Alaska is a popular vacation destination in the summer months, but most tourists miss some of its most spectacular qualities that are only available in the winter. Unlike many people wrongly assume, Alaska is not always dark and cold during the winter. Winter is the best time to capture the scenery and enjoy thrilling outdoor recreational opportunities.
From May to September, world travelers flock to Alaska’s shores. They pack cruise ships to see stunning glaciers and wildlife. Charter fishing boats fill up with novices hoping to reel in some delicious halibut and salmon to ship home. Crowded buses and trains carry binocular-toting tourists into the vast interior regions, where they see jagged peaks and fierce beasts. The state’s population swells as young people take summer jobs in hotels and on cruise ships.
But as the leaves turn and the last cruise ship departs, the vast wonder of Alaska remains. Residents switch their tires over to studs as they see the first snow collecting on nearby peaks. They begin to unpack their winter toys. They grin because they know what the tourists don’t—true Alaskan beauty and adventure are about to be unveiled.
Alaska in Winter
Southcentral Alaska is generally the best vacationer’s destination in the winter months. This area is the state’s population center and has many attractions that are accessible by road. It includes Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley, the Kenai Peninsula, and Valdez and Cordova. This region has mild winters when compared too much of the rest of the state due to its proximity to the coast. While there is more on the ground from about October to April, the winter months consist of many calm and clear days. In the later winter months of February and March, the high temperatures are in the 20s and 30s. The air is dry, so it doesn’t feel as cold as it might be.
Since the region is hundreds of miles south of the Arctic Circle, it also doesn’t have extreme darkness. During the shortest days of December, Southcentral Alaskans see about five hours of daylight. By February and March, the area has between ten and twelve hours of daylight.
Southcentral Alaska sits in the valleys of some spectacular snowy peaks. The mountains iridescently glow purple, pink, and orange during long-lasting sunrises and sunsets. You need only step outside and look up to capture this beauty, even if you are in downtown Anchorage – a great viewing place for Mount McKinley. The tallest peak in North America is often hidden from view during the rainy summer months but is usually visible during the winter. Good viewing locations include Earthquake Park, Airport Park, and Kincaid Park.
If you’re near the water you may catch a glimpse of a strangely beautiful sight among the mudflats of Cook Inlet and the Knik Arm. Huge, muddy chunks of ice litter the shore, while broken sheets of ice flow on top of the ocean current. The huge span of the tide here is the cause. As the powerful waters move in and out, they toss the ice around, building it up and breaking it apart at the same time.
If you are an outdoor enthusiast, bring your gear. Alyeska Resort, located in the town of Girdwood just south of Anchorage has some of the most thrilling and scenic downhill skiing and snowboarding in the country. Or if you’re an expert, take a helicopter ride to fresh powder for an unforgettable backcountry experience.
Snowshoeing, sledding, and cross-country skiing are popular pastimes that don’t cost a dime beyond your equipment. Local shops offer rentals if you don’t have your own. The Southcentral region has an abundance of trails inside and outside of city limits. The expanse of the Mat-Su valley and its peaks is a great place to go off the trail.
A description of Alaskan recreation wouldn’t be complete without mentioning snowmobiling. Most visitors can’t pack a huge machine, which is why there are several rental facilities. The Kenai Peninsula offers some great trails as well as some open hill terrain that beckon those who enjoy adrenaline rushes.
Not only is there plenty of snow to go around, but there’s ice too. Dozens of frozen ponds and small lakes stocked with salmon and trout are great for ice fishing and skating. Or if you’re really adventurous, enjoy some guided ice climbing on the area’s frozen cliffs.
The Elusive Aurora
If you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. You have to be looking, or you might miss it. You should be somewhere dark, away from the glare of city lights. Check with the forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the best viewing times and locations. The Aurora is sometimes visible in Southcentral Alaska, but you have a better chance of spotting it if you go farther north. One destination worth visiting is the resort at Chena Hot Springs, which is about an hour outside Fairbanks. This haven in the frozen interior of Alaska runs all of its facilities on geothermal energy and offers some of the best and most consistent views.
Iditarod and Fur Rondy
Winter in Alaska go out with a bang. In March, before the snow and ice turn to slush, the Iditarod race begins. The world championship sleds dog race begins ceremonially in Anchorage. During the week leading up to it, a cultural festival called the Fur Rendezvous (Fur Rondy) in downtown Anchorage features ice sculptures, Alaska Native cultural exhibits, and a host of family activities. Then the real race begins out of Willow, in the Mat-Su Valley, and goes a thousand miles to Nome.
Tips for Travel
If winter in Alaska beckons you, come prepared with the right gear. Bring non-cotton, water-wicking clothing, and outerwear that is certified for use in sub-zero temperatures Choose the time of winter that best suits your needs Finally, book plans in advance, but be sure to leave yourself some flexibility to simply take it all in.