebration of winter with dozens of activities, ice sculpting competitions, carnival and fireworks, live music and a world championship sprint sled dog race that begins and ends on a downtown avenue. Begins in late February.
- 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. Check out 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.
- 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. Explore a variety of Maintained trails.
- 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. Depending upon snowfall, downhill skiing spreads throughout all 1,600 acres at Alyeska Resort, with one of North America’s biggest verticals and a full range of trails from beginning to expert.
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.
Check out local artists on First Saturday. The Flying Squirrel Bakery & Café sponsors an artist of the month, with a reception from 3 pm to 5 pm on the first Saturday.
- 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!)
- Mingle with locals for a weekend carnival! Sponsored by the National Park Service for the past 20 years in late February, the Denali Winterfest features four days of activities, indoors and out, kicking off with a potluck. Events include bingo, stargazing, art workshop, an outdoor ice hockey tournament, fat tire bike rides, snowshoe walks and cross-country ski races.
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!
- Howl for the world’s “toughest” dog sled race. The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race starts on the first Saturday of February—a 1,000-mile epic mush between Fairbanks and Whitehorse that traverses the snowbound terrain of the classic pioneer Gold Rush. In 2020, the race runs east, with teams launching from Fairbanks on Feb. 1.
- See sprint dog sledding. At least five different sprint mushing races take place in the Fairbanks area during January and February. A great way to meet locals immersed in Alaska’s state sport. Check Sled Dog Central for dates and venues.
Get dazzled by ice. The World Ice Art Championships runs from mid-February to April at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds, attracting carvers from all over the world. Come admire more than 100 competition sculptures and playful ice attractions for kids.
- 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.
- Find solitude and inspiration. Visit the Shrine of St. Therese, 22 miles north of Juneau. Stroll peaceful trails and even stay the night in a cabin.
- 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.