Are you curious about the best time to visit Alaska? 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 you have to deal with snow and ice. 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. Visiting Alaska in winter is a great sustainable option that helps boost the local economy and diffuse mass tourism!
I went home to visit my family this winter (winter 2019), and my home state rewarded me with heavy snowfall followed by freezing temperatures which created this truly magical winter wonderland. I was reminded 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, and the best places to visit in Alaska in winter including a sample itinerary. While most local Alaskans live for those short summers, this Alaskan always had a soft spot for winter. *This post was recently updated in 2021.
15 Reasons to Visit Alaska in Winter
1. See Snowy Landscapes
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 our winters are still snow-filled winter wonderlands for now. So, head north to Alaska and see endless mountains covered with snow, icy 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, is tucked away among the mountains with amazing snow-filled trees and breathtaking inlet views from the ski slopes. Visiting Girdwood is one of my favorite things to do in Alaska in winter. The town is so cozy and especially comes alive during Christmas.
The slow and mesmerizing ice flows of Turnagain Arm make a beautiful foreground for mountain photos. We locals enjoy visiting Pt. Woronzof near Anchorage to see the ice flow, contrasting with a snowy skyline of Anchorage, and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot Denali Mountain from this location.
With well below freezing temperatures, the trees in Fairbanks have thick hoarfrost crystals hanging from their branches setting the scene for a winter wonderland. I don’t usually recommend driving to Fairbanks in the winter as the roads are pretty nasty, but you can take the Alaska Railroad or fly.
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. We, locals, like to go to Pt. Woronzof near Anchorage to see this ice flow with the snowy Anchorage skyline in the background. If you are lucky, you’ll see Denali, from this location, covered in snow on a clear winter day. You might even get the urge to see Denali National Park, something very few people experience in the winter. If you’re REALLY lucky you’ll catch the Northern Lights dancing in the sky offer once-in-a-lifetime views.
These photos were taken not too far from my family home in an area called the Kink flats. There is a hidden byway that connects Kink and Palmer. I highly recommend it for a scenic drive if you plan on visiting historic Palmer and visiting the Indigenous village of Kink. Along the scenic road, you’ll see Pioneer Peak, icy babbling brooks and mountains kissed with afternoon alpenglow. The side roads are very icy and not well maintained in the winter, so please drive with extreme caution.
2. Gaze at the Aurora Borealis
It always surprises me how many people head to Norway, Finland, or Iceland to see the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights when Alaska 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.
Finding the N. Lights can be like a scavenger hunt on level 99. Growing up, I would get so excited when my parents would wake me up in the middle of a cold February night. We would bundle up and drive out to Hatcher’s Pass to see the show. The best way to see the lights is to book a guided tour with a local Alaskan company. A guided tour is your best bet to find the lights and learn some tips on photographing them. Since seeing the Northern Lights is never a guarantee, most companies offering tours provide insurance or a backup plan in the event of no lights. Usually, the best time to see the lights is in February, but you should 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, then Alaska is for you. If Alaskans are known for something, it is enjoying the great outdoors to the fullest in the rain, snow, or shine. In winter, there are plenty of options for skiing, snowboarding, snow machining, tubing, cross country skiing, scuba diving – yeah, you heard me right – ice fishing, kayaking, fat biking, ice climbing, snowshoeing, and much much more. Some of the best places for snow sports are Alyeska, Kincaid for Fat Biking, and Eagle River for X-country ski trails.
If you’re an independent traveler with cold climate training, then you can rent gear and head out on your own. 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. Cruise season means thousands of people arrive in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward, Juneau, and Sitka, all simultaneously. Sometimes the cruise ships carry more people than the population of our small towns. Tour excursions book up quickly, it is impossible to find seats at the best restaurants, and the stunning nature can be tainted by swarms of people.
To enjoy the best Alaska has to offer – avoid the crowds, and take time to enjoy traveling at a slower pace with the freedom to book things on a whim and travel wherever your heart takes you. If you are an introvert like me, you’ll love the quiet serenity that comes with visiting Alaska in winter.
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 because their parking space was taken. We love tourists, we really do, just sometimes having thousands of them in one place at one time is a bit much. 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 ensures you will have genuine connections with the locals. Head to a bar like Darwins and strike up a conversation with the 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. A lot of these businesses that close aren’t owned by year-long Alaskans, and many of them spend their winter’s down south. My sister’s restaurant drastically cuts back hours, making her budget much tighter in the winter, but during the summer she works non-stop. This boom or bust cycle leads to burnout and stress in locals. The businesses that do say open providing stable work for full-time employees, such as Denali Brewing + Spirits Company in Talkeetna, don’t actually make a profit in the winter, but they do it to keep the economy running.
