Alaska in February? Why, yes! From snowy fun to starry nights, here are some of the best things to do during winter in Fairbanks.
Who goes to Alaska in February? Turns out, a lot of people do. While not as popular as summer, winter has become known as the aurora viewing season. During my winter visit, I found way more to do than I expected, and my Fairbanks hotel was sold out. In Alaska just because snow is piled up several feet deep, that’s no reason to stay inside. Here are some of the best things I discovered to do during winter in Fairbanks.
World Ice Art Championships
The annual World Ice Art Championships have been wowing Fairbanksans since 1990. Artists come from around the world to chainsaw blocks of ice into works of creative genius.
I walked around Creamer Field on a chilly weeknight watching children play on ice slides and artists sculpting for the Double-Block Classic. There were three events—the single, double, and multi-block. The multi-block was already done and judged, and blocks were lit up with colored lights for public viewing. Multi and double are team events. The last event, the single block, is an individual competition.
The buzz of chainsaws filled the air, and the beep beep beep of a snow-moving forklift seemed determined to mow me down. The fantastic sculptures depicted an elephant, Bigfoot, polar bears, a kayaker balanced on a walrus’ head, and a goddess with huge wings. Once the big cuts were out of the way, artists worked with hand tools to finesse the ice.
The sculptors were pretty busy, but one artist told me he was from Kentucky, and I asked him how he learned to carve ice. “I don’t know,” he told me. Turns out this was his first time carving ice. He was a woodcarver and found that sculpting ice was faster than wood. I heard a Malaysian team at the event—even more of a stretch for a tropical country—cut their chops on culinary ice sculpturing. More than 100 artists participate annually; 45 countries have been represented throughout the contest’s history.
Aurora Viewing at Aurora Pointe
The wonderful hotel I stayed at, Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, has a glass-roofed aurora viewing dome and a service where the front desk will call you when the aurora shows itself. This seemed like the ideal setup, as I’ve fallen out of the habit of staying up until 2 am. Alas, unless it’s an exceedingly bright aurora night, the light pollution from Fairbanks makes for suboptimal viewing.
So many people drive off to remote places on their own or opt to take organized aurora tours. One night in Fairbanks, I went to Aurora Pointe. Kory Eberhardt built his business on land once homesteaded by his grandfather. “I wanted to make aurora viewing fun, comfortable and easy,” he said. He succeeded. The big building has tables, chairs, couches, restrooms, and a fireplace. A big screen shows what the aurora is doing in real time. When it starts to fire up, you can pull on all your layers and brave the cold.
It’s Not in Color
I was very excited to see the aurora. But I hadn’t realized that since our eyes use rod cells for night visions, we’d see the aurora in black and white. The aurora looked like gauzy clouds to my naked eye, though my camera registered them as neon green. My group had been excited about seeing the aurora all week, scanning their aurora prediction apps and heatedly debating the relevancy of a measure called KP. I was disappointed that I needed my camera to see the colors. It was fun to capture the aurora in photos, but my dream of lying in the snow and experiencing a sky filled with dancing green lights was squashed. I got a few okay shots on my iPhone, but people with real cameras and tripods got better photos.
How to See the Aurora During the Winter in Fairbanks
Donald Hampton, a researcher at the Geophysical Institute University of Alaska Fairbanks, explained the aurora to my group over lunch one day. He said the aurora is part of space weather, driven by solar wind and involving coronal mass ejections. The solar wind can travel 400 kilometers per second when it meets Earth’s orbit and runs into our magnetic field. People can see the aurora within an oval over the magnetic poles. The oval expands and contracts based on how energetic the sun is that day.
However, Hampton explained that the oval only expands so much, and that’s at the poles, not the Cayman Islands. He said, “The Cayman Islands would be nice because you could sit on the beach with a Mai Thai and watch it. Unfortunately, you must come up here and suffer the wind and snow.”
The best time to see the lights in Fairbanks is between September and early April.
To see the aurora, find a place with dark skies. Hampton said, “If it’s a really good aurora you can see it in town, but the best experience is to get out,”
Get Ready for a Late Night
Be ready to stay up late. Prime viewing time is often around 1:30 am. A very active aurora may show itself for 45 minutes, disappear, then return two or three hours later. The best aurora spotters are much more tenacious than I am.
Hampton knows a lot about the aurora, but a lot is still unknown. Despite all the prediction apps, there’s no telling if people will see the lights tomorrow, next week, or next month. Hampton said, “People call up and say, ‘I’ll be there in 2026. What’s the aurora going to be like?’ I tell them, Well, it’s going to be really, really pretty.”
Running Reindeer Ranch
We stood clumped together like trees when the reindeer were released. They charged down the hill, their massive antlers coming perilously close as they dashed between us, headed for piles of delicious lichen spread in a circle on the snow. Once they started chomping down lichen, Jane Atkinson introduced her herd of eleven to us, one by one, by name, and with a description of their personality. I’d never known that reindeer, the domesticated form of caribou, were such individuals.
Running Reindeer Ranch, located just outside Fairbanks, started because Atkinson’s twelve-year-old daughter Robin wanted a horse. Atkinson said no due to a horse allergy. Eventually, Robin talked her into raising reindeer. The initial two reindeer became eleven, and somewhere along the way Atkinson quit her nursing job to go full-time into reindeer tourism. “This is what happens to your life when you don’t let your daughter get a pony,” she warns.
