Visiting Alaska in -20 degree weather turned out to be a much better idea than I thought it was going to be.
When my friends invited me on the Alaskan vacation they were planning, my first thought was "Alaska? In January? Have you met me???" I wear ski caps when the thermometer drops below 60 and only grudgingly put up with cold because I have to in order do somethings I love, such as skiing.
But there was no skiing planned, only an idea for a group of friends (15 in total) to go on an expedition to see the Northern Lights. And that is what sold me--a chance to see the Aurora Borealis. A chance to check off an elusive bucket list item. That's what got me on a cross-country plane flight to Fairbanks, Alaska hauling a suitcase stuffed with warm clothing.
Truth to tell, the Northern Lights were absolutely as cool as everyone says and absolutely worth the trek. I was kind of expecting that though. What I did not expect was that the other trip activities would turn out to be such fun despite the frigid cold. The dog-sledding, the snowmobiling, the hiking, and even just driving around spotting moose were blasts. If you are thinking of going to Alaska in the winter, don't let the temperatures put you off. If I can do it, anybody can.
Why You Should Go to Fairbanks in January
The Northern Lights
Since the sun sets around 5pm and rises around 9am, there is ample time to catch a glimpse of the lights in January. The skies also tend to be clearer in winter than late fall. And Fairbanks is one of the best places on Earth to view the Northern Lights. You have about a 90% chance of seeing them if you are here for 3 nights or more. That's some good odds.
It is cheap.
Everyone else is waiting for warmer weather so you can get great off-season deals on hotels and flights in January. It is also easier to book snowmobile tours, dog sleds, etc. March is the height of Aurora Borealis season and not nearly as cold, important stuff when you are talking about spending hours outside looking up. But prices jump accordingly so January and February start looking really good in comparison.
The light, period.
It may only be daylight for about 7 hours or so, but the sun really makes the most of it. The sunrise takes about 2 hours, creating a slow parade of changing oranges and blues that I dare you to take only one picture of.
Same goes for the 2 hour sunset. Even at mid-day, the sun is barely over the treetops. You might think it would be dark but the snow reflects so much light that it never is, especially as we were lucky to catch an almost full moon while we there. You could easily hike at night without a head lamp. I think the light might be my biggest surprise of the trip and one of the things I enjoyed most.
Where We Stayed
Best Western Plus Chena River Lodge. We mainly picked this hotel because of its proximity to the airport since we were arriving late (11pm). It was a great little place, not fancy, but surprisingly well done considering its inexpensive price ($80 for a king room). It was recently refurbished with comfortable beds, free toiletries, and a large selection for the included breakfast. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. (That $80 price jumps precipitously towards spring and summer though). A shout out to the nice front desk people who took the time to answer questions and gave advice about things to do in the area.
You could stay here for your whole trip, but it is not a great place for viewing the Northern Lights. Too much light pollution and the surrounding trees block the horizon. But there are lots of viewing areas nearby that people drive to and park for a few hours on lookout, so it is doable. (I can't imagine how cold this would be. It was cold just riding in the car, let alone parked.)
Aurora Nights Inn. We moved to this Airbnb house in Salcha for 3 nights of our trip. Salcha is about 45 min SE of Fairbanks, just outside of North Pole, where you can find a grocery store, liquor store, and some really good Chinese food (Pagoda Restaurant).
The place has 5 bedrooms that can be rented separately or you can rent the entire place as we did with our group of 15. The downstairs has 2 bunk rooms (one sleeps 6 and the other 5) and one toilet and one shower room. The upstairs has 3 rooms (they sleep 2-3 people) and 2 full bathrooms. There are kitchens on both floors and decent wifi (but not great, I wouldn't count on streaming movies).
There is also a 3 bedroom cabin on the property for rent that we did not use. The best selling point is the surrounding 5 acres that has great trails for hiking and dog-sledding. There is a huge open area around the house as well, making for great northern lights viewing.
***If you can spare the cash and want to be sure to see the lights- check out the Chena Hot Springs Resort. It is not as fancy as the name might suggest (or the price tag) but the hotel does sit on a natural hot spring and guests get unlimited swim passes. (Children can't go into hot spring pool due to its temperature but they can use the outdoor hot tub and the indoor pool.) A nice selling point is that you can request an "Aurora Wake- Up Call" and the front desk will call you if they see any action. The hotel also sits near the Chena River State Recreation Area so there are lots of hiking trails, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and other winter activities available on site.
