It takes a special kind of intrepid traveler to go to Fairbanks, Alaska in winter. I never thought I had it in me. But if you wait until March, when temperatures start to get milder, Fairbanks’ winter starts to resemble more of the winter weather you might be used to. But then again, regular winter is not what you’re coming for. You came for an extraordinary winter. And nobody does winter better than Fairbanks!
One of the main draws here is the Aurora Borealis, also known as the northern lights. It’s out from late August to late April. Winter sports are also popular: cross-country skiing, fat biking, and dog mushing. If it gets too cold, visit one of Fairbanks’ many excellent museums.
When is the best time to go to Fairbanks in Winter?
If you don’t mind the extreme cold and darkness, then December, January, or February could work. I prefer March, but so do many other people. It is one of the busy seasons here.
Winter Guide to Fairbanks Alaska
What to See
Fountainhead Auto Museum
You didn’t expect to see an auto museum in Fairbanks and you wouldn’t expect it to be this good, either. The Fountainhead Auto Museum receives almost perfect reviews online and ours is no different. This is an extraordinary collection of automobiles from 1889 to the 1930s. All but three are in working condition! The staff here are knowledgeable and passionate. I always try to save museums for bad weather days, but even if you’ve got sunshine, stop in to enjoy this museum. $15 entry fee.
World Ice Championships
The World Ice Championships take place every year at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds in Fairbanks. Artists arrive every February to sculpt some very intricate and creative pieces out of giant blocks of ice. Pieces are judged in different categories through March. Stroll through the spruce forest (campground) where the sculptures are displayed during the daytime and then use your same ticket to come back in the evening when the sculptures are illuminated. Lots of fun ice games and slides for the kids, too. $16 entry fee.
Alyeska Pipeline Viewing Point
Get up close to this famous feat of engineering. About 6 miles out of Fairbanks along the Steese Highway you can see a portion of this 800-mile-long oil pipeline which begins at Prudhoe Bay and empties in Valdez, AK, crossing three mountain ranges and a whole host of other challenges. Read about the pipeline here and get your photo underneath. It is a raised pipeline in order to accommodate migrating caribou as well as to protect the delicate permafrost. Free.
Fairbanks Community Museum
See the free exhibits at the Fairbanks Community Museum, located inside the Co-op Building Downtown. It’s a small museum but worth a stop for exhibits on winter life in Fairbanks, dog mushing, gold rush, and other local history. Free.
Museum of the North
The University of Alaska’s Museum of the North is a must-stop in order to get an appreciation of the natural history, indigenous cultures, as well as colonial settlement of the region. Reserve a couple hours for the main gallery downstairs as well as the art upstairs and the temporary exhibit. Experience breathtaking architecture and views of the Alaska Range. This museum is as unique as the Arctic cultures they celebrate. $16 entry fee.
What to Do
Northern Lights Viewing
Fairbanks is among the world’s best places for Aurora Borealis viewing. For best viewing and photography opportunities, head out to a dark location around Fairbanks to see the northern lights in action. Plan a few nights to account for the need for clear skies and adequate aurora activity. Even if you can’t get out of the city to darker skies, the aurora are often visible right in Fairbanks. We saw them right from our balcony at Wedgewood Resort. Fairbanks’ Aurora Season spans from August 21 to April 21. Fairbanks has its clearest skies in February. You can also join one of several northern lights tours.
There are several kennels that offer dog mushing in Alaska, but we love Trailbreaker Kennel in Fairbanks. They offer a more intimate, less touristy introduction to mushing life and a great dog mushing experience. Enjoy the scenery along the Chena River and insight into mushing from the daughters of Iditarod-fame Susan Butcher. Trailbreaker has been family-owned and operated since 1976, making it one of the longest operating kennels in Alaska. Originally founded in Eureka, AK by Susan Butcher, it’s been in Fairbanks since 1990 after she and David Monson, her husband and Yukon Quest champion, bought the river-side property.
