Winter In Fairbanks: 11 Things To Do on Your Trip to Alaska

It’s time for a true winter adventure! Winter in Fairbanks is a cold yet unique place to plan a trip that will stick with you for years to come! The biggest attraction, the northern lights, will dazzle you no matter how vivid they appear. But there’s so much more to this area than just the Aurora Borealis.

You can try your hand at dog mushing or ice fishing, become part of the small percentage who visits the Arctic Circle or take a flightseeing trip around the tallest peak in North America.

I visited Fairbanks for the first time in February 2024 and spent five days in the city and up in the Arctic Circle. I loved exploring these stunning landscapes, trying new activities, and learning more about Alaska from those who call it home.

Whatever your reason for coming to Fairbanks, you’ll experience something you’ve never done before and come back with memories and stories to last a lifetime.

Your Guide to Winter In Fairbanks, Alaska

Here are some fun things you can do when you visit Fairbanks during the winter. 

What to do When You Visit Fairbanks in the Winter

Experience the Northern Lights During Winter in Fairbanks

This is the number one reason to visit Fairbanks in the wintertime. Sitting under the Aurora Oval, Fairbanks is the best place in the United States to view the Northern Lights. 

winter in fairbanks is perfect for the aurora
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Winter in Fairbanks

Furthermore, it’s in the world’s top echelon of Northern Lights viewing.

For many in the lower 48, the northern lights are associated with big solar storms. But this far north, you don’t need a big storm at all. Better yet, you will probably see them with a lackluster storm! It’s what makes this area so great to visit!

What are the best places to see the northern lights in Fairbanks?

Because you’re so far north, you don’t need to go far or to an elaborate place to see them. Plainly speaking, you just need to get outside of the city and its light pollution. If you do that, and the aurora is out, you can see it! This is why Winter in Fairbanks is such a gem!

Here are a few places I recommend in the area:

  • Aurora Point ($$)
  • Drive out on the Chena Hot Springs Road (Free locations)
  • Murphy Dome (Free)
  • Clearly Summit (Free)
  • Chena Hot Springs Road (Free)
  • Chena Lake Recreation Area (Free)

I recommend driving the Chena Lake road during the day (I unfortunately didn’t get to do this). This will allow you to see what areas are reasonable to pull off and view. I hate to say this, but in Alaska, people are a bit particular about their property, and it’s not wise to drive onto other people’s property unannounced.

So, if you check out the road and pull offs in the daytime, you’ll better understand what is open and what is not. (You also want an area you can spend some time in, and I was slightly worried about pulling into an area with deep snow/ice and getting stuck.)

I have more Aurora tips further down.

Visit the Arctic Circle and the Brooks Range

Heading north into the Arctic Circle was a peat adventure. I flew up to Coldfoot and then drove the final 10 miles by car into Wiseman with Mollie and Sean, the owners of Arctic Hive.

The Arctic Hive was my home for two nights, allowing me to experience the Brooks Range and life off the grid and amongst nature. (Though they do have cell service and Starlink. But for the most part, I was there to take a break from the modern world.)

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Alaska 2024

Here, I saw the Aurora, went dog sledding, went to the bathroom in an outhouse at -15F, and learned more about life in this area, such as how they’re promoting environmentalism and protecting wildlife, what they have to do to survive in -40F, and how they built their seven-unit compound by hand.

As for the flight from Fairbanks, it was nice but nothing too grand.

However, I’ve been spoiled by flying over the Alaskan Range twice and Wrangell St. Elias National Park. It would be way more epic if the flight did a few loops throughout the Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park. Alas, they didn’t doddle.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Alaska 2024

(There are no sightseeing flights during winter, only during the summer months.)

Arctic Circle and Northern Lights Tour from Fairbanks – $290
Arctic Circle Winter Drive Adventure – $279

Go Dog Sledding

I went dog sledding with Mollie and Sean, but you don’t have to go all the way up to the Arctic Circle to check this off the bucket list. There are plenty of opportunities in and around Fairbanks.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Alaska 2024

I just hung out in the sled and took pictures/videos, but those who book tours will get to stand up and be fully immersed in the experience. It was fun but also extremely cold. Our temperatures were -10 and even colder with the wind chill.

It’s cool to see sled dogs working together and responding to directional commands. This is a perfect winter activity in Fairbanks!

Dog Sledding and Mushing Experience in North Pole – $99
Dogsled and Reindeer Day Trip to Borealis Basecamp – $299

See the Ice Sculpting World Championships

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Winter in Fairbanks Ice Sculpting Championships

Talk about incredible! I had zero expectations for what this would be like, and holy smokes, was it beautiful! The sculptors created the most stunning pieces of art out of ice blocks, and depending on the time of day you visit, you’ll probably get to see them at work.

