Alaska may be the last frontier, but it is becoming increasingly popular with travelers, and it’s easy to see why. In the summer you have access to some of the most spectacular feats of nature, both within the states many national parks and in the surrounding areas. The winter gives way to new adventures, a variety of winter sports and activities are popular in Alaska.
Fairbanks can easily be described as a winter wonderland. While the city can cater to the summer traveler, especially with its proximity to Denali National Park and the excitement of the midnight sun, the city flourishes in the winter. Its not hard to see why, the city is a great way to see everything an Alaskan winter has to offer, including one of the most wonderful natural phenomenon, the aurora borealis. The northern lights are such a strong presence in Fairbanks that nearly all of the winter tourism is there to chase the lights. We ventured to Fairbanks with the hopes of seeing the northern light, unfortunately mother nature had a different plan for us, and a huge snow storm rolled into town the exact days we were visiting. Lucky for us the city offered enough excitement to still make this one of the best adventures.
Chena Resort and Hot Springs
While the resort is an absolute tourist trap, they do have some cool attractions that make the drive out of the city worth it. The pricing for Chena can be a little funky, its a more expensive stop for little attractions, like the ice museum and the hot springs, but is quite economical (compared to other companies) where the snow machines and mushing is concerned. Unless you’re planning to see the auroras at Chena, you don’t need to spend more than a few hours in the area.
Ice Museum and Hotel
The ice museum at Chena is world famous, partially for the amazing ice sculptures held within the walls, partially for being one of the few ice hotels in the world, and partially for the Aurora Bar, where appletinis are literally served on ice.
While it can be quite pricey ($15 for a ticket in and another $15 for the drink) you’ll be able to see some of the work of world class ice sculptures. Don’t forget to wear gloves if you are going to partake in the bar activities, the cups are actually made of ice and I nearly froze my fingers trying to drink.
Each of the four rooms available in the hotel have a different theme, my favorite was the aurora room, where one of the ice sculptures was designed to look like the dancing lights.
Chena resort’s real claim to fame are the hot springs. They have three hot tubs, one indoor heated pool, and a natural rock lake all filled with water from the geothermal lake. We spent most of the time at the rock lake, and it was really cool to see the snow piling up on the rocks and feeling the two temperature extremes at the same time. I wish we would have gone during to day, so we could have seen everything clearer (and not have that red light ruining all our pictures!) but it was still cool to explore.
Outside of the actual resort, the Chena area has been relatively untouched. There are a few hiking trails that take you up into the hills and around to other areas near by. Since I had about 45 minutes alone while my companions took a snow machine tour, I decided to do a little exploring. While wandering, I got to see the beautiful Chena river, meet some local ducks, and see a bit more of what the resort had to offer.
I wish the snow hadn’t been so deep so I could have done a bit more actual hiking, but since I was tripping all over the place just walking around normally, I decided to save that for next time.
Snow Machine Tour
with Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service
So this attraction is technically in the North Pole, but we’ll give them a free pass. Rod’s services will cost you a pretty penny ($120) but the experience is totally worth it. The trails they use are shared with a couple mushing companies, but they’re so removed from people you could easily forget what era you’re in, that is, if you weren’t riding modern day machines.
Our guides name was Chuck and he was amazing, helped us get fitted with the right gear and machines, and taught us how to ride, he even gave us a bit of time to go around before getting onto the actual trails, which was nice since I’d never driven a snow machine before.
One cool thing about this company, the helmets and handles are heated, so you’ll definitely stay nice and toasty when you’re out, and if for whatever reason you’ve forgotten proper snow gear, they have things you can borrow on site.
Museum of the North
at University of Alaska, Fairbanks
The University of Alaska in Fairbanks hides a gem on campus, the Museum of the North is the place to go if you want to learn more about Alaskan Natives and get an in depth understanding of the wildlife.
Up stairs you’ll find tons of art and artifacts from the indigenous people of Alaska, and it just starts to scratch the surface of their fascinating culture. Its an interesting study in how life in Alaska shifted as the state became more industrialized and people flocked north in the search for gold.
There’s also a fun kids area where you can compare yourself to a moose!
Downstairs you can learn about all the different types of wildlife that can be found in the different regions of Alaska. It was really cool to see how drastically different the plant and animal life could be, even withing two neighboring parts of the state.
This exhibit does have a lot of stuffed animals, so if that’s something that makes you uncomfortable, it would probably be best to skip it.
There are also some pretty awesome views of the city (and Denali park if you’re lucky) from the university.
with Howling Ridge Kennel via Just Short of Magic
Mushing has always been something that interested me, its fascinating how the Alaskan Huskies adapted perfectly to the environment, and even more fascinating that people decided to strap them to sleds, as if they were horses.
What I love most about Just Short of Magic is that their primary concern is for their dogs, not their profits. When we booked the mushing tour months ago, we booked in for an hour long tour. The dogs work best in extreme cold and lower snow levels, so with the snow storm causing higher temps and high snow levels that weekend, we were told that for the dogs safety they couldn’t be out for more than half an hour. Because of the extra strain being put on Eleanor’s dogs, a few other mushers brought their own dogs out to ensure all the dogs could get proper rest after their runs. This is how we ended up mushing with Howling Ridge Kennel.
Before getting out on the trails the wonderful employees make sure you’re wearing the right gear (the let you borrow stuff, but come prepared for the cold!) and pair you with a musher, then your allowed (and actually encouraged) to go play with the dogs before heading out. The dogs are all amazingly friendly and will “fight” to get your attention, just be prated to get jumped on a bit!
Our guide Jeremy, co-owner of Howling Ridge, was absolutely great. He answered and questions we had and gave us a little insight on what its really like being a musher. We also learned a bit more about what mushers look for in their dogs, and what it takes to be a lead dog. Jeremy brought with him a great team that was a good mix of older and young dogs, most of which are either training for his racing teams, or were just a better fit for the kiddie tours.
When your done, the wonderful people at Just Short of Magic invite you back into their home to warm up with hot coco or tea and cookies. They’ll also tell you anything you want to know about the dogs and give some great recommendations on places to eat in Fairbanks.
If you’d like to know more about Eleanor, her dogs, or just a bit more about mushing, head over to the Just Short of Magic website.
Ice Alaska is an ice sculpture park filled with world class and award winning ice sculptures. Its a bit like the museum at Chena, except playing on and around the sculptures is encouraged here, while not allowed at Chena, and the entrance fee is a lot more reasonable at Ice Alaska. If you could only do one of the two, I would suggest Ice Alaska over the ice museum because its just a lot more fun!
While it is a bit of a bummer that we didn’t get to see the northern lights, we still had an amazing weekend full of adventure and playing in the snow.
For more great photos and a slightly different take on the weekend check out Bianca’s post over at Beee Travels!