Anchorage in Winter? Yes, Indeed
If you ask a seasoned traveler to name the advantages of visiting a place during its off-season, the top two answers will likely be thinned-out crowds and reduced hotel rates. And while both certainly hold true of Anchorage, they’re the least of what makes this city amazing in winter. From the northern lights that periodically dance across the night sky to the frozen lagoon that lets you glide beneath them, these are our five favorite reasons to visit over the next few months.
Northern lights, no passport required
The fact that you can see the aurora borealis without leaving the U.S. is news to many. But even among those with some faint awareness that maybe you can see the northern lights somewhere in Alaska, the idea of doing so without having to leave the greater Anchorage metropolitan seems absurd. At least until arrival, when—if you don’t just happen to look up and spot the show by accident on a clear night—you likely spot aurora-chasing tour options at the city’s Visitor Information Centers, or just at your hotel’s front desk.
One locally beloved and internationally acclaimed favorite is Anchorage Photo Treks’ Anchorage Aurora Quest. Even if you’re not desperate to capture the perfect photo yourself (though come on, who doesn’t want the most dazzling possible proof of having seen the lights), traveling with photographers means going to the most scenic spots. And these pros have several in their secret repertoire, all within a 70-mile radius of the city. So over the course of one to three stops, you may see the lights set against reflective lakes, dramatic peaks, coastal waterways or moody forests. Of course, everything—including whether the tours even depart—depends on the conditions that evening. As anyone who’s ever chased the northern lights anywhere in the world knows, conditions that look promising (or dismal) can change on a dime.
For that reason, you may just want to consider staying in a hotel that offers northern lights wakeup calls. Several in and around the city do. Perhaps the most obvious choice because it’s out in the middle of nature is the Alyeska Resort—a 40-mile drive south of Anchorage along the Seward Highway, the stunning Scenic Byway that follows the Turnagain Arm (look for Dall sheep and bald eagles en route). But you’d be surprised by how many hotels in Anchorage proper offer the northern lights wakeup service, too, such as Anchorage Grand Hotel, Hotel Captain Cook and Hilton Anchorage.
One super local spot for aurora viewing? The Flattop Mountain parking lot. Glen Alps is the trailhead and lot name, and you'll want four-wheel drive to get there this time of year.
An events calendar unlike any other
While the local bears hibernate, a number of their Anchorage area neighbors, including humans, do the exact opposite—with a winter events lineup that packs some of the most notable happenings of the year, or half century, as the case may be: March 5, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of The Iditarod, Alaska’s signature, world-famous dog mushing race. The whole thing kicks off in downtown Anchorage (and runs a mere 1,000 miles from there). If you’re super-into the event, or even super-curious, check out some of the bonus activities, from the kennel tours and dog adventures that mushers offer during the weeks beforehand to an auctioned ride-along at the start of the race (this is a bucket-list experience, and you’ll need to bid accordingly). But if nothing else, check out Anchorage’s new Mushing District, where the history of sled dogs in Alaska comes to life along the same downtown stretch as the Iditarod’s ceremonial starting line.
Another super-local winter event is the Fur Rendezvous Festival, aka Fur Rondy, or just Rondy, February 25 - March 6, 2022. Originally a three-day shindig timed to the winter arrival of miners and trappers, the first such festival took place in February of 1936, when nearly all of Anchorage (which, granted, was much smaller in those days) turned out for the inaugural bonfire and torchlight parade. Since then, the Fur Rendezvous has grown in length and reputation—so much so that spectators from around the world travel here during these weeks to catch such events as the Running of the Reindeer (a touch of Pamplona in Alaska), Snowshoe Softball, and the Alaska Native Blanket Toss.
And throughout the season, the city will be home to celebrations (such as a winter solstice party at the Hilltop Ski Area), performances (one hot ticket: The Second City at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts) and one major beer and wine event you’re about to read about in the next section.