I’m sure you could spend longer here, but it was -12F, and I was freezing, so I did a quick loop and headed to get dinner.

Take a Winter Summit Flight of Denali

views of denali, the tallest peak in north america on my denali winter summit flight
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Winter in Fairbanks

This is one of Alaska’s most extraordinary flightseeing trips and a must-do when visiting Fairbanks in winter. While most flightseeing trips visit Denali, this is one of the few that will put you at eye level with the tallest peak in North America.

It’s a flight of epic proportions and worth every dime.

The flight is a bit boring for the first 30 minutes after take-off as you fly over flat lands surrounding Fairbanks. But after a while, you’ll reach the Alaskan Range. This is where the fun begins!

This area of the state is one of the most stunning you’ll ever see. It’s full of glaciers, jagged peaks, and frozen rivers; each view is better than the last.

Your pilot will tell you to put on oxygen masks at around 12,000 feet. From here, you’ll begin your ascent to the summit of Denali. It’s a glorious flightseeing trip and one of my favorite activities to do while you enjoy winter in Fairbanks.

flying over the muldrow glacier with mount denali in the background
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Alaska 2024

Drive down to Castner Ice Cave

The Castner Ice Cave is down by Delta Junction, about a 2.5-hour drive from Fairbanks. My itinerary didn’t allow me to get down here, but the photos make it look cool in the wintertime. 

It’s only a short walk into the cave from the trailhead. Please be careful when entering and bring plenty of warm gear.

(Side note: My brother went in the summer and had less than favorable things to say.)

Explore the North Pole

Twenty minutes east of Fairbanks is the North Pole. If you’d like to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus, this is the place to do it! It’s also a good place to hunt for the northern lights as it’s outside Fairbanks’ light pollution. 

Additionally, plenty of tours, including snowmobiling and dog mushing, leave from here.

Fairbanks Snowmobile Adventure from the North Pole – $97.50
2-Hour Guided Snowmobile Tour in Fairbanks – $295

Winter in Fairbanks: See Denali National Park By Car, Plane, or Train

denali national park camping
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Alaska 2024

Denali National Park is much less accessible in winter than in summertime, but it is not closed, which is important to know! From Fairbanks, it is a 2.25-hour drive down to the National Park, or you can hop on the train.

For winter months, the park road is closed at mile three, and the winter visitor center is located at mile 1.3. 

What to do in Denali during the winter:

  • Snowshoeing
  • Cross country skiing
  • Fat tire biking
  • See the sled dogs (only on weekends from 1-4pm)

*You can get equipment at the Visitor Center.*

Visit Chena Hot Springs

The Chena Hot Springs is one of the major draws for visiting Fairbanks in winter. It’s a little over an hour’s drive, and you’ll get to soak in lovely hot water while the temperatures outside hover around zero or colder! 

You can also visit the Aurora Ice Museum near the hot springs, which is worth the price! 

Chena Hot Springs Round Trip Tour -$198
Northern Lights and Chena Hot Springs Night Tour from Fairbanks – $215

Walk with Reindeer

This isn’t a specific location (unless you find Santa’s Workshop, haha), but you can take tours in various places in Fairbanks that allow you to walk and interact with reindeer (caribou). 

Seeing the reindeer is another great option for younger kids if you’re coming with a family. 

alaksa wildlife photography caribou

Winter in Fairbanks: Ice Fishing

I didn’t get a chance to do this, but the concept is so cool! If you’re into fishing and want to catch some fish, I would suggest looking at these tours! Winter in Fairbanks is an awesome time to try new and unique activities.

Quick and Easy Ice Fishing at Chena Lake – $142
3 Hour Ice Fishing Experience – $135
Fairbanks Ice Fishing Expedition in a Heated Cabin with Fish Cookout

What you need to know about Visiting Fairbanks in the Winter

It’s Going To Be Very Cold

If this surprises anyone, you’re in for a rude awakening!

Winter in Fairbanks is usually around subzero, with highs in the -15s or worse. When I visited Fairbanks, I arrived on the final day of a warm front (it was eight degrees, haha), and when I left, the lows were at -30 or worse.

It is honestly the coldest thing I’ve ever felt, and just walking outside without gloves will have your hands stinging in mere seconds.

You must keep your digits covered, or your fun will drop considerably. Once things get cold, it’s hard to warm up, so aim to stay warm for as long as possible.

Are the roads icy in the winter?

This was a big concern for me when I was coming up. The temperatures were deep in the negatives, and I was a bit worried, considering I grew up in Arizona, where icy roads are nonexistent.

But I learned that it’s almost always bone dry when it’s that cold. This means that, for the most part, the roads are actually in good condition. Most of the main roads were snow and ice-free. (I did slightly slide, making a turn once, but it was over in two seconds.)