What You Should Do
Plan on doing only 1-2 activities per day given the short amount of daylight and because you might be up all night seeing some spectacular light shows.
1. See the Northern Lights
It is possible to see the lights anytime it is dark, which is about 6pm to 8am in January in Fairbanks. The most common time to see them though, is 11pm-2am, although we did see the lights at 4am one night.
This NOAA site has good predictions based on current solar activity, just subtract 9 hours from the Universal Time (UT) shown at the top right to get the time in Alaska when you should be looking out your window. We saw lights all 4 nights we were there and one night we had a really good show.
The best way to make sure you see the lights is to set up a watch. We had a large group so it was relatively easy to give everyone a 30 minute shift from midnight to 7am. If you are not so lucky to be traveling with 14 other people then you need to prioritize.
Look at the predicting sites and make your best guess. The lights usually last around 30 minutes so try to check every 10-15 minutes during the predicted active periods. This website also has some good tips for predicting the lights. Plan on staying up until at least midnight or 1am though every night to be sure.
2. Dog Sledding
I was ambivalent about dog sledding before going. I was sure I would be too cold to really enjoy it, and I worried about the dogs. I don't have any problem with working animals but I find I don't enjoy myself if I feel they are being exploited simply for making money off tourists.
No worries there with Alaska's Trail King Adventures. Owner Mike King really loves his dogs, and he is a fantastic storyteller to boot (he has done the 1000 mile Yukon Quest 4 times). He brought the dogs to the Aurora Nights Inn so we could take turns doing 30 or 60 minute rides on the trails around the house. I signed up for the 30 minute ride (which covered 4 miles and was $100) and was kicking myself afterwards for not going for longer. It was -20 degrees when we started out but nobody complained of the cold. That's how awesome it was.
You can drive the sled or ride in the bucket (my favorite as it was nice and toasty in there) and Mike will stop at the halfway point to switch if you want. There isn't an age limit per se, but I think 13-14 is a ballpark minimum for driving if your child is reasonably level-headed.
It's fairly straight forward to drive (a brake, some leaning, where to put your feet) and the dogs basically just follow Mike on the lead sled. The dogs do get very excited though, especially on the first run, and will take off unexpectedly fast which can be scary to newbies.We split into 3 groups and by the time the last group was headed off, the dogs had settled down into a nice, easy pace. This would have been a perfect time to let younger kids try their hand at driving (if we had any with us).
As far as riding in the bucket, I think kids aged 3 and up would be okay, especially if you ride with them. I would double check with Mike about weight if that is your plan though. The ride is incredibly smooth--we even had a pregnant member of the group participate on the 30 minute ride without issue. And, I am pretty sure every kid I know would absolutely love this adventure. All the adults did.
I was hesitant to do this because, again, I was afraid of the cold and, again, I shouldn't have worried. Heated helmets with defrostable visors and heated handlebars on the snowmobiles made it very comfortable. We also borrowed some amazing boots from our guide. Nicknamed "bunny boots" because they are white, these are the bomb. There is a reason why you see all the locals wearing them. Borrow them if you can from whatever guide service you use.
We used Rod's Alaskan Guide Service for our tour and loved it. The first group saw moose but, alas, my group did not. We still, however, had a blast on the trails and I would highly recommend the excursion for anyone, even for children. Drivers need to be 14 but anyone over the age of 4 can be a passenger.
Cost was $125 for the first hour and $100 every additional hour for singles ($175 and $150 for doubles) so it isn't the cheapest activity but another that I felt was well worth the money. The sleds had governors that limited you to 40mph which was sad for some in our group, but probably a wise decision on Rod's part.
Yet another activity that I never thought I would do in sub-zero temperatures and yet another time I was wrong. We hiked just about 3 miles in the trails behind the Aurora Nights Inn braving the -15 degree weather. I loved the crunching snow and overwhelming quiet.
You can also find trails in Fairbanks on the University of Alaska's campus (description and maps) as well at Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge which is 5 min north of Fairbanks. The Refuge grooms trails for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking in the winter and has some short and flat loops, perfect for a quick walkabout. Both of these places are free and always open.
*A word about snowshoeing. It is super fun and super tiring after about 30 minutes in deep snow. The novelty wears off quickly. If you are walking on a groomed trail with decent shoes, you won't need snowshoes so don't bother unless you really feel a need to try it.
