Travel

Now’s a great time to scope out options for a wintertime Alaska road trip or tour

We’ve turned the corner from summer to fall. There’s snow on the hills. Winter’s coming.

For some, the “termination dust” is the signal they need to book tickets to somewhere south of here. But for many of us who call Alaska home, it’s time to dust off our winter gear. Maybe this week you can pour yourself a double shot of adventure — and see what’s out there to see and do.

“This has been a great week for northern lights,” said Annie Hopper, who runs the Lodge at Black Rapids.

The lodge is about two hours north of Glennallen on the Richardson Highway. It’s closer to Fairbanks, situated near a couple of glaciers and the Denali Highway.

“We have great northern skies to see the lights,” Hopper said.

Since the lodge is right on the road, they accommodate the drop-in guest who needs a place to stay for the night. But Hopper has several packages that cater to the winter adventurer.

“We have several three- to five-day packages,” Hopper said. Whether you’re chasing the northern lights or exploring ice caves in nearby Black Rapids Glacier, the lodge can take help you get a slice of a winter wonderland.

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She and her husband, Mike, built the lodge on a hill overlooking the highway and the Delta River. “Guests can go snowmachining, dogsledding or skiing,” she said. New improvements include a sauna and hot tub.

If you really love snowmachines, get in touch with Derek Ruckel at Alaska Wild Guides. During the summer, his guides take Jet-Skis from Whittier’s harbor out to see glaciers. But in the winter, Ruckel and his crew get back to snowmachine tours.

“I started guiding in 2000,” Ruckel said. “So I’ve got about 2,500 miles of trails on my GPS.”

In addition to day trips from their headquarters in Girdwood, Alaska Wild Guides runs lodge-to-lodge adventures from two to 14 days.

“First, I question the riders and ask them what to they want to see. Then I build a custom itinerary,” he said.

Ruckel really likes the four-day itinerary he calls “Alaska Explorer II.”

“This tour offers the most bang for your buck,” he said.

The trip starts from Lake Louise. On the first day, he trailers the sleds from Girdwood, arriving in time for everyone to get settled in and have dinner.

“Then we get up the next day and ride 78 miles,” he said.

Riders end up at the MacLaren River Lodge on the Denali Highway.

“The Denali Highway is closed in the winter, so the only way in or out is on snowmachines,” Ruckel said.

The rest of the itinerary includes exploring nearby glaciers, mountains and river valleys.

“We’re buying brand-new machines every season,” Ruckel said. While on tour, riders get a lot of time on the machine, 50-100 miles per day. “You won’t see anyone else on the trails,” Ruckel said. “The food is top-notch. The beds in the lodges are comfy, so everyone is sleeping well and eating well.”

Tours run between Jan. 20 and March 30. The four-day, three-night Alaska Explorer II tour costs $3,650 per person.

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It’s not uncommon to see the northern lights right here in Anchorage. But to get a really good look, consider going with a pro.

I woke Steve Busby up on a recent afternoon. He’d been out late with some folks, hunting for the aurora borealis.

“The best time to see the northern lights is around the equinox,” said Busby, who runs Greatland Adventures. “So this is a great time to see the aurora borealis.”

Greatland Adventures specializes in day trips — or rather, night trips — to see the northern lights outside of Anchorage.

“We include all the winter gear that’s necessary,” he said.

“Boots, snow pants, hooded parkas, mittens and warm hats are included,” he said. “Plus, hand warmers and boot warmers, too.”

Depending on the weather and the northern lights forecast, tours depart each evening between 8 and 11 p.m. The cost is $275 per person. “The length of the tour depends on where we go,” said Busby. “It’s usually one hour to get away from the city lights.”

Mandy Garcia is one of the owners of Salmonberry Tours, which operates tours year-round in Alaska. While she calls Anchorage home, she recommends heading north to see the northern lights.

“I like our Northern Lights Getaway package,” she said. “We’ve fine-tuned the package over 10 years. We have it down.”

Guests leave Anchorage on the first day in one of Salmonberry’s vans. Destination: Talkeetna. “In Talkeetna, you get to mush your own dog team,” said Garcia. The dogs are part of the Dallas Seavey Racing team, and there’s a 5-mile course through the forest. Afterwards, Salmonberry Tours sets up a tasting at the Denali Brewing Co., followed by dinner.

From Talkeetna, guests travel north to Fairbanks on the Alaska Railroad. After arrival in Fairbanks, there’s time to check into the hotel and get ready to go see the northern lights.

The next day includes a visit to Chena Hot Springs to visit the Ice Museum and the hot springs. It’s a great way to get warmed up in advance of aurora hunting that evening.

The following day is on-your-own to explore Fairbanks or take one of the optional tours, such as a flight north from the airport to cross the Arctic Circle. Get back in time for more aurora hunting until 2 to 3 a.m.

The package costs $1,958 per person, double occupancy.

If you arrive in Fairbanks on your own and want to chase the northern lights, check in with Aaron Lojewski. He owns Fairbanks Aurora Tours.

Lojewski doesn’t have a particular spot that he frequents. Rather, he carefully studies the weather and the aurora forecast to determine the best location to see the lights.

It may be a mystery where you’re going on the one-day tour. But odds are you’ll take home some great images from your trip. That’s because Lojewski is an exceptional photographer — and he can coach you on how to get the most out of your camera.

Lojewski concedes there are some places farther north, like Coldfoot, that are even better than Fairbanks for viewing the northern lights. “But I like Fairbanks better,” he said. “That’s because we have four roads in all directions. It’s easier to drive to the lights from Fairbanks.”

Tours with Fairbanks Aurora Tours are $195 per person. Cameras and tripods are available for rent.

Scott McCrea of Explore Fairbanks confirms what many Alaskans suspect: “The shining lights of winter are the northern lights. It’s the main reason folks come to visit,” he said. “But even when Mother Nature isn’t cooperating, there’s no shortage of winter activities.”

In fact, there’s a long list of attractions to bring visitors to Fairbanks: mushing, museums, festivals and brewpubs. Explore Fairbanks publishes a wintertime visitors guide with a calendar of events and pro tips for planning.

These ideas are just to get you started planning for winter. By the time the snow covers the deck chairs that you haven’t yet put away, you’ll be ready for some winter fun.

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