Alaska, potential December trip, looking for advice
November 10, 2015 11:44 AM   Subscribe

Hi all - I'm looking to maybe visit Alaska in December around Christmas time. Specifically we are looking at Anchorage and maybe Fairbanks. I've found a bunch of stuff online, including the official visitors guides and some old Metafilter asks, but I have some questions and I think it would help me to hear from some locals or people who've visited in the winter before. Specifics below.

So we are looking into visiting Alaska in December for our honeymoon, around Christmas/New Years. It looks like a lot of stuff will be closed since it's winter, but that wouldn't really deter us. We'll have somewhere between like 7 and 12 days to visit, and are thinking we'd fly into Anchorage based on some deals we saw online. The previous Asks I saw seemed to be about visiting in the summer or fall, or were really old, so I'm wondering if there's anything new we should know. I also found random online forums with advice, but those were old, from like 2010 or prior. Here's some specific questions.

1) Does it make sense to try to cram in seeing stuff around Anchorage, and then also seeing stuff around Fairbanks in one trip? I know those cities are kind of far apart. I saw that there's only one 12-hr train ride a week from Anchorage to Fairbanks and it seemed like driving that route isn't safe in the winter. Is there enough to see around Anchorage in the winter to keep us busy? I saw recommendations to visit Seward, or Girdwood to the south-southeast, I'm just feeling uncertain about the wintertime and if things will be open based on all the random stuff I saw online. To help you answer this, we are a couple in our late 20s/early 30s, and we like outdoorsy stuff (hiking, biking, skiing/snowboarding, seeing animals, etc.), eating good food, and generally seeing amazing stuff for photography reasons. We also want to see the northern lights, maybe do a dog sled ride, go snowmobiling, see a glacier, that sort of thing.

2) Getting around - is the driving safe in winter? Or should we be looking at alternative travel means to get around? We're relatively good winter drivers, used to driving in ice and snowy conditions along the east coast. Online I've seen things all over the spectrum to answer this question, and it's left me feeling unsure of what the winter is really like there.

3) Is Denali National Park even an option in December? I looked online, and it says the park will be open but that some of the roads I guess don't get plowed. Would we have to be in Fairbanks to easily access that park? On a map, the park looks huge and looks like it's sort of mid-way between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

4) Okay lastly, any specific trip recommendations or guidance, from those who've done the winter trip before? I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed with options, and then not even knowing if those options are available in the winter.

Thanks in advance for your help!
posted by FireFountain to Travel & Transportation around Alaska (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
One thing that will really help in answering your question is your budget. Can you give us a general idea of how much you're interested in paying for lodging, transportation, etc?

Tons to suggest and I'm sure the other Alaskan MeFites will pop in too!
posted by charmcityblues at 12:15 PM on November 10, 2015

Epic Ski's guide to Alyeska is a good place to research your skiing/boarding opportunities. Their forums are a great place to ask questions as well.

Denali is definitely open and has winter activities. You won't be able to explore the park by car but there would be ample snowshoeing opportunities.
posted by mmascolino at 12:22 PM on November 10, 2015

Response by poster: Regarding budget, we haven't fully decided but we'd probably be willing to spend 2-4K ish. We usually stay in cheaper lodging (but still hotels, no motel type stuff) and then spend money going out and doing things. We might be persuaded to spend more for something awesome :-)
posted by FireFountain at 12:47 PM on November 10, 2015

Roads are pretty well maintained in both Anchorage and Fairbanks during the winter, but there will be snow on the ground and you should be prepared to drive in winter conditions. If you've ever driven around somewhere like Minneapolis during the winter you'll be fine.

Plenty of people also drive between Fairbanks and Anchorage in winter. However, if you're just visiting, I think taking the train one way and flying back (to the lower 48) is a better option. With a car, you're going to have to make sure you get proper winter tires from the rental company. And while weather conditions are generally fine, you'll want to be prepared for emergencies, etc. Plus the drive itself is likely going to be 7+ hours each way.

The disadvantage is you'll skip Denali park as well as Talkeetna which would be a must-visit along the way.

In Fairbanks, Chena Hotsprings is one of the big draws. I haven't been in a long time, but it's popular with Japanese tourists looking to see the aurora.

Here's another NY Times article about visiting Fairbanks in winter.

In Anchorage a lot of the touristy things will be closed down, but there'll be plenty of opportunities for restaurants, museums, and skiing.
posted by timelord at 2:03 PM on November 10, 2015

I rode the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks around New Years a couple years ago and it was a blast! There's minimal daylight of course, but we still saw beautiful scenery and several animals (moose, caribou, wolves).

Chena Hot Springs near Fairbanks will definitely be open. That's worth a visit, especially for northern lights.

Denali National Park won't entirely be shut down. You won't be able to go very far into the park, but there's plenty of cross country skiing a snowshoeing opportunities around the vicinity of the park entrance.

Girdwood / Alyeska would be fun, but there may or may not be much snow yet.

The main highways are usually well maintained, but it's definitely possible to encounter white knuckle driving...especially in a 2wd rental car.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 2:11 PM on November 10, 2015

Anchorage, compared to the rest of Alaska, has a fairly well developed hotel scene. So you should be fine browsing for deals on expedia/ Most hotels are either in midtown or downtown. Downtown is much more walkable, but you'll still want a car.

Also, a lot of B&B's in Alaska don't have much of a web presence. It might be worth tracking down an Alaska travel guide at your local library and calling some of their listings to ask for rate quotes. The Fairbanks visitor's bureau has a listing too.
posted by timelord at 2:23 PM on November 10, 2015

Chena Hot Springs for sure if you come to Fairbanks. You could go see the "Christmas in Ice" display in North Pole. Go cross country skiing in the dark (there are lighted loops) at Birch Hill---there must be some place to borrow skis...

If it were me, and I had the money, I'd fly to Fairbanks from Anchorage. Ravn Alaska seems to have flights for $92/person, as long as you don't want to fly on Christmas or New Years Day.

It'll be dark, though.

Denali's a couple three hours from Fairbanks. It's probably better to think of it as a separate stop on your trip. If you go. Did i mention the dark? Fairbanks can be spectacularly beautiful in the winter, but...not a lot of light. And it's likely to be pretty cold. (I try to leave Fairbanks this time of year! My parents visited over Christmas the first year we lived there and...have never come back in the winter at all. )

Chena Hot Springs'd be fun, though.
posted by leahwrenn at 2:25 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

It is gorgeous in Anchorage around Xmas --- my bro lives there and we visited last year. It is MORE gorgeous when there is plenty of snow and it is cold, which even in AK isn't for sure these days -- it was rather temperate last year. Days are very, very short.

Alaskans drive in all conditions without bothering with snow tires, but for a long haul like Anchorage to Fairbanks I second that I would fly. My husband and I drive everywhere too but I am telling you, it's the work of a minute to die at high speed on an icy road, and that's what the surfaces will be on all the highways. Plus you really have minimal daylight.

Alaska is VERY expensive. Seriously, you'll be amazed at what even simple motels cost.

I'd suggest either parking yourself in a wilderness area and having fun skiing, hiking, etc., or staying in Anchorage and enjoying the area, which is stunning and has plenty nearby (ice fishing, ice skating, skiing at Alyeska, hiking/walking in parks) to do. Plan for the darkness, i.e. for movies and reading and hanging around fires quaffing beers and so forth. You are likely to see animals everywhere. We spotted moose and bald eagles every time we looked out the window in my brother's home or took a short drive. There's lots of bear etc. around too.
posted by bearwife at 2:42 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fairbanks actually has quite a few nice hotels. (I know because I have been stuck there countless times trying to get to the North Slope . . .) It's a big tourist destination that will be relatively dead in winter, so you should be able to find deals. But by all means take the 45 minute flight, don't drive or take the train.

In Fairbanks, the Museum of the North is exceptionally good.

In Anchorage make sure you eat brunch at the Snow City Cafe. It is absolutely fantastic. It's a wait sometimes on weekends, but worth it.
posted by spitbull at 4:02 PM on November 10, 2015

Hi! I live in Anchorage and lived in Fairbanks for about 7 years. Alaska is gorgeous in the winter when it's cold and snowy, but keep in mind that climate change meant last year that Anchorage had record low snowfall.

1. It's a 6 hour drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks in good weather, 6-8 hours in the winter, and I don't really recommend it. The highway is maintained, but is likely to be icy. And if there's a snowstorm, visibility can be reduced considerably. Plus all of the roadside stops (toilets, not attractions) will be closed and gated, so if you need to pee you're doing it out in nature, and it could be -40 degrees while you're doing it. Also if you have car problems there won't be many people on the road - but on the plus side anyone who sees you will absolutely stop to help. Denali park is technically open, but some roads won't be maintained and all of the park amenities near the highway will be closed.

The train ride is very pretty but very very long. The scenery will be pretty, but also dark for most of it - there is only about 5.5 hours between sunrise and sunset in Anchorage at the end of December, and only 3.75 hours of daylight in Fairbanks. The train will take you through Denali park which is great, though it's hit or miss if you'll see Denali the mountain due to weather. Flying takes just under an hour, isn't expensive, and the plane flies right over Denali the mountain.

Seward will be boring with nothing going on. Girdwood would be fun if you ski/snowboard - and IF there's enough snow for Alyeska to be open. The highway south from Anchorage can be treacherous in the winter because 1. it's a very twisty turny road, 2. much of it is only one lane in each direction, 3. other drivers are idiots and cause accidents, 4. accidents or avalanches (if snow!) can cause road closure for hours and hours and there is no alternative route. THAT SAID it is a really amazing gorgeous drive from Anchorage to Girdwood: check the weather and play it by ear.

2. If you are comfortable driving in east coast snowy and icy conditions you'll be fine in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Confirm the rental car has snow or all weather tires.

3. I covered Denali above. The entrance to the park is indeed between Anchorage and Fairbanks, slightly closer to Fairbanks.

4. Anchorage will have a bunch of holiday stuff going on. Chena Hot Springs is amazing and an hour drive from Fairbanks plus has a hotel for you to stay overnight, and Fairbanks will also have some holiday stuff going on. Much of the touristy stuff won't be open, but there will be plenty to do in both cities. Alaskans get a bit stir crazy with all of the darkness and cold and like to have big celebrations to counteract all of that. (And a lot of us fly to Hawaii in January.) Plus if you like outdoor winter activities we have SO MUCH to offer: cross country skiing, fat tire biking, snow boarding, downhill skiing, dog sledding.
posted by rhapsodie at 4:15 PM on November 10, 2015

Best answer: With a 7-12 day itinerary, I'd plan to fly into Anchorage and out of Fairbanks if possible. Spend 1-2 days in Anchorage and 3-5 days in Girdwood at Alyeska Resort (ask for Northern Lights wakeup calls when you check in, and don't miss the amazing hot tub/pool!). Then take the train or drive* to Fairbanks for the rest of the trip, stopping at Denali National Park (Winter Activities) along the way.

In Anchorage, the Hotel Captain Cook is kind of the flagship hotel (and where Obama stayed when he visited!) It can be pricey, though. The other downtown hotels are mostly fine-- but look closely at reviews for hostels or motels, some of which are very dicey.

Visit the Anchorage Museum and then walk to Nane's Pelmeni's for lunch. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that there are any events at the Alaska Native Heritage Center during the time when you're planning to visit, and it's otherwise closed for the winter. You can rent fat tire bikes and explore the extensive trail networks, watching out for moose of course! Eat breakfast at Snow City Cafe (like Obama!) and dinner Moose's Tooth (when I lived in rural Alaska, I dreamt of their diablo breadsticks).

In Girdwood, mix skiing (downhill and cross country) with day trips to Seward (don't miss the Alaska Sea Life Center), possibly Whittier, and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Have dinner at the Double Musky and maybe at the fancy (for Alaska) restaurant at the top of the mountain. Alyeska also sets up dog mushing tours and I think snow machining as well. It will almost certainly be a lot milder in Anchorage/Girdwood than in Fairbanks, so it might make sense to do most of your outdoor activities in Girdwood and environs.

