Slow traveling cats get the honor of experiencing our favorite places outside of the typical tourist seasons. Last summer I watched as crowds of tourists flocked to Alaska to relish long days and beautiful nature. As the snow began to fall, however, they all retreated to the lower 48. Now all cats know that when crowds start to dissipate, the real fun begins! Wintertime is when Alaska really shines as a unique travel experience. Like all good cats, the locals have adapted to extreme conditions while maintaining a deep connection to nature. Are you adventurous enough to plan a trip during the winter season? Read on for the best winter activities in Alaska.
Summary of winter activities in Alaska:
Explore the winter landscape by snowmobile
Alaska is home to the beautiful, snow-covered Chugach Mountains, stunning ice caves, and deep blue glaciers. In short, it’s the perfect place for snowmobiles!
Alaska has dozens of snowmobiling services with comforts like warm outer gear, heated handles, experienced guides, and pick-up and drop-off services. Most tours range from three to five hours.
We recommend checking out Glacier City Snowmobile Tours, located in the town of Girdwood, close to Alyeska Ski Resort, or 49th State Motor Tours, located in Anchorage. Taking a snowmobile tour is the perfect way to experience the Alaskan winter, while also staying warm and safe.
Skiing and Snowboarding – most popular winter activities in Alaska
For any winter sports enthusiast, skiing and snowboarding are must-dos on your Alaskan vacation itinerary. Alyeska Resort is widely regarded as the most popular ski resort in the state. It’s best known for “North Face”, America’s longest continuous, double black diamond ski run, with over 2000 vertical feet. In addition to its coveted ski runs, Alyeska also features several dining options, ranging from upscale to casual, as well as, a full spa for relaxation after your winter adventures.
If you are looking for something involving a little less adrenaline, then nordic skiing may be your speed. Often used interchangeably with the term cross-country skiing, this form of skiing takes place on flatter land and allows more time to explore the surrounding nature. Alaska is one of the best places in the US to experience nordic skiing due to its large trail system.
And, finally, for the truly adventurous, Alaska is a great place to go backcountry skiing. A common activity for locals, backcountry skiing offers the opportunity to truly connect with mother nature.
Pro Tip: Make sure to find a local guide for backcountry skiing. Even if you are experienced, the Alaskan backcountry is vast and weather can change quickly.
Take a helicopter to a glacier
Soring over Alaska’s famous glaciers is a winter experience that you will never forget. You can either take in their beauty from the comfort of an aircraft, get out and walk on a glacier, or try ice climbing in a truly pristine setting. If you want to book this once-in-a-lifetime experience, we recommend Outbound Heli Adventures, which provides tours for all levels.
Live like a local: Ice fishing
Alaska is one of the few areas in the US where it’s still common for locals to live off of the land. As the winter months settle in, ice fishing becomes a main source of sustenance. Taking the time to learn about the art of ice fishing is a great way to appreciate local culture while becoming more connected to the land.
For this activity, you’ll need to hire a guide with specialized equipment. Make sure to look for a guide that is familiar with the area and knows where the fish are located. Your guide can also help get the required fishing license and even clean and pack your catch from the day.
Dog sledding: an all-time favorite of winter activities in Alaska
Home to the historic Iditarod Trail, dog sledding played a major role in the history of Alaska. To this day, dog sleds are a common form of winter transport in rural areas.
The larger cities like Anchorage and Seward, have plenty of dog sledding companies, many of which compete in the Iditarod race each winter. You can not only experience the feeling of gliding along untouched snow, but you’ll also play a small role in preparing these noble dogs for the race of their life.
As a bonus, most dog sledding companies also provide kennel tours. These tours offer a chance to play with the puppies, chat with mushers (aka sled drivers), and learn about the tradition of dog sledding in Alaska.
Attend the ceremonial start of the Iditarod
Each year, on the first Saturday in March the famous Iditarod race has its ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage. This well-loved event allows the public to gather around the 11-mile route through Anchorage to view the sled dogs and cheer them on for the official start of the race, which happens the next day in Willow, AK.
If you happen to be in Alaska in early March, there are several other great events to check out. One of the most popular is the Musher’s Banquet, a formal dinner where racing teams draw their positions on the Thursday before the race. Other festivals to look out for include the Fur Rendevous, the Running of the Reindeer, and the Miners and Trappers Ball.
Hike on a glacier
Exploring a glacier on foot is one of the best things to experience during your winter vacation. The first time you get up close and personal with these gigantic chunks of ice is a truly unforgettable experience. For winter trekking, Matanuska Glacier is the most popular glacier in the area. Glacier Tours, operates winter hiking tours and provides the required clothing, gear, and equipment to safely explore this amazing location. Known for its deep blue ice, a visit here should be part of any winter trip.
