Time to plan an incredible trip to experience Winter in Alaska! Follow along for my full itinerary for a 6-day trip through the interior Alaska from Anchorage to Fairbanks. A trip north to Alaska in the heart of winter is definitely not on the TOP of most people’s vacation short lists. Winter in Alaska is COLD and DARK.
However, Alaska has been on my bucket list for a long while. So, I rounded up my warmest clothes and we set out to explore the interior Alaska in sub-zero temperatures in mid-January with hopes of catching a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).
Here’s my account of the trip from activities to food and how we pulled it off:
Day 1 : Arrival, Exploring Anchorage
I began the journey to The Great North with a connection through Seattle. This was a fun connection because I met up with my friends, Amanda and Jillian who are working in Washington State. They were both key collaborators to planning this trip.
The flight from Seattle to Anchorage was pleasant on Alaska Airlines. Current COVID restrictions mean capacity is still limited. We did pre-flight screening to comply with Alaska’s travel restrictions. The process went smooth, and we were cleared for entry within a few minutes of arriving.
We rented a car from the Ted-Stevens Airport in Anchorage, with plans to return it downtown on Saturday morning; then we headed out into Anchorage to explore. First stop: food. We settled on a highly reviewed and recommended spot, Moose’s Tooth Pizza. This little pizza joint had TONS of unique options and catered to a number of special diets. Amanda went for a veggie-loaded pizza on a regular crust, Jillian chose a whole-wheat vegan crust, and I tried a split topping on house-made cauliflower crust. There was A LOT of food. We ate half our pizzas, and saved the other half for later.
Once we were fed up, it was time to check in to our AirBnb. The Bear Tooth House was a modest spot centrally located. It wasn’t a standout, but it was sufficient for our ramblings.
Having a car was useful, and we quickly got our bearings around Anchorage. The city has an eclectic mix of newer, commercial establishments and rustic, aging businesses.
We perused google for sights nearby and were intrigued by one standout: Star the Reindeer. His reviews are a mix of appalling and disconcerting. We couldn’t not go. It turns out, Star really is an aging Reindeer living in a pen connected to a house in downtown Anchorage. The most fitting review we read: “Star died in 2018.” Accurate.
On the way back to the AirBnB, we found a great health food co-op: Natural Pantry. We loaded up on healthy snacks for our trail days and for the upcoming travel day. This grocer is a standout amid the chain stores in Anchorage.
The early winter in Alaska sunset definitely got to us on this first travel day. We found ourselves barely able to keep our eyes open at 7pm in the darkness. An early bedtime was in order for all of us.
Day 2 : Anchorage Park Trails and a Fantastic Museum
We woke up to darkness on Friday. Another odd sensation as we waited for the world to wake up around us. Cold pizza made a great pre-adventure breakfast.
The weather was mild for this time of year in Alaska: hovering around 25-30 degrees most of the day. We bundled up in a few layers and picked out a first destination to explore: Kincaid Park.
Kincaid Park is a trail system located on the southwest end of Anchorage, by the airport. We took the Coastal Trail which wound down to the beach along the Cook Inlet. From the beach, we were greeted by the sun at 9:54am. Across the bay is Fire Island and you’ll get great views of the Kenai Peninsula. Many of the other trails in Kincaid Park are skier-only. In fact, there are over 40 miles of groomed ski trails including 12 miles of lighted trails (for those dark days). We saw lots of amateur cross-country skiers enjoying the mild winter day in Alaska.
After a few hours on the groomed trail in Kincaid Park, we drove across town to Far North Bicentennial Park. This is another popular trail system for locals. Interestingly, we were among the few people on foot. There were so many fat-tire bikers!! Next time, I’d certainly try renting a bike.
In Bicentennial Park, we took the Viewpoint Trail. While the trail was enjoyable, a word of warning: there isn’t actually a viewpoint on this trail. We saw cool trees and lots and lots of snow. (I guess that’s Winter in Alaska for you)
Instead of wasting daylight (you only get so much of it) on a lunch stop, we snacked on bars and jerky. I made my first stop at one of Anchorage’s infamous coffee shacks. They are all over the place! Little tiny drive-up sheds that offer a selection of hot and sugary-sweetened blended beverages. On my next trip to Alaska I’ll do a better job of mapping out exactly which coffee shops to visit. My family would love a coffee shop tour in Alaska!
