In the spirit of journeying during periods less traveled, I've embarked to Alaska this winter. Follow the adventures here, and prepare to have your preconceived notions destroyed along the way.
A glimpse at what Fairbanks offers during the winter
We've already discussed a number of amazing activities to do whilst in Anchorage during the winter, but what about Alaska's second largest city? Fairbanks is about as northerly as it gets for a city in the United States, and those that brave the frigid winters here are most certainly a unique breed. But after taking my thin-skinned, Born In The South attitude up for a little Northern Exposure, I realized that the stereotypes are pretty misguided. For one, the days in Fairbanks during late February and early March are ideal in terms of light; the sun's peeking out from around 8am to 6pm, just like everywhere else in the Lower 48. Those "it's dark all day!" stories just don't apply for the majority of the winter.
Oh, and -33 degrees Fahrenheit? It's cold, don't get me wrong, but it's not deadly. The dry air up in these parts makes 33 below feel a lot less gripping than even five below on the East Coast. I wore basic ski gear most days, and while I definitely looked like a wuss-of-a-tourist, I was sufficiently warm. Granted, a heated Columbia Omni-Heat jacket and a stash of hand warmers don't hurt, but I could've survived even without 'em. Fairbanks is a lovely place to visit in the winter, and frankly, it's a place (and a season) that shouldn't be missed by adventurers. Read on for a handful of suggestions to keep you entertained while visiting.
It's hard to believe that this "semi-remote" resort is still technically in Fairbanks. It's a solid 60 miles from the city center, and you'll only find it when you run into a dead end at the terminus of Chena Hot Springs Rd. Guests can choose from cabins or traditional hotel rooms, and while the latter isn't lavish, having a television, hot shower, modern day plumbing and housekeeping is a package of luxuries not usually associated with a place that has hardly any contact with the real world. The star of this show are the hot springs; sprinting out to 146 degree waters in just a swimsuit sounds crazy. But mix in total darkness and a wind chill down to -40, and you've got one unmistakably awesome time. If you stay here, visits to the springs are gratis -- if not, a $10 day pass is available. Stopping by with snow stacked up around the waters adds a lot of extra flair, and naturally, the Northern Lights make themselves visible on occasion here being that the nearest city lights are miles (and miles) away.
Speaking of the Aurora Borealis, Fairbanks is a great jumping-off point to see 'em. They're a bit like rainbows and unicorns -- it's possible to see one or the other, but it ain't everyday that they just pop their head out, yell, and wait for you to pay attention. I tried for three straight nights to see the Northern Lights, and it finally came down to parking my car on a hill in Fox, Alaska (north of Fairbanks) and waiting from 1:00am to 1:40am while fighting back the urge to sink into a deep sleep. At 1:40am, the lights came out to dance for a solid hour, and I spent those 60 minutes firing off long exposure shots on a tripod while freezing and trying to stand still as to not shake the DSLR. It was hands-down one of the most moving experiences of my life, and I'd do it again tomorrow with nary a shred of clothing on me if that's what it came to. Keyword: persistence. Show up with at least three to five nights dedicated to Aurora hunting, and don't give up too early!
P.S. - Catch our guide to shooting the Northern Lights here.
Okay, so there's a qualification here. The weather in Alaska, particularly during the winter, is about as unpredictable as it gets. Visiting one of the more remote villages in Alaska is a real treat, with Coldfoot, Wiseman, Bettles, Bethel and a host of others just a quick flight away. But if you're looking to make a side trip out of Fairbanks, I'd recommend planning the excursion for early in your vacation, just in case winter weather forces you to cancel and reschedule. Also, you don't want to get stuck in a place where you can't access FAI. The more northerly cities are ideal for Northern Light viewing, and the Northern Alaska Tour Company offers quite a few jaunts to these more remote locations. Failing that, there's a flightseeing adventure over to Denali, but be warned -- thick clouds are generally blocking the peak during winter months.
30,000 square feet of classic and collector cars... in Fairbanks? It's true! The Fountainhead Auto Museum is a real treasure here, being open just a couple of years and packed to the gills with automobiles that are steeped in history. The owners here care deeply about their collection, with over 70 in the stable and around 60 on the floor at any given time. During the winter, it's open only on Sundays to the public, but tours can easily be arranged. You'll even find an entire section of cars devoted to Alaska, including what's believed to be the state's first-ever automobile. All but three of their cars still runs, and each summer, the owners take 'em for a spin to keep everything lubricated and exercised. During my visit, I was floored with how much history has been maintained with each vehicle, and the condition of the collection is simply outstanding. If you're a vehicle or history buff, this place is most certainly worth a stop. With just $8 required for entry, it feels a bit like a steal.
I've already given you a look at what to expect should you choose to participate in your own dog sled adventure in Fairbanks, but I just can't help but reiterate how amazing this adventure is. It just feels Alaskan, and considering that both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod go down in the winter months, there's no better time to start training. Those who can't get enough during a $90 one-hour tour can sign up for a multiple-day mushing school, after which you may as well go ahead and start shopping for a home in the area. Seriously -- fair warning that mushing is addictive. Ride at your own risk.
These are just a few of the many things to do in Fairbanks during the chilly winter months -- if you have any recommendations of your own, feel free to share down in comments below!
My trip was sponsored by Alaska Travel Industry Association, but I was free to report as I saw fit. The opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.