Atkinson and her helper, Tyrone Lee, take turns sharing reindeer facts as we meandered up a snowy path. We were warned that the naughtier reindeer rejoice in poking visitors in the butt, so we kept an eye out for antlers. We petted their soft, exceedingly dense fur whenever they came close enough.
Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
Fairbanks was historically accessed by rivers and didn’t get its first wagon road until 1910. It was an unlikely city for vintage car collecting. So I was surprised by the trip to Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. The museum building houses 76 cars, including eight cars that are allegedly the only ones left of their kind remaining in the world.
Owner Tim Cerny opened the museum in 2009 to show off his collection. His wife Barb had the brilliant idea of pairing fashion with cars to give the museum a broader appeal, and so exquisite vintage dresses hang alongside polished cars. Manager Willy Vinton is a serious car buff and an excellent museum ambassador. Vinton said, “I don’t have a favorite dress because I can’t fit in any of them. But I can fit in every car. I love the early cars the best. The cars here talk to me.”
If you stop by don’t miss the gift shop that has a fun collection of fashion-themed books, ranging from the history of underwear to paper dolls in old-time dresses.
University of Alaska Museum of the North
The University of Alaska Museum of the North is a natural science museum, a cultural collection, and an art gallery. The eight-foot-nine-inch taxidermied brown bear is one of the most popular photo stops. A forty-three-foot bowhead whale skeleton suspended from the lobby ceiling is the newest highlight.
My group got a behind-the-scenes tour in the basement, where researchers labeled marmot bones beside a row of eyeless flattened otters. My favorite parts were the art and history displays.
Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center
Museum lovers will also enjoy perusing displays at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. During Covid times the center hosted online events highlighting Alaska native cultures, from languages to moose hunting to sewing skins of local beasts. Behind the center is a fabulous arch of more than 100 moose and caribou antlers collected from around Alaska’s interior.
Side Trips During Your Winter in Fairbanks Experience
While planning your explorations around Fairbanks during your winter excursion to Alaska, several places close by are well worth a visit. Here are a couple of my favorites.
North Pole, Alaska
A strange mashup of candy cane stripes and camo is nineteen miles southeast of Fairbanks. It’s North Pole, Alaska, which capitalizes on everybody’s Christmas fantasies. Many families of soldiers stationed at nearby Eielson Air Force Base live in North Pole. The day we visited, we saw dozens of military vehicles driving down streets with candy cane-striped lamp posts. Russia has just invaded Ukraine, and guess which US state is closest to Russia? A harsh reality landed at Santa’s doorstep.
Still, I bought some ornaments at the Santa Claus House, a year-round Santa Claus store.
People of all ages can get their photo taken with Santa Claus, although he invited me to sit on the arm of his chair rather than on his lap. This Santa is originally from Pennsylvania. He is a second-generation Santa and found his vocation after inheriting his father’s red suit. He’s been plying his trade at the North Pole for about 15 years.
Hotel North Pole is the place to stay when you visit. You can book the Santa Suite and give your kids an unforgettable experience where Santa makes an in-room visit. Visits are personalized because parents pass special intel to Santa prior to the experience. There was even a gender reveal, where Santa told two boys their mother would produce a little sister.
Chena Hot Springs
Sixty miles northeast of Fairbanks, Chena Hot Springs Resort offers a fantastic mix of winter activities. First of all there is a huge rock pool for soaking. You can blissfully float or paddle around the pool while snow glistens on the surrounding mountains. Tear yourself away from the water, and you can take a 20-minute dog sled tour, ride a snowmobile, tour the dog kennels, or try ice fishing.
The Aurora Ice Museum showcases ice art. It feels like a giant walk-in freezer but looks like an ice castle full of ice sculptures, ice chandeliers, and even an ice bar where the bartender serves cocktails in glasses made of ice.
Tourists have been taking the waters at Chena for more than 100 years. In 1911 there was already a stable, bathhouse, and twelve visitor cabins. After a big expansion about eight years ago, the room count went to eighty. Visitors come for the pools and activities year-round. In aurora season Chena also offers a tour to nearby Charlie Dome for a 360-degree view of the lights.
Where to Stay in Chena Hot Springs
I highly recommend PIke’s Waterfront Lodge, which is right on the Chena River. It has an Alaska-themed library where guests can borrow books, an aurora viewing dome, a theater that shows an aurora movie, a huge Alaskan art collection, and a bathtub in every room. Plus the staff went above and beyond to help me during my stay. The hotel also has a shuttle that will drive you to and from the airport.
Getting Around During Your Winter in Fairbanks
If you’re not used to driving on snow and ice you might want to find a different way of getting around Fairbanks in the winter. I was not a snow driver myself so I was happy to be on a tour and leave the driving to others.
Salt is not used on icy roads in Fairbanks because it doesn’t work at such low temperatures and could contaminate rivers. Instead, they put gravel on the roads. Local guide Aaron Marlow explained, “The mark of a real Fairbanks car is a broken windshield and an electrical wire hanging out the front like an umbilical cord.” These are to plug into a space heater to warm your engine block. Otherwise, you might crack it when you try to start your car on a negative thirty morning.
I never tried to summon an Uber during my Fairbanks stay but heard that ride-share and conventional taxis are scarce. So a rental car is your best bet if you or someone in your party is prepared to drive in the snow. Otherwise, book tours that pick you up from your hotel.
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Ready for some winter fun? Pack your layers and best parka, and check out what winter in Fairbanks offers. We also have more suggestions for what to do when you visit Alaska. Not heading to Alaska right now? Check out Wander with Wonder for more great winter travel destinations.