Winter in Alaska is a special time full of festivals, performances, and endless outdoor opportunity. As soon as the first snowflakes fall, Alaskans start chomping at the bit to get outside and play! Here are a few things that you should know about planning a winter vacation in Alaska:
When Should I Visit?
To see the northern lights, plan your trip for September through late March. Alaskans love to throw winter festivals, so consider planning your trip to coincide with big events. Undoubtedly, the most exciting time to visit Anchorage is from February 22 through March 3. That's when Alaskans come out in droves to celebrate winter during the 10-day Fur Rondy festival. It features dog sled races and numerous community activities, including Outhouse Races, the Running of the Reindeer, and team Snowball Fights. Celebrations continue through the start of the 1,049-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race in early March.
What Can I Do?
Contrary to popular belief, we’re not confined by the cold or shorter days. Winter brings festivals, ski races, dog sledding tours, northern lights viewing, Nordic skiing, downhill skiing, winter biking, snow shoeing, snowmobiling, gorgeous scenery, ice skating, bonfires, ice fishing, dining, and shopping. You can even take advantage of the longer nights to ski by moonlight, enjoy a bonfire on the beach, or watch for the mysterious auroras. Visit our winter activities page for our full list of recommendations.
What About the Cold?
Temperatures in Southcentral Alaska are no more extreme than other wintry states, averaging 20 degrees. If you want to see the northern lights, plan to visit Fairbanks where the weather can dip to 20 degrees below zero.
Isn’t It Dark?
We get 6-12 hours of daily light in the winter, depending on where you are, but the sun setting doesn’t mean your day is done. Dine at one of over 600 restaurants, visit a museum, or take in a music or theatre performance. If you still want to be outdoors, you can discover exquisitely lit ice carvings in Anchorage and Fairbanks; meanwhile, many of the main ski trails, hockey rinks, and sledding areas are lit. Bottom line: your day can start as early, or go as late, as you’d like! Find out when the sun will rise and set during your Alaska trip using the Alaska.org Sunrise/Sunset Calculator.
Is Winter Expensive?
You can book lodging for more than 50% off of summer rates, and you can get great deals on many tours. Even better, activities like Nordic skiing and ice skating are free if you already have equipment.
What are winter transportation options?
There are definitely fewer public or guided transportation options during winter in Alaska, but it’s still relatively easy to get around. Here are some winter-specific suggestions.
- Rent a car. If you have experience driving during winter conditions—especially on roads with compacted snow or ice—don’t hesitate to rent a front-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle. (Some venders offer studded or special winter tires for an additional fee.) Regular Alaskans drive themselves all winter!
- Take a plane. RavnAir and Alaska Airlines maintain regular, daily service to communities throughout the state all winter. Round-trip between Anchorage and Fairbanks is often $150 or less, and takes an hour or less. For the adventurous, investigate travel to remote sites with a Bush pilot or charter operator on a ski-equipped aircraft.
- Take a train. The Alaska Railroad maintains an adventure-oriented winter service that connects Anchorage, Wasilla, Talkeetna, Hurricane, Healy, Nenana and Fairbanks. The railroad also offers winter travel packages with accommodations and activities like pie making, sightseeing and aurora watching.
- Take a bus. Winter offers far fewer options, but several bus operations maintain winter schedules—Anchorage south to Seward and Homer, and Anchorage north to Fairbanks via the Glenn and other interior highways. Call for current availability.
- Take a ferry. The Alaska Marine Highway System scales back during winter. You can still find connections among Southeast Alaska communities or within Prince William Sound—or make the Homer-Kodiak run. Scope out the interactive sailing calculator as a start.
Take a shuttle or taxi. Most medium to large communities feature taxis or shuttles, usually aimed at moving airline passengers to and from airport and accommodations. In Anchorage and Fairbanks, for instance, winter sees the same full service you’d find in summer.
Is it really safe to drive?
Yes! (But use common sense.)
Alaska’s highways and main roads are usually in decent driving shape—except during the period overlapping some dramatic weather event, be it a snow dump or a Chinook-driven rain. State and local crews generally get roads cleared and sanded quickly after such bad weather. The Southcentral core area—Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Kenai Peninsula—rarely sees dangerous subzero temperatures.
Traveling north of the Alaska Range to Fairbanks or into the Copper River basin can cross into much colder conditions, but again, roads conditions are often good and traffic is light. To be sure, mountain and rural roads can be more challenging. Check out our winter clothing tips before you embark on a road trip into more remote areas. Get real-time condition reports from Alaska’s Road Weather System and the state’s 511 traveler alert site.
Can I see glaciers?
Yes. But it might take more effort, and they won’t look the same.
After snow buries slopes in late fall, all those mountain glaciers that make such wonderful postcard-worthy photos during the summer traveling season become much more difficult to discern from surrounding terrain. Everything is draped in white! While still spectacular, don’t count on seeing the vivid blue colors and the craggy definition of a summer glacier.
You can still visit most road accessible glaciers in state waysides or national parks—like Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park or Worthington Glacier at Mile 29 of the Richardson Highway. But you might have to park much further out or travel a long ways through snow. Generally not recommended unless you are prepared for backcountry winter travel.
Several glaciers actually become easier to approach once their lakes freeze solid. Turnagain Arm’s Portage Glacier—approachable only by tour boat in summer—morphs into a popular destination for hikers, skaters, snow-bikers and skiers after the ice sets up. Hundreds of people converge on sunny weekends in March and April. Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau features the same dynamic.
Glaciers that spill into the sea may be even more spectacular during winter, especially on a sunny day with snow down to the shore. A few tour operations sometimes maintain limited winter schedules, but you’ll have to call. Lazy Otter Charters in Whittier has a Blackstone Bay tour, for instance. Some Seward operators will charter into Kenai Fjords National Park.
Will I see wildlife?
It depends. You probably won’t see bears (who should be snoozing!) or glimpse Alaska’s tremendous migratory bird life. But gobs of moose roam Alaska’s winter landscape—including city neighborhoods and parks, and any brushy, low-snow area like the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge. They may even be easier to see during winter than during summer! Ravens are common, too—especially inside Anchorage, Fairbanks and other cities, where they scavenge for morsels. Listen for their cries and watch for aerial antics. Bald eagles remain in coastal areas, while flocks of black-capped chickadees and redpolls flutter through the forest. Wildlife sign can easier to find in winter, when the tracks of snowshoe hares, lynx, foxes, coyotes, weasels and (sometimes) wolves mark up the fresh snow. The Alaska Zoo in Anchorage and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage are great venues for intimate views of Alaskan animals in their winter splendor.
Can I visit national parks?
Yes! But expect more limited access and reduced visitor services, depending upon the park.
Denali National Park has an active winter scene, with the Murie Science and Learning Center open every day and the famous Park Road plowed through Mile 3. While most tours and activities will be shut down, self-sufficient visitors attuned to Alaska’s dark, snowy season enjoy cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, dog-sledding, winter biking, plus gazing at stars and northern lights.
While the vast and more remote Wrangell-St. Elias National Park remains open to self-sufficient visitors pursuing winter adventures, its facilities and visitor centers close for the season.
The road to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park generally closes to vehicle traffic about 8 miles out once snow falls, but winter recreationists regularly travel to the glacier area using cross-country skis, winter bikes, snowshoes and snowmachines (once it opens to snowmobiling.) To visit the park’s rugged outer coast, check out Seward charter boat operators for a custom tour.
Any given national park facility may be unique in its winter offerings and service levels. Always check individual park websites for details and conditions before going.
What are the Holidays like? Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years?
Alaska’s holiday season is a busy and raucous time, marked by festivals, bazaars and—once the snowpack builds—the explosive advent of winter sports season. It’s a great time to visit. Cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks are jamming with activities and shopping. Alaskans fully embrace the dark Solstice with family gatherings and parties. Anchorage lights up with colored lights, including a giant star on the mountain east of town. The two-week year-end period when public schools are on break can feel like one continuous holiday, with public events almost every single day. Inside Anchorage, check the interactive calendar of events posted by the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
What are the big winter events and festivals?
Alaska has dozens of festivals and winter sports contests. They are often beloved local events in small communities where you will meet real Alaskans resplendent their snow-season element. But if you want to go big, check out these marquee bashes that draw thousands of spectators and participants every year.
- The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Billed as the world’s toughest sled dog race, this 1,000-mile epic mush between Fairbanks and Whitehorse traverses the snowbound terrain of the classic pioneer Gold Rush in early February. The race start alternates between the two towns. In 2019, the race runs west, with teams launching from Whitehorse on Feb. 2 and arriving in Fairbanks about 10 days later.
- The Open North American Sled Dog Championships. If you want to watch classic sprint mushing performed by people who live for the sport, come to Fairbanks during the first week of March to enjoy competition and a carnival atmosphere.
- The Anchorage Fur Rendezvous is a ten-day celebration of winter with scores of activities, ice sculpting competitions, carnival and fireworks, live music and the world championship sprint sled dog race that begins and ends on a downtown avenue. Late February to first weekend in March.
- The world-famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race crosses a thousand miles from Anchorage to Nome, with the ceremonial start on the first Saturday in March in downtown Anchorage. This event transfixes the whole state. Dog teams launch down city streets and travel along park trails into the forest. Tailgate-style barbecues erupt all over town at good viewpoints.
The Tour of Anchorage ski marathon. Hundreds of people ski across Anchorage in four races that range from 25K to 50K, both classic and skate styles. The Tour is often the second biggest citizen ski race in the United States (second only to the American Berkenbeiner in Wisconsin.) Usually the first Sunday in March (the day after the Iditarod ceremonial start.) Even if you don’t come to race, you will find the best and most extensive grooming of the year.
