Note: Yesterday, the Iditarod Trail Committee announced that due to low snow conditions on sections of the trail, the official start (or “Re-Start”) will be held in Fairbanks. This means, of course, families who travel to the Golden Heart City to watch the start of the Last Great Race may want to stay for a few days. I asked our AKontheGO Fairbanks contributor Jen Ostler to expand on her insight about a winter spent in Interior Alaska, with a few ideas for fun. ~EK
by Jen Ostler
Some people think I’m crazy when I tell them I get outdoors all winter in the Fairbanks area. There’s actually a lot to do up here, and I don’t let the lack of light get me down. Yes, daylight hours are slim, but the way low-angled light hits the trees and creates purples and pinks in the sky is magical.
I don’t typically suffer from the darkness as long as I get out during those hours when the light is with us, and it’s almost always clear blue skies and beautiful frosted trees. We’ve been taking our son out with us since he was just two months old. In the cold of March, I would bundle him under my jacket and head outside.
With the approach of spring, some of my favorite Fairbanks events will be happening. Here are a few offering a family-friendly appeal:
The Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race is a fixture of Interior Alaska very year, alternating race starts between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory and Fairbanks. So, that means this year the race will finish in Fairbanks about 9 days after it starts in Whitehorse on February 4th. Words cannot express the excitement of watching a sled dog race, from either the start or the finish. Make sure you head to the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks to watch finishers cross the line.
BP World Ice Art Championships begin on February 20th with the opening of an ice park just for kids. The kids park has slides and mazes and things for kiddos to climb on, all made out of ice, with ice lit up at night in a beautiful array of colors. As time progresses, sculptures are created throughout the park, some very intricate and massively constructed by teams from around the world. The park is open From February 28 through the end of March, but I like to wait until mid-march when all of the sculptures are completed, and then go in the evening to see them lit up.
Open North American Championship sled dog races are exciting to watch from historic 2nd avenue in downtown Fairbanks. Dog teams whoosh by, and you can browse local vendors and enjoy the community vibe. Don’t forget the parka parade for a little local culture, too.
Get outside! There are several places to rent skis and snowshoes in Fairbanks. The TRAX outdoor center near Birch Hill is a great resource for lessons and ski rentals, with a play area right nearby on beautiful Birch Hill.
And while you’re motivated to get out in the snow, try the Fairbanks Trails Challenge, designed by the Borough’s Parks and Rec department. There are signs posted on 10 ski trails in the area; and when you ski to find a sign, and share your selfie with the sign, you can be entered to win prizes! The program runs through the end of March.
Of course, the aurora borealis is a highlight of traveling to Fairbanks at this time of year. You don’t have to go far on a cloudless night to spot the northern lights. For an organized tour I highly recommend Ronn Murray’s Aurora Chasers tour, during which guests are treated to photography instruction and a hands-on chance to capture the lights with your own camera.
Just about any local will tell you to visit Chena Hot Springs Resort , about an hour’s drive from Fairbanks. Locally-grown food and accommodations, with specials for Alaskans, and an “Ice Hotel” where adults can sip a cocktail from a glass made of ice! I love going to the resort when it’s at least -20F, so that your hair freezes while you soak outdoors in the adults-only rock pool. Kids and families have an indoor hot springs pool in which to play.
For folks who prefer to stay indoors, Fairbanks also offers plenty of fun.
The Banff Mountain Film Festival (Feb 12 6-9pm, $10 admission) at the Davis Concert Hall on the UAF Campus is something that I look forward to every February. The event presents high quality adventure films in a fun atmosphere, with giveaways and local community. It’s very suitable for your older kids to attend with you.
The University of Alaska Museum of the North is a beautiful environment to spend indoors. See local history and natural exhibits, and explore the galleries. Every Friday, there is a learning program for preschoolers under the age of 5, and on Friday, February 17 the museum is hosting a sleepover for older kids.
The Fairbanks Childrens Museum is a favorite place to take my three-year-old. The exhibits change or move around weekly to keep things fresh and exciting. At least once a month, the museum brings in a musical event and reduced admission prices. It’s definitely worth a visit for kids under 10.
The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center is near downtown Fairbanks on Dunkel Street, and would be a nice place to stop while out watching dog races. The building is full of beautiful artwork and local culture, and has special learning activities for children. Even better, visitors can take a portrait wearing Athabascan clothing as a great keepsake from Fairbanks.
The Fairbanks Concert Association always brings in high-quality performers throughout the winter season.
Where to Stay and Eat:
Pikes Waterfront Lodge is locally owned and very close to the airport, with specials for Alaskans, groups, and sports teams. Plus, there’s free ice cream every night for guests.
Marriott Springhill Suites is located right on 2nd avenue and near the Chena River, where the dog race activity will be. Also, a sparkling gem of a restaurant, Lavelle’s Bistro and Taphouse is located inside.
The Banks Alehouse Restaurant is also locally owned and has great food and atmosphere for families. Parents can sample microbrews from around the state, too, making this an interesting stop for lunch or dinner.
The Silver Gulch is an 8-mile drive north to the town of Fox. An old mining complex, visitors can ask for a tour to see the historic buildings. A nice bonus is a stop to see the Alaska Pipeline along the Steese Highway along the way out or back.
Fairbanks is defined by its winters, and in my opinion, to truly experience Alaska one must come and visit during this time of year. Bring your layers and a sense of adventure. It’s worth it.
Other Fairbanks information, relevant to winter and the Iditarod Sled Dog Race: