Alaska Wildlife: Four great places for winter critter viewing with kids

Cool Fact: Not all Alaskan animals hibernate during our long, cold winters. Bigger Cool Fact: Winter can be one of the best seasons for viewing critters, especially with kids. Alaska’s wild animals possess an amazing ability to survive and thrive in an often harsh environment where food can be scarce September through May.

Taking advantage of a winter visit to Alaska means the opportunity to show kids what it takes to be an animal or bird in the Far North. Furred creatures wear heavier coats, birds have secret ways of conserving body heat, and hooved animals can still walk on endless inches of heavy snow. How do they do that? Why do they? Below are a few great choices for Alaska winter wildlife experiences with kids, tried and tested by AKontheGO.

Wood bison at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center stand in thick ice fog.

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, Portage.  Located about 90 minutes from Anchorage near the community of Girdwood, AWCC is the perfect place to view Alaska’s big animals with a healthy dose of education. Ever-expanding to accommodate an increasing number of wintertime guests, AWCC now provides weekend tours on the hour via shuttle bus (if you need to stay warm during our uber-cold winter days), and also offers self-guided walks. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. now through January 1; Open weekends only Jan 2-February 22, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Open daily February 23 through the remainder of winter, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. FREE admission the day after Thanksgiving! 907-783-2025.

Hello from Aphun, an Alaska Zoo polar bear!

Alaska Zoo, Anchorage. A great introduction to winter sightseeing with kids, the Alaska Zoo has a manageable layout and enough interesting animals to back up a “Hey, let’s bundle up and go outside!” suggestion. Do you have a pack of family members coming for the holidays? Consider purchasing a behind-the-scenes tour with a zoo volunteers. The perfect gift, it’s an excellent glimpse into the backstory of these amazing animals, birds, and the people who care for them. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 907-346-2133. ZooLights will kick into high hear November 29!

Eagle River Nature Center, Eagle River. A spectacular spot for winter bird-watching, ERNC offers a ton of kid-friendly opportunities and presentations geared toward appreciation of our feathered friends. From birdfeeders to bird counts, ERNC’s knowledgable staff and volunteers will make sure everyone, young and old, leaves with a new view of the birds who call Alaska home, year round. FYI – the Christmas Bird Count is happening on December 29, so mark your calendar now. 907-694-2108.

"I've got an itch - right-there." Up close and personal at the Running Reindeer Ranch in Fairbanks.

Running Reindeer Ranch, Fairbanks. Jingle all the way with ranch owner Jane and her little herd of personable reindeer through the beautiful birch forests of her home in the Goldstream Valley. Take a short hike, learn the history and habits of these fascinating ungulates, and have a hot cocoa snack before heading back to your hotel. By appointment, all year. Great for families of all ages. Tip: Reindeer milk soap makes a great gift, too. Just ask Jane. 907-455-4998.

Dall sheep near the Seward Highway, just south of Anchorage.

Explore on your own. Take a hike and look for animal tracks in the snow. Mice and voles will make teeny-tiny side-by-side tracks near woodpiles and the base of buildings; moose make big, two-sectioned tracks that go deep into the snow; Snowshoe hares have huge back feet and smaller front paws, making their tracks very distinctive. Heck, if you’d like to see moose, drive through any Anchorage or Fairbanks neighborhood. Chances are, one or two will be munching on shrubs, trees, or even leftover pumpkins from Halloween. Be smart, though, and read up on moose safety. Dall sheep hang out along the Seward Highway just south of Anchorage, too, and often leave their rocky perches to stand near the roadway. But be careful of traffic!

Of course, venturing into the chilly Alaska air means parents must employ a strategy for ensuring kids enjoy themselves. Remember to layer in non-cotton clothing, bring hand warmers, scarves, and ear-covering hats, and bring a sled or backpack for little ones who might become weary.

Embrace an Alaska winter vacation – and go wild!


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