The top winter destinations in Alaska
- Alyeska Resort (and Girdwood.) Alaska’s biggest downhill ski area features some of the longest and most challenging ski runs in North America. With multiple lifts and an Alps-style aerial tram rising from near sea level into alpine terrain, the resort draws visitors from all over the world. Amenities include the full-service Hotel Alyeska, excellent restaurants, a salt-water swimming pool and a way-cool roundhouse museum perched on a mountain ridge. The surrounding community of Girdwood boasts many restaurants and shops, as popular among Anchorage locals as continent-hopping travelers. The groomed cross country ski trails include an expert 5 K loop suitable for competition as well as leisurely touring through meadow and spruce.
- Anchorage. Alaska’s largest city is probably Alaska’s biggest winter destination. And why not? It’s often gorgeous in winter—and you’ll never run out of things to do. Once snow blankets the Chugach Mountains, and the city sparkles with lights, the setting transforms into a winter wonderland with just about every kind of snow-and-ice recreation minutes from modern facilities, dining and lodging. You can ski across town on one of the country’s most extensive groomed trail systems (much of it lighted.) You can skate hot-mopped and plowed rinks on lakes. You can watch dog mushing or go snow biking. Indoors there are museums, scores of restaurants and music venues, regular performances and college sports. As Alaska’s main transportation hub, Anchorage offers visitors a launch pad for adventures into just about every other corner of the state. Tip: For first-time winter travelers, the week ending on the first weekend in March may be the climax of winter fun—featuring a city-wide carnival, sprint and distance sled dog racing, and a city-spanning ski marathon. (See the festivals entry above!)
- Fairbanks. If you want to experience a full-bore Far North winter (frigid temps, dry powder snow, dancing aurora) but also want a city offering full-service lodging, fine restaurants, a university scene and the world-class Museum of the North, come to Alaska’s Interior urban center from November to March. Outdoor recreation possibilities include dog mushing, snow-shoeing, crosscountry and downhill skiing, ice fishing and snowmobile tours. Nestled at the confluence of Alaska’s northern highway system, Fairbanks is the launch point for adventures into remote villages and the state’s Arctic Slope. Consult our winter driving trips before going exploring. For a very doable road trip from Fairbanks, visit Chena Hot Springs Resort. This unique, historic venue in the snowy hills a 60-mile drive northeast features the state’s most famous heated mineral spring with165-degree water filling a boulder-rimmed pool beneath the open winter sky. Surrounded by boreal wilderness and trails, you can go skiing or snowshoeing, take dog sled rides, tour around on snowmachines or just gaze at brilliant starry skies. Heated and powered by its geothermal resource, the resort offers lodging (hotel, cabins and yurts), a restaurant and an intriguing museum made from 1,000 blocks of ice. The aurora viewing is among the most spectacular in the world, with the resort often situated right beneath the night’s shimmering display.
For something unexpected, visit the seashore. There’s nothing quite like a stroll down an Alaskan beach pounded by winter surf. Both of the Kenai Peninsula towns of Homer and Seward nestle along bodies of water that do not freeze in winter. The result is an intriguing, wintry and sometimes exhilarating experience of the North Pacific Ocean during its most inhospitable season. On calm days, Resurrection Bay by Seward and Kachemak Bay by Homer will offer glimpses of marine mammals, wintering sea birds and hard-core fishing and shipping traffic. While tour and ocean charter options are limited, you will find full service lodging and local restaurants near the shore, surrounded by laid-back communities that become as quaint and welcoming as a scene on a holiday card.
Are there luxury winter stays or high-end lodges?
Many options. For a start, check these out.
- Hotel Alyeska at the base of state’s biggest ski resort in Girdwood.
- Ultima Thule Lodge overlooking the Chitina River deep inside Wrangell St. Elias National Park (March and April.) One of the most remote and luxurious lodges in the world
Hotel Captain Cook for that old-fashioned, big-city hotel experience in downtown Anchorage.
What about rustic cabins?
Many options. From old-style roadhouses featuring rentals within walking distance of a restaurant to the state’s extensive network of do-it-yourself public use cabins, visitors can find scores of rustic accommodations across Alaska throughout the winter. They range from semi-luxurious venues with services to wilderness outposts where you must chop wood, melt water and generally be totally self-sufficient.
From Anchorage, head to Northwoods Lodge, just a 45-minute flight from Anchorage. In the summer it's a full service fishing lodge, and in winter it's a quiet winter scene, with locals riding in by snowmachine. Enjoy the hot tub and winter scenery, or come during the Iditarod Week and watch the mushers go by right near the lodge! Or, fly into Caribou Lodge Alaska, situated in the mountains just outside of Talkeetna. These mountaintop cabins offer an ideal vantage point to catch the aurora. During the day snowshoe, cross country ski, and cozy up by the fire. If you are prepared to go off-grid and deal with the winter travel logistics required to reach a public use cabin, check out our interactive guide. You can drive to some of these cabins.
Tip: Book well in advance. The most popular cabins and lodges fill up months ahead of time.