Fat biking is an excellent way to get outside and stay active in the winter. These specially designed bikes have extra-wide tires and other modifications allowing them to plow through snow and ride through conditions otherwise impossible. The friendly folks at Beaver Sports rent fat bikes and other outdoor gear.
Head to the outskirts of Fairbanks to do some cross-country skiing. The Birch Hill Recreation Area is one of the premier cross-country skiing destinations in the US. The trails are well designed and maintained and the buildings offer great places to warm up and socialize before and after skiing activities. About 10 km of trails are lighted. Rent gear at Trax Outdoor Center, which also offers lessons.
Where to Shop
The Great Alaskan Bowl Company
This is your one-stop shop for all Alaskan-made products (over 60 different local producers). The Great Alaskan Bowl Company is a family-owned business that produces all sorts of custom, one-of-a-kind Alaskan Birch Bowls. It is one of only a handful of fully operating bowl mills left in America, and has been working continuously for 30 years. Get your photo or logo laser engraved on a bowl or coaster.
It seems odd to recommend buying tea in Fairbanks, but this is no ordinary tea shop. And the shop proprietor and master blender, Jenny Tse, is no ordinary tea connoisseur. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Fairbanks, she travels to China and India to hand select her teas. And they’ve won awards, too. If that’s not enough Jenny has written a book and hosts a regular podcast.
Co Op Plaza Downtown
There is a collection of independent shops inside the Co-Op Plaza and Two Street Gallery is a good place to start. You’ll find fine art photography and hand-carved birds, all by local Alaska artists. Stop in before going to the Community Museum or eating at Soba.
Where to Eat
Little Owl Cafe
Start your morning at this cute cafe with coffee drinks, baked goods, breakfast food, and other goodies.
Located downtown next to the Co-op Building, The Crepery is an excellent place to get breakfast or a light lunch or dinner. They make both savory and sweet crepes and great coffee drinks.
This Japanese bakery serves both sweet and savory treats to go from their downtown location. My wife really liked the curry bun and blueberry sweet roll, while I thought the onigiri, made freshly with hot rice, was a winner.
Fairbanks has nearly 30 Thai restaurants, and most of them are great. We chose Lemongrass because it was recommended by several local friends. The owners from northern Thailand and serve those specialties as well as many using Alaskan ingredients. There are also a few drive-through Thai eateries with to-go only food that were quite good.
You would never expect to find a Moldovan Restaurant in Fairbanks and that is part of the beauty of this dining establishment. The other is the fact that their food is delicious. It’s as if they’ve transplanted a restaurant along with all of Grandma’s recipes from Chisinau all the way to Alaska. Located in the Co-op Building downtown.
Convenient place to get a good meal if you are staying at or near Sophie Station Suites, Zach’s Restaurant serves up steaks, seafood, and other American and international-inspired fare. Dine-in, room service, curbside express, or order through Grubhub.
Where to Drink
Fairbank’s best microbrewery is located in an industrial park on the outskirts of town. Enjoy a variety of beers brewed in classic English, German, Belgian, and American beer styles. Sip your beer inside at the brewhouse taproom or outside by the fire in the Biergarten. Enjoy a bite to eat from one of the food trucks parked right outside. The perfect way to end a winter day in Fairbanks.
Where to Stay
Sophie Station Suites
Locally owned and operated, Sophie Station Suites is popular with both business and leisure travelers. Conveniently located close to the University of Alaska Fairbanks and good shopping options. The rooms here are spacious and include a nice kitchen and offer quick complimentary shuttle service to Fairbanks International Airport and the Alaska Railroad Depot.
Wedgewood Resort is another locally owned and operated accommodation situated at the edge of a wildlife sanctuary. But don’t worry, it’s still close to downtown. That just shows you how accessible nature is in Fairbanks. Wedgewood has very spacious suites with a full kitchen, dining area, living room, bedroom (and even a walk-in closet!). Great for families and long-stay guests. In summer enjoy the bird viewing on neighboring Creamer’s Migratory Waterfowl Refuge or the Wedgewood Wildlife Sanctuary. If it’s winter, these make nice spots for northern lights viewing. Or just watch the Aurora from your balcony, like we did!