Winter in Alaska: five amazing, unforgettable things to do in Fairbanks

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.1) Chena Hot Springs + “The” Ice Museum

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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.

Oh, and if you’re seriously into art scultping, you should definitely plan a trip to see the Ice Art World Championships.

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2) See the Northern Lights, more than once if possible

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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!

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P.S. – Catch our guide to shooting the Northern Lights here.

3) Visit Coldfoot or some other remote Alaskan outpost

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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.

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4) Fountainhead Auto Museum + Visitors Center

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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.

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5) Paws for Adventure




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.

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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.

Five outstandingly delicious places to eat in Alaska

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.

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Particularly in the winter, it’s pretty crucial that you stay warm and well fed while in Alaska. We can’t make any promises about the ease of the former, but we’ve got the latter completely under control. Believe it or not, The Last Frontier is a foodie’s paradise, with a vast number of outstanding local eateries to choose from. During my stay in Anchorage, I was told that there were some 16,000 restaurant permits floating around the greater ANC area, which likely means that you’ve more food options than lodging choices. I was also interested to find that a great many of Alaska’s best eateries are tucked into what we Lower 48ers would call “strip malls.” I’ll admit — prior to visiting AK, I’d visited all 49 of the other states, and strip mall food was rarely a hit. Not so in Alaska. Read on to find out five totally delectable places to eat in the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas; who knows, your favorite hole-in-the-wall might be in there!

%Gallery-118372%1) Silver Gulch

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This place didn’t even serve food three years ago, but after being a dedicated brewery for a decade, the owners decided to try their hand at something new. Good thing they did. Located in the tiny town of Fox, Alaska (around 20 minutes outside of Fairbanks), this restaurant and brewery makes its own grub and beer, and it’s easily one of the best meals you’ll find in the greater FAI area. The design of the place is refreshing as well, and the public is welcome to take a tour of the connected brewery at no charge. Looking for a recommendation? The Pub Pommes to get things going, the Halibut Tacos to stuff you and a walk around the brewery to make you feel a little better for overeating.

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2) Seven Glaciers

Perched high atop Alyeska Hotel, this AAA Four Diamond restaurant is a serious treat — from both a visual and deliciousness standpoint. I’ve never been to a place with a more astonishing entrance. In order to get here, you’ll need to step foot into a scenic tram that lifts you up the mountainside in a matter of minutes. The views of the surrounding mountain ranges in Girdwood (~45 miles outside of Anchorage) are downright breathtaking, and the food inside may be even more so. Reserve a table with a windowside view, and feel free to opt for any of the (seriously amazing) fish dishes. You’re in Alaska, after all!

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3) Moose’s Tooth

If you’ve heard of one restaurant in Alaska through the so-called grapevine, chances are it’s Moose’s Tooth. Situated in Anchorage, this place is widely known for having the best pizza in the state, maybe even the country. That’s a pretty tall claim, and after trying it for myself, I’d say the place mostly lives up to the hype. The vibe is laid back, the staff is warm and welcoming, and the service is top-notch. The food is truly world class; the only pizzas that I’ve had to rival this one in taste come from (the now defunct) Giordano’s in Chicago and Mellow Mushroom in North Carolina. Make no mistake — the sheer quantity of wild topping options is worth making a trip for, and I can guarantee you won’t leave disappointed.

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4) Lemongrass

Thai food… in Fairbanks? It’s true! In fact, Fairbanks is fairly well known for having a staggering array of Thai food options, and Lemongrass is a particularly delectable choice. As I alluded to earlier, this one’s tucked slyly within a strip mall of sorts, so it’s fairly easy to overlook. You’d be smart to look it up, though, as everything at the table I sat at drew wide smiles from those eating. Naturally, the Pad Thai was remarkable, so even if you aren’t feeling too adventurous, you can still snag a great Thai meal in Alaska.

