Many people plan a visit to Alaska in the summer months, but what if I told you visiting Alaska in the winter may be one of the best times? Yes, it’s very cold, but there are so many winter activities to take part in if you love being outdoors. Fairbanks in winter has a particularly wide array of activities to choose from.
When my good friend Valerie invited me to explore Alaska in the winter with her, I was stoked. I’ve only been there in the spring and summer, so I wanted to see what it was like during the coldest time of the year.
While many people in Seattle in the winter choose to go somewhere warmer, I packed my warmest clothes and prepared to go somewhere much colder. Here are my travel tips and ideas of what to do in Fairbanks in winter.
This post is sponsored by Explore Fairbanks, but all opinions are my own.
Travel Tips for Winter in Fairbanks
You will need to prepare for your trip to Fairbanks, as it gets pretty cold in the winter. The temperature can be anywhere from 20°F to -40°F depending on the day. You might experience drastic changes in weather day to day.
Here are a few items I recommend putting on your packing list:
- Warm jacket – Having a warm jacket with a hood is the bare minimum you need for a winter trip.
- Snow pants – You’ll also want snow pants for any winter activities in Fairbanks that you do and to keep you warm.
- Warm hat with balaclava – While I had a hat with me, I wish I brought a balaclava as well to protect from the cold weather and wind.
- Gloves – Your hands will get cold fast during activities where you’re not moving.
If you don’t want to buy clothing for this trip, as you won’t have a use for it elsewhere, there are many stores in town where you can rent your clothing and equipment. That may be the best idea if you want to save money.
Best Things to Do in Fairbanks in Winter
Learn About Alaska’s History
One of the first things to do in winter in Fairbanks that you should put on your itinerary is visiting the Museum of the North. I always love going to museums on the first day of a trip to understand the history of the area before I explore more.
Some of the areas you won’t want to miss include the following:
- C. J. Berry Gold Exhibit – The largest gold collection in Alaska is housed here, and it’s pretty impressive. You’ll see gold flakes, nuggets, and even spoons made of gold.
- Blue Babe – This exhibit is a 36,000-year-old mummified Alaska steppe bison that was found in the permafrost. The fact that the animal is in such good shape from that many years ago is absolutely astonishing.
- Woolly mammoth – You can see a giant woolly mammoth skull and tusks that were also preserved in the permafrost. Based on the size of these, I can only begin to imagine how big these animals were.
- Otto Bear – If you’ve ever wanted a safe way to take a selfie with a bear, take advantage of standing next to this bear that’s almost 9 feet tall.
The museum is located at the University of Alaska and is open in the winter Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission is $16 for adults 13 and over and $14 for those 65 and older.
See Antique Cars and Clothes
I’m not normally into cars that much, but the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is captivating. There are over 80 vehicles in this museum, such as electric cars, horseless carriages, and motorcycles. Everything is indoors, making it a perfect winter activity in Fairbanks.
One of the coolest facts about the museum is that all the automobiles are driveable, as the owner takes them out at least once a year. All of the cars are in amazing condition.
Another part I loved is the owner’s wife took the time to pair clothing from each time period with every car. It was so fun seeing how fashion changed throughout the year, not to mention the hemlines.
Make sure to leave time for a photo shoot at the end. There’s a car you can climb into and clothes you can put on to pretend you’re driving into town back in the day.
Admission is $12 per adult and the museum is open Wednesdays and Sundays from noon to 6:00 pm in the winter.
Chase the Northern Lights
One of the best things to do in Fairbanks in winter is to see the Northern Lights. This was one of the main reasons for my trip and I was so thankful to have a chance to experience them. I had visited Iceland in the winter a few years ago but didn’t see them come out during that trip.
On nights when it’s strong, you may be able to see them from your hotel room. Otherwise, you’ll need to get away from Fairbanks to have less light pollution.
The main factor to keep in mind when looking for the Aurora Borealis is to have patience. You never know when they’ll come out, and you’ll likely need to wait until at least midnight to see them. Sometimes they’re strongest at 3 or 4 am depending on the night.
There are numerous Northern Lights tours you can go on if you want to be with an expert who will take you somewhere you can view them. I personally recommend the following that I met when in Alaska:
If you’re looking for small group photography tours, I recommend booking one with Aurora Bear. Run by the amazing photographer Frank Stelges, you’ll have the chance to see the Aurora from his house that’s far away from the city. This is one of the more intimate places to see the Northern Lights in Fairbanks.
They offer different packages, such as beginner and advanced photography workshops. Frank looked at my camera and changed a handful of settings I hadn’t even heard of before, and I’ve been shooting for years. He is incredibly helpful and knowledgable when it comes to shooting at night.
If you don’t have your own camera, he has camera bodies, lenses, and tripods that you can borrow. You can read all his amazing reviews on TripAdvisor, but I guarantee you’ll have a great time.
Watching the Northern Lights from Aurora Pointe is a different type of experience, but was also a blast. You’ll have a larger group with you, but it was fun to feed off people’s excitement. Your guides are also knowledgable in photography and are happy to help you with your camera’s settings.
