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.

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.

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.

Bert the Conqueror joins the Outhouse Races in Alaska’s Fur Rondy (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.



Bert the Conqueror joins the madness in the 2011 Fur Rondy Outhouse Races

I need only say the name to pique your interest. Outhouse Races. “Is this event what I think it is?” That’s the question I asked about ten minutes prior to arriving at the starting line. “Oh, yeah — it’s exactly what you think it is.” That’s the quip I received in return. This is the world’s largest Outhouse Race, and it’s held annually at Alaska‘s own Fur Rondy Festival. This year marked the 76th anniversary of the event, and it just seems to get better and better. Not only did 2011 mark the addition of Yukigassen to the agenda, but it also brought in The Travel Channel’s own Bert the Conqueror. Bert arrived in Anchorage in order to shoot an upcoming episode of his show, and in addition to participating in a Yukigassen match, he also put together a team of friendlies to race an outhouse with him.

We won’t spoil the fun for you, but suffice it to say we caught him on tape recoding an introduction for the episode-to-be as well as making a lap around the bend. We all know Bert’s quite the competitor, and he definitely put his best foot forward here in Alaska’s snow. Be sure to DVR his show, too — no telling when this episode will air, but hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later.

Psst… missed our interview with Bert at Fur Rondy? Catch up here!

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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: Yukigassen brings team snowball fighting competition to Fur Rondy (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 vicious, vicious Yukigassen match at the 2011 Fur Rondy Festival

It’s late February in Alaska, and that can only mean one thing: Fur Rendezvous. 2011 marks the 76th year that this extravaganza has taken over the streets of downtown Anchorage, and for two solid weekends, locals and tourists alike flock to the city to gawk and participate. This year, the Fur Rondy board decided to spice things up a bit by adding one more event to the roster: Yukigassen. Translated from Japanese, it means “snow battle,” and that’s exactly what it looks like when played out. At this year’s festival, the first sanctioned Yukigassen tournament was held in America, giving the teams a chance to go on and compete at a higher level should they take the gold here in Anchorage.

It’s a blast to watch, and I can only imagine how much fun it’d be to take part in. It’s a little like paintball, but you’ll need to substitute snowballs for paint-filled pellets to really grok it. Teams have a stockpile of snowballs behind their flag, which can only be transferred forward to other teammates by rolling them on the ground (i.e. no tossing allowed). The goal is simple: be on the team that captures the opponent’s flag, or be on the team that has the last man / woman standing. It’s like dodgeball, but for angst-ridden adults with a bone to pick and plenty of steam to blow off. Here’s hoping this sport spreads from AK down into the lower 48, but for now, have a look at two teams battling it out in the video above and the gallery below.

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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.