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5) Crow’s Nest at the Captain Cook Hotel

I’ll be honest with you; this one’s worth stopping at just for the view. The food is delicious, mind you, but it’s a bit pricey and not quite as on-point as the grub at Seven Glaciers. But if you’re looking for the most impressive view of Anchorage from an eatery in the city, this is it. It’s located on the 20th (i.e. top) floor of The Captain Cook Hotel, and the overlook of the city (shown above) is simply astonishing. Be prepared to pay said view, though, and make absolutely sure you and your partner save room for the Bananas Foster dessert. That alone is worth making a reservation for.

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Obviously, there are a lot more than five great places to eat in the state of Alaska. Southside Bistro, Bear Tooth Theater Pub and Middle Way Cafe all come highly recommended in the Anchorage area, while Big Daddy’s BBQ in Fairbanks calls itself the most northerly place to get southern barbecue. Got any other great recommendations for food in Alaska? Shout ‘em out in the comments section below!

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

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.

Winter in Alaska: Paws for Adventure dog mushing tour through Fairbanks (video)

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.



Video footage from my one hour Paws for Adventure dog sled tour in Fairbanks, AK

The more time I spent in Alaska during the winter, the more I asked myself why this wasn’t considered a tourist season. A week or so ago, Fairbanks was gifted with an atypical dumping of fresh powder, making the conditions more than perfect for a day of dog mushing. Following the races down at Fur Rondy, I headed up north to Fairbanks for a slightly different kind of dog race: one that began and ended at a homestead. Paws For Adventure is an Alaskan outfit that uses their stable of dogs strictly for casual runs — nothing competitive whatsoever. These pups were downright adorable, and I was able to sit down (with owner Leslie Goodwin) in a sled behind ten beautiful dogs. They hauled us along like champs, and they were thrilled to be doing it. I couldn’t help but make a few rounds praising them all afterwards, and even now, it’s one of the highlights of my trip to The Last Frontier. If you’re looking for a truly Alaskan adventure to partake in whilst in Fairbanks, look no further. Have a peek at the video above to get a gist of what to expect.

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[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

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.

Tutorial: how to properly shoot / photograph the Northern Lights

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.

Ah, the Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis. Pure magic. Regardless of what you call them, these mysteries of our universe are truly impossible to forget once you see them, and now that I have, I totally understand why people plan entire trips around the sliver of a chance to witness them with their own eyes. The Northern Lights don’t come out for humans to see that often, but February and March are considered prime viewing months in the frigid wilds of Fairbanks. The northern half of Alaska is one of the only places in America where you stand a chance at seeing this phenomenon yourself, and it’s yet another incredible reason to visit The Last Frontier in the winter. Seeing these colored swirls dance across a starry Alaskan sky stirs the soul like few other experiences can, and if there’s one thing you’ll want to do when spotting them, it’s capturing the moment for years to come. Photographing the Northern Lights is no easy task; it’s more like a science, but it’s far from impossible. Read on to learn how I was able to capture the images seen here in the gallery on one bone-chillingly cold night north of Fairbanks.

%Gallery-118384%For one, it’s important to position yourself in a place that’ll provide the best possible chance to spot the Northern Lights. The Northern Alaska Tour Company runs overnight trips to Coldfoot and Wiseman for this very purpose, and Chena Hot Springs Resort — located some 60 miles from the city lights of Fairbanks — also has a specific area setup to view them. But of course, they don’t emerge every single night, and their appearance is both varied and unpredictable when it comes to timing. You can read more on exactly where I camped out to capture these shots here, but the long and short of it is this: Fox, Alaska is just far enough away form Fairbanks to get a non light-polluted view of the sky, and Goldstream Road is known by locals as having great vantage points. If you’re looking for an easy spot to go in your rental car, Fox is it. Here’s a more detailed look at how to reach this spot.

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Now, for the equipment. If you’re making the effort to capture the Northern Lights, you’ll need to come prepared. Being that it’s the winter, you’ll need to dress in pretty much everything you have. Spotting the lights requires patience and time. I started my campout session at 1:00am in early March, and didn’t see any activity until 1:40am. Once you see any activity at all, you’ll need to move fast. I saw them dance for around 60 minutes before vanishing, but there are no guarantees that you’ll see them hang around for that long. Heavy coats and pants, thick socks, a face mask and hand warmers are all a must.

