Alaska has long been one of my favorite places to explore, but I had only visited in the summertime, when days were long and temperatures were moderate. My wintertime visit in February 2021 turned out to be quite the adventure as well – – I had anticipated boredom once I completed the few things on my “to-do” list, but boy was I wrong…
BUNDLE UP AND GET OUTSIDE!
When we think about Alaska, we often think of exploring the wilderness of “The Last Frontier”. So it’s natural to want to go outside – – even when the temperatures drop dangerously low! As long as you are prepared with the right gear, you can actually experience quite a few outdoor activities without becoming dangerously hypothermic or frostbitten. If you read my World Ice Art Championship post, you already know that is an extremely cold spectator event – – and there are even more fun things you can safely participate in during your visit to Fairbanks!
Watch the Aurora Borealis dance!
It is said that Fairbanks is THE place to be if you have the desire to experience the Aurora Borealis (aka the “Northern Lights”). From mid-September thru late April, the Aurora can generally be seen four out of five nights in the Fairbanks area, as long as the skies cooperate and stay clear – – and locals suggest that March is the absolute best month to catch this spectacular sky show. I recommend you book a cabin on the outskirts of town, where the skies are darker, and you can capture photos from the porch or driveway (and then run inside to warm up as soon as possible!!).
Sometimes the lights will show up faintly on the horizon, while other times they will cover the entire sky, performing the most incredible “dance” you will ever witness! I was able to view this fascinating performance two very cold nights in a row on my recent visit. The first night, the show was low and calm, with the lights touching the horizon, fading in and out gradually. It was a magnificent sight! The next night, the Aurora put on a breathtaking show high in the sky directly above me! The temperature was -30F (-34.4C) but somehow those lights filled me with warmth. Aurora danced quickly thru the sky, swirling, twirling, and creating patterns that resembled a hummingbird and rolling ocean waves! Tears filled the corners of my eyes (and quickly froze!) as I saw the silhouette of a friend who had recently passed – – she was swimming thru the night sky full of stars! The Aurora was magical, and there are no words to describe this glorious sky show. You really can’t understand how special they are, until you see it with your own eyes…
Mush with Alaskan Huskies!
If you love animals, then mushing is a must-do on your winter Fairbanks adventure! There are countless dog mushers in the area; many of them train year-round for world championship races like the Quest 1000 or the Iditarod. Others have turned their passion into a business, inviting guests to experience a one-hour mushing session thru the wilderness, or even attend a half day dog-mushing academy! I opted to mush with Just Short of Magic, and had a wonderful adventure with eight of the coolest pups I’ve ever met.
When most people think of dog-mushing, they picture a thick-furred Husky or Malamute with a round face. A typical Alaskan Husky mushing dog is actually a “mutt” and they all look quite different! Some were taller, some were shorter, some were thinner, some were heavier… one thing they all have in common though: they love to run! These furry friends have running in their blood – – they will start to run with the team at the age of nine months. It was fun to see how excited they got as their owner geared them up in preparation for our snowy adventure thru the woods. Guests sit in a toboggan-like sled, with the musher standing on the rails behind, calling out commands to the team. It was fascinating to watch the team work together, turning on command, grabbing a bite of snow if they got thirsty, and even pooping while running! Once we returned to basecamp, the dogs were unhitched from the sled, and I was encouraged to love on them. I could tell these dogs were very well cared for and loved, and my short time with them has given me inspiration to someday volunteer for the Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska (2,841 miles / 4,572km).
Walk with the Reindeer!
Another fun outdoor activity for animal lovers is an afternoon spent at Running Reindeer Ranch. What started out as two pet reindeer for a young girl has turned into a family business! You will learn more than you ever imagined about these fuzzy clicking ungulates, as you walk thru the boreal forest with a herd of roaming reindeer. (It’s true… reindeer really do “click click click”!)