Epic eating and drinking ops
If you’re a beer lover, Anchorage is the place to be January 28-29, 2022, when you can attend the Alaska Craft Brew and Barley Wine Festival. As even the casual observer of the craft brewery scene knows, Alaska’s game is strong. And it’s the Brewer’s Guild of Alaska that puts on this two-day extravaganza of drink, food and live local music. As for barley wine, it’s not a wine at all—but rather, yet another kind of beer (intense, sometimes fruity) to enjoy at this festival at the Dena'ina Center.
Of course, January is hardly your only opportunity to enjoy the Anchorage beer scene this season. At whatever point you visit this winter, head to longstanding favorite Glacier BrewHouse, whose barleywines pair perfectly with the indoor fireplace on a winter’s night. And to check out a great new addition to the scene, head to Tent City Taphouse, a gastropub whose stick-to-the-ribs specialties (think Yukon duck fat fries or chowder with Alaska herb cream) are the ultimate seasonal accompaniments to whatever’s on tap.
If you’re heading to—or from—a show at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, don’t miss a meal at Pangea, where the locally sourced, globally-inspired options range from banana cashew crusted halibut to veggie Wellington (one of many veg-friendly offerings). And to have more amazing choices of fresh local seafood than you’ll know what to do with, head to South, where the short list of favorites includes vodka-battered Alaska halibut or cod (with chips, naturally); Alaska halibut tacos and Sopa de Mar (a tomato-saffron base loaded with cod, salmon, clams and shrimp). Whatever you order there, leave room for dessert—especially, the DIY s’mores. You can order the fixings from your server and (as long as the weather cooperates) take them out to the patio fire pit, where toasting your own treats is the perfect end to a winter feast. And for the experience of “igloo dining” alone, don’t miss a meal at Inlet PubHouse or Matanuska Brewing Company.
Adventures that’ll make you love the cold
Part of the fun of visiting Anchorage this season is really leaning into winter—and the things you can do only now. Sure, there’s a nip in the air. But that’s what great gear is for, and you can actually rent a fair bit of it here in town, so you don’t have to worry about spending too much of your time or vacation budget stocking up at home.
Any version of gliding down—or across—the snow, you’ll find here, between the aforementioned Hilltop Ski Area (in town) and Alyeska (on the outskirts), not to mention the local Nordic Ski Association and the backcountry trails. Specifically, you’ll find downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, heli-skiing and snowcat-skiing, all within easy reach. Other snow-based adventures to try: snow-shoeing and snow-hiking, snowmobiling and dog-sledding.
Of course, the winter ice provides a number of seasonal adventure ops, too—whether you want to skate across the frozen local lagoons, ice-fish from atop the local lakes or even try your hand at pick-up pond hockey.
Bikers, take note: Winter can be just as fun for cycling here as summer with the right equipment. Why not give fat-tire biking a go, especially given the expanding municipal trail circuit with its celebrated new Dena'ina language signage (a cool collaboration between local cultural organizations and institutions).
Amazing ways to warm up afterward
After a day spent adventuring in the snow and ice, you’ll want to return to lodgings that really know how to crank up the coziness—whether with fire pits, hot tubs, lobby and in-room fireplaces, warming spa treatments, or some combination of the above.
The biggest news in this department is the about-to-debut Alyeska Nordic Spa, a 50,000-square foot, forest-flanked ode to Nordic hydrotherapy practices, which blend heat and water to blissful effect here—whether you’re in a barrel sauna, steam room or hot pool (to name just a few of the options on offer at this retreat). In keeping with the theme, the treatment menu includes such services as the Nordic Signature Massage, with both warming and cooling elements, plus a nod to sauna whisking traditions.
On a much more intimate scale, at the nearby Carriage House Accommodations, your private cabin comes with access to an outdoor hot tub. For a lovely indoor soak, consider a stay at Hyatt Place Anchorage Midtown, where bonus warming features include outdoor firepits and a lobby fireplace.
In fact, lobby fireplaces are something of a specialty in Anchorage, with the Lakefront Anchorage, the Hotel Captain Cook and Marriott Anchorage Downtown offering great variations on the theme. Cozied up fireside, scrolling through your photos of the day’s schussing, mushing or snowshoeing exploits—or perhaps of the night’s aurora-chasing adventures—you won’t believe there was a time when a winter trip to Anchorage didn’t top your list.