Here’s a breakdown of what camera gear I’d bring when camping out to see the Northern Lights:

  • A DSLR (two if you have them!); the nicer the model, the better. My gallery here was composed with a Nikon D3S and a Nikon D90.
  • A sturdy tripod. This is essential. I know it means you’ll need to check a bag, but you simply have to have a tripod for each camera.
  • Wide-angle lenses. Dedicated wide-angle lenses (like Nikon’s 10-24mm DX lens) capture the widest amount of sky, but even a standard lens (like the 24-70mm FX lens) is “wide enough” for most.
  • Fully charged batteries. -20 degree temperatures can zap a battery in no time, so make sure you’re at 100 percent before leaving home. If you have spares, bring them!
  • Flexible gloves. You’ll need to be able to tweak your camera settings, so make sure you wear gloves that allow you that luxury.
  • A remote shutter. This is optional, but having a remote to activate each shot means less opportunity for blur in long exposure shots.
  • A flashlight / headlamp. This is super useful for lighting up the buttons on your camera so you can tweak settings in the dark of the night.
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So, that’s about it as far as kit. Now, let’s talk settings:

  1. Widen your lenses as far as they’ll go — you want a vast image, and having the ground / surrounding buildings visible on the lower portion of the shot provides outstanding scale and context.
  2. Place your DSLR in full manual mode; you’ll want total control over every single aspect of these shots.
  3. Switch each lens to manual mode, and dial your focus ring to Infinity. Be careful to align that Infinity symbol precisely (rather than just cranking the focus wheel past it).
  4. Lower your aperture as far down as it’ll go. I’m talking f/2.8, f/3.5, etc. Whatever your lens will stop down to.
  5. Lower your ISO to 200 – 1,000. This varies greatly depending on the camera, so you’ll need to start at 200 and raise it notch by notch if your shots are simply too dark.
  6. Adjust your shutter speed to 30 seconds. If your camera will only go to 20 or 25 seconds, you can probably make that work as well. Those with a remote shutter can use “Bulb” mode for even longer exposure shots, but remember, the longer you leave that shutter open, the lower your ISO needs to go (and / or higher your aperture value needs to be) to prevent too much light from “whiting out” the shot.
  7. Set your file capture type to RAW! This is an extremely vital step. Feel free to shoot in RAW + JPEG if you want both, but RAW files grab the rich blackness of the sky far better than JPEG will.
  8. Align your shot on the tripod. Peek through the viewfinder and make sure you’re getting the angle you want; I’d recommend various portions of the sky to be in various shots to add some variety.
  9. Gently press the shutter button, and remain still. Even the slightest shaking of the ground could introduce unwanted blur into your shots, so it’s important to remain still as the long exposure takes place. You can dodge this by using a remote shutter from a distance away.
  10. Evaluate your results. If it’s too dark, bump the ISO value higher or lengthen the exposure time (i.e. shutter speed) beyond 30 seconds. If it’s too light, raise the aperture value a notch or two or bump your ISO value closer to 0. You could also slow the exposure, but I’d use that as a last resort.
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The only other major advice I have is to shoot a lot. A whole lot. You aren’t guaranteed to see the Northern Lights, so if they come out, you need to be quick in your setup procedure and continually fire shots in hopes of grabbing a handful of keepers. You also cannot assume that you have “one great shot” based on what your see on your DSLR’s LCD. Those are often misleading, and can hide subtle amounts of blur that’ll show up later. Take as many shots as you can stand to take, as each one is guaranteed to be somewhat different than the last. If you execute the shoot properly, you won’t have to fiddle much with the shots in Photoshop afterwards. The Northern Lights pretty much accentuate themselves. I’d also recommend a lot of patience, and if you don’t see them on your first night out, try again. Trust me, it’s totally worth the effort.

Have any tips of your own for capturing the Northern Lights? From prime viewing locations around the globe to helpful photography tips, feel free to share 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.

