Epic Alaska Adventures to Embark on This Winter

Northern lights and dog sledding pair so well with saunas and cabins.

alaska
Yep, that's a cave made of ice. | Jose Manuel Perez/EyeEm/Getty Images
Yep, that's a cave made of ice. | Jose Manuel Perez/EyeEm/Getty Images

Some travelers who don’t know any better might think Alaska’s mainly for the summer months. But we know you aren’t those tourists—and we know you know there’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.

So bundle up in all the wool layers and weatherproof shells for dog-pulled sleigh rides, ice caves, solar-powered ice fishing huts, sauna or hot spring soaks, and train rides through the tundra—all under winter’s rather frequent canopy of the Aurora Borealis.

Read on for some of the best adventures that await this winter.

dog sledding
It's like a Christmas movie, minus Santa. | cweimer4/E+/Getty Images

Dog sled across a snowy wilderness, then rest in hot springs and cabins

Give yourself more than a single attempt to try to catch the Northern Lights by embarking on this four-day/three-night adventure via dogsled through Alaska’s remote backcountry, north of Fairbanks.

Excited howls fill the air as you prepare to mush your own sled dog team during an epic trip into Alaska’s wild interior. The destination of Arctic Dog Adventure Co. is Tolovana Hot Springs, where you’ll spend two nights in a rustic cabin mere steps from the steamy springs.

The 20-mile route cruises atop ridge lines and flies across spacious tundras (where the company dresses you for the occasion). If you’ve never been leader of the pack before, don’t worry—the trip includes a full orientation day and first overnight in Fairbanks to prepare everyone for one serious (and seriously rewarding) Arctic adventure.

yoga
Are you feeling relaxed yet? | Arctic Hive

Practice yoga in geodesic igloos under the Northern Lights

Upward-facing dog should be a more advantageous vantage point than downward dog, should the Northern Lights stream their overhead beauty while you’re stretching your muscles within a geodesic dome.

Arctic Hive is the northernmost yoga studio in the US, sitting above the Arctic Circle in Wiseman, Alaska. You’ll be some 270 miles north of Fairbanks, after traveling along the famed Dalton Highway, a long and remote road with enormous wilderness views.

At this yoga retreat, four nights of Arctic escapism includes yoga and meditation classes in igloos with celestial views, dogsledding expeditions, and cultural visits to the local village.

Alaska Fishing and Raft Adventures
Don't worry about the freezing-cold weather: the fishing cabins are insulated! | Alaska Fishing and Raft Adventures

Ice fish under the Aurora Borealis

If you’re ever tried ice fishing at latitudes where you’re not likely to spot the Aurora Borealis, then you might know that it’s a cute experience, but can get a little, shall we say, slow—particularly when the sleepy fish can’t be bothered to bite.

But when you head out from Fairbanks to go ice fishing on Chena Lakes with Alaska Fishing and Rafting Adventures, you’re casting a line not just for the char or Arctic grayling swimming under five feet of solid ice beneath your feet, you’re also hunting the Northern Lights, which could appear outside your cozy fishing cabin at any moment.

Right on the ice, the cabins are insulated to keep you warm. They’re also Alaska’s first solar-powered permanent fishing cabins—so even if it’s blowing a -40F gale outside, you’ll stay toasty within. Opt for a cabin with panoramic windows so that, should the Aurora start doing its thing, you won’t even need to put on your parka and go outside to soak it in.

Anything you happen to catch on your line will be cooked up by your guide in the wood-burning oven to enjoy with the views.

Alaska Native Heritage Center
Support the Alaskan Indigenous cultures. | Alaska Native Heritage Center

Experience the many Indigenous cultures in Alaska

There are numerous ways to experience ancient traditions from the many Indigenous groups in Alaska. Start off at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, where Culture Bearers take travelers on private two-hours tours to six village sites set around the mountain-rimmed Lake Tiulana. From there, you can travel with and support Indigenous communities like the Northwest Coast Indians, Iñupiaq, Yup’iks, Aleuts, Athabascans, Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit,Unangax̂, andCup’ik peoples.

For a thrilling excursion, you could also try viewing bears up close in their natural, protected habitat, created and led by the Alutiiq people. It’s a brave endeavor that feels much more rest-assured thanks to the knowledgeable guides so familiar with the land.