Next stop: The Anchorage Museum. I have to say, we were all quite surprised by this gem in Downtown Anchorage. The building is incredible. We enjoyed the permanent exhibits on traditional Alaskan cultures, Alaskan history, and Alaskan art. A rotating exhibit on Extra Tough Women of the North was particularly empowering (and a bit absurd at times). I would highly recommend a visit to this museum on a trip to Anchorage when you need a break from the cold.
We left the museum just in time to catch the sunset, at 4:00 pm. After learning about the Good Friday earthquake (the largest quake ever recorded in North America!), we thought it fitting to visit Earthquake Park. A short walk takes you to a lookout over Cook Inlet. We really got the full view of the surrounding Chugach and Alaska Range mountains from Anchorage. Note that on clear days, Denali can be seen on the horizon!
Ready to answer to our appetites, we decided on dinner at The Glacier Brewhouse. This is a memorable spot in Anchorage with a selection of American fare and a smattering of seafood options. The smoked salmon salad was a standout on the menu.
After dinner, the sun was down and we retired back to the AirBnb. We reviewed our smart watches and realized we’d walked 9 miles all around those trails! What a full day; that meant another early bedtime in anticipation of a full travel day to follow.
Day 3: A Long Train Ride
We woke up Saturday with bags packed. On the agenda: A long train ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks on the Alaska Railroad.
Before dropping off the rental car downtown, we made time for another Coffee Shack stop. This time, at Rush Espresso. I highly recommend this mini-coffee shack over the others because of their choices. I sampled a WHITE coffee. What is a white coffee? Well, it is coffee that is only roasted 50% as much as traditional beans. This results in a nutty tasting, more caffeinated brew. Amanda and Jillian opted for matcha lattes. Rush coffee also offers breakfast burritos, low-carb breakfast choices, and high-fat bulletproof style coffee they coin as “nitro.”
The Alaska Train
We arrived at the train depot with plenty of time for the 8:30 departure. At capacity, the train seats 120 people. However, they are limiting passengers to 60 total. I asked at the ticket counter: there were 45 people traveling from Anchorage with us. Boarding was simple and we were underway before we knew it. Although we had assigned seats, we had plenty of freedom to move around the train.
This train was quite the experience. We quickly got to know the conductor, Vrn (no vowels), and the onboard guides, Daniel and Nick. Every time we thought of a question, we got the answer over the loudspeaker before we even had a chance to ask! Everything from names of things out the window, populations of towns we passed, to weather patterns and wild animal sightings.
Speaking of animal sighting, one of our main goals with travel to Alaska was to SEE A MOOSE. We saw 17 moose from the train! (And remember it was only light out for about 6 hours.) The conductor and guides were excited to point out any that they spotted. Moose like to hang out by the tracks (and on the tracks) because walking in one foot of snow can be much better than trudging through five feet of snow. Imagine that.
We were able to stop and step outside (briefly) in Talkeetna and in Denali National Park. Vrn even stopped the train on the tallest bridge in Alaska AND opened the galley doors to truly experience life on-the-edge.
Unfortunately, the weather patterns around Denali kept it partially hidden. We glimpsed the base and could tell it was a BIIIIIIIG MOUNTAIN looming behind the clouds. But, we never got a full view. I’ll be back for that one. We did get amazing views of the Cugach Mountains, the Alaska Range, and a few minor ranges in between. The frozen landscape between Anchorage and Fairbanks is mesmerizing.
I thought the twelve hour ride would be grueling without entertainment (re: no WiFi, limited cell service); but the time flew by. This train ride is something I would repeat, although Vrn’s tip was that summer travel may be best appreciated via passenger car. In the summer, the roads are open and driving allows more autonomy for stopping along the way; plus, it’s considerably faster.
The initial portion from Anchorage to Talkeetna went very quick. After Talkeetna, the train slows down substantially through rougher terrain and more curves. At some times, the Aurora train goes around 10mph. (Max speed: 60mph)
A few things to know if you DO take the Alaska Railroad:
–Get to know the staff. The conductor and tour guides were incredibly helpful AND accommodating. For example, we simply asked that the lights be turned down and that was easily granted (despite certain obvious safety concerns). We were rewarded with funny stories and a wealth of information. Vrn even shared his smoked salmon with me!
–Bring your own food. There is a dining car on the Aurora train. However, it is very basic and overpriced fare. COVID restrictions made it a bit more challenging (meals only offered at certain times, by table). I was able to get a few cups of drip coffee (morning and afternoon pick-me-up); and I’m thankful for that. I brought plenty of bars, jerky, nut butter, and collagen and snacked on that throughout the day.