5. Driving Around
We looked at driving to Denali National Park one day but decided it would be too far from the Aurora Nights Inn in Salcha. We opted to head south to Isabel Pass in another part of the Alaska Range mountains instead. We followed the Tanana River down Richardson Highway for 90 minutes all the way to Delta Junction where we turned around due to time constraints and road conditions. So we never quite made it to the mountains, but it was a beautiful drive nonetheless and we saw 4 moose along the way. Another item checked off the Alaska to-do list: moose.
If you are staying in Fairbanks, then Denali National Park is a more reasonable option for a day trip. Keep in mind it will take you at least 2 hours each way if the roads are in decent condition.
*** Even though the snowplows/salt trucks are going constantly, the roads are still icy, as seen in the picture. We were told to aim for about 45-50 mph as our max, so it takes longer to get anywhere than you you think (or Google tells you). Stick a blanket or comforter from your lodgings in the backseat, it really helps to keep you warm on long drives.
6. Chena Hot Springs
I did not personally go to the Hot Springs but 5 of my group did, and it was recommended to us by many locals. The people who went raved about it. You start indoors, walk outside under a covered walkway with heat lamps, and sprint the last 10 feet to the man made lake that the hot spring flows into. Once in, they said the water was fantastic and incredibly warm, too hot in fact near the source. They had great pictures of ice crystals in their hair from the steam and they thoroughly enjoyed it. Prices were reasonable as well, $15 for adults (unlimited time) and $12 for kids (they can only go in the indoor pool and small hot tub outside).
I am not sure if you would be able to see the northern lights from the lake as my friends said the steam obscured everything beyond 10-15 feet. If you like hot tubs and don't have any kids under 18 (they are not allowed in the outside pool), this would be a great way to beat the cold. There is also an Ice Sculpture Museum on site (complete with an ice bar where you can sit and enjoy an appletini). The museum costs additional of course. Chena Hot Springs.
What You Should Take
Under Armour (or similar). Thick leggings and long-sleeved performance gear will be a life saver. Cotton is no good because if you sweat, it just freezes. Now you are really cold.
A wool sweater. Nothing beats a 100% wool sweater for warmth. My core was never cold the entire trip, even snowmobiling or dog-sledding.
Bibs. I used my Yukon Extremes Carhartt bibs that I have had for years and once again, they did me proud. I love these bibs. Others in the group had varying styles of ski bibs, pants, or knockoff Carhartt bibs to varying degrees of success. If you don't have some bibs you love, then borrow or rent a pair. Good bibs are your first line of defense against the cold.
Balaclava or ski mask. Your nose suffers the most in these temperatures and anything that keeps it covered will be used. A lot. Scarfs are also awesome, especially when just getting in and out of the car. After a few days, your runny nose and chapped lips will thank you. I found a balaclava plus a wool hat to be the perfect combo to keep my head warm and nose covered on the trail.
Ski goggles. These were particularly helpful on the dog sled and even just hiking. It prevented your eyelashes from freezing. Fogging was issue though so you need to get the balaclava + goggle arrangement just right.
Hand warmers. You want the real HotHands, not knockoffs. I tried several varieties of handwarmers and the HotHands were the warmest for the longest. Zippo hand warmers came in a close second and had the bonus of being reusable as long as the lighter fluid was refilled.
Warm shoes with good traction. A bit of a no brainer but I will specify that they don't need to be boots. I brought my low profile hiking shoes and paired with a cheap set of gaiters from Amazon, they worked fantastic. I had no problems with warmth or deep snow. (Caveat being, they did get a little cold if I stood still for long periods, hence I used the special boots that came with the snowmobile ride.) You can also buy a set of inexpensive YakTrax to fit over your warmest pair of shoes to turn them into instant snow shoes.
A really good pair of ski socks. I used my heaviest weight, knee-high SmartWool socks and my feet were great.
More is not better. A few good layers is warmer than many bad ones. If you can't move your feet, they will get colder faster. By about the third day, everybody had a combination that worked best for them and it wasn't always the most clothing.
Sunscreen. This seems silly in a place with only 7ish hours of sun a day in January but it really isn't. For one, what small amount of sun you see is reflected back from all the snow so your skin gets it from all angles. Plus the cold leaves your skin pretty chapped. Moisturizer with sunscreen was key here.
Tips to Know
- You must plug your car battery in to a wall outlet if you are going to leave it for more than 4 hours in sub -zero temperatures. Your rental car will come with an extension cord and every hotel or Airbnb should have outlets for you to use.
