Fairbanks in Winter: 12 unique things to do while you wait for the Northern Lights

Last Updated on April 24, 2024

Fairbanks in winter is absolutely magical. I lived there for many years and still visit frequently in the winter as well has helping other travelers plan their trips. Most visitors go to Fairbanks in winter to see the Northern Lights. That is a fantastic reason to be there in winter but there are so many fun and unique things to do beyond that and while you’re waiting for the Northern lights to come out.

A dog team running along a snowy trail in a snowy forest from the perspective of a person riding in the sled.
Dog sledding with Chena Outdoor Collective along Chena Hot Springs Road near Fairbanks

The Fairbanks area is the homeland of the Dene Nation, who are Athabascan People. The Tanana Chiefs Conference is based in downtown Fairbanks.

How to get to Fairbanks in Winter

You get to Fairbanks in winter the same way you do in summer – by air, car or train.

The Fairbanks International Airport has jet service multiple times a day to Anchorage and Seattle all year.

You can drive to Fairbanks in winter. If you are driving to Fairbanks from Anchorage, you’ll need to be prepared for remote winter driving with excellent winter tires on your vehicle. The road is open all year, though it may occasionally close briefly during times of extreme weather.

The Alaska Railroad is another option for going between Anchorage and Fairbanks during the winter. Most of the winter there is only one train a week, but in late winter the train operates on more days.

When is winter in Fairbanks?

Winter in Fairbanks starts in October and lasts under the end of March, sometimes into early April.

How cold is Fairbanks in Winter?

Fairbanks can get as cold as -40 or -50 degrees below zero, which is REALLY cold.

The entire winter is not that cold. From October through the end of March, the temperature is usually below freezing, but exactly how cold varies quite a bit. Plan on it being below zero and be pleasantly surprised if it’s warmer.

Fairbanks has snow on the ground all winter, though it is very dry so often the snow does not get super deep.

A cold day in Fairbanks in December.

How dark is Fairbanks in Winter?

Fairbanks is very dark November, December and January. On the winter solstice in late December, the sun comes up about 11am and sets about 2:30. It’s more like a 5 hour sunrise/sunset than direct sunlight. It’s beautiful but very dark!

By March, Fairbanks has 12 hour days and 12 hour nights just like the entire planet close to the equinox.

I believe that March is the absolutely perfect time to go to Fairbanks. Long days AND long nights and temperatures that are usually not quite as frigid. In fact, I have an entire article about visiting in March specifically.

How many days do you need to visit Fairbanks in winter?

I recommend five nights in Fairbanks, this maximizes your chances of seeing the Northern Lights, which is why you’re there.

You can have plenty of fun here in just a couple of days, but if you really want to prioritize the Northern Lights, give yourself as many days as possible.

Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in Fairbanks in winter

A graphic with the ingredients needed to see the northern lights

By far the thing most visitors want to do in Fairbanks in winter is see the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. Fairbanks is the best place in the world (at least near civilization) to see the Northern Lights because of its combination of the perfect latitude under the Aurora Oval as well as its frequently clear skies.

I have an entire article about how to see the northern lights, but all your really need to do is look up, a lot, when it’s dark and clear.

However, you can also take a tour and have your guide help you stay awake, provide photography tips and do the driving. Another good option is Aurora Pointe Activity Center, where you stay in one spot (a spacious heated building with hot drinks and cookies!) and learn about the Aurora while waiting in the comfort of a heated room.

Things to do in Fairbanks while you wait for the Northern Lights

Even though the thrill of the chase for the Northern Lights is a highlight of Fairbanks in winter, there are so many other wonderful things to do that are super unique. From dog sledding to a winter visit to Denali, you can fill your days with unique adventures!

Pro tip: Don’t schedule tours early in the morning – if you’re serious about seeing the Northern Lights you’re going to be up late and a lot of the night, so keep that in mind when planning other activities during the day that you need to book in advance.

Experience the thrill of Dog Sledding

If you’re visiting in winter, make it a priority to experience dog sledding. This is a true Alaskan experience and a great way to learn more about life in Alaska.

There are many wonderful places to try dog sledding. I particularly love Chena Outdoor Collective, where you can meet mushers and dog teams that race in world famous dog sled races like the Iditarod. There are not dog teams living on site, the teams and mushers come for the tours and you get to participate. Make sure to book online in advance. Read my full review of Chena Outdoor Collective’s dog sledding tours here.

Go for a Reindeer Walk

A winter reindeer walk at Running Reindeer Ranch. Photo Credit: Running Reindeer Ranch

Reindeer are uniquely adapted to their arctic and sub arctic environment and a really special animal to get to know.

Both Running Reindeer Ranch and Chena Outdoor Collective host visitors to walk with reindeer. The walk includes the opportunity to learn everything you ever wanted to know about reindeer and about their environment.

Visit Chena Hot Springs

an outdoor hot spring surrounded by snowy rocks at Chena Hot springs
A winter day at Chena Hot Springs

Chena Hot Springs is open all year but there’s no question it’s so much more fun in winter!