This is a great place to see the Northern Lights in Fairbanks, as it’s only 15 minutes from downtown if you’re staying there. You can also choose to stay at Taste of Alaska, which is the lodge associated with it and only a few minutes away.
This cozy event center has couches and tables scattered throughout it so you can relax while you wait for the lights to show up. It’s warm and there’s even a fireplace to stand next to after you come in from a round of photography.
They also provide coffee, hot chocolate, water, wine, and cookies for free. Chips and soda are available to purchase. The center also has plenty of board games to play with your group while you wait.
One of the parts I liked most about this place was a monitor that’s up showing the current sky outside. That means you don’t have to constantly go outside to make sure you’re not missing anything.
You can read reviews on TripAdvisor before you book, but everyone in my group left with a smile on their face so I’m positive you’ll enjoy your time.
While there are many tours available, I recommend booking a few different ones during your time in Fairbanks so you can experience different locations.
Walk With Reindeer
When I think of reindeer, I think of Santa and his magical reindeer. That’s why I was filled with excitement when I found out I could visit reindeer and walk with them through a forest.
At Running Reindeer Ranch, you’ll have the chance to learn all about reindeer and what makes them special. The owner is the biggest reindeer lover I’ve ever met, and her excitement radiates off her.
After you get the rundown on reindeer and how to act around them, you get to go out and see them. I found them funny, as they’re used to people and will just push right past you. You’ll get to walk through the boreal forest on the property and watch the reindeer eat, play, and relax.
There’s even a chance to get your picture taken with them, so make sure you bring your camera. When you’re done with the walk, you’ll go inside to warm up with hot chocolate and fresh-baked cookies.
This is rated on TripAdvisor as one of the top things to do in Fairbanks in winter, so I recommend booking your spot in advance. My group was completely full.
Soak in Hot Springs
Warming up in hot springs is an ideal Fairbanks winter activity, as it feels incredible to soak in the warm water while surrounded by snow. The most popular hot springs in Fairbanks are at Chena Hot Springs Resort, which is about 1.5 hours east of Fairbanks.
I’ll get more into the specifics of the resort in the where to stay section, but this is another must-do when visiting Fairbanks in winter. You can drive up to the hot springs on your own for the day or go with a tour bus.
The hot springs are open every day from 7 am to 11:45 pm. That means you just might be lucky enough to be in the hot springs when the Aurora Borealis comes out.
If you aren’t staying at the resort, the rate for a day pass is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, and $12 for children. There are lockers inside the locker rooms that take quarters (a change machine is in the lobby), and you can rent a locker for 50 cents. Towels cost $5 each if you don’t bring your own.
In addition to the hot springs, there is an indoor pool and two hot tubs. You have to be 18 or older to go in the hot springs though, so kids will need to stay at the indoor pool.
Pretend Every Day is Christmas
Have you always wanted to visit the North Pole? Now you can (kind of) by stopping in the city of North Pole, Alaska. This is a regular town, but it is decorated like Christmas with fun features like the light poles wrapped like candy canes.
The biggest draw to this town is Santa Clause House. This giant store has a cafe full of Christmas-themed drinks and sweets to enjoy. There’s also everything Christmas here, from ornaments to sweatshirts to coffee mugs. I came in here as an observer and walked away with many souvenirs (just try to not buy something).
You can also visit Santa during select hours, much to the excitement of children who visit. Speaking of Santa, you can order a letter from the North Pole to be sent to your child right before Christmas.
You can even buy a deed to one square inch of the North Pole. I bought both for my son when I was there and can’t wait until they arrive in the next holiday season.
Aurora Ice Museum
The Aurora Ice Musem is located at Chena Hot Springs Resort, so grab a spot on a tour if you go up there for the hot springs. As the name indicates, the building is a museum of different ice sculptures.
The temperature is kept at a chilly 25° F, so dress warmly. However, parkas are available if you need them. That said, given it was around -20° F outside when I was there, I actually found it quite warm inside.
You’ll see an ice chandelier, wedding chapel, and even rooms you can actually stay in. The main feature is the ice bar, where you can get an Appletini in an ice glass. If you’re 21 or over, I recommend adding this to your ticket.
The cost is $15 per adult for the tour and an additional $15 for an Appletini.
Learn About Alaska’s Seasons
At the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, you’ll see the different seasons in Alaska and learn what’s great about each one. I loved seeing how a typical Alaska garage and fishing shed were set up, as I’ve never seen either before.
This is also a great place to get help planning your trip to Fairbanks in the winter, as there are tons of brochures and guidebooks to look through. The staff can also help you with any questions.
Admission is free and the center is open from 8 am to 5 pm every day.
Make sure to stop outside before you leave and take a picture under the giant antler arch. This is made up of over 100 moose and caribou antlers from the state. There’s even a live webcam there so you can tell your friends to watch online as you wave to them from Alaska.