Alyeska Resort
I could totally do with a sauna right now. | Alyeska Resort

Get your sauna on at Alaska’s newest wellness escape

There’s no cold-weather wellness ritual quite like a Nordic one. And if you can’t get to Finland this winter for hot saunas and a cold plunge, the imminent opening of the brand new Nordic Spa at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska might be the best stateside substitute.

Slated to open in January 2022, the outdoor and indoor wellness retreat is set to be an all-out oasis surrounded by Boreal forest. Soak away hours (and a pandemic’s worth of stress) while moving between the barrel-shaped sauna, steam room, and hot and cool pools both outside and within.

railroad
Remember the Hogwarts Express? Yeah, this is better. | Photo by Sherman Hogue/Explore Fairbanks

Chase the Northern Lights on the Alaska Railroad

When else do you have the chance to ride the rails under and in search of the Northern Lights?

On Alaska Railroad’s winter train, you can opt for the soft-core but scenic route of the Aurora Winter Train. Gaze out the window at backcountry and an occasional moose on a 12-hour ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks, departing on a Saturday and returning on Sunday. On a clear day, you might even see Denali mountain from the warmth of your passenger car.

To turn things up a notch, the Hurricane Turn Train travels from Anchorage to Hurricane Gulch just once a month from October to May along the highest bridge on the entire Alaska Railroad system. Bring your own food, as there’s no onboard dining service. If you travel this route, you’ll likely see hardcore locals with hunting gear disembarking—whether to blue skies or raging snowstorms—at flagstop requests along the way, off to live out some winter weeks (or longer) at remote cabins entirely off the grid. It might make you rethink your own adventure threshold.

Alaska Helicopter Tours
Scenic aerial views AND ice climbing? Sign me up. | Alaska Helicopter Tours

Take a helicopter to some winter ice climbing, as one does

No ice-climbing experience is required to take part in an exciting new helicopter adventure with Alaska Helicopter Tours, departing from Anchorage.

You’ll be provided with everything you need—helmet, crampons, ice axes, plastic mountaineering boots, and all the ropes and hardware—to try your hands and feet at glacier ice cave explorations and a top-rope ice climbing adventure on a frozen waterfall. You’ll just need to be fine with lifting off in the snug surrounds of a three-passenger Robinson 44.

After your icy-cool jaunt, it’s back into the chopper and off to Anchorage in time to grab a beer at one of our favorite local breweries, like the Anchorage Brewing Company or Midnight Sun Brewing Co.

northern lights
It hardly gets better than this. | Flickr/Bureau of Land Management/Bob Wick

Embark on an iditarod, Arctic Circle flight, and Aurora adventure

With 2022 marking the 50th anniversary of the world-famous Iditarod sled dog race, there’s sure to be even more than the usual celebrations around this winter’s epic canine and human endurance event.

John Hall’s Alaska Cruises and Tours offers an 11-day Iditarod and Aurora Adventure. Hang with the mushers at a banquet marking the official, ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Willow, Alaska. Then, take a flight to check out the race drama behind the scenes at a remote checkpoint on the course. Next, spend two nights at Borealis Basecamp in Fairbanks and a total of seven nights chasing the Northern Lights. There’s even an Arctic Circle flight-seeing trip wrapped into this unforgettable package.

Skeetawk
See you on the slopes. | Skeetawk

Ski or ride at a new, non-profit ski resort in the Talkeetna Mountains

Alaska’s newest alpine ski resort opened in late-2020, an hour’s drive north of Anchorage at Hatcher Pass in the Mat-Su Valley. With a terrain park and a lone 30-chair lift, Skeetawk is hardly the gigantic and famous Vail. But what the mountain does promise is an intimate Alaskan ski experience that’s accessible to those of us from the lower 48 who are happiest on green and blue runs. For harder-core skiers and snowboarders, the mountain does have four black diamond runs. But it’s largely intermediate and beginner terrain here.

Ski confidently alongside the state’s rugged locals (including many volunteers who helped build the non-profit resort), and de-ice between runs in a multi-purpose yurt at the mountain’s base. Did we mention lift tickets cost just $39 per day (take that, Vail), or $20 for kids ages 6 to 12?

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Terry Ward is a freelance travel writer in Tampa, Florida, who has lived in France, New Zealand, and Australia and gone scuba diving all over the world. Follow her on Instagram and find more of her work on terry-ward.com.