Every penny you spend in Alaska during the winter ensure more businesses can stay open and more locals have the income to provide for themselves and their family. So, head downtown to my sister’s restaurant called Ginger and ask for Cat! Or meander up to Talkeetna and visit the Denali Brewing taproom and order a local spirit to stay warm and support the economy!
7. See Glaciers up Close
It’s no secret that glaciers melt in the summer. Summer glaciers are often covered in dirt and rocks as they melt away. While seeing glaciers at any time of the year can be a treat, they are more magnificent in winter. In winter they are often a pristine white with cracks seeming to radiate that beautiful glacial blue. Full disclosure some glaciers, like Exit Glacier, are very hard to access in the winter, as the walking trails are snow-covered. Therefore, I always recommended you hire a knowledgeable 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 people always ask me is, “how did you survive the long dark winters?” The winters do come with their challenges. In fact, Alaska has one of the highest rates of depression in the United States. My recommendation for surviving the winter is to find personal ways to light up the darkness. There is something special about cozying up in a warm blanket with a hot cup of tea as you stare into the starry sky at 5 pm. Get ready to 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. Some of my greatest inspiration comes from writing away at a local cafe like the Writer’s Block staring out the window and finding darkness. – I’m not emo, I swear!
9. Visit National Parks in the winter
Alaska has some of the world’s best National Parks and pristine ecosystems. 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 to Exit Glacier. In the town of Seward, you can book a backcountry boat tour into the National Park to see 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 visiting. My friends and I always enjoy skiing out to a backcountry cabin, which is a great way to get 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 best 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 snow-filled 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 book tickets to Fairbanks or Talkeetna and plan your own adventure before returning. Riding the Alaska Railroad is one of the top things to do in Alaska no matter the season. Every trip home I make sure I take full advantage of this amazing experience.
11. Warm-up With Spirits, Coffee, and Hearty Food
Alaskans 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 – 40 temperatures. I actually took the photo (below) on a day when it was -40 haha. Thanks to my parents for being my designated drivers and braving the cold to drive to Talkeetna so I could drink all the spirits.
In Alaska, we have a joke 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 – Take that Starbucks-filled Washington! 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. If you’re in Juneau stop by Indigenous-owned Sacred Grounds. You won’t be disappointed.
Who doesn’t love a thick creamy soup in the middle of winter? Alaska has some of the best and freshest seafood chowder I’ve ever had. Here, the chowders have large chunks of salmon, crab, and seafood caught fresh and sustainably in Alaskan waters. So, order up a bowl and warm up from the cold weather outside. Honestly, I’ve never had lousy chowder in Alaska, and 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, called the World Ice Art Championships. This event usually takes place in March. Some of the sculptures are so large they tower over you. I remember the last time I went, a massive ice sperm whale fought with an equally giant Kraken – both frozen in time. It was mind-blowing! There are even interactive sculptures like ice slides and fake phone booths. Down in downtown Anchorage, during the Fur Rendezvous, you’ll see plenty of snow sculptures during their competition.
13. Take a Dip in Hot Springs
If you’re in Fairbanks, you must visit Chena Hot Springs to 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. While you’re in the area you can visit the Ice Hotel and Ice Bar. I’m not totally sure you want to be surrounded by ice when it’s already cold AF out, but hey, only the daring venture to Alaska in winter. Are you one of them?
14. See Winter Wildlife
I love taking a walk after a fresh snowfall to see all the animal tracks while looking for the animals that made them. On a snowy trail, it is not uncommon to see white hares and ptarmigans – our state bird. These animals are not white in the summer, and they camouflage into the landscape perfectly. 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 or the beginning of March, you’ll be able to see the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage. The Iditarod 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 event 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.
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. 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. For more things to do in Anchorage – check out my mega list of 70 things we locals enjoy doing in Anchorage. Recommended stay: two 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 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. Many tour operators offer 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 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 towns in Alaska if I do say so myself. Ditch the car in Anchorage and head up to Talkeetna on the train. You can book one of their special packages for a pie-making excursion or take time on your own to chat with the friendly locals. Denali Brewing Company offers brewery tours, a taproom, and a pub house that remain open in the winter. Make sure you stay overnight or in the Talkeetna Lodge or Inn for the weekend 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 journey on the Alaskan Railroad to Alaska’s frozen heart. With cold temperatures and some of the best Aurora viewing chances, 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. 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. Seeing Juneau without the summer crowds is a real treat. If you have time to spare, head over to Juneau, Alaska, to see the Mendenhall glacier caves in winter. Drink coffee at Sacred 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 great 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.