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Most people visit Alaska in the summer, taking advantage of the easy cruise packages. I get it; navigating Alaska without the convenience of a cruise ship is a bit nerve-wracking, especially when there are snow and ice to deal with. However, visiting Alaska in winter can be one of the most rewarding trips you will ever take. Easily comparable to Finland or Norway, Alaska offers Northern Lights tours, snowy landscapes, world-class skiing, and your favorite winter activities. There are even some great local tour companies to help you plan and coordinate a trip, so you can sit back and relax while you enjoy Alaska like a true winter wonderland.
I went home to visit my family this winter and I was rewarded with heavy snowfall followed by freezing temperatures reminding me why I love Alaska in the winter so much. I’ll share some of my favorite reasons to visit Alaska in the winter, tour companies to help you plan a winter getaway, the best places to visit in Alaska in winter and a sample itinerary.
One of the best things about visiting Alaska in winter is all the snowy landscapes that look straight out of a scene from Frozen. Alaskan winters are changing with global warming, but for now, our winters are still snow-filled winter wonderlands. So, head north to Alaska and see endless mountains covered with snow, river banks with fluffy snow building up, and pine trees heavy laden with fat frost crystals.
Our cities might not be as picturesque as a snowy European town, but the real beauty lies outside the city and in nature. Girdwood the ski town tucked away among the mountains with amazing snow-laden trees and breathtaking inlet views from the ski slopes. If you take the scenic route to Palmer, you’ll find icy babbling brooks and mountains kissed with afternoon sun. The slow and mesmerizing ice flows of Turnagain Arm make a beautiful foreground for mountain photos. Fairbanks trees with hoarfrost set the scene for a winter wonderland. The Northern Lights dancing in the sky offer once in a lifetime views. Snow filled Denali National Park is something very few people see. These are the winter landscapes that make visiting Alaska in winter worth the trek.
It always surprises me how many people head to Norway, Finland, or Iceland to see the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights when Anchorage is a bit more budget-friendly and has just as marvelous of a light show. There’s nothing quite like standing under the clear sky and watching the lights dance with mountains in the background and a peaceful calm washing over you.
The best way to see the lights is to book a guided tour with a local Alaskan company. They are your best bet to find the lights and learn some tips on how to photograph them. Since seeing the Northern Lights is never a guarantee, most of the companies offering tours provide insurance or a backup plan in the event of no lights. You can always check the aurora forecast and book a last mixture trip for the best possible way to see the lights.
3. Try Winter Sports
If you are an active person who loves the outdoors no matter the season, in fact, snow makes it better than Alaska is for you. If Alaskans are known for something, it is enjoying the great outdoors to the fullest. In winter there are plenty of options for skiing, snowboarding, tubing, cross country skiing, scuba diving – yeah, you heard me right – ice fishing, kayaking, fat biking, ice climbing, snowshoeing and much much more.
If you’re an independent traveler, then you can rent your own gear at places like this. However, Alaska is a vast wilderness full of dangers, and it is easy to find yourself unprepared for the situation either by getting lost or not having the proper gear. I highly suggest you book an adventure with experts, such as Ascending Path, to maximize your time in Alaska.
4. Avoid the Crowds
Alaska suffers from serious over-tourism during cruise ship landings in the summer. That means massive amounts of people arrive in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward, Juneau, and Sitka, all at the same time. Tour excursions book up quickly, it is impossible to find seats at the best restaurants, and the stunning wilderness is tainted by swarms of people.
To enjoy the best Alaska has to offer to avoid the crowds and take time to slowly enjoy traveling at a slower pace with the freedom to book things on a whim and travel wherever your heart takes you.
5. Get to Know the Locals
Because of the summer crowds, most locals avoid downtown areas. When they do venture into the more popular areas, they are often working, and a bit stressed by the overtourism or cranky that the cruise ship levels of visitors are making life a significant inconvenience for them.
