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Winter Outdoor Activities Alaska
Photo Credit: ATIA, Matt Hage
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Winter Outdoor Recreation

Winter Outdoor Recreation

While most visitors are familiar with Alaska’s summer landscapes, there’s no getting around the fact that the snow-covered version of our surroundings stays with us a bit longer. Fortunately, Alaskans don’t just make peace with winter — we celebrate it! Many visitors would be surprised to discover that our winter temperatures are comparable to many places in the “Lower 48.” Alaska boasts near-limitless winter adventure options, with activities ranging from dog mushing, skiing, and winter festivals galore. So why not come up and experience Alaska the way the locals do — on skis, under the northern lights, soaking in an outdoor hot spring, or racing down a snowy trail behind a team of sled dogs.

Northern Lights Viewing

The aurora borealis, also known as northern lights, occur about 60 or 70 miles above the earth’s surface — about 10 times higher than a jet aircraft flies — and can extend hundreds of miles into space. The most common color displayed is a brilliant yellow-green, but the aurora borealis can also produce red, blue and purple patterns. You can view the northern lights on your own with the help of the statewide aurora forecast and you can increase your chances by joining a guided northern lights tour or overnight package

Best Places to See the Lights

The northern lights are visible from anywhere throughout the winter in Alaska, with peak season between August and April. Venturing further north increases your chances of seeing them, and because the ambient light from towns and cities reduces their visibility, you’re best off viewing from outside a town center.

The Interior and Arctic regions typically offer the best chances of seeing the northern lights. Fairbanks, located in the heart of the Interior region, is a well-known base for aurora viewing trips given its northern  latitude. Coldfoot and Wiseman are both close to the Dalton Highway in Alaska's Arctic region and several tour companies offer northern lights excursions to these communities. 

Take a Tour

Tour guides are experienced in knowing the best times and places to see the lights. Joining a northern lights tour will maximize your chances of success in seeing an incredible light show in the Alaskan sky. Plus, many tours also include meals, hot drinks, and warming huts or cabins.

Learn more about northern lights viewing in Alaska.

Northern lights viewing in Wiseman, Alaska.
Photo Credit: ATIA, Matt Hage

Dog Mushing

Dog mushing is the official sport of Alaska. Visitors travel from around the world to witness Alaska’s famous sled dog races, including the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Many sled dog kennels offer tours, providing visitors an opportunity to learn about and experience dog mushing firsthand – on a sled dog excursion atop a glacier or along a groomed trail.

See a Race

Two types of races occur statewide throughout the winter in Alaska. Sprint races take place over distances of 20-30 miles or less, either at dedicated mushing tracks or within towns during major events and festivals. In the Rondy World Championship Sled Dog Race, sprint mushing teams compete against each other over the span of three days. The teams race over the same 26-mile course through the streets of Anchorage, attracting spectators from around the world every February.

Long-distance races like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest are among the highlights of Alaska winter sports. These endurance challenges take place over days or even weeks. The start and finish lines of these events lure huge crowds and generate some of Alaska’s most exciting winter atmospheres.

Take a Ride

Those wanting to experience the thrill of dog mushing firsthand can take a dog sledding and kennel tour from many dog kennels throughout Alaska. These can range from a couple of hours to spending several days exploring the backcountry, guided by seasoned mushers. Spending time getting to know the dogs and their importance to life in the state is not only an unforgettable adventure but an amazing source of insight into Alaska’s culture.

Learn more about dog mushing and dog sled tours in Alaska.

Dog sledding tour in Girdwood, Alaska.
Photo Credit: ATIA, Matt Hage

Skiing & Snowboarding

Alpine sports in Alaska are a way of life. Whether you’re simply looking for a good workout and beautiful surroundings, or you’re a thrill-seeking, deep-powder addict, Alaska has an experience for everyone. From backcountry heli-skiing to lift-assisted downhill skiing to cross-country skiing on groomed trails, Alaska is an outdoor recreationalist paradise.

Downhill Skiing & Snowboarding

Alaska’s combination of stunning mountain ranges, northerly latitude, and its location next to the Pacific Ocean make it a perfect destination for downhill skiers and snowboarders. While major resorts towns like Girdwood see upwards of 650 inches of snow per year, it isn’t just about quantity. The snow comes in wet, meaning it clings to even the steepest slopes, before drying in cold dry air to leave the perfect powder. This quality of snow makes downhill skiing and snowboarding the cornerstone of winter outdoor recreation in Alaska.

Cross Country Skiing

Trails that form the playground for bikers, runners, and walkers during the summer months hand the reins (or poles) over to cross-country skiers during winter in Alaska. Many towns have groomed trails and outfitters that rent equipment, so wherever your Alaska winter itinerary takes you, a ski through the state’s dazzling terrain can create unforgettable memories for your trip.