-There is an outlet! I spent a lot of time taking photos during daylight hours, and my phone died. Although the website states there are no chargers/outlets, there was indeed a charging station. Hooray! However, there are long stretches of the route that are outside of cell service and there is no wi-fi available.
-The schedule is fluid. For a significant length of track between Talkeetna and Denali, the Aurora Train operates “flagstop service” – this means anyone can wave on the side of the track and the train stops to pick them up (or drop them off). For some remote locations, they rely on the Alaska Railroad to connect them with the rest of civilization. We dropped off one girl in what seemed like the middle-of-nowhere and saw her speed off on the back of a snowmobile!
We pulled into the station in Fairbanks just a little ahead of schedule, at 7:45pm. A travel note: the train depot does not offer car rentals.
The Pike’s Waterfront Lodge Shuttle picked us up, and we rode with a few others from the train depot to the quaint hotel. We chose to stay here because it was very convenient (free shuttle from train depot, free shuttle to rental car in the morning). It made sense for time and expense. The complimentary shuttle saved us around $25 in Uber trips. However, This hotel was…. odd. They offer all kinds of amenities: sauna, movie theater, library, aurora viewing deck, fire pit; but each more kitschy than the last.
We checked in and received our complimentary “s’mores” as part of our overnight package. Except s’mores meant a whole bag of jet puffed marshmallows. We asked for some roasting sticks, procured the last package of graham crackers, and made our way to the gas fire pit. With the evening temp at 1 degree Fahrenheit, we were happy cozying up the the fire while roasting marshmallows. A friendly fellow guest shared his chocolate with us, so we got our full s’mores experience. (Travelling Alaskans are so kind!)
Despite its’ quirks, I would recommend a stay at the Pike’s Lodge for the convenience factor (only if coming into Fairbanks on the Alaska Railroad).
Day 4: Cold Weather, Hot Springs
Picking up a rental car from the Fairbanks Airport was quick and simple. The Hertz rentals are all winterized; which means they have AWD/4WD, snow tires, and electric battery chargers installed. You simply plug in your car when parked and it keeps it from freezing in sub-zero temperatures.
We drove out a two-lane highway to Chena Hot Springs Resort. I was nervous about driving on winter roads, but it really was not a big deal. The roads were iced over, but cleared. There is extra gravel for traction at intersections, so minimal slipping around. The biggest surprise were ‘frost heaves’ that gave us an extra turbulent ride.
The road out to Chena is desolate, as it ONLY goes to Chena Hot Springs (and ends there). Jillian spotted four moose along the route. One was grazing on the roadside, the closest we saw one all trip.
We arrived at the resort not long after sunrise. It was busy! There were all types of folks coming and going; Sunday seemed to be a day most were checking out and heading back to Fairbanks.
Our first ‘activity’ at the resort was a tour of the Aurora Ice Museum. This is a cold building filled with ice sculptures. There’s also an ice bar made completely of ice. Tourists have the option of purchasing an Appletini (for $15!!) in a carved ice glass (you DO get to keep the glass, well, until it melts). Our general consensus: this ‘museum’ is tacky and overpriced. Skip this one.
After our 15 minutes in the ice room, we went down to the Pool House. All-day entry in the hot springs, plus towel rental was $20. We suited up in our bikinis and bolted down the walkway into the warm water. The air temperature was 1 degree, the water is around 104-107 degrees.
The steam rising from the outdoor pool creates a serene and private setting. Wading around, we found various hot spots and more tolerable warm water soaking. We enjoyed people watching, relaxing, and of course taking tons of photos as our eyelashes and hair froze. We soaked for about an hour under gorgeous morning skies. Chena Hot Springs is a must when in Fairbanks.
A few things to know about Chena Hot Springs:
-The drive isn’t that bad, just don’t expect anything between Fairbanks and the resort. It took us a little over an hour.
-Pack your own food / snacks. (And don’t forget to hydrate!)
-Skip the ice museum. They offer other activities like dog sledding, kennel tours, and snowmobiling, but I would recommend finding a service out of Fairbanks for a more authentic experience.
-Bring quarters and/or small bills to exchange for the lockers. And a Ziplock bag for extra phone protection in the water.
We showered off, got bundled up again, and headed back into town. I was ready for a mid-afternoon coffee. This time we found a popular coffee hut, Mocha Dan’s. We made choices for the best coffee in Fairbanks based on how long the drive-through lines were. Locals really enjoy their caffeine fix during the dark winter in Alaska. Mocha Dan’s measures up to be a local favorite. They also offer breakfast burritos and sandwiches, with gluten-free options!