Winter in Alaska: Fur Rondy 2011 highlights, from snowshoe softball to dog weight pulling (video)

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 the variety of events that make up Alaska’s Fur Rondy

Alaska’s Fur Rendezvous Festival is a real treat. The 2011 version is the 76th annual running of the event, and particularly over the past four years, things have been looking up for those involved. This year’s edition kicked off with a serious bang — the weather in Anchorage was absolutely amazing, and locals and tourists alike flocked to downtown in order to witness (or participate in) thoroughly Alaskan events like the Frostbite Footrace, dog weight pull, ice and snow sculpture carving and multi-tribal dance gatherings. The event is one that’s cherished by Alaskans all over the state. For one, it gives everyone a chance to come together and celebrate the awesomeness that is Winter in Alaska. Secondly, it gives Alaskans a reason to celebrate the impending arrival of Spring.

I had a chance to experience Fur Rondy as an outsider, but left feeling like someone who was welcomed with open arms. Peek the video above for a glimpse into the real magic behind this event, and read on for a bit of perspective that I gained from picking Ernie Hall’s brain.

%Gallery-117714%For those unaware, Ernie Hall is fairly big deal in Alaska. He moved here in 1959, the same year that Alaska gained statehood. Needless to say, he’s seen every single thing that has happened to The Last Frontier since becoming an official state within the US of A. For the past four years, he has been an integral part of organizing Fur Rondy, and I was able to sit down and pick his brain about the event. Currently, he sits on the board, and his job to ensure that sponsors are found, events are organized and that the community plays an integral part in everything.

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According to him, Rondy had “fallen on hard times” a few years back. The issue was simple: the event had been ushered away from the locals, and turned more into a commercial spectacle. In truth, it’s the communities within Alaska that makes this all so special, and if you remove the pride factor, you’ve sucked the heart right out of the event. When he stepped in, he took it upon himself to convince sponsors to give him “one more chance,” and he vowed to let the community run things once again. Evidently, that’s exactly what happened.

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During my stay this past weekend in Anchorage, I saw beaming Alaskans at every event. Crowds were noticeable, and people were genuinely excited to be here. The events themselves went off without a hitch. Ernie said that the 45 days leading up to the starting weekend were the craziest 45 days of his entire year, but once the planning was nailed down, he found that enjoying Fur Rondy was the easy part. Indeed, the events schedule rolled on like a well-oiled machine, and as a spectator, I kept finding myself in amazement at just how well everything was put together and just how “Alaskan” everything felt. If you’re looking for a neck-deep dive into Alaskan culture, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better opportunity than at Fur Rondy.

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This year, two events in particular garnered a vast amount of attention. The first is Yukigassen. It’s a sophisticated snowball fight that’s hugely popular in Japan, and the tournament held here at Fur Rondy was the first sanctioned Yukigassen event in the United States. The battles were intense, and from the sidelines, it certainly looked like gobs of fun. I’m giving it 12 months before places like North Dakota, Minnesota and other snow-filled locales pick up on it. Even The Travel Channel’s own Bert Kreischer (from Bert the Conqueror) made it out to join in the festivities, and we caught up with him for an interview here.


Not only did he sling a few snowballs at enemies across the field, he also participated in the World’s Largest Outhouse Race. He brought a crew up to Anchorage in order to race down a snowy street, pushing a gal in a customized Bert the Conqueror outhouse in hopes of claiming the gold. It’ll eventually show up in a future episode, but you can take a sneak peek from my footage here.

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I departed Fur Rondy with one overriding realization: this festival is just magical. Visiting Alaska marked my 50th state, and it’s safe to say that it’s easily one of my favorites. There’s no question that this state is vast, but you’re able to get a handle on quite a bit of the culture by just spending a weekend or two at For Rondy. Just interacting with the folks who show up here is a real treat, and it’s already got my considering a training regimen in order to enter next year’s Yukigassen tournament. Who says a boy from the south can’t hang with these Arctic folks? (Well, I do, but I’m working on toughening up.)

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[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

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.