Travelers in search of the ultimate winter getaway look to Fairbanks, Alaska, to satisfy their cold-weather cravings. The main attraction can be summed up in two words: aurora borealis. For those of us not used to seeing the northern lights on a regular basis, nature’s light show mesmerizes. The first time I saw the aurora, I was stepping out of an airport shuttle in Fairbanks to check into my hotel. My peripheral vision caught a colorful movement in the sky. I looked up, and there it was—an otherworldly shifting of green and pale blue patterns against the night sky. I was so startled by the sight that my feet slipped out from under me and I landed butt first on the ice.
Why is Fairbanks the ideal destination for viewing the northern lights? The city sits under the “Auroral Oval,” a ring-shaped zone over the far north where aurora activity is especially concentrated. And the region’s low precipitation, meager light pollution and distance from coastal areas all contribute to consistently clear, dark nights which are ideal for aurora chasing.
Those who bundle up and head north to experience Fairbanks and the surrounding area in winter find a vibrant city in full swing and with safe, responsible travel protocols in place. Here are Fairbanks highlights that will make any trip to the “Golden Heart of Alaska” a memorable and adventurous one.
Fairbanks plays host to five winter festivals. Depending on your likes, there’s sure to be one that sparks your interest. The two main events are the Winter Solstice Celebration and the World Ice Art Championships.
On December 21, celebrating the day when days begin to get longer, downtown Fairbanks comes alive with the Winter Solstice Celebration—fireworks, holiday decorations, musical events shopping for one-of-a-kind Alaska-made gifts mark this special occasion.
From mid-February through March, visitors can marvel at the competitive entries in the World Ice Art Championships. Dozens of ice sculptures from the world’s best ice carvers are on display at this event.
Denali National Park
Most travelers experience Denali National Park & Preserve during the summer season, but in winter the park is one of the region’s best kept secrets. At the end of February, Denali Winterfest takes place—three days of family-friendly fun, educational events and guided excursions.
Denali is a winter wilderness that’s about 120 miles from Fairbanks, easily drivable on the George Parks Highway, which is regularly cleared in the winter season. At Denali Winterfest, you can go on a guided backcountry ski excursion or walk to learn about the park’s ecosystem, or you can try your hand to ice sculpting, ride in a dogsled and take part in many other activities.
If you’ve traveled to Fairbanks to take in the main event—the aurora borealis—there are two things you need to know. First, you must be a night owl or at least ready to wake up and look to the skies at a moment’s notice. Second, there are many locals who want to help you have the best aurora-viewing experience possible.
You might choose to stay at a resort that focuses on aurora viewing. Or you might book a one-night aurora tour. Either way, your success depends on clear skies.
You can check out your chances of seeing the northern lights by consulting the Aurora Tracker. The Aurora Tracker utilizes data from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute and offers real-time and three-day forecasts based on current aurora activity, weather and amount of daylight for multiple locations in and around Fairbanks.
Staying at a resort for more than a single night increases your chances of seeing the aurora at least once if not multiple times. Chena Hot Springs is a prime choice with its snow coach tours to a hilltop viewing site, as is Borealis Basecamp with its glass domes igloo accommodations.
Dozens of guides lead aurora-viewing tours, some staying close to Fairbanks and other venturing as far north as the Arctic Circle. Aurora watchers who want to say they’ve been to the Arctic Circle book a tour with 1st Alaska Tours. Others who prefer to stay closer in go with outfits like Wandering Coyote Adventures to watch the aurora from a wilderness hot tub outside of town or with Fairbanks Snow Sleighers to chase the aurora on a snowmobile.