Once caffeinated and content, we found our way to our home for the next two nights: Eskimo Kisses Cabin. This cute little cabin was just outside of town and near the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. It certainly had its quirks….like a non-flushing compost toilet… but it was a cozy home base for adventure. Our host Jaquie was attentive and kind: I would AirBnb here again!
We browsed menus and settled on another ‘local favorite’ restaurant, Brewster’s, for dinner. Our collective review — “suprising”. We expected a little dive, and that’s what we got. However, the food was some of the best we had! (Disclaimer: this is a relative term. I don’t recommend traveling to Alaska expecting superb food). The standouts: an awesome Salmon Burger and a Fried Halibut Sandwich.
When we got back to the AirBnb, we made a game plan for Aurora Viewing. After all, this was a bucket list item for all of us. I used the Explore Fairbanks Aurora Tracker as a main guide. The best chance to catch them seemed to be after midnight. So, we settled in for a few hours of sleep and set an alarm to wake at 12:00 am.
We drove to Creamer’s Field, an open space only about 10 minutes from the center of town. I’m surprised this is such a popular spot. I felt like there was too much light pollution (from street lights and city lights) to really see much. We gave it about 30 minutes here and didn’t see anything. Since it was such a clear night, we decided to drive further out. This time, we ended up at an overlook up City View drive. Again, the city lights were still just a bit too bright. Despite a clear night, we saw nothing.
Day 5: Unseasonable Warmth and Driving Around Fairbanks
Sleeping in is very easy when it stays dark until 10am. After our late night of northern lights chasing, we roused around 9. Our original plan was to get fed at Fairbank’s most-hyped restaurant: The Crepery. However, they are closed on Mondays. Major oversight on our itinerary.
We settled for average bagel sandwiches instead.
Another highly recommended stop was the Museum of the North at UaF. Another snag… closed for President’s day. (Le sigh)
Instead, we went downtown Fairbanks to the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitor’s Center. This is a great stop! They have typical visitor’s center fare of brochures, maps, and activity suggestions; but they also offer a well-appointed exhibit hall with information about Alaska, history, politics, science, livelihood, and the environment. Bonus: it’s all free. Include this one in your Fairbanks itinerary!
We had a quick photo op by the Moose Antler Arch. There’s a webcam here that broadcasts all over the world, so you can wave hello to your parents. Or spend 15 minutes getting that *perfect* jumping photo.
Since seeing the Northern Lights was high on our priority list, we spent some time in the daylight hours checking out the drive to a popular viewing spot: Murphy Dome. This is about 40 minutes northwest of town, higher in elevation, and secluded. The drive was straightforward, although the last 10 miles are on a winding dirt road. We had no issues in our Toyota Highlander and felt safe returning in the dark.
After this exploration, we stopped by the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint and then walked across the frozen Chena River to a key photo op showcasing Alaska in Winter.
We returned to the cabin to do some packing and choose a dinner spot. Fairbanks has an above-average density of THAI restaurants. Some are traditional restaurants, but there are also options for drive-through thai similar to the coffee shacks. Using Google reviews and Yelp photos as our guide, we went for Lemongrass Thai.
The Tom Kha and Pad Thai were average. Not the worst, not the best we’ve ever had. However, warm soup and noodles were very satisfying and we ate until we were uncomfortably full.
After dinner, we got our warmest clothes and set out for Murphy Dome again. Something we learned: Aurora Viewing gets cold! Yes, you are sitting in your car, but you need ALL the lights off and it isn’t practical to idle in the middle of nowhere wasting gas. So, we brought heavy blankets with us. Amanda entertained us with a fun game, something about a “Trip with grandma?”
The predicted chances of seeing aurora were much lower this night, but we gave it our best shot anyway. The clouds moved in steadily and we did not see any activity again. Feeling a little defeated, we headed home by 11, ready to get some rest before another long day of travel heading home. Even without the dancing lights, we all deeply appreciated the Alaskan sky.
Day 6: Time to go Home
Instead of returning by train, we left Fairbanks in the dark and took a quick 1-hour flight to Anchorage where we connected back down to Seattle. Flying is actually pretty economical for getting around Alaska in winter. (The plane ticket was half the price of the train.)
We ended this trip with a lot of great memories. We were certainly disappointed not to see the Aurora Borealis, but that just means one thing: We’ll be back to Alaska in the Winter.
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