All this makes connecting with locals genuinely more difficult. And, if I am, to be honest, connecting with locals is one of the highlights of visiting Alaska. I always say the people here are authentic versions of themselves without conforming to society. So, visiting in the winter, when people are happy to see outsiders and visitors, ensure you will have some great connections with the locals. Head to a bar like Darwins and strike up a conversation with the regular local characters and find out what life is really like during the long dark winters.
6. Support a Sustainable Economy
Continuing my theme of diffusing mass over-tourism contributed by the summer cruise ships, let’s talk about supporting a year-round sustainable economy in Alaska. Many businesses shut their doors in the winter, laying off hundreds, if not thousands of employees. The restaurant my sister works at drastically cuts back hours, making her budget much tighter in the winter. The businesses that do say open to provide stable work for full-time employees, such as Denali Brewing + Spirits Company in Talkeeta, don’t make a profit in the winter. Every penny you spend in the winter ensure more businesses can stay open and more locals have the income to provide for themselves and their family. So, head to Talkeetna and visit the Denali Brewing tap room and drink to stay warm and support the economy!
7. See Glaciers up Close
It’s no secret that glaciers melt in the summer often covered in dirt and rocks as they melt away. While seeing glaciers at any time of the year can be a treat, seeing glaciers in the winter is not only safer, but you can see them at full strength with their deep blue cracks vibrant against the snowy landscape. It is always recommended you hire a knowledgable local guide, such as the Matanuska Glacier Guides, so you can be outfitted with the proper gear to keep you safe.
8. Embrace the Darkness
Growing up in Alaska, one of the main questions I people always ask me is, “how did you survive the long dark winters?” The winters do come with their challenges, but there is something special about cozying up in bundles of warm blankets and mugs of coffee as you stare into the starry sky at 5 pm and hunker down for the long night. I find the darkness oddly inspiring for writers or artists looking for inspiration, or those seeking life’s greatest comforts.
9. Visit National Parks in the Winter
Alaska has some of the world’s best National Parks with thousands of miles traversing the wilderness; our parks are wild and magnificent even in the winter. Denali National Park offers excellent skiing, biking, snowshoeing, and educational opportunities in the winter. In Kenai Fjords National Park, you can ski, bike, snowshoe, or book a tour out to Exit Glacier. In the town of Seward, you can book a backcountry boat tour into the National Park to see pristine snow-filled beaches and glaciers feeding off the Harding Ice Field. Glacier Bay National Park is also open year-round with minimal services, but the wildlife sightings will be worth the visit. Backcountry cabins offer a look at the true winter lifestyle in remote Alaska.
10. Ride the Aurora Winter Train
The Alaska Railroad runs full steam ahead in the winter, offering access to some of Alaska’s most pristine untouched winter landscapes. Take the train up to Fairbanks for an Aurora viewing trip, head down to Talkeetna for a pie-making class, or see the winter view of Denali Mountain. The Alaska Railroad has seven winter packages offering a range of overnight trips to an 8 day Arctic Circle experience to see the best of winter in Alaska. You can also just book tickets to Fairbanks or Talkeetna and plan your own adventure before returning.
11. Warm-up With Spirits, Coffee, and Hearty Food
Alaskan’s know how to stay warm in the winter! It’s easy with such a booming spirits industry. Distilleries are popping up all over Alaska, and the three-five year whiskeys are finally emerging. Warm up with a nice bourbon from Port Chilkoot Distillery in Sitka. With the crazy drops in barometric pressure, this bourbon is unlike anything you’ve tasted. Sip on the wonderful coffee whiskey from Talkeetna’s Denali Spirits a perfect blend of local Alaskan roasted coffee and small batch whiskey. When you’re up in Fairbanks warm up with vodka distilled in a historic city hall from Fairbanks Distilling Company. These Alaskan spirits will keep you warm and cozy despite the temperatures.
We have a joke in Alaska that you can navigate our entire road system based on coffee kiosk locations. Need to get to Seward? Take a left at Rush Coffee cart and drive straight on till morning. In fact, Alaska has more coffee shops per capita than any other state in the nation! If you’re in Anchorage don’t miss Uncle Leroys for a Chagga Chai (a fungus that grows on Alaskan trees). Make sure you grab your to-go cup and pull up at any of the coffee carts sprawling from Seward – Fairbanks. You won’t be disappointed.