Reindeer are herding animals – – which means they will follow the leader. During this educational outdoor adventure, one reindeer leads the way on a leash with the lead guide – – no other reindeer are leashed – – the rest of the herd follows along, occasionally venturing out into the forest for a bite to eat. They would also play “reindeer games”, occasionally running full speed down the trail! Although temperatures were -12F (-24C), we were encouraged to take one glove off so that we could dig our fingers deep into the warm fur that allows these 400 pounders to easily survive in this frosty environment. Apparently, reindeer don’t actually feel cold until temps dip to -40F/C – – so they were plenty warm on the day I visited! This was definitely one of my most memorable activities, and I plan to return in the summer, so that I can also experience reindeer yoga with the herd!
Touch the Pipeline!
One of the most incredible landmarks of engineering can be viewed just 15 minutes north of downtown Fairbanks. The 800.3 mile long (1,288km) Trans Alaska Pipeline System (“TAPS”) was designed and constructed to move oil from the North Slope of Alaska to the northernmost ice-free port in Valdez, Alaska. Between 1969 and 1977, this amazing pipeline project involved about 70,000 workers!
The TAPS was integral in reshaping Alaska’s economy (even though it is now running at a quarter of its original capacity). Hopping out of the car for a few minutes to view this engineering feat up close is worth the cold!
STAY WARM AND EXPLORE INSIDE!
Sub-zero temps a bit too low for you? Cold gotcha down? No worries! There are plenty of indoor attractions around Fairbanks which you can explore when your fingers and toes need a warm-up! Below are just a few that I visited on my recent trip to the “Golden Heart City”:
Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center
This is a great hopping-off point to get your Fairbanks visit started. There is much to see here, from museum exhibits, to the huge moose antler arch adjacent to the building.
You will also find friendly docents who are happy to engage in helping you plan out the best holiday possible! The center also boasts one of the largest displays of brochures I have ever seen – – there is so much information to be collected here, you are sure to have a wonderful visit.
Santa Claus House
Christmas is celebrated year round at this magical shop located in the town of North Pole, just 13 miles (21km) south of Fairbanks! Here you will find all sorts of festive treasures, from tree ornaments to stuffed elves, and everything in between.
During the summer months, you will also find SANTA along with his reindeer, who live in the stables next to Santa’s house! (In the winter months following his long night of deliveries, Santa and his reindeer are taking a break, probably in some warm, tropical location…)
No matter what season you visit, you can arrange a letter from Santa (which can be personalized), to be sent in the month of December, or any month of the year, if someone needs a reminder to be good, for goodness sake! All letters are personally signed by Santa and postmarked from the North Pole (and you can send them to naughty adults too)!
University of Alaska Museum of the North
I was quite impressed with the Museum of the North – – not only because of the interesting and unique exhibits and artwork, but also by the interesting architecture of the building itself! If you’re looking for a place to spend half a day in a warm environment, this is the museum for you! Exhibits ranged from local Athabaskan tribal history, to mastodon skulls, to beautifully carved totem poles, to socially distanced dinosaur skeletons!
There is also a full art gallery on the second level, full of paintings, sculptures and carvings – – all created by local artists. There was also a featured art exhibit, which rotates seasonally. I was really taken by the carvings on display during my visit. You will not regret your visit to this impressive museum!
Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
Another unique museum that I visited had the largest collection of antique vehicles I have ever seen! Some of Alaska’s earliest vehicles are displayed at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, including the very first automobile in the territory, which was hand-built by a man who had never before seen a car! Here you will get up close and personal with cars built from 1898 to 1936. Stepping in the door was like stepping back in time! With almost 100 cars on display, it is impossible to choose a favorite – – but one thing I really loved about this place was that they also included the fashions that were “in” at the time these vehicles were popularly used.
I was blown away when I learned that all but three of the vehicles housed here actually run! Yes, the museum staff will occasionally fire up a vehicle and take it for a spin around the local area (but not in the wintertime when I was visiting!). What a fascinating museum – – this is a must-do if you are a car enthusiast!
There are plenty of other things to do in Fairbanks during the wintertime, but my stay was limited and I couldn’t squeeze in “all the things”! But if you plan ahead and stay long enough, you might also want to consider:
- • A visit to Chena Hot Springs!
- • A snowmobiling adventure!
- • Ice fishing!
- • A visit to the Arctic Circle!
NOW is a perfect time to visit Fairbanks! Let me know if you’d like help planning a winter adventure. Have you ever experienced extreme cold conditions?