Heli-skiing

Due to daylight and snow conditions, February through April tend to be the best times in Alaska for heli-skiing. Adventurous skiers can experience the thrill of arriving on a mountaintop by helicopter before descending through stunning mountain terrain, taking full advantage of the perfect climate for winter outdoor recreation Alaska provides. Some operators offer day trips, while several remote wilderness lodges throughout the state lead multi-day itineraries centered around heli-skiing.

Learn more about skiing and snowboarding in Alaska.

Cross country skiers at Independence Mine State Historical Park in Mat-Su Valley, Alaska.
Photo Credit: ATIA, Matt Hage

Snowmobiling

In Alaska, no wilderness is too far out of reach to explore, and a snowmobile is often the best way to get there. Numerous tour operators offer both guided and unguided treks into the backcountry for riders of all abilities. Some excellent snowmobiling locations include Fairbanks, Denali, Talkeetna, Valdez, Haines, the Mat-Su Valley, Girdwood, and the Kenai Peninsula. Oh, and if you do go snowmobiling in Alaska, don’t be confused if people start talking about snowmachines — that’s the local vernacular for the backcountry machines.

Where to Go

Some excellent snowmobiling locations include Fairbanks, Denali, Talkeetna, Valdez, Haines, the Mat-Su Valley, Girdwood, and the Kenai Peninsula. For access to the most remote locations, such as the Nelchina or Spencer Glaciers, consider a snowmachine tour.

Snowmachine Tours

Numerous tour operators offer both guided and unguided treks into the backcountry for riders of all abilities. With expert guides to instruct you on the proper use of your snowmachine, a tour enables you to explore some of Alaska’s most inaccessible terrain, including the state’s clear blue glaciers and hidden ice caves.

Learn more about snowmobile tours in Alaska.

Two snowmobilers in Alaska.
Photo Credit: ATIA, Matt Hage

fat Biking

With extra wide tires (sometimes outfitted with studs) to keep you stable and increase traction on snow and ice, fat tire bikes are a fantastic way to get out and explore Alaska’s trails in the winter. Locals and visitors alike revel in pedaling along multi-use and singletrack trails year-round thanks to fat tire bikes. Many bike shops offer fat bike rentals complete with pogies – big mits that fit over the handlebars that you can slide your hands into to keep them toasty while biking. Tour operators lead fat bike rides of varying adventure levels, from leisurely in-town rides on wide multi-use trails to long rides out to glaciers along frozen rivers.

Where to Go

Most of Alaska’s larger towns and cities will have facilities to rent fat tire bikes and to join tours. Particularly popular locations for fat biking include Girdwood, Fairbanks, and Kincaid Park and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, both in Anchorage. Adventurous bikers can attempt the Knik Glacier, although this can be dangerous if approached incorrectly, so a guided tour is recommended.

Learn more about biking in Alaska.

Two fat tire bikers bike in front a glacier in Alaska in winter.
Photo Credit: ATIA, Matt Hage

snowshoeing

A quintessentially classic winter activity, snowshoeing in Alaska allows you to enjoy hiking trails year-round, even when there’s too much snow for walking. Snowshoes spread your weight over a larger area, allowing you to stay on top of the snow and avoid the dreaded postholing, or sinking into the snow with each step. Ski poles add extra stability and distribute your weight even more. Outfitters throughout the state rent snowshoes and can recommend the best places to go based on recent snow conditions.

Two people snowshoe at Independence Mine State Historical Park in Alaska in winter.
Photo Credit: ATIA, Matt Hage

Ice Skating

For a family-friendly winter activity, rent some skates and venture out for some ice skating fun. In addition to groomed outdoor ice skating rinks in Southcentral and Interior Alaska, several communities groom lakes and lagoons in winter for a more unique skating experience. One of the best outdoor ice skating destinations is Westchester Lagoon near downtown Anchorage. Sections of this large lagoon are groomed into a network of ice skating trails, with warming barrels and free hot chocolate, and family-friendly events throughout the winter. Tanana Lakes in Fairbanks is another hot spot for groomed outdoor ice skating. Backcountry ice skating opportunities abound for those interested in an even bigger adventure, with popular spots including Nancy Lakes, Portage Lake, and Palmer Hay Flats. Always check with local parks & recreation offices on ice conditions before venturing out on backcountry ice skating.

A woman ice skates and Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage Alaska.
Photo Credit: ATIA, Matt Hage

Ice Fishing

Think that fishing is only a summer activity? Think again! Winter fishing charters out of Homer in Southcentral Alaska offer the unique thrill of targeting winter king salmon. You can also join a guided ice fishing trip from Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula, and the Mat-Su Valley. These tours provide all the gear that you need and usually include access to a heated ice fishing hut to keep you comfortable for a day on the ice.

A woman and her daughter ice fish in Fairbanks.
Photo Credit: ATIA, Chris McLennan

From natural beauties to extreme sports, Alaska winters really do take the (icy) cake. So put on your snowshoes and head out to explore this winter wonderland.

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