Alaska's Winter Festivals and Races

Alaska's Winter Festivals and Races

Whether it’s playing in the powder or watching legendary mushers race through downtown Anchorage, Alaskans know the options for fun are limitless in the Far North. Travelers can experience the best of winter by joining Alaskans in one of their many festivals or races that show off their quirky nature and unique culture.

Here are ten of the best festivals and events not to be missed when visiting during Alaska’s winter wonderland season.

Iditarod, March 5 – 20, 2016: This iconic sled dog race covers almost 1000 miles between Anchorage and Nome and commemorates the 1925 delivery of the diphtheria serum to treat an epidemic. Today, teams of dogs and their mushers travel the snow-packed trail every March to much fanfare: this is practically the Alaska Super Bowl. Though the historic trail begins in Seward, the race itself has a ceremonial start in Anchorage and an official start in Wasilla or Willow, depending on snow cover. The ceremonial start and Nome finish are excellent spots for visitors, as they have many visitor-friendly festivities and amenities, but you can also arrange a stay at a remote checkpoint in-between. 

Fur Rondy, February 26 – March 6, 2016: The Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Winter Festival, or Fur Rondy for short, has been held since 1935. Originally created as a three-day festival to coincide with the dates that miners and trappers would travel to town to sell or trade their wares, Fur Rondy now lasts 10 days. Filled with quirky sporting events such as the “Running of the Reindeer” (think Running of the Bulls but with snow and antlers), Snowshoe Softball, and Outhouse Races, the festival is a family-friendly celebration that marks the end of deep winter. It overlaps with the Iditarod, so you can have your fill of Alaska-style fun.  

Iron Dog Race, February 19 – 27, 2016: Billed as “The World’s Longest, Toughest Snowmobile Race,” the Iron Dog covers over 2000 miles in Interior Alaska. Racers start in Big Lake, about an hour’s drive north of Anchorage, and zoom west to Nome and then back east and north to Fairbanks. The mid-February temperatures are extreme, and racers must contend with the danger that storms bring in below-freezing temperatures.

Besides watching the start and finish, spectators can enjoy the race from three major checkpoints: McGrath, Nome and Tanana.

Cordova Iceworm Festival, February 1 – 7, 2016: Every year over the first weekend in February, the small Prince William Sound town of Cordova holds a festival in honor of the iceworm. An iceworm is a small worm that lives in and tunnels through glacial ice, and is a unique focal point for a celebration intended to break up the winter blues. Held since 1961, the festival includes a Miss Iceworm pageant, a variety show, a parade, and much more.

World Ice Art Championships, February 29 – March 27, 2016: Held in Fairbanks every March, the BP World Ice Art Championships celebrate the emerging spring with ice art competitions and exhibitions. A permanent ice park is the site of the month-long festival, which draws more than 45,000 visitors and over 100 artists – many of them international. Categories for the intricate sculptures include single- and multi-block, and there’s more icy entertainment for the whole family, such as ice slides and a train ride. 

Arctic Man, April 4 – 10, 2016: Is it the world’s craziest ski race, or is it the nuttiest snowmobile race in the world? In April each year, teams of two compete in a combo ski and snowmachine race. Skiers take a 1700-foot drop over less than two miles, and then meet their snowmobile driver. From there, they are towed by rope like a snowy water skier uphill at speeds of over 80mph. The skier returns back down another 1200-foot drop to the finish.

More than 10,000 spectators visit Summit Lake, which is approximately 175 miles south of Fairbanks near Paxson, every year for this late-winter race and party. 

Polar Bear Jump, January 16, 2016: It might be more fun to be a spectator than a participant in Seward’s annual Polar Bear Jump. To raise money for cancer, entrants dress in elaborate costumes and then plunge into Seward’s icy harbor. The Jump is held in January, when the fringes of Resurrection Bay are frosted with ice. Visitors can stay warm on the docks and enjoy other family-friendly events throughout the weekend.

Valdez Ice Climbing Festival, February 12 – 15, 2016: Every winter, the dramatic waterfalls in Valdez’s Keystone Canyon are frozen in place. These tiered ice falls draw climbers from all over the world during winter, and the Valdez Ice Climbing Festival draws many of them together over Presidents’ Day weekend. Clinics offer both beginners and skilled climbers the chance to learn or improve their skills. 

Winterfest, February 25 – 28 2016: Denali National Park & Preserve is transformed into a quiet winter wonderland during Alaska’s longest season. Combining outdoor education with fun, the festival includes dog mushing, skiing, ice carving and live music. Events are held throughout the park.

Yukon Quest, February 6 – 20, 2016: Witness some of dog mushing’s greatest as they race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Canada. This 1000-mile international sled dog race follows old Gold Rush and postal routes along the Yukon River. In even years, the race begins in Fairbanks, and in odd years racers start in Whitehorse. To get a real sense of the race, and winter in the Far North, consider spectating from a small-town checkpoint.