View Amazing Ice Sculptures
The World Ice Art Championships take place in Fairbanks every year from mid-February to the end of March. Over 100 different sculptors come from all over the world to compete in different categories, such as single block or multiple blocks.
The detail that’s put into these are insane – I can’t imagine how long it must take them to make these. Some of them were giant, such as a basketball game with multiple players and even a cameraman.
I recommend bundling up and going at night when lights make the ice sculptures come alive. Your pictures will also turn out more impressive in my opinion.
Admission is $16 for adults and $12 for seniors.
Race Through the Forest With Dogs
Another absolute must when you’re looking for things to do in Fairbanks is dog mushing. This is such a fun activity, and you get to spend as much time with the pups as you want.
Paws for Adventure will let you experience a dog sled ride through the forest with some very happy dogs. They’ll provide you with any extra clothing you need, including very warm boots, pants, and coats. I recommend you take advantage of everything they have.
You’ll get a chance to see all the dogs waiting their turn to help with the sled. They all get excited and start barking each time a sled comes in, hoping they’re next. You can walk up to them and take as many photos as you want (they’re very photogenic).
The company offers a variety of rides, including one-hour dog sled rides and longer ones where you can learn how to mush.
Catch Your Meal Ice Fishing
You have to try ice fishing during your trip, as this is a classic winter activity in Fairbanks You’ll go out in a shed on a frozen lake and fish through holes they drill through the ice.
My friend caught a fish right away, but then we waited around for a while to have another catch. There is a fire in there to keep you warm, but I would still wear layers in case you get cold. I also appreciated the constant hot water for drinks that our guide from Alaska Fishing and Rafting Adventures provided.
Ice fishing is an experience I’ve always wanted to try so I’m glad I had the chance. I’ve also never had a fish that was that freshly caught before.
You will need an Alaska fishing license to go ice fishing. You can get it in advance online or in-person at Sportsman’s Warehouse, Walmart, Big Ray’s, or Fred Meyer.
Warm Up With Local Beverages
If you like alcohol, there are some great local places to check out during your trip:
- HooDoo Brewing Company – Get a sampler to try a variety of what they offer, as they have a wide range of beer. They usually have a food truck outside in the evening if you get hungry. Locals tend to fill this place up around dinner time, so get here early if you want to have a table to yourself.
- Hoarfrost Distilling – This distillery has a variety of unique vodka, including flavors like Bloody Mary and Cherry Coke. I would again recommend getting a sampler to see the different types they offer. They also offer cocktails if you don’t like tasting straight vodka.
Try Thai Food
When you think of food that Alaska is known for, you probably think of fish or reindeer. Did you know that there are actually over two dozen Thai restaurants in Fairbanks alone?
This was a surprising fact to me, but I started to notice how many different ones there were as we drove through the downtown area. While I still recommend trying seafood when you’re in Alaska, you should also try a Thai restaurant for dinner one night.
Where to Stay in Winter in Fairbanks
Fairbanks has a variety of different places to stay from motels to Air BnBs to fancy resorts. While almost any budget can be accommodated, I recommend splurging on a few nights at one of the following places.
Chena Hot Springs Resort
This resort is 60 miles east of Fairbanks, so I recommend staying at Chena Hot Springs Resort for at least two nights to get the most out of everything they have to offer.
There’s a cafe, restaurant, and bar on-site so you don’t have to worry about food. Dinner does get crowded at the restaurant, so I recommend making a reservation in advance.
The main draw of this resort is the hot springs, which is another reason I recommend staying for a few days. It’s fun to go first thing in the morning as a way to wake up as well as when it’s dark out at night.
There are also many activities available here to fill your time during your stay, including dog sledding, ice museum tours, and even a flight over the Arctic Circle if you’re feeling really adventurous.
At night, they offer two different Aurora tours from 9:30 pm to 2 am and 10:30 pm to 3 am. While this may seem late, you have to remember this may be a once in a lifetime experience for you to see the Northern Lights in such an isolated place.
Not only are you far from the city, but you’ll be taken up a mountain to be completely surrounded by darkness. There’s a yurt at the top that’s heated and has hot drinks to provide shelter in between you going outside to see the lights. We even got to go on a 1 am hike under the Aurora.
The resort has hundreds of great reviews, not that you’ll need much convincing to stay here.
Taste of Alaska Lodge
This lodge is much closer to the city, as it’s about 15 minutes east of the downtown area. Taste of Alaska is a good choice to stay at when you want a base near the general Fairbanks area.
This is a quiet, peaceful place to stay with a beautiful view of the woods. You can stay in the main lodge or rent out a log cabin, which I recommend. They come with multiple beds, a wraparound deck, and a full kitchen.
A buffet breakfast is served every morning to help you fuel up before the day begins. The staff is happy to help you set up activities for the day, such as dog mushing or snowshoeing.
The owners of this lodge also own Aurora Pointe, the event center I previously mentioned where you can view the Northern Lights. If you don’t want to go there, you can also walk down to a yurt on the lodge’s property to view them from there or the campfire.
You can read reviews on TripAdvisor or book your room on Booking.com.