They also put down gravel, rocks, and dirt so you have traction on icy surfaces.

The time when you need to be worried is when it starts to warm up, which causes the ice to melt and then refreeze. That’s apparently the most dangerous time.

Winter in Fairbanks Is Not Cheap

Getting to Fairbanks is not cheap. However, I booked my trip a bit last minute, which contributed to the high airfare, even coming from Seattle.

However, once you’re there, it doesn’t get much better. Meals and other goods are also pricey.

But this is expected because it costs a lot to ship food and supplies that far. No matter where you go in Alaska, you have to expect it to be expensive and just roll with the punches. (But you can also eat groceries and cut costs.)

One area that isn’t too shabby is hotels. You can get decent deals. On the other hand, rental cars are pricey if you get an SUV with AWD—something I would recommend when visiting Fairbanks in winter.

Thai Food is King

For whatever reason, there are many Thai restaurants in Fairbanks. I went to two different ones—Lemongrass and Thai House—and revisited one (Lemongrass). This meant three of my meals were Thai food, which was fantastic! 

Thai food is incredibly healthy, flavorful, and fills you up. That’s a triple-win in my book!

Mini Aurora Guide: Chasing the Northern Lights in Fairbanks

Winter in Fairbanks allow you to see stunning northern lights.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Alaska 2024

Aurora Season is from November through April

Winter in Fairbanks equals long dark nights with clear skies. This is the perfect recipe for seeing the northern lights around Fairbanks. Because of its position so far north, Fairbanks sits under the Aurora Oval, which means you’ll see the Aurora Borealis even without a big storm!

If you chase the lights for three or more days when you visit, there’s a 90% chance of seeing them.

Anytime during winter and into March and April will give you great potential for northern lights. And in March, the temperatures begin to warm up, giving you the chance to see them without freezing your butt off!

Clear Skies Equals Frigid Cold, but Good for Northern Lights

As you can imagine, clear skies mean you’ll have the best chance to see the northern lights. But with clear skies, cold arctic air flows in unchallenged, making nights potentially chilly, if not bone-chilling cold.

Two of my nights chasing the aurora were at -25F or worse.

Winter in Fairbanks: Tours to Book

Here are tours that look pretty sweet!

Northern Lights Photography Tips

  • Use a tripod
  • Aim for long exposures of 2-4 seconds
  • Use a wide-angle lens (16-35mm, 20mm, or 14mm, for example)
  • Use Manual Focus; double and triple check you’re focused
  • Have multiple batteries
  • Keep your camera outside until you are entirely done shooting
  • Think about foreground composition
  • Keep your head on a swivel to see all parts of the sky

How to track the aurora on your own

Knowing what to look for when visiting Fairbanks can 1) save you money and 2) give you an idea of when it might pop off.

First, download the SpaceWeatherLive app or visit the website. This provides everything you need to track each night.

Here, you’ll see a handful of graphs.

Now, most people will know the KP index. In Fairbanks, the KP index doesn’t matter. This is because of its northern position; you don’t need a big storm to have amazing aurora. (My best night was only a KP 2.)

You should focus on the BZ chart. This chart shows how charged the particles are in the atmosphere. You want them in the red or the yellow area!

The best-case scenario is the line being red and in the yellow (south) region.

Furthermore, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks has a fisheye camera showing what is happening in the night sky. This is a great way to track what is happening in the sky without going anywhere.

Planning your Trip to Fairbanks

What to wear when you explore Fairbanks in Winter

You’ll need a lot of layers, but if you plan to spend a decent portion outside, the most important things to have are insulated winter boots and top-notch gloves. I didn’t do a great job in these two areas, but I learned my lessons.

I wore waterproof hiking boots (which worked amazingly well to keep my feet dry), but normal backpacking/hiking boots do not keep your feet warm at -27F. Lesson learned, indeed.

  • Wool/Warm Base layer 2-3 options (I was doubling up my base layers for the final cold aurora night)
  • Fleece Mid Layer – 2 options (a pullover and a jacket are a good mix to regulate temperatures)
  • Warm Down Jacket – 1
  • Outer Shell – 1 (Think snowboard/skiing jacket or a rain jacket)
  • Wool Socks – 3-5
  • Leggings/Long Underwear/Wool Tights – 2-3 (or more)
  • Warm Gloves
  • Beanie
  • Buff/Face Mask/Head
  • Hand and Toe Warmers (enough to use every night you plan to chase Aurora)
  • Sunglasses for sunny days (Get snow ones)
The cabins of the Arctic Hive. This is winter above the arctic circle.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Alaska 2024

Winter in Fairbanks: Where to Stay

While specific dates will dictate your costs, I didn’t find the hotel costs too steep. You should be able to find room rates in the $125-$200 range, which isn’t terrible for 2024.

