Fairbanks, Alaska is Alaska’s largest interior city, it’s located right in the Aurora oval, and is just below the Arctic Circle.

It’s also a military town, is easy to get to, and is well-situated for anyone hoping to see the northern lights as well as road tripping to some of Alaska’s most magical winter destinations.

I visited at the end of February, early March in 2021 and these are all of the wonderful things I found to do in and around Fairbanks:

Chase the Northern Lights

alaska in winter aurora borealis
Aurora over Denali National Park and me huddled in the who-ville trees

My main reason for heading to Fairbanks in the winter was to see the northern lights, also commonly called the aurora borealis. Fairbanks is situated in the aurora oval (as is Iceland, Finnish Lapland, and parts of Canada), and has a better position than Anchorage, or especially Juneau, for lights viewing. Even if activity is a bit lower, you have a better chance of seeing the lights within the Aurora oval than outside of it. You can see what I mean by checking out the aurora forecast.

So how do you see the northern lights? You need clear skies, dark skies, and high activity. The KP index measures how strong the aurora are on a scale of 1 to 9. Even if it’s only a two or three, you still have a chance of seeing a faint glow provided you’re within the aurora oval. However if you get lucky and see a KP 4 or 5, you’ll really see the sky dance!

the lights over our lodge in Denali (check it out in the Denali section below!)

Although we flew into and based ourselves around Fairbanks, the city itself is not a great place to see the lights due to the light pollution of the city. I’d stay on Moose Mountain, a ski area outside of town, or head down to Denali National Park like we did (more on that later). You can also drive or take an aurora to the Chena hot springs, which you’ll see more on below.

Although you can take Aurora tours, which will drive you out to the best viewing locations and will help you get photos of the northern lights, the way I’ve always done it is by having a rental car and driving myself. The nice thing about traveling in Alaska in the winter is there aren’t many tourists, and accommodation rarely runs out ahead of time, so leaving room and your itinerary for serendipity could work in your favor if your main objective is to see the northern lights.

However I understand not everyone knows how to photograph the lights, and not everyone feels comfortable driving at night in the snow, so here are some great options for lights viewing around Fairbanks:

  • The Aurora Lodge: Perfectly situated yurts that you can stay in while watching the skies for aurora. This experience includes transport and learning about dog mushing as well.
  • Arctic Circle and Aurora Tour: Drive along the famous Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle with chances for wildlife and northern lights viewing (note that most car rental companies will not allow their vehicles on this treacherous road, so a tour like this is your best bet!)
  • Moonlight dogsled, dinner, and northern lights: Get a magical experience mushing at night while looking at the aurora.

The Castner Glacier Ice Cave

alaska in winter
This ice cave sure was cool! But we had to snow shoe through deep snow to get to it

The Castner glacier ice cave is about a 2 1/2 hour drive south of Fairbanks. Hill also passed by the north pole, which has Santa themed activities. I’ll talk more about that below, but if you don’t have kids and would rather have an outdoor adventure, the ice cave is super cool (pun intended).

Though I’m used to ice caves appearing and disappearing overnight in most glaciers, this ice cave is always there. Even if you visit in the summer, you will still find an ice cave! Watch more in the video:

That said, in the winter you can walk along the frozen river to access it. I was able to follow a pretty clear set of snowshoe tracks to reach it, making it easy to find. However that does not mean it was easy to hike to! Although the trail is flat, the snow was very deep when I went, requiring snow shoes. Most people who did not have snow shoes kept sinking into the waist-deep snow and did not make it all the way. I understand it’s not always like that, but it’s hard to know the conditions before you go, so if you do have snow shoes, bring them along with you. It would be a bummer to drive all that way and not reach the cave.

You can find the cave’s roadside parking area here.

Denali National Park

alaska in the winter
Could you stand here in the summer in Denali? No way!

Denali National Park is swarming with people in the summertime. It’s not hard to understand why, since the park is gorgeous and Denali is the tallest peak in North America. However even though I have been to Alaska twice in the summer, the crowds have kept me away from Denali.

But what about in the winter time? Most of the national park is inaccessible in the winter, with only the road up to mile 3 cleared. But ever since 2018, in February they begin to plow the park’s main road all the way up to mile 12.5 (yes, even in 2021 COVID times when this post was written). This allows you to get amazing views of the mountains all around.

Very few people whom I spoke with recommended going to Denali in the winter, but I’m glad I didn’t listen. There are still plenty of snowshoe trails, and we only passed a handful of other people in the park all day. Can you imagine having Denali National Park almost entirely to yourself?


The Best Things to do in Fairbanks, Alaska


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