From giving you the chance to truly warm up from the cold, to experiencing your hair freezing (wear a hat to avoid this) to being surrounded by snow and steam while you soak in warm water, it’s just fantastic.

I got engaged there more than 20 years ago, so I could be a little biased, but don’t miss this if you’re there in the winter.

In addition to soaking in the hot springs, they also have cross country ski trails and ski rentals as well as snowmobile tours.

Make sure to take the tour of the ice hotel and get the drink at the ice bar – so unique to enjoy your drink in an ice glass!

An ice glass with a green drink in it at an ice bar in an ice hotel
An appletini in an ice glass at the Ice bar at Chena Hot Springs

Chena Hot Springs is about 60 miles from downtown Fairbanks. You can drive there in your rental car or you can take the shuttle offered by the resort. You can stay overnight here or do a day trip from Fairbanks.

Keep your speed down and watch for moose as you drive out to Chena Hot Springs. I can’t count how many times I’ve been out there, both when I lived in Fairbanks and as a visitor, and it’s rare to not see a moose along the side of the road, browsing through the birch trees.

Try out a Kicksled at Pioneer Park

Kicksled rental is a super fun and unique winter sport to try in Fairbanks. Photo Credit: Morgan Clay/Borealis Sparks

Borealis Sparks rents kicksleds at Pioneer Park which is a really fun way to get outside. It’s a bit like skiing but way less need to balance. It’s impossible to not feel like a kid and have fun while doing this.

Born and raised Fairbanksan Morgan Clay owns this fun kicksled rental business and loves to help other families get outside and have fun in the winter. Find her at Cabin #13 in Pioneer Park, or reserve in advance here.

Listen to born and raised Fairbanksan Morgan share her favorite things about Fairbanks in winter

Walk along the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks

The antler arch in downtown Fairbanks in winter
The Antler Arch is behind the Morris Thompson Cultural Center next to the Chena River

The trail along the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks is a wonderful walk to get a feel for town. It’s especially dramatic during freeze up (usually October) and breakup (usually April).

Start at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center which is a must do for learning about Athabascan Alaska Native Culture. You can also get all your questions answered in the Public Lands Information Center.

Head out to the trail near the river, passing the impressive Antler Arch and heading either way along the river. If you cross the pedestrian bridge you’ll get a great view of the river and you can visit the Walter Harper statue.

A bronze statue of a mountain climber on a winter day
The Walter Harper statue in downtown Fairbanks

Walter Harper was a young Alaska Native man who is the first person to summit Denali at the age of 19!

Take a photo of the Love Alaska Sign

Jennie on a sunny winter day next to the Chena River with the Love Alaska sign in the background

The Love Alaska Sign is a great photo op all year. You will see people walking on the ice to take a close up picture, but I don’t recommend this. Locals know that the ice in this part of the river is not stable enough to walk on.

You’ll see other people doing it but I don’t recommend it. The many lakes in the Fairbanks area make for a great place to walk on the ice including Tanana Lakes and Chena Lakes Recreation Area.

Take a walk at Creamer’s Field

A snowy cross country ski trail in a birch forest with a wooden bridge over a frozen creek at Creamer's field in Fairbanks Alaska. It's a sunny day and in the distance is an open, snowy field, more birch trees and hills.
One of the many peaceful trails at Creamer’s Field

The open areas and quiet forests of the trails around Creamer’s Field are a local favorite for winter walks and cross country skiing.

In spring and fall, thousands of migrating birds pass through and in winter it is quiet and peaceful. The open meadows give you lots of sun on sunny days even on the very short winter days.

Visit the University of Alaska Museum of the North

A white modern building on a snowy day, the exterior of the University of Alaska Museum of the North
University of Alaska Museum of the North

If you need an indoor activity, don’t miss the wonderful University of Alaska Museum of the North.

Located on campus, this is a good place to learn about Alaska’s interior and Arctic regions. There is also a phenomenal view of the Alaska Range from the front of the building. Great place to see sunrise/sunset in winter too.

Tour the Musk Ox Farm

A baby musk ox near the fence at the University of Alaska Musk Ox Farm
A baby musk ox at the Musk Ox farm on a winter day. Baby Musk ox are just about the most adorable thing on the planet.

The Large Animal Reserach Station is open for tours in both summer and winter. I love going in winter because you can really appreciate the adaptations of the Musk Ox and Caribou. They are highly adapted to extremely cold weather, so it’s especially fun to learn about them in winter.

You will be outside for about an hour so you need to dress warmly. You’ll be walking around at a slow pace much of that time so you’ll also want snow boots.

Try Cross Country Skiing

A ski trail through a birch and spruce forest on a sunny winter day at the University of Alaska Fairbanks
One of the many cross country ski trails on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus

Fairbanks is where I learned to love cross country skiing. There are so many trails all over town and outside of town to explore and this is a favorite local activity.

You can rent skis or bring your own if you’re already a cross country skier (if you are, you gotta bring your skis!).

Take a Day trip to Castner Glacier

A person at the edge of an ice cave that is streaked with blue and brown rocks
Me at the entrance of Castner Ice Cave

Castner Glacier and the Castner Glacier ice caves are about a 3 hour drive from Fairbanks down the scenic Richardson Highway.

This is a wonderful winter adventure with a short but adventurous hike to the Castner Glacier and the ice caves. Learn all about how to plan your outing to Castner Glacier here. I highly recommend going with a guide if you want to enter the ice caves.

Take a Day trip to Denali

Jennie looking away from the camera across a snowy meadow towards the summit of Denali
Me at Mountain Vista in Denali National Park on a March day. The summit of Denali is peaking over the hill in the distance.

If you have a sunny winter day, then a winter day trip to Denali is a wonderful thing to do from Fairbanks in winter. I would save this for a day of good weather as it’s a beautiful drive there. In addition the drive can be really miserable in times of heavy snow. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive from Fairbanks in clear weather.

Everything in the Denali area is closed in winter – no hotels or restaurants in the park entrance area are open from mid September through mid May. Most of the park facilities are closed with a few exceptions.

There’s a winter visitor center that stays open and has heated bathrooms, tables, and a water bottle filling station. Don’t miss visiting the sled dog kennels.

Where to Stay in Fairbanks in Winter

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The most important thing to consider for lodging in Fairbanks in winter is the location. Some vacation rentals and lodges are far from town and require a rental car and significant of winter driving. Avoid this by staying downtown or near the airport. This map will help you navigate locations around town and compare prices.

Be aware that lodging in late February and March books up early as this is a very popular time to visit Fairbanks. Especially if you want to stay at a smaller place like Borealis Basecamp or Taste of Alaska Lodge book as early as possible (a year ahead is not too early!).

Cozy local places to eat and drink in Fairbanks

Fairbanks has a fantastic food scene and provides lots of great places for visitors to join locals at their favorite spots. It’s really hard to name just a few in this article, but this is my attempt to narrow it down to a reasonable number of options for winter visitors.

My absolute favorite place for breakfast is Sunrise Bagel and Espresso, which has several drive through locations around town. It’s not a restaurant, you have to take it with you in a vehicle.

A few places that are particularly cozy and fun in winter include:

  • East Ramp Pizza: Fairbanks’ aviation scene keeps on humming all winter with big jets, cargo and small planes. Watch the action while enjoying the best pizza in Fairbanks (best in Alaska in my opinion) and amazing salads at East Ramp.
  • Jazz Bistro: located downtown, the food is incredible and the live music perfect for a winter night! It’s a small restaurant so make sure to get a reservation.
  • Brunch at the Pumphouse – at the time of this writing it is only available on Sundays and brunch at the Pumphouse is a Fairbanks institution. I particularly love the cozy delicious food and the fun decor on winter days.
  • The Cookie Jar and the Chowder House are both super popular, have wonderful soup and sandwiches, perfect for lunch on a winter day
  • The Library – fun food and creative cocktails downtown. The building doesn’t look like much from the outside but head on in and you’ll love it. Must do for cocktail fans.
  • Big Daddy’s – Amazing BBQ in downtown Fairbanks, featured on Diners, Drive ins and Dives! I’m from Seattle so I’m not allowed to judge BBQ, but I have taken many guests here who are from the south and they love it.
  • Thai Food – there are lots of amazing Thai restaurants in Fairbanks and most locals will tell you this is a must eat in town. The Thai House downtown and Lemongrass on the other side of town are two of the most popular, but they’re all good.

If you’re into craft beer, Fairbanks has a fantastic beer scene. Read more about my beer suggestions here.

What to pack for Fairbanks in winter

I get more questions about packing than anything else – especially for winter! It is important to be prepared for cold weather, but it’s also important not to stress out about it too much.

The most important thing you need is a big puffy coat with a hood that is long (as long as possible). It doesn’t matter what brand it is, that’s what’s important.

You’ll also want some good boots – check out my specific recommendations on that here.

Beyond that, make sure you can cover all your skin because Fairbanks can have VERY cold weather. It will definitely be below freezing but it might not be below zero. You’ll want a buff or something to cover your face, gloves, a hat and warm socks. For more details, including specific items that I like to wear in Fairbanks in winter are here.

Jennie wearing her winter gear for Fairbanks on a sunny day
It was about Zero degrees in this photo but it was really windy making it feel colder. This is what I wear in Fairbanks in winter at that temperature. I add a longer puffy coat and snow pants when it’s colder (well below zero).

I also strongly recommend bringing lighter layers because inside spaces are very warm, sometimes downright hot.

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        Jennie Flaming
        Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite. I lived in Alaska for many years and I still spend lots of time there every year visiting friends and working as a tour director. I've been a guide for many years in both Alaska and Washington, am a field editor for the Milepost and host the Alaska Uncovered Podcast about Alaska Travel as well as the Washington State Hiking Podcast. I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you here!