Who doesn’t love a thick, soup in the middle of winter? Alaska has some of the best and freshest seafood chowder I’ve ever had. The chowders here have large chunks of salmon, crab, and seafood caught sustainably in Alaskan waters. So, order up a bowl and warm up from the cold weather outside. Honestly, I’ve never had bad chowder in Alaska – except maybe at Hard Rock. So, as long as you stick to local places along the coast in Juneau, Anchorage, and Seward you’ll be just fine.
12. Ice and Snow Sculptures
Fairbanks has one of the world’s largest ice sculpture events in the start of March, called the World Ice Art Championships. Some of the sculptures are so large they tower over you. I remember the last time I went there was a massive ice sperm whale fighting with an equally as large kraken. It was mind-blowing! There are even interactive sculptures like ice slides and fake phone booths. Down in Anchorage, during the Fur Rendezvous, you’ll see plenty of snow sculptures during their competition.
If you’re in Fairbanks, then you must visit Chena Hot Springs to take a dip in the hot thermal waters. It can sometimes get to be -40 in Fairbanks, so as you swim in hot water, your eyelashes crystalize, and it is an experience unlike anywhere else. This isn’t for the faint of heart, but the waters are plenty warm to keep you satisfied.
14. See Winter Wildlife
I love taking a walk after a fresh snowfall to see all the animal tracks and looking for the animals that made them. On a snowy trail, it is not uncommon to see white hares and ptarmigans – our state bird. Eagles, moose, and Dall sheep are all common as well. If you head to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center or on a wildlife tour with Seward Ocean Expeditions, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of wildlife sightings.
15. Iditarod Ceremonial Start
If you plan your trip around the end of February beginning or March you’ll be able to see the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage. This takes place the first Saturday in March with the Fur Rondy fest leading up to the event. Book early and be prepared for crowds as this is an event that brings together all of Alaska from Indigenous villages to the scattered cities throughout the state.
Alaskan Tour Companies Operating in Winter
These tour companies and operators are open year-round to help you plan and ensure you have the best experience visiting Alaska in the winter.
Alaska Private Touring : An all-inclusive local tour company that can plan a full winter holiday for you in Alaska, including all the highlights of winter.
Salmon Berry Tours : An all-inclusive local tour company that can plan a full winter holiday for you in Alaska including all the highlights of winter
Rust’s Flightseeing Tours: Rust’s offers winter flightseeing tours based out of Anchorage.
Ascending Path: An outdoor adventure company offering snowshoeing and other winter activities.
Seward Ocean Expedition: A small family-owned boat company out of Seward offering wildlife viewing, photography tours, remote skiing or snowshoeing adventures, and even scuba activities in the winter.
Adventure 60 North: An outdoor company based in Seward offering access to Kenai Fjords National Park via biking, skiing, or snowshoeing.
Northern Alaska Tour Company: A flightseeing and tour company based out of Fairbanks Alaska offering Denali and Arctic Circle excursions.
Northern Alaska Tour Company: A flightseeing and tour company based out of Fairbanks Alaska offering Denali and Arctic Circle excursions.
Trygg Air: See walrus and other wildlife out of Bristol Bay with wildlife flightseeing tours.
Alaska Railroad: Alaska’s railroad is connecting Fairbanks and Anchorage in the winter.
Alaska Wildlife Guide: A tour operator based in Fairbanks offering snowmachine tours, aurora tours, and more.
AK Finest: A native-owned tour company, is offering city tours of Anchorage and the surrounding area.
Anchorage Downtown Tour Group: A native-owned tour operator is planning custom and special tours for winter exploration.
Greatland Adventures: A tour company based in Anchorage offering everything from fat-biking, ice climbing, glacier viewings, and northern lights tours.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center: An ethical way to see Alaska’s wildlife playing in the snow!
