While Alaska is a popular dream destination in the summer, it gets little respect in the winter. The frigid temperatures, lack of light, and heavy snow scare off most people. However, that’s the exact reason why I thought Fairbanks Alaska would be the perfect place to go for a winter adventure – I wanted to see how the hearty Alaskans lived and played in the off-season. Plus you get a couple of bonuses to the Fairbanks Alaska winter, like northern lights and cheaper prices. My airfare from Denver to Fairbanks was only a mere fraction of summer prices, and quite a bit less than other hearty further flung Scandinavian winter destinations.
And while a Fairbanks northern lights trip may have brought you to this lesser known part of Alaska, there are plenty of other things to do which makes Fairbanks the perfect spot for a winter adventure vacation!
Fairbanks Alaska Your Home for Winter Fun
Fairbanks has been a critical hub ever since it’s inception. It started as a gold rush outpost for the region, and then evolved into a critical pipeline outpost during it’s construction. And now it is the sort of an outpost to Alaska’s Interior.
Welcome to ‘Interior Alaska’ – the land between the mountains. This is where all the winter fun seems to happen. Unlike summer where so many tour offerings are about cruises, the winter in Alaska is about the interior and survival. Traveling overland in summer is a tough process; Alaska landscape is made up of a lot of spongy tundra (permafrost covers half of Alaska) and there are few roads. But winter suddenly makes everything accessible. Rivers freeze and become highways to move around on. The ground hardens and suddenly sled dogs can take you anywhere.
Watch my winter adventures in Fairbanks! Video by Michaela Potter
Finding The Unique Fairbanks Winter Operators
Alaska, and Fairbanks, is a well-oiled tourism machine. There are a number of operators to choose from that are well established; however, in my travels I like to focus on the new, unique operators. They tend to be the smaller, younger companies that are serving the independent traveler and providing a more personal touch than the larger tour options. If you just dig a little bit, you can find those smaller, individual experiences that might be harder to get to or even more expensive. These more individual experiences are so worth it to have a unique Alaska experience that takes you a bit off the tourist track and more integrated locally.
Stay and Play at a Modern Day Black Rapids Roadhouse
A 2 hour drive south of Fairbanks you’ll go deep into Alaska wilderness and history at the Lodge at Black Rapids. This impressive lodge made of slate and timber was made by hand by owners Annie and Mike Hopper. It took them 10 years to build it! Now it sits perfectly perched on a hill overlooking the Black Rapids Glacier situated on Richardson Highway, what used to be the old main highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. However, now since the new Parks Highway has been built, this route through the Eastern Alaska Range has become the road less traveled and is seldom seen by tourists. In addition, this route was also home to historic roadhouses that were built to serve travelers back in 1904 traveling the Valdez-Fairbanks trail. In fact, Annie has a ‘labor of love’ project currently restoring the old Black Rapids roadhouse that sits just below the new lodge.
Black Rapids Lodge is sort of like a modern day roadhouse; a place to stop, get a warm meal, a comfortable bed, and local hospitality. But unlike traditional roadhouses, you’ll want to stay a while because Annie and Michael have an incredible list of outdoor adventures for you to sample. We arrived only to be whisked off to ice fishing with a local guide. On the blustery evening, we sat in a little warm hut huddled around a few open holes in the ice getting to know Annie and the region.
The next day we went on a snowshoeing adventure to a nearby ice cave. Black Rapids supplied all of the gear and are happy to lend extra warm weather gear if you need it. You can do these hikes or skiing independently or hire a local guide via Black Rapids. There are even a number of trails you don’t even have to drive too. Michael took us on a morning snowshoe in the hills behind Black Rapids the morning we left! Or if relaxation is more your style, just enjoy the tranquility at the beautifully designed lodge with a good book. If you don’t have one, Annie can loan you any number of historical novels about the area; she is a wealth of information.
The rugged luxury lodge is just how you want to spend your winter in Alaska; enjoying the outdoors and then having a warm, comfortable place to come ‘home’ to with a little pampering. It’s a place where you will feel immediately at home.
Stay at The Lodge at Black Rapids
Stay for a weekend and have multiple adventures! The Lodge at Black Rapids Website
Have an Aurora Experience at Aurora Bear
Frank and Miriam will gladly welcome you into their home and Alaska way of life on their off grid home an hour north of Fairbanks. They offer nightly northern lights tours and photography instruction. They only take on small groups so they can provide an intimate level of service since they are hosting you in their home. They are situated perfectly for Northern Lights viewing north of Fairbanks under the aurora oval and among a backdrop of beautiful forest.
They share their interesting perspective on Alaska since they both came from Germany recently and decided to make this their new home. They fell in love with the Alaska wilderness and have embraced it as their new home. We all became fast friends and even came back out to meet them for an afternoon of snowshoeing before we departed! Their hospitality was phenomenal not to mention their darn cute dogs you will fall in love with.
Do Aurora Chasing with Aurora Bear
Read reviews of Aurora Bear on Trip Advisor
Watch the aurora or learn how to photograph it at Aurora Bear
Walk with Reindeer at Running Reindeer Ranch
There are few places I go back to a 2nd time because there are just so many places to see in the world that I’m not fond of do-overs. However as soon as I knew I was going back to Fairbanks, I put Running Reindeer Ranch on my must see list…again. I visited Jane’s unique reindeer experience when I traveled through Fairbanks in the summer a few years back, but I was really excited to see and walk with the reindeer in the winter landscape.
In addition to the snow that was dolloped on the trees, there was one thing that was vastly different on this visit to the reindeer – the people! Jane was still there giving the fascinating history of reindeer and how she ended up being what I call the ‘reindeer whisperer’, but the sheer number of people who were also there to see the reindeer surprised me. In the summer when I came there were only 3 of us. However in the winter there were nearly 18 of us! Luckily there are plenty of lovable reindeer to go around.
Take a walk through the boreal forest along with the reindeer, get pictures and learn about the fascinating lives of these gentle animals. It will take you far beyond Christmas myths, and it will make you want to come back for more!
Walk with the Reindeer in Fairbanks
This is easy to get to as it’s located near the Universtiy in Fairbanks. But book early as the tour has become pretty popular and often fills up in the winter!
Running Reindeer Website
Go to Mushing School
Experience Alaska’s number one sport – dog sledding. Any Alaska winter trip needs to include some dog mushing! There are so many choices and styles to choose from around Fairbanks for dog mushing. However I was looking for a more hands-on experience as I wanted to learn more about how to mush my own team. Explore Fairbanks recommended I check out a new, young operation in Two Rivers, The Last Frontier Mushing Coop.
Not only will you learn how to mush your own team in a half-day ‘mushing school’ tour, but you’ll also learn a wealth of information about the dog racing culture of Alaska and what it takes to run a racing kennel. The young owners of the Coop all have serious background in racing and because of that they want to offer visitors a real immersive experience at their kennels. Their goal is to have people see how much the dogs love their job and experience the real Alaska.
But I must warn you, once you learn how to mush your own team of dogs, you’ll never want to go back to simply riding in a dog sled again. I was bitten by the dog sledding Alaska bug and can’t wait to go back again!
Mushing School with Last Frontier Mushing Coop
Located just 30 minutes outside of Fairbanks, the Coop offers day tours, expedition style tours, and aurora tours!
Last Frontier Mushing Coop Website
Warm Up at Chena Hot Springs
One of the most popular stops around Fairbanks is a trip to Chena Hot Springs. Just hop on the Chena Hot Springs road and drive it until the end – about an hour from Fairbanks. You’ll arrive at a warm and toasty winter wonderland.
This is a bigger popular tourist operation than the others I mentioned above, however it is worth a stop – especially in the winter! It’s not just about the hot springs, the resort also offers snow shoeing, ice skating, snow mobiling, and dog sledding. They even have a unique ice museum where you can slide up to the ice bar and have a very cold Appletini while you learn about the art of ice carving.
We booked a little cabin set away from other housing and enjoyed our warm cozy spot while the snow fell outside. After a big hike, we went for a soak in the hot springs at night. The wind was blustery and the snow was flying while we had a surreal experience floating around the spring in the evening. It was just what our sore legs needed! Sadly the beautiful snow fall ruined our chances to see aurora there, but it’s a great spot to situate yourself to see the aurora!
Chena Hot Springs
Spend a night or two off grid in this idyllic spot and springs!
Chena Hot Springs Website
Read reviews of Chena Hot Springs on Trip Advisor
Visit Denali and ride the Winter Aurora Train
Most people think that Denali National Park is only open in the summer, but it’s actually open year around! Winter is a great time to visit Denali National Park as the crowds have all left, and you’ll find that you have the place to yourself! Stop in at the visitor center and ask to ‘borrow’ some snow shoes and poles, and you’ll be able to take on some of the winter trails.
Denali is about a 2 hour drive south of Fairbanks, but if you want a real unique adventure take the Denali in a Day Alaska train trip where you are driven down to Denali (with a few scenic stops along the way), snow shoe in the park, and then hop on the northbound Aurora Winter Train and slowly come back to Fairbanks via the Alaska Railroad!
Do Denali in a Day from Fairbanks
This day tour allows you to visit Denali National Park, and ride the winter train all using Fairbanks as your hub!
Winter Driving Around Fairbanks
Most of these places do require a rental car, but it’s worth it to brave the winter roads so that you can get out and have all of these wonderful experiences. It’s easy to rent a car at the Fairbanks airport. I used Avis, but there are a number of options. I would absolutely get an all wheel drive vehicle though as it is necessary and there were a few times where I was driving through a lot of snow on not-so-well-plowed back country roads!
Check the best prices for Fairbanks Rental Cars
Do note that Fairbanks and the surrounding area doesn’t use salt on their roads, but that doesn’t seem to bother the locals much and I was able to get around fine. Plus – you get introduced to the unique Fairbanks Alaska winter culture of plugging in your car at night! Yes, that’s right, your rental car will come with a electric chord that you can use to plug in your car everywhere you go and keep the engine block from freezing .
Now you are all set to experience have a winter adventure in and outside of Fairbanks!
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I was a guest of Explore Fairbanks for this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.
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