In Fairbanks, spend a night or two at Chena Hot Springs, which is $$$ but amazing and probably your best bet for Northern Lights. It's a bit outside Fairbanks proper. In Fairbanks, Pike's Waterfront Lodge is a pretty kitschy but fun place to stay.

*Rent a car with 4WD and pay extra for studded tires. The roads are generally okish but expect to be driving on snow/ice most of the time and definitely allow for extra stopping distance. The trip to Fairbanks is long and rhapsodie is absolutely right that the amenities are lacking in winter.
posted by charmcityblues at 11:20 PM on November 10, 2015

Best answer: 1) Does it make sense to try to cram in seeing stuff around Anchorage, and then also seeing stuff around Fairbanks in one trip?

You can? I don't know if I would? I don't know how much stuff there is to do in Fairbanks in the winter; I know it is a lot less than Anchorage. Your odds of seeing the aurora are better there than in Anchorage (go to the hot springs, it is what everyone does and they're right to do so- they'll wake you up if the lights are out!), and if you do go up I'd make it the last 2-3 days of your trip and fly out from there if possible. It will be so, so dark, though (solstice has sunrise at about 10:45 and sunset at 2:45; you'll get about an hour and a half more daylight in Anchorage), and far colder than Anchorage.

Seward is completely dead in the winter except for the Sea Life Center, and Whittier is basically shut down as well; unless you are planning on doing winter hiking and want to do it there specifically I would not plan to go either of those places. If I didn't live in Anchorage and was planning a winter Alaska trip, I'd do Anchorage with day trips to Girdwood (and the Wildlife Conservation Center just past Girdwood), or split time between Anchorage and Girdwood. And maybe do the last smidge in Fairbanks/Chena Hot Springs.

2) Getting around - is the driving safe in winter? Or should we be looking at alternative travel means to get around?

It sounds like you have some winter driving experience. It is not particularly wonderful getting around without a car anyplace in Alaska. I would rent a 4WD car with snow/winter tires and you'll probably be fine at least in town. Go slow, ignore anyone who honks at you. Wait a few seconds after your light turns green for red light runners, it's a problem in winter. Roads are usually pretty well plowed/shoveled up here and if they aren't hunker down for a bit and they'll be there within a day.

3) Is Denali National Park even an option in December?

Your activities in Denali will be significantly limited in winter, and again, the farther you get into the interior of the state the colder the weather can be. The scenery is beautiful but you lose a lot of the prettiness to vast expanses of snow (pretty in their own way, but definitely a different variety of pretty), and the wildlife is amazing but you also lose some of it to hibernation/holing up/lack of road. I'd probably suggest that you come back and visit us in the summer and do it then.

4) Okay lastly, any specific trip recommendations or guidance, from those who've done the winter trip before? I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed with options, and then not even knowing if those options are available in the winter.

I live here! Feel free to e-mail/MeMail me directly with questions, or ask in the thread.

-go to the Wildlife Conservation Center if you drive south of Anchorage. It's great in the winter! When else are you going to see musk oxen?

-So far, it has been a much better snow year than last year- I have already been cross-country skiing a couple times in Anchorage this week- but there are no guarantees it won't go all to melty hell like last year did.

-Girdwood is 45 minutes out of Anchorage and has the only real resort in the area, Alyeska. It's expensive to ski there, but fun. It is also expensive to stay there, but it's pretty nice. I have also used these folks with varying results; cheaper but more of a crapshoot. You can get a slight discount on lift passes at Costco, but have to buy 4 at a time. Christmas will be crowded but you will never see lines for lifts like you do on the east coast.

-In Girdwood the place to eat is Jack Sprat's. They take reservations, get the yam fries. 7 Glaciers at the top of the tram is very expensive, but good and has nice views. If you are carnivorous a lot of people also like the Double Musky. The Bake Shop has hearty breakfasts.

