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There’s lots of fun to be had north of Anchorage in winter

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: December 15, 2018
  • Published December 15, 2018

Seen from Eureka, Alaska, a coronal mass ejection from the sun created stunning northern lights a few days later as the particles passed by earth on Mar. 16, 2013. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

There’s nothing like a fresh coat of snow to shine new light on the fun adventures around Alaska.

The big earthquake put a damper on railroad traffic for a couple of days. But the trains are running again. The Aurora Winter Train goes north from Anchorage to Fairbanks each Saturday at 8:30 a.m. During the Christmas break, there are a couple of midweek trains on Tuesdays and Thursdays (Dec. 25-Jan. 2). The midweek trains pick up again in February and March.

The ride to Fairbanks takes 12 hours. It’s fun. There’s a restaurant/bar car, but lots of folks bring their own food. Don’t bring your own booze, though. It’s against the rules.

If you want a shorter trip, just take the train up to Talkeetna. It takes three hours.You get there on Saturday just in time for lunch. In fact, you can get a package with the railroad that includes a pie-making class over at the Talkeetna Roadhouse. The package includes overnight accommodations and a return trip back on Sunday afternoon. At the class, everyone gets to take home a pie! Cost is $275 per person.

After your class, you can wander across the street to Denali Brewing Company to taste their beer!

If you take the train all the way to Fairbanks, you’ll arrive around 8 p.m. That gives you time to get a ride to your hotel and be ready for an evening of aurora viewing.

The folks at 1st Alaska Outdoor School have several options for visitors who want to see the northern lights. Since the lights aren’t guaranteed, you can pick from several activities while you wait for them to show up, including ice fishing and dog mushing.

The Last Frontier Mushing Co-op is another group that combines mushing with northern lights viewing. They offer a couple of options, including a four-hour trip or an overnight “Aurora Chaser” package. The co-op is a collaboration of Ryno Kennel and Smokin’ Ace Kennels.

The mushing co-op is on Chena Hot Springs Road outside Fairbanks. If you continue to the end of the road, you’ll arrive at Chena Hot Springs Resort. You can see the northern lights from the resort, but you should go to the top of a nearby hill to get the best view. Plus, the lodge has a yurt that is nice and warm while you wait for the lights to appear.

My favorite activities at the lodge include visiting the ice museum—where everything is carved out of ice, including the bar and the glasses. Then there are the hot springs themselves—a welcome break from the chilly weather.

If you don’t want to stay up late to see the northern lights, you can stay at Borealis Basecamp. There’s a collection of manufactured domes that look like igloos. The defining feature, though, is the big plexiglass wall. That way, you can relax in your igloo, which sits on a north-facing ridge. You can doze off—and ask your hosts to set off the “aurora alarm” when the lights are out. Then you can sit up in bed and watch the show!

Why not take a road trip on the Dalton Hihgway in the middle of the winter? Hey, travelers from all over the world are coming to Fairbanks in the winter to see the northern lights. But they also want to cross the Arctic Circle. Northern Alaska Tour Co. has a selection of tours—and drivers who know how to navigate the “haul road” that they share with truckers on their way to the North Slope.

Options include a flight north from Fairbanks to Coldfoot. You can bunk down for a couple of nights at their rustic hotel adjacent to the world’s northernmost truck stop. The food’s pretty good, too! In the evening, the crew comes to get you and drives you north to the village of Wiseman, far away from the bright lights of the truck stop. There, Jack Reakoff will meet you in front of a warm cabin while you wait for the lights to show. Reakoff also is a skilled photographer and helps folks set up their cameras to get good shots of the lights. Hint: bring a tripod.

When it’s time to head south to Fairbanks, everyone loads up in the van for the all-day trip. There are plenty of stops along the way, including the parking lot where they have the sign marking the Arctic Circle. You’ll also stop near the Yukon River bridge—and a couple of other scenic vistas along the way.

Even though I love riding on the train, it’s just a one-hour flight back home to Anchorage on either Ravn or Alaska Airlines!

Speaking of road trips—if you want to make the trek to Fairbanks in your car, consider taking the “original” route on the Richardson Highway. That means taking the Glenn Highway up to Glennallen, then turning left and heading north toward Delta Junction. About 115 miles north of Glennallen you’ll find the Lodge at Black Rapids.

The lodge is just uphill from the historic roadhouse that served travelers on the original route from Valdez to Fairbanks in the early 1900s. While there’s still a structure alongside the road, it is eclipsed by the beautiful lodge that looks over the Delta River valley. Mike and Annie Hopper built the lodge over several years. It’s open year-round and you’re likely to meet a nearby musher around the dinner table. The lodge can arrange for dog mushing, snowshoeing, skiing and snowmachining. Or, just look out the huge windows and watch for the northern lights!

Whether you’re traveling by train, by plane or by car, there are plenty of winter adventures north of Anchorage!

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