While Alaska is a popular dream destination in the summer, it gets little respect in the winter. The fear of frigid temperatures, lack of light, and heavy snow scare off most people. However, that’s the exact reason why I thought Fairbanks would be the perfect place to go for an Alaska 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 an Alaska 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 Alaska 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 below! Video by Michaela Potter
Alaska Winter Weather
I know what you are thinking – it’s too cold, there’s too much snow, it’s too dark. However, if you are going for a winter vacation – don’t you want snow? And if if you are going to see the northern lights – don’t you want darkness?
You might be surprised to find out that the coastal areas don’t get as cold as you think – they rarely fall below 20F except for the occasional storm. Up in the Arctic areas, they don’t get much snow because it’s considered a desert.
However, Alaska’s interior does get cold and lots of snow. There you may experience temperatures dipping into the -20F and get lots of snow that will stick around all winter from October through March. All Alaskan’s know that you combat winter weather with the right gear. If you have the right gear – you can enjoy Alaska winter – even in Fairbanks!
My Favorite Extreme Winter Gear
I’ve traveled to some pretty cold places around the world and have found some key gear that I take on every winter adventure. Check out my list of extreme winter gear I use
Also keep in mind that one of the reasons why Fairbanks (the interior) is such a great place to view the northern lights is because it is inland and usually has clear skies. Unlike the coastal areas and countries like Iceland.
Monthly temperatures Coastal and Interior Alaska
See the current Alaska weather conditions here.
Finding Unique Fairbanks Winter Tour 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 winter experience that takes you a bit off the tourist track and more integrated locally.
Things to do in Alaska Winter
1. Stay and Play at a Modern Day 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 winter 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!
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! Read Trip Advisor Reviews for The Lodge at Black Rapids Website
2. Have an Alaska 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
3. 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 in the summer!
Walk with Reindeer this Winter in Fairbanks
This is easy to get to as it’s located near the University in Fairbanks. But book early as the tour has become pretty popular and often fills up in the winter!
Running Reindeer Website
Read the Running Reindeer Ranch reviews on Trip Advisor
4. Go to Mushing School to Learn How to Operate a Dog Sledding Team
Experience Alaska’s number one winter 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
Read about and see my mushing school experience here
5. Winter 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 Alaskan winter wonderland.
This is a bigger 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
6. 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 winter 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!
Read about my winter train experience here.
Alaska Winter Driving
Most of these places I’ve mentioned 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 if you go to Alaska in the winter, you get introduced to the unique 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!
PIN IT FOR LATER!
I was a guest of Explore Fairbanks for this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own. This post contains some affiliate links. If you choose to purchase items through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of running this site
By Melanie November 28, 2018 - 8:50 am
What were the dates of your winter trip to Fairbanks? My husband and I are planning out our winter trip there next month (Jan. 2019) and I’m curious how the weather was when you went vs when we are going to see if a rental car is our best option. We both love living in the moment and booking less touristy adventures. To date, the only thing we’ve booked is our stay at Borealis Basecamp. It’s the only splurge we decided on. Any advice or additional tips would be greatly appreciated! Thanks for your time and help!!
By Sherry November 28, 2018 - 10:40 am
I went mid Feb to end of Feb. We had weird weather at that time. It wasn’t as cold as normal, but we did have way more snow than normal…according to the locals. We did rent a car and do all of the driving – it was a bit white knuckled in the snowy days! They don’t use salt there at all on the roads, just sand/gravel. I do think you’ll want a car though as you can get out of the city really easily then. The Borealis Basecamp is right by Aurora Bear where I did my photography aurora workshop – it was great! I do think you should definitely do the walk with reindeers while in Fairbanks – I’ve done it in the winter and summer and just love the unique experience! If you want to do dog sledding – definitely go to the Mushing Co-op!! They are so great there and are real mushers who have race in all of the long races and even won the Yukon quest once! They have an aurora tour, or you can go to mushing school and learn how to mush your own team! Last Frontier Mushing Coop – https://www.themushingcoop.com/ . The hot springs is nice if you want a little break – and the mushing coop is on the way to the hot springs. However if you want a bit more luxury – we went south to the Black Rapids Lodge and it was gorgeous! It’s a super area to do snow shoeing and ice fishing. And finally – if you like train travel – there is the Aurora train that includes a trip to Denali in the winter which is really special. Or you can ride it to Talkeetna (just past Denali) and get off and stay at the Roadhouse hotel/cafe and take a pie baking class! Also – I know this sounds strange – but the antique car museum was my biggest surprise in Fairbanks. I thought it would be a bit boring – but it was incredible! Stop by if you want a fun indoor activity! Let me know if you have any more questions…but I highly recommend the dog sledding class!
By knud larsen December 15, 2018 - 4:04 pm
I’v been in Fairbanks 4Times. As a danish Ingeneer I visited Alaska Windows / Charles Deer MDøø and owner of the workshop. Perhaps..”Charles has been deadead for Years ago. My last visit was in 1992 the first 1986. I supplied the University with PVC windows as it was builded as new. Wilk you perhaps let me know something about Charlie and Alaska Windows if the Company still exist. Best Regards.
By Sherry December 18, 2018 - 5:19 pm
Sorry but I don’t live there have just vacationed there. So I’m not really familiar with the businesses there.
By Sara George December 28, 2018 - 9:51 am
I’m wondering how you got to Denali if you took the train back… I’m planning a trip Feb 5-13, we are bringing our 12 and 15 year old. Need to start firming up our plans. We haven’t booked anything yet. We fly into FAI.
By Sherry December 31, 2018 - 10:09 am
Hi Sara! I did a package tour that started in Fairbanks and drove you down to Denali where you went into the park and did snow shoeing and then you hopped on the train for the ride back to Fairbanks back through the park and some other beautiful scenery. The other option (but would take longer) is to take the train from Fairbanks to Talkeetna – stay in Talkeetna for a night(it’s one of my favorite towns…small, cute, and would be awesome in the winter), then catch the train back to Fairbanks the next day. You would just have to check the train scheduled closely. I think they were making the winter trips more frequent – however I’m not sure if they are daily yet.
By Sara George December 29, 2018 - 10:34 am
I’m working on my itinerary for my family of 4. We are bringing our children so tickets for 4 require less $$$ excursions. Can you make any suggestions?
By Sherry December 31, 2018 - 10:07 am
I do understand it can get expensive fast for family travel. Are you going in the winter or summer? I do think that Chena Hot Springs offers some decent low cost lodging – it’s basic – but once there – you can hike and go to the springs as much as you’d like. I do think if you are traveling with kids you shouldn’t miss the walk with reindeers in Fairbanks – the kids will love it – I loved it as an adult! If you are going in the winter – you may want to try to contact Frank at Aurora Bear and see if he offers any discounts for families. He does snowshoeing tours and aurora nights at his home. Sometimes small businesses are more apt to work with you. And he has 3 loveable dogs that they kids could play with too!
By Sara George December 31, 2018 - 12:19 pm
Winter Feb 5-13. My kids are 12 and 15. We thought about staying one night in the Denali area.
By Sara George December 31, 2018 - 12:53 pm
Talkeetna looks like a cute town. Can you recommend anything like it that is closer to Fairbanks? My tentative plan would be to rent a car. I would love to ride the train but its schedule in the winter and the prices for tickets both directions is a bit high. My kids are active so I’m looking to snow mobile, ski/snowboard, dog sledding, and of course shopping and Aurora viewing. It may be our only trip to Alaska and I don’t want to miss something really cool due to lack of knowledge. There are so many vendors its hard to know where to start. I am considering North pole with Rod’s for snow mobilizing. We definitely want to drive to Denali area and stay one night… looked at moose mountain and ski land for potential ski options. I would love to stay one night in a nice cabin or bnb, but also considering doing regular cheaper hotels for flexibility and spending the money o. The experiences. Chena doesn’t allow kids in the hot springs. Any more suggestions or advice?
By Sherry December 31, 2018 - 5:16 pm
Sara – sorry – I didn’t know that about the hot springs that kids weren’t allowed in the springs. However don’t completely rule it out as it’s cheaper/simple lodging and you can also do dog sledding, aurora watching (there’s no light pollution out there!) and snow shoeing and snow mobiling out there…there’s a ton to do. Plus – there’s an ice castle that they can also go in. There’s a lot of activities there.
In Fairbanks one day I suggest going to the antique car museum – I know that sounds weird – but it’s really cook and fun – I totally loved it. Not only does it have old cars that are beautiful, but also fashions from those old times. Also – I do know the train is more expensive – but there are packages that combine train and dog sledding, etc. Plus – Talkeetna is really great – you get off the train right in town and I personally think it would be a spectacular winter experience if it at all fits in your budget. There are cheaper places to stay there too in the winter. However my favorite is the Talkeetna road house – https://www.talkeetnaroadhouse.com/ – they even have pie baking classes in the winter. It’s a very simple hotel where I think you can even share bathrooms. So it might be cheaper to go down there on the train and stay for a day or so and do some things around there like dog sledding or snow shoeing, etc. I don’t know of any other towns like that close to Fairbanks really. YOu may also want to look into Black Rapids lodge – it’s about 1 1/2 hours from Fairbanks – and it a beautiful lodge where you can snow shoe around the property, ice fish, snow mobile, and watch for aurora. However I think that will be more expensive potentially. I really do think you should contact Frank from Aurora Bear and talk to him about the stuff you want to do and see if he can help out – he has snow mobiles, snow shoes, and aurora. He picks you up and drops you off after aurora – so you could do a day there snow mobiling, or snow shoeing and then wait for aurora that night. Dog sledding is expensive everywhere…it’s a very costly sport to keep all of those dogs. You could also do a trip up the Dalton Highway across the arctic circle – and stay in Coldfoot – a truckstop that is really unique. There you can watch aurora, and do some adventure stuff. But becuase it’s so remote it will be a bit costly too. Here’s some more info on that…I did it in the summer and loved it!http://www.northernalaska.com/aurora-overnight/
I really think you will be best off doing some stuff in Fairbanks and then either going south to Talkeetna or north to Coldfoot, or Chena hota springs, or Black Rapids Lodge and do multiple adventures at one place. You can see what would be the best price – but I think you’d save money if you go one direction and do multiple things there. HOpe that helps a bit!
By Sandy Herbert April 13, 2019 - 11:59 pm
Thank you for your wonderful info on Alaska.
If you could pls assist in a place to stay and we are wanting to see the hot springs, mushing and hope to see the northern lights.
We are arriving in Fairbanks on the 20Jan and staying 4 nights leaving on the 24 2020.
Hope your able to help
By Sherry April 17, 2019 - 10:48 pm
So happy to hear you are going to Fairbanks for Northern Lights next year! There is only one place to stay out at the hot springs and thats at the sight itself. However the dog mushing that I did (and would highly recommend) is on the way to the hot springs. There’s a nice Airbnb out there that we stayed at in a little cute cabin – but I can’t find the name right now! The women at the Mushing Coop will know though as they helped me find it!
You also may want to try the Taste of Alaska Lodge just outside of Fairbanks and they had a perfect setup for viewing the lights with a nice warm yurt to hang out in – or your room. The rooms were really cute. Hope that helps a bit!
By Sara George April 18, 2019 - 6:56 pm
My family of 4 just went Feb 2019. We enjoyed viewing the lights at Borealis Basecamp! If you rent a car and drive out it’s a small nominal fee for such a idealic setting. It’s a really nice wide clearing with inside access. Cute igloo style rooms that make photos interesting. Lots of dog sledding options. We used a group close to Denali. We also took a trip to Black Rapids Lodge and it was well worth while. If it was just myself and spouse we would have stayed overnight. We hiked out to the ice cave while we were there. Honestly to us the hot springs were a bit too touristy for our taste and my husband isn’t crazy about public pools and it definitely had alot of floating dirt buildup etc from being a natural springs vs a actual pool that has a concrete floor and chemically treated. I did alot of research you are welcome to contact me directly.
By Sherry April 25, 2019 - 1:07 am
So happy you went to and enjoyed the Black Rapids Lodge!!
By Yessy December 11, 2019 - 9:22 pm
I am finding very helpful your post. Planning going in mid January but still worry about driving aroun and where to stay. I’m going alone and my driving skills in snow are zero Haha. I will there only 4 days and definitely I would do dog mushing to watch northern light. What is your recommendation for a woman traveling solo to Fairbanks? Thank you!
By Sherry December 31, 2019 - 12:02 pm
You could check out the alaska railroad winter train. They offer a dog sledding/train tour I believe and that way you’d likely be with other people!
By Sabrina April 25, 2021 - 10:17 am
You are an excellent writer!!! I definitely enjoyed reading your Blog more than watching all the Youtube videos that I find on travel. They are good but there is just something about the written word and photos that has more power for me. I am planning a trip in December 2021 for my 10 year-old son. The information you presented was unbiased, helpful, and accurate. I plan to skip the Circle tour and take the day trip to Denali. My son is fascinated with trains and the Circle tour appears to long for a child. Thanks so much for helping me to begin my planning in April☺️. I will check your Blog for Oahu because we plan to visit in July 2021. Keep up the great work you are very talented.
By Sherry June 1, 2021 - 6:35 pm
Thanks! And yes – I do have some article on Oahu!