Go backcountry skating – the local’s top pick of winter activities in Alaska
Typically found in indoor malls in the suburbs, ice skating in Alaska’s backcountry is a truly magical experience! Skating at Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage is a local favorite. The city mops the lake weekly, so even during the dead of winter, you can still enjoy this unique activity.
Depending on the weather, you may be able to venture to some of the more remote areas like Potter Marsh (a wildlife refuge by Anchorage) or Portage Lake (located at the foot of Portage Glacier). While you can always look for a guide online, you can also rent skates and go off on your own.
Pro Tip: When ice skating in the Alaskan backcountry, make sure to stay on the lakes and lagoons – the running water in rivers does not always freeze solid enough to walk on.
Try fat tire biking
Anyone living in Alaska knows countless ways to enjoy time in the snow. And one of the best ways is by fat tire bike! Any rental company can direct you to groomed trails to fully enjoy your fat bike trip. Anchorage alone boasts over 150 miles of trails!
Alaska Trail Guides offers a tour that explores some of these trails and includes a few stops at local breweries. There are also plenty of great spots to get your coveted winter photos.
Enjoy some time at the spa
Another great way to spend winter days in Alaska is a trip to the spa! Visiting a spa during the Alaskan winter is an extra special experience. After time outside, you will deeply appreciate the warmth provided by the saunas, hot tubs, and other amenities.
A well-known favorite is the spa at Alyeska, in Girdwood. Here you’ll find a list of treatments, to choose from. We recommend the Rosemary Citron Sensation, a scrub that your skin will welcome after exposure to the cold, dry Alaskan air.
Chena Hot Springs Resort: your home base for winter activities in Alaska
Best known for its world-famous hot springs, Chena has an indoor pool and an outdoor rock pool. The consistently heated water not only keeps swimmers warm but also forms amazing ice crystals around the area. Ever wanted to swim in 0-degree weather, well, here’s your chance!
Aside from taking a dip, Chena is also a great place to enjoy a whole host of winter activities, including an ice museum, snowmobiling, dog sledding, and ice fishing. With a full greenhouse on-site, this remote resort also offers farm-to-table dining, even in the winter!
And, finally, the number one reason that winter visitors make the trek to the Chena Hot Springs resort is to view the Aurora Borealis. Located away from the city lights, Chena is widely recognized as one of the best sites to see the aurora.
Chase the Aurora Borealis
One of Alaska’s greatest winter activities, viewing the Aurora Borealis is on many travelers’ bucket lists. While the aurora is technically always present over Alaska, your chances of seeing it increase as you get closer to the winter solstice, generally around December 21st or 22nd. With that said, any trip from August through April will still offer enough darkness to get a fair shot at this unique experience.
In order to experience these amazing lights, it’s highly recommended to book an aurora tour. The tour guides will show you where to look and also point out the start of the aurora activity, which is difficult to spot with an untrained eye. Additionally, most tours provide a warm lodge or vehicle, where you can easily keep your eye on the sky. The aurora is not always easy to see, so you will be glad you enlisted a little bit of help!
See the iconic Denali National Park
One of the most famous Alaskan destinations, Denali National Park operates year-round. During the winter months, you can enjoy a plethora of groomed trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Another popular winter activity is visiting the Murie Science and Learning Center, which acts as the winter visitor center. If you are lucky and experience a clear day, you will also be treated to stunning views of the Alaska Range, including Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America.
See the Arctic Circle: most adventurous of the winter activities in Alaska
Visiting the Arctic Circle during your winter vacation in Alaska is a bold move, with big rewards. To partake in this unique experience, you’ll need to book a 2-3 day tour. During your excursion, you can experience some of the best views of the aurora Borealis, a truly unique landscape, and possibly see polar bears in their natural habitat.
Stay cozy on the Alaska Railroad
For both train and nature enthusiasts, the Alaskan railroad is a great winter experience. The Aurora Winter Train, which runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks, features plenty of opportunity to see the famed Northern Lights while staying warm in your heated train car. Meandering through mountain ranges and glacier-carved valleys, this train ride provides views of nature that tourists rarely get to experience.
Celebrate Christmas year-round in North Pole, AK
Located just outside of Fairbanks, the town of North Pole is a quirky little tourist stop. Some sights to check out include a 50-foot-tall Santa statue, a gigantic Christmas store called Santa Claus House, and year-round Christmas decorations.
North Pole, AK is also home to a famous post office where volunteers process thousands of letters to Santa each year. If you are looking for a stopover from popular destinations like Fairbanks or Chena Hot Springs Resort, this is your spot!
Conclusion on winter activities in Alaska
Winter adventures in Alaska are truly a unique experience. This is one of the last places in America where residents remain in rhythm with mother nature. Come experience the locals’ love for this time of year and see how Alaskans live in harmony with all of the wonders this season has to offer.
Interested in traveling in Alaska? Visit the Alaska Travel Resources page.