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.

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.

Video of the Day – Aurora Borealis over Tromsø, Norway


If witnessing the northern lights is one of the top items on your travel wish list, the ideal time of year for seeing them (March & April) is quickly approaching. But if Alaska, Norway, or Finland is just too far to travel this year, you can watch this video instead!

Shot by photographer Tor Even Mathisen at the Aurora Borealis over Tromsø, Norway, this timelapse video was created by taking a rapid series of photographs on a Canon 5D Mark II later stitched together in Adobe After Effects. By taking individual snapshots, Mathisen was able to capture a remarkably crisp image with stunning color.

If you’ve captured your own timelapse photography series, we want to see it! Share with us by posting in the comments section below and it could be our next Video of the Day.

Only in Alaska: How to see the northern lights

Just like a bear or a moose, the northern lights are a sought-after sight in Alaska. Despite being present around 300 days of the year in the north of the state, the lights (or “aurora borealis”) are actually visible for much fewer. Alaska’s long days mean that summer skies are too bright for the lights to show, but as the fall approaches (yep, mid- to late-August marks the beginning of autumn up here), chances to spot the northern lights become more numerous.

Though the northern lights aren’t totally predictable, there are ways you can increase the chance you’ll see them. Here are a few of them.

Ask for a northern lights wake-up call. In both Denali National Park and Fairbanks, places well established on the visitor trail, the lights begin to make dim appearances as early as August when night begins to fall again. Hotels are used to folks hoping to catch a glimpse of the phenomena and are happy to ring your room at all hours of the night to let you know if they’re out.


Stay for a few days. The longer you stay in once place, the greater your chance of seeing a light show. It’s statistics. Furthermore, if you can push back your trip (from late August mid-September, say), your chances of seeing the lights increases exponentially. That’s because during certain periods, like around Equinox (September 21), the Fairbanks area will lose as much as seven minutes of light per day.

Go to the right place. Fairbanks may be further north, meaning the lights are more present there, but it also has clearer skies. Choosing a place that has better weather is going to help – yes, you might be able to see the lights from Juneau but your odds of a cloudless sky are pretty low.

Plan a trip specifically for the lights
. Though it might mean traveling in winter (involuntary shiver), you can book trips that are aimed at making sure you see the lights. At Chena Hot Springs Resort, my favorite place to see the northern lights, you can walk up the hill to a special “arroureum,” a small cabin with picture windows looking out to the sky. Bring a few friends and a thermos full of hot toddies, and watch the skies dance for hours.

Again, you’ll increase your odds immensely by being in Alaska at the right time and place. That being said, the first time I ever saw the northern lights was in Anchorage at the end of August. They looked at first like thin wisps of glowing white smoke, and even though they were hardly as dramatic as some of the neon lights shows I’ve watched since, seeing them made my entire summer in Alaska.

[Photo credit: Flickr user nick_russill]

Mysterious blue light shines over Norway

On December 9th, residents of northern Norway were surprised to see a weird blue light shining above. According to reports, the beam of light seemed to point to the sky from behind a mountain. As the light began moving in circles, forming a spiral, a brighter beam came out of the center. The phenomenon lasted for about 12 minutes.

After the light disappeared, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute was inundated with calls from people asking about what they had seen. Almost as quickly, people began speculating about what the light could have been from. Air traffic controllers who saw the light said it lasted too long to be astronomical, and it is not believed to be connected to the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.

Another conjecture was that the light came from Russian missile testing in the White Sea but the Russian Navy has denied any such testing. Experts say that if the missile exploded, the leaking jet fuel could create the odd pattern. Of course, there are some who have a few more far fetched ideas. Black hole, UFO, astronomical event or man-made light show – we many never know what really caused the odd light pattern.