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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

This State That Booms in Summer Might Be Even Better Under the Snow

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For all the buzz Alaska gets for summertime’s wildlife adventures and busy cruising season, visiting the state during the quieter winter months has a unique appeal that goes beyond the chance to see the northern lights.

“One of the things I try to explain to people is we don’t get that black darkness so many places get in winter because we have snow on the ground, and it reflects all the light around,” says Lexi Qass’uq Trainer, a member of Chevak Native Village who lives in Eagle River near Anchorage. “We get this blue glow all winter long.”

“Living in Alaska is absolutely amazing, but to make it through the winter, you have to have winter activities you enjoy doing,” she says.

For tourists, those winter activities can be as adventurous or low-key as you like, from ice skating on a frozen glacier lake after touching down on it by helicopter and mushing your own sled dog team, to practicing yoga under the northern lights or taking in a hydrotherapy circuit at a Nordic-inspired spa.

Interest from travelers curious to experience Alaska in winter is growing, says Diane Nigg of Adventures for Alaskans, a Virtuoso-affiliated travel agency.

“With all of the better air service compared to a couple years ago, Alaska is easier to get to. There are so many more nonstop flights to Alaska now,” she says, mentioning nonstop routes from Lower 48 cities such as Dallas and Minneapolis into Anchorage on American and Delta.

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Flights to Alaska are also far less expensive during the winter (outside of the holiday period) than during the summer, she says. And compared with popular winter destinations in Scandinavia, she says Alaska is a less pricey destination overall.

“Within driving distance of Anchorage, you can combine things like skiing, dog sledding, looking for the Northern Lights, ice fishing and flightseeing,” she says. “You do more and pay less here than in Scandinavia.”

To see the northern lights on a budget, she recommends flying into Fairbanks or Anchorage, booking a cheap hotel and renting a car to drive to the outskirts of town to scope the night sky.

Read on for other epic ways to experience Alaska this winter:

Alaska visitors can learn to mush their own team of huskies on a dog-sledding expedition.
Cody Strathe

Dog-mushing trips near Denali

Guests can grip the sled handlebar tight and learn to mush their own team of Alaskan huskies across the tundra during multiday tours with Squid Acres Kennel Sled Dog Tours near Denali National Park. The outfitter provides extreme cold weather clothing and gear, including sleeping bags rated to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 Celsius as well). Nights are spent at scenic camps with wood-stove-heated tents and forays under the night skies to look for the aurora borealis.

“Being on the back of a dogsled watching the dogs trot effortlessly down the trail is a practice in being in the present. It is all of the emotions and exhilaration,” says Deborah Colby of Missoula, Montana, who took part in a seven-day trip in March 2023. The tours also include overnights with more luxury at Susitna Adventure Lodge.

Mingling with Iditarod mushers

The 11-day, late-February Iditarod & Aurora Adventure with tour operator John Hall’s Alaska is a trip of a lifetime through a state like no other.

It kicks off with guests attending the Iditarod Mushers Banquet in Anchorage to meet mushers embarking on the epic sled dog race that’s more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) long.

Other highlights during this overland tour by bus include hopping a flight to a remote village along the course to meet the teams at an Iditarod checkpoint, a photography lesson with a professional northern lights photographer, glacier flightseeing, dog sledding and the chance to try curling at the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks.

Winter wellness along the Kenai Peninsula

Making time for winter wellness can help you weather Alaska’s cold. And at Salted Roots in Seward, set on an inlet along the Kenai Peninsula, guests stay in cozy A-frame cabins surrounded by a spruce forest for two-night winter wellness packages that include private yoga lessons and massage as well as plenty of sauna time. A newly renovated sister property, Rustic Roots, with rustic seaside cabins, is opening next door in January 2024.

Winter tours into Kenai Fjords National Park, a landscape of rugged coastal fjords and glaciers, include winter sea kayaking on Resurrection Bay and snowmobiling and snowcat tours with Adventure Sixty North to the glacier viewpoint at the park’s Exit Glacier Nature Center.

Landing by copter on a glacier lake for ice skating

There’s ice skating on a rink, and then there’s ice skating between towering mounds of ice on a glacier lake you’ve touched down on in a helicopter.

New this winter, Alaska Helicopter Tours is offering a Winter Heli Ice Skating adventure that lifts off from Alaska Glacier Lodge (in Palmer, an hour’s drive from Anchorage) that includes flightseeing over the Chugach Range and Knik Glacier. The pilot will scout for the perfect glacier lake to land on for a stint of wild ice skating that will ruin you for indoor rinks for life. The company also offers winter heli snowshoeing tours to the Knik Glacier.

Catching the Arctic Winter Games in the Mat-Su Valley

North of Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (Mat-Su Valley) is hosting the 2024 Arctic Winter Games from March 10 to 16. The games draw some 2,000 youth athletes from regions across the Arctic — among them Northern Europe’s Sápmi region; Canada’s Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavik; and Alaska — to compete in 20 sports.

The games include heritage Dene games such as snowsnake and stick pull as well as curling, hockey and other winter sports.

One of the event’s highlights is a cultural gala showcasing yoiking (a traditional song form of the Sami people), Inuit throat singing, drumming and dancing from across the circumpolar region.

Riding the rails aboard Alaska Railroad

The state-owned Alaska Railroad  — a year-round lifeline for off-gridders living in some of Alaska’s most remote reaches as well as a vital Alaska freight route — offers unique wintertime sightseeing for tourists.

From mid-September to mid-May, the Aurora Winter Train travels between Anchorage and Fairbanks on 12-hour journeys with flagstop service in spots such as Talkeetna, where you can consider detouring for wintertime adventures that include dog sledding adventures and flightseeing in Denali National Park.

Talkeetna is also the departure point for the Hurricane Turn Train, which travels a ridiculously scenic backcountry route through the wilderness of the Indian River Valley, where residents living off-the-grid in remote hunting and fishing cabins flag down the train for the ride back south.

Sleeping under the northern lights at Borealis Base Camp

With solar activity reaching 11-year-high levels in 2024 and 2025, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are predicting strong northern lights displays.

Visitors can up their odds of seeing the show with a stay in one of the clear-roofed “igloos” or cube accommodations outside of Fairbanks at Borealis Basecamp, where the colors could come curtaining down at any moment right over the bed.

Removed from the city lights within a boreal forest, the property is opening a new Cube Suite this spring that can accommodate a family of five and has its own private sauna. While the property is sold out this winter for direct bookings, booking a tour with an operator such as John Hall’s Alaska or Alaska Railroad can secure your stay.

Yoga at Arctic Hive comes with magical views.

Staying off-the-grid under the Auroral Oval

Off-the-grid outfitter Arctic Hive is even farther north from Fairbanks under the Auroral Oval deep in Alaska’s Brooks Range (called the Himalayas of the Arctic).

“Despite our location, 63 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the remote Brooks Mountain Range, winter is our busy season,” says Mollie Busby, who runs four- to five-night retreats at the property she owns with her husband, Sean.

Guests depart from Fairbanks and travel along the Dalton Highway by van, then hike in to reach the rustic cabins heated by Swedish oil drip stoves where outhouse-style bathroom facilities are shared.

Luxuries here come in one-of-a-kind experiences such as practicing yoga under the northern lights in a geodesic dome (billed as Alaska’s northernmost yoga studio). Or snowshoeing in powder with the help of sled dogs harnessed to hikers with a skijoring harness.

“We stop often to take in the views, drink water and give the dogs love. It’s a blast,” says Busby. This winter’s packages include a winter solstice yoga retreat for women in December and five-day rewilding retreats in February and March.

Cruising to ski fjord landscapes around Prince William Sound

Skiers with experience beyond the world of chairlifts can challenge themselves with backcountry terrain around Prince William Sound on Alaska’s southern coast during adventurous small boat cruises for skiers aboard the 58-foot M/V Babkin or 42-foot fishing vessel, Alexandra.

Remarkable Adventures organizes five-day (and longer) trips from late February into May with captains guiding the way to world-class backcountry skiing in the region’s mountainous islands and fjords. Guests sleep aboard the boat and can also enjoy fishing, kayaking and glacier-viewing along the way.

Alyeska Resort offers this setup in the way of après-ski bliss.
Courtesy Alyeska Resort

Heli-skiing heaven

Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, the state’s largest ski resort, is just a 45-minute drive east of Anchorage and the only ski resort in North America with mountain, glacier and ocean views. A steep and deep favorite among expert skiers and snowboarders, the property offers heli-skiing, cat-skiing and even a few beginner and intermediate runs in the surrounding Chugach Mountains and sees more than 640 inches of annual snowfall. After shredding Chugach terrain, the Alyeska Nordic Spa offers weary skiers hot and cold hydrotherapy pools, saunas and steam rooms at its indoor/outdoor 50,000-square-foot, adults-only wellness facility.

At the uber-luxe Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a fly-in property 60 miles northwest of Anchorage that accommodates a maximum of 20 guests, winter ski season runs from February through April.

During seven-night heli-ski trips into the Tordrillo Mountains, slopeside views include volcanic summits and Denali itself. Among the lodge’s amenities are a cedar sauna, lakeside copper hot tub and 500 bottles of wine to peruse in the house wine cellar.

Source: CNN

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