Best Places to Visit in Alaska in Winter
Most places in the state are worth visiting in the winter, however, many areas close for the winter, such as certain roads, or rail tracks. I recommend booking a multi-day winter vacation with Salmon Berry or Alaska Private Touring, but for the independent travelers, here are my favorite places to visit in Alaska during the winter with a sample itinerary.
Anchorage: is our largest city and therefore one of the best places to visit in the winter. Most restaurants, stores, hotels, and cafes are open year-round, so you’ll have plenty to do no matter the weather. Make sure to go ice skating at Westchester Lagoon, cross country skiing at Kincaid Park, flightseeing with Rust’s, fat biking with Greatland Adventures, and a city tour with AK Finest. I recommend flying into Anchorage. Recommended stay 2 days.
Girdwood: is a great place to visit in Alaska during the winter because our largest ski resort is there, and the town comes alive in the winter. For confident drivers, rent a car and drive from Anchorage to Girdwood. Along the way, you’ll see Dall Sheep, ice flows, and frozen waterfalls. Once in Girdwood, stay at the Alyeska Hotel and Resort for luxury skiing, spa experiences, dining, and more. For larger groups, book a condo for an epic ski holiday. Dance the night away at the Sitzmark and head into downtown Girdwood for coffee. Recommended stay 2-3 full days.
Seward: is one of my favorite places to visit in winter. Continue your winter road trip from Girdwood to Seward. The locals in Seward are incredibly friendly, and the lull of winter brings out the best in them. So many tour operators offering exclusive winter packages, and I recommend booking a sightseeing tour with Seward Ocean Excursions to see hidden parts of Kenai Fjords National Park. Make sure to visit the Sealife Center and wander the downtown for cute boutique shops selling handmade gifts. Stay at Angels Rest Lodging for an intimate experience. Recommended stay: 2 full days
You can return to Anchorage and fly home, making this a shorter 7-day trip, or you can continue north to Fairbanks for a long winter holiday. Or you could start in Anchorage and head straight north to Talkeetna and onto Fairbanks.
Talkeetna: is the most charming town in Alaska if I do say so myself. Ditch the car in Anchorage before heading up to Talkeetna on the train. You can book one of their special packages for a pie making excursion, or just take time on your own to appreciate the friendly loals. Denali Brewing Company offers brewery tours, a taproom, and a pub house that remain open in the winter. Make sure you stay overnight or for the weekend in the Talkeetna Lodge or Inn with special winter rates. Book an Aurora photography workshop with Aurora Dora. Recommended stay: 2 full days.
Fairbanks: is Alaska’s second-largest city, and if anyone knows how to do winter right, it is the Fairbanks locals. Continue your jounry on the Alaskan railroad to Alaska’s frozen heart, Fairbanks. With freezing cold temperatures and some of the best Aurora viewing changes, Fairbanks should be high on your places to visit in Alaska in the winter. Make sure to visit Chena Hot springs and the Ice sculptures. Book an excursion with Norther Alaska Tours to visit the Arctic Circle. Stay at Pikes Waterfront Lodge, so stay near the frozen Chena and special winter packages. Recommended stay: 2-3 full days depending on excursions.
If you still have extra time and extra money to burn, book a flight to Juneau!
Juneau: is quiet in the winter, but the locals know how to make the best of the cold season. If you have time to spare head over to Juneau, Alaska, to see the Mendenhall glacier caves in winter. Drink coffee at common grounds, and stay at beachside villa suites.
Get Inspired to Visit Alaska in Winter
Get inspired to visit Alaska this winter ! Make sure to pin all these amazing reasons to visit Alaska in winter, including the best places to visit in Alaska in winter, to your winter wonderland board. Let me know in the comments why you want to visit Alaska this winter.
Susanna grew up in small-town Alaska where the changing climate was always on her mind. Through traveling, she gained an interest in the power of sustainable and regenerative travel. She now attends a Master's program for Ecology and bridges sustainable travel with the science of ecology.