- All batteries, not just car batteries, hate the cold. My DSLR camera worked outside for about 15 minutes the first day and then opted to sit the rest of the trip out. GoPros and cell phones also had a limited working time although we found you could prolong a cellphone's life by keeping it in a jacket pocket with at least two hand warmers around it and whipping it out for short periods only.
- Car tires can freeze in a flattened position after being parked overnight. We drove off one morning and it felt as if we were the Flinstones, driving on square tires. It took a few miles but they did eventually warm up enough to become round and smooth again.
- Ice will form on the inside of the car windows. First time I have ever had to use an ice scraper on the inside of a car. Granted it was -27 outside. The faster you go, the faster it reforms. Front seat windows were okay as they caught some of the windshield defrost but backseat windows were terrible. Credit cards or driver's licenses as scrapers work best if you want to actually see all the moose you drive by.
- There are a few places to rent gear from in Fairbanks if you don't want to pay to check a suitcase or don't want to buy something just for this trip. Fairbanks Snowmobile Tours and Chena Hot Springs had gear rental on their websites but I would definitely call or email beforehand to make sure of availability. Many snowmobile and dog sledding places will also offer gear to their clients. Avail yourself of it, especially the boots.
- If you are driving anywhere, you should take all your gear with you plus a couple of hand warmers. Flat tires or dead batteries can be life- threatening in -20 degree weather. We just threw our bibs and extra gloves in the back anytime we got in the car.
- Sleep in your Under Armour so you can pop up quickly and throw on your bibs and boots if the northern lights are happening.
Inside Activities In Fairbanks (aka Things To Do That Are Not Freezing)
Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. A well-reviewed visitors center and mini-museum showcasing Alaska in the 4 seasons. A great place to stop in and ask questions about driving to Denali, places to view the northern lights, etc. It also has movies about Denali and the northern lights. All free, so it is a fun and cheap way to beat the cold for an hour or two. Open 8am-5pm in the winter.
University of Alaska Museum of the North. Another well-reviewed museum that has exhibits on the wildlife, people, and history of Alaska. Stuffed polar bears and seals are pretty cool but the intact 36,000 year old mummified bison looks to be a show stopper. Entrance fee is $14 adult and $8 kids and the museum is open 9-5 Mon-Sat in the winter. (We tried to visit on a Sunday which is why I don't know about the place first-hand.)
Breweries and Distilleries
Hoarfrost Distilling, Ursa Major Distilling, HooDoo Brewing Co., and Silver Gulch Brewery all have tasting rooms open generally from 4-8ish. Some are closed on Mondays, so check websites before you go. Silver Gulch also has an associated restaurant. We also tried Lavelle's Taphouse which carried a good selection of Alaskan beer and let you order pizza delivered to the taphouse. It is family friendly too.
Fun and Kooky Things To Do In North Pole, Alaska
Explore leftover ice sculptures. Next to the Santa Claus House, there was a small park with some very cool ice sculptures still hanging around from the Christmas in Ice Festival. (No danger of melting in these temperatures.) The Santa Claus House was closed until May for renovations, and I was sad to miss what I am sure is Christmas kitsch heaven. We said "Hi" to the reindeer in the fenced area and spent about 20 minutes walking around. The sculptures were huge and pretty nifty so stop in if you are nearby. The Santa Claus House located right off the interstate is hard to miss-take note of the 50ft tall statue of Santa outside.
Visit a Blockbuster. Introduce your kids to a nostalgic piece of your childhood or rewind down memory lane (Ha!) with a visit to one of the twelve remaining Blockbusters on Earth. Nine of these relics are in Alaska because of its extortionately expensive internet service. The one in North Pole is on Santa Claus Lane (your're humming now aren't you?) and has an unbelievably good tamale stand in the parking lot (Outlaw Tamales) so you can grab dinner on your way home with a movie.
Mythbuster Stunt You Should Totally Try
Throw a pot of boiling water in the air and watch it freeze. I mean if it's going to be this cold, you might as well have fun with it, right?
Alaska was an amazing experience in winter and I loved it, surprising myself and most people who know me. The cold wasn't nearly the issue I thought it would be; it just required some extra planning and some extra clothes. If you want to see the northern lights but can't afford high season prices, then definitely think about visiting Fairbanks in January. And don't forget to go dog sledding, you won't regret it.
And a special shout out to my friend Dave Ryan for letting me use some of his pictures! And to everybody else in the group for making this such a great experience. I would brave the cold with you guys anywhere.