I recommend getting a quiet spot. If you plan to chase the northern lights while you’re here, you will have plenty of long nights, requiring you to sleep late into the morning or early afternoon.

I stayed at Pikes Waterfront and Sophie Station. Sophie’s had a full kitchen in the unit, while Pikes was just a standard hotel room, but they had a four-hour breakfast.

Should you Rent a Car?

This is budget and tour-dependent.

If you plan to hunt the aurora on your own, you 100% need to rent a car. But if you plan to take Aurora Tours, they will drive you to and from, which means you can save money on a rental car. Pikes Waterfront has a shuttle that will take you to get groceries or other places for a small fee. 

For those who do rent, I strongly recommend getting AWD. It’ll give you more peace of mind driving on dirt/snowy/icy roads.

Booking Flights

I would make sure you’re not booking last-minute flights to Fairbanks. I did mine about two weeks prior, and they came out just shy of $850. The crazy part was that I came from Seattle, which I thought would cost a couple hundred dollars.

I was terribly wrong.

On a more positive note, the flight to Fairbanks is unbelievably beautiful – especially coming from Seattle! You fly over Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Kluane National Park (Canada). The mountains and glaciers blew my mind!

Views of glacier and mountains heading to Fairbanks, Alaska from the flight.

How many days in Fairbanks?

They say that when you visit Fairbanks in Winter, you have a 90% chance of seeing the aurora if you stay three nights or more. So, I think you need at least three nights, though four would be a little more of a sweet spot.

Four nights and five days will also give you an opportunity to book some other tours, rest, and check out the city as a whole.

What is the best time to visit Fairbanks in Winter?

The 30,000-foot answer is to do it when it’s clear out. Cloudy skies make seeing the aurora much harder—though not impossible. That said, many locals will say that March is the best time to visit Fairbanks and see the northern lights.

Why? Well, the days are getting longer, and it’s warming up, meaning you won’t have to endure -27F nights to see the lights like I did.

Is Fairbanks worth visiting?

If you’re going for the northern lights, then yes, Fairbanks is completely worth visiting. Otherwise, I must admit there’s not much else there – though it’s a nice home base if you plan to visit the Brooks Range or continue down to Denali National Park.

Obviously, I listed many things to do above, which are nice in winter, but the Northern Lights are the main attraction. I don’t think there’s a huge draw to visit without the lights.

When I visited Alaska in summer 2021, my parents suggested we didn’t need to visit as they had previously and found it underwhelming. I would tend to agree.

Thankfully, I assume almost everyone who visits Fairbanks in winter does so for the northern lights, so you’ll be perfectly content with the city!

FAQ: Winter in Fairbanks

Will I see the northern lights in Fairbanks?

Probably. While seeing the Northern Lights is not guaranteed, Fairbanks sits under the Aurora Oval, where the lights hang out whether there’s a storm or not. Winter in Fairbanks is about as close to a yes of seeing them as you can get!

Can I see the northern lights from my plane?

If the northern lights are out and you’re on the north side of the plane, you can surely see them from your airplane seat. It happens more than you realize. Just make sure that you’re awake on your flight, or you will surely miss them!

Do I need to book an Aurora tour to see them?

Nope! You can see the aurora borealis on your own if you know where to go and are willing to drive. However, if you want to see them in the Arctic Circle, you do need to book a tour, as almost all rental car companies do not let you take their cars onto the Dalton Highway.

There are loads of tours available, but one cool option is a flight up to Coldfoot. Then, they drive you back down to Fairbanks, stopping at the Arctic Circle sign and doing some aurora chasing on the way.

Winter in fairbanks mean incredible northern lights potential.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Alaska 2024

Can I take photos of the northern lights on my phone?

Yes! All newer phones have a long exposure option to capture night photography. This is actually a really smart way to see if they’re out but too dim for the human eye to see them.

While hunting the aurora, I would take a photo with my phone every 30 minutes to see if it picked anything up.

Hold your phone steady, set it on the ground, or prop it up to get the best shots.

Final Thoughts on Winter in Fairbanks

Winter in Fairbanks, Alaska, is a truly unique and unforgettable experience.

From the breathtaking beauty of the northern lights to the exhilarating outdoor activities like dog sledding and ice fishing, there is no shortage of opportunities to embrace the cold weather and make lasting memories.

While the extreme temperatures may be daunting to some, the warmth of the community and the abundance of winter activities make Fairbanks a destination worth visiting for any adventurous traveler looking to embrace all that winter has to offer.

Until next time, adventurers, take care and be safe.

Follow on social media: TikTok || Instagram || Facebook || Newsletter

Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside