What does it take to coax travelers to head north in midwinter?
Northern lights? Ice sculptures? Dog mushing? Walking with the reindeer?
The community of Fairbanks leans in on these wild winter activities, including ice fishing, snowmachine tours and all manner of road trips, air tours and special activities. Anchorage also hosts many of these activities — but the ice carving competition in Fairbanks is spectacular.
Steve and Heather Brice have been carving ice from the super-clear “Arctic Diamond” blocks in Fairbanks for decades. In addition to working on prize-winning designs in the annual Ice Alaska competition, the Brices are the carvers out at Chena Hot Springs’ year-round Ice Museum.
This year, the Ice Alaska carving competition is on display at the Tanana State Fairgrounds on College Road in Fairbanks. About half of the area is dedicated to kids’ activities: ice slides, ice putt-putt, ice checkers, ice ping-pong and other family-fun activities.
Last week, the outside temperature was creeping up above freezing. But when the Brices took me for a walk through the ice carvings on display at Ice Alaska, it got cold quickly. “Thank goodness for these trees,” said Heather Brice. The campground at the fairground is in the woods, which acts as a buffer to the blazing sun.
There are three ways to get to Fairbanks from Anchorage to see the ice sculptures. You can drive, which can save you the cost of renting a car on arrival.
The Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train runs three times a week for the next two weeks (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday). The southbound train returns on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The train takes 12 hours but affords stunning views and a relaxed atmosphere.
Alaska Airlines flies several times a day, so I picked a midday departure on one of the E175s operated by Horizon Air. My flight included an unscheduled bonus. The skies were clear, so the pilot came on the intercom shortly after takeoff. “Well, we’ve got some extra gas today. We’re going to fly around Denali so everyone can get a good view,” said the pilot. “And don’t worry —we’re still getting to Fairbanks two minutes early.”
If you’re headed to the Ice Alaska park, the opening time is noon. It’s fun to walk through and see the ice carvers using a combination of saws and chisels to turn their plain ice blocks in to works of art. There are separate categories in the carving competition: single block, double block and multiple block.
The best way to see the ice, though, is after dark. The park is open each evening until 10 p.m. through the end of March. The LED lights lend a magical theme both to the carved ice sculptures and to the family fun area. If you show up first during the day, you can get a wrist-band when you leave to re-enter after dark.
Although I did not see the northern lights while walking through the ice park, the full moon rose over the ice slide.
Since the park closes at 10 p.m., there’s still time to take an excursion to see the northern lights.
Several companies will pick you up at your hotel and take you to a favorite spot to view the aurora. Northern Alaska Tour Company takes travelers to a roadhouse north of Fairbanks at Joy, Alaska. Aaron Lojewski of Fairbanks Aurora Tours goes in his van where he thinks the aurora will be best on that night. The crew at 1st Alaska Outdoor School has several tours — from nearby Murphy Dome to a trip up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle.
There are three daylight destinations that I love in Fairbanks:
1. The Museum of the North on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Don’t miss this. The museum has a comprehensive Alaska collection, but also boasts a robust modern Alaska art section. Don’t worry, the giant bowhead whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling will not fall down on you. Then there’s the “The Place Where You Go to Listen,” an exhibit by John Luther Adams. Inside a small room, each sound or light element represents a force of nature: aurora borealis, earthquakes, phases of the moon — even the wind. It’s my favorite part of the museum.
2. The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. The museum is tucked away in back of the Wedgewood Resort off of College Road. During March, the museum is open on Wednesdays and Sundays. Stop in and visit with Willy Vinton, the museum manager. Many of the cars on display are more than 100 years old. Most of the cars date back before World War II and many of them have an Alaska connection. One of my favorites is a Ford Model T truck with a track kit and skis for traveling in the winter.
3. Chena Hot Springs Resort. The resort is 60 miles outside of Fairbanks — so not everyone can make the trip. But it’s a great destination. There’s the Ice Museum where the Brices have carved many large-format sculptures. There’s also an ice bar, where you can order a special appletini and enjoy it in a glass made of ice. Owner Bernie Karl powers the entire resort using thermal power from the hot springs. That includes greenhouses where they grow all the produce served at the restaurant. If you stay at the resort, you can sign up for nightly excursions up to the top of a nearby hill for aurora viewing. The hot springs provide a steady water supply for both indoor and outdoor pools.
If you need a good cup of coffee to stay up late for the northern lights, I recommend McAfferty’s coffee shop at 408 Cushman St. They roast their coffee on the premises and they pour an excellent espresso.
Alaska Coffee Roasting Company at 4001 Geist Road also serves up good coffee, along with a variety of baked goods.
For a classic Fairbanks vibe at the end of the workday, visit HooDoo Brewing at 1951 Fox Ave. The brew pub features a big outdoor beer garden with giant fire pits. It’s well-populated, even in the winter. There’s usually a food truck parked outside to grab a bite. Brewmeister Bobbie Wilken studied in Germany and brought his beer-making knowledge back to Fairbanks.
There are several other popular brewpubs in Fairbanks, including Lat 65 Brewing, which also features cider.
However you get to Fairbanks this month, be sure and check out the ice sculptures. For more ideas on wintertime activities, check in with Explore Fairbanks at the Morris Thompson Visitor Center — on the banks of the Chena River.