Last Updated on January 4, 2024
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
By Yvette Cardozo
The train from Denali National Park to Fairbanks was late … because there was snow and the occasional moose on the tracks, plus some hitchhikers along the way to pick up.
Yup, that’s winter in Alaska.
The point of the trip was to see northern lights, see some wildlife, and ride in a sled behind a team of dogs. And yes, soak in Chena Hot Springs’s steaming waters.
Check, check, check and …. ahhhh … check.
So, it was a trip to experience Alaska in winter, the “low season” when many people think they should stay far away. And they shouldn’t, not from Fairbanks anyway, which is in interior Alaska, not all that far from Canada and about a four-hour flight from Seattle.
The trip was fairly short. In fact, way too short. But we got to photograph the northern lights, ride on a bus briefly into Denali National Park, and return to Fairbanks aboard the Alaska Railroad.
Chena Hot Springs, A Refuge During the Alaska Winter
If you get to Alaska during the winter, do NOT miss Chena Hot Springs outside Fairbanks. The spring basin is like the world’s best hot tub.
My memory of a trip to Chena Hot Spring a few decades ago includes a basic changing room and a dash outside barefoot over snow to the spring. That is definitely not what you’ll find today.
There’s a nice locker room with separate sides for women and men (picture your local gym). When you exit the locker room, there’s a covered walkway to the water’s edge, where a ramp takes you nicely into the water.
The water is about chest deep, warm but not too warm. And there’s fine gravel on the bottom to walk on. At night, the scene, swirling with steam and glowing in green light, becomes ever so slightly unworldly. I LOVED it.
Aurora Pointe To See the Northern Lights
The aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, exists in a donut around the earth’s magnetic north pole. (There is also an aurora (aurora australis) in Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere, called the Southern Lights.)
The quick and dirty explanation for aurora’s lights is that they happen when electrically charged particles from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field and various gasses in the atmosphere. The energy from this is released as colored light. And if the lights are strong, it’s breathtaking.
During winter in Alaska, in fact winter anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, Fairbanks is one of the world’s best places to see it. In fact, by sheer coincidence, the northern aurora lands squarely on top of Fairbanks most of the time.
We went to Aurora Pointe, just outside Fairbanks, to photograph it. There’s a convenient building where you can attach your camera to your tripod (you NEED a tripod). Then you just carry it outside, wait for a good display, and shoot away.
Or, if your SLR camera refuses to cooperate, as did mine, use your cell phone. Like mine, it can probably take amazingly decent Aurora photos. Most of my Aurora photos were taken on my not-all-new Samsung Galaxy S10 cell phone. The phone was handheld and produced excellent pictures of the aurora. However, they’d probably have been even better if I’d had a way to put it on a tripod.
Though northern lights can take on many colors, the most frequent … the one most people see … is a vibrant green. When the lights are excellent, as they were for me once in Canada, they’re like flowing, undulating rivers of green sand covering the entire sky. And even better, they can morph into colors ranging from green to blue to magenta.
We Packed a Lot Into Four Days
We also traveled by bus as far as the road went into Denali National Park. That was the 14-mile mark. Usually, the bus can go farther, but there had been a rockslide, so that’s where our trip ended. There our view was of low hills with mountains on the horizon, open plains, trees, and lots of snow. At the ranger station, they served reindeer sausage, which was not gamey but quite spicy.
We also visited the interesting Running Reindeer Ranch and walked in the woods with a reindeer and his guide. We learned from him that caribou are the wild cousins of domesticated reindeer. They’re taller, leaner, and can run fast, up to 40mph (64kmh).
So many were picked off by predators in earlier years that by the 1930s, perhaps only 600 were left in all of Alaska. Through management, though, today they number more than 10,000.
Santa Claus House
If you’ve got kids with you, do NOT miss Hotel North Pole. Room 319 is dedicated year-round to Santa and Christmas. You can arrange a visit with Santa ($150 plus more if gifts are involved). Let the hotel know your child’s gift wishes, and Santa will present them with a present.
For a trip to Alaska in winter, we found the Santa Claus House and its canned goodies to be a lot of fun. Among other things, there’s a giant Christmas tree laden with ornaments (yes, you can buy one…I did). There’s also the opportunity to sit with Santa, although not on his lap if you’re a grownup. Maybe you’ll even come back with a photo of kissing him on the cheek.
I liked the train trip back from Denali Park to Fairbanks. The seats were comfy, and the passing forests, occasional town, and twilight-lit mountains were beautiful. And, of course, I had dinner on the train.
The train ride isn’t quite what you might remember from circa 1940s movies, but it is fun. The food, sigh, came off as only slightly better than high-school cafeteria lunch and arrived, sadly, on cardboard plates. Still, there’s the romanticism of eating on a train while the snowy mountains roll by. And the wine was quite nice.
Also On the Fairbanks Winter Do-Not-Miss List:
- A dogsled ride (you’re in the basket; a guide runs the dogs) at Chena Hot Springs.
- Guided snowmobile tour at Chena Hot Springs.
- The World Ice Art Championships, held just out of town and featuring dozens of incredible ice sculptures. Best visited at night when colored lights make the whole scene gorgeous.
- University of Alaska Museum of the North, which includes The Room Where You Go To Listen, among other great stuff. If you are really lucky, there might be the rumble of a far-off (hopefully not damaging) earthquake somewhere.
- Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, where you can learn about the land and its people.
- The Ice Museum at Chena Hot Springs. Give yourself plenty of time inside, and yes, it’s cold there. And the Greenhouse Visit to learn how you grow veggies way up north.
We packed all this into four frenetic days. Along with business meetings (it was a convention). You should definitely schedule more time … more days to explore without feeling rushed.
If You Go:
Running Reindeer Ranch – https://runningreindeer.com/
University of Alaska Museum of the North – https://www.uaf.edu/museum/
Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center – https://www.morristhompsoncenter.org
Hotel North Pole – https://www.hotelnorthpole.com/
Chena Hot Springs – https://chenahotsprings.com/
Santa Claus House – https://www.santaclaushouse.com/visit.asp
Alaska Railroad – https://www.alaskarailroad.com/
Winter clothing rental in Fairbanks – https://akarcticwear.com/