-Do as many winter activities as you can. REI rents snowshoes and cross-country skis. Play It Again Sports rents ice skates. Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking rents a lot of backcountry stuff and also speed skates and technical snowshoes. You can rent fat tire winter bikes at Arctic Cycles. Alaska Pacific University also does rentals of fat tire bikes and a lot of other winter gear (more expensive if you are public than if you are a student, but they *will* rent to you). Go to Wal-Mart and just buy a cheap sled.

If there's good snow, the cross-country skiing (both skate and classic) is awesome and free. Go to Kincaid Park, Russian Jack or the Hillside Trail System, which are regularly groomed by the ski club (see that website for grooming updates; they also have a hotline you can call to check on conditions. Quite a few of the trails at Kincaid and on the Hillside are lighted for after-dark skiing. There's also a few new x-country trails in Girdwood.

Multi-use trails where you can walk, hike, x-country ski or winter bike include the gorgeous 9-mile Coastal Trail that starts downtown, the Campbell Creek Trail and the Chester Creek Trail. They're nice for skiing because they're flatter than the ski-only options, but groomed irregularly by the city. Although you can't bike on the ski trails, there is an extensive singletrack mountain bike trail system at Kincaid (they're multiuse, so you can also walk/snowshoe). You can also go up into Chugach State Park at Glen Alps or Prospect Heights within 20 minutes by car and hike, bike or snowshoe. Glen Alps is also a pretty decent place to get out of the lights of the city if you think the northern lights will be out. If you have good sense and are cautious and the weather has been consistently cold, one of the best winter bike trips I have ever done is fat tire biking up the Knik River to the Knik Glacier (you leave near Palmer, an hour out of town). I also like snowshoeing up Glacier Creek in Girdwood. Rabbit Lake off Upper DeArmoun is a great winter hike/snowshoe. Depending on the weather, ice skating or cross-country skiing out to Portage Glacier can be really fun (but a dumb idea during an extended warm stretch).

The city grooms Westchester Lagoon (near downtown) for ice skating every morning in the winter. It's a huge space and pretty neat to see the community out there all day, every day. There is also an Olympic-sized ice skating oval at Cuddy Park that is lighted and free to the public when it is not being used for races etc.- it almost never is. You can use regular skates but it is kind of fun to try the speed skates. If there's the right combination of wind and no recent snow, Potter Marsh on your way south out of town can have awesome skating, as can Jewel Lake (which is stocked for ice fishing, if you are into that).

There's good sledding at Kincaid Park behind the chalet.

Ummm. Lots of good places to eat in Anchorage and indoor activities covered some above and in other threads; if you need tailored recommendations and something seems missing just ask.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:41 PM on November 10, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your help and advice!
posted by FireFountain at 8:00 AM on November 11, 2015

One more: for city moose sightings your best options are at Kincaid Park or on the Coastal Trail. If I needed to score a moose sighting for a tourist in December I'd do one of three things

1) walk/ski on the Coastal Trail from Point Woronzof towards Kincaid. If you walk about two miles you hit a bridge with blue rails and that's a good turnaround point, good odds of moose there.

2) start at the Kincaid Chalet at the end of Raspberry Road and walk down the Coastal Trail (starting by going down giant hill) about two miles (there are mile markers every 1/2 mile).

3) ski the Mize Loop in Kincaid proper. It's about 3 miles and is the easiest/least hilly option for skiing there. Or, explore one of the single track trails by foot.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:48 AM on November 11, 2015

One last idea- don't know if you ended up coming or not or if you are here- since we are low snow right now, the best/most fun thing I have done this week is biking/walking on the Coastal Wildlife Refuge on the frozen mudflats. This is NOT a thing you should do in any other season, and I'd stay where there are tracks from other people and not go out too far or anywhere that seems wet, but it is really spectacular to be out walking or biking on this totally frozen landscape with mountains everywhere. We usually leave from Carr-Gottstein Park in South Anchorage- head out over the bluff and you'll see where people go.
posted by charmedimsure at 4:14 PM on December 19, 2015

« Older Reducing cat poop vectors   |   Ideally, we would like something we want to eat a... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.