While most people think of Anchorage as a summer destination, winter is when this community glitters. The best way to experience all the city has to offer is to act like a local. Fill your daylight hours with outdoor adventures in and around the city and spend your evenings snuggling by a fire- you’ve earned it!
Anchorage offers many ways to enjoy the snowy setting, including great downhill skiing. © christiannafzger / Getty Images
Don’t let the sound of winter driving intimidate you. Anchorage is a well-maintained city with many transportation options. Renting a car is easy and can be cheap with off-season discounts. You’ll have plenty of all-wheel drive options to choose from. Taxis and rideshare services are also in abundance if you just don’t feel like driving. Many hotels offer shuttle services, as do most tour operators.
The city has over 200 miles of trails, most of them groomed and many lit. In the winter, even unlit paths are heavily used as the snow refracts the city lights. Most trails are multi-use, and in Anchorage, that means biking, snowshoeing, skiing, and more. Trails are clearly marked, parking areas are abundant, and maps make using the trail system a breeze.
Most visible in the darkest times of the year, you don’t have to travel far to escape the city lights and catch a glimpse of this natural wonder on a clear night. With the insights of science from Aurora Forecast (a service of the UAF Geophysical Institute), or The Space Weather Prediction Center, you can even sign up for forecast alerts. There are several great viewing options in and around Anchorage. The Glen Alps trailhead on the eastern edge of town and Point Woronzof near the airport offer the closest darkest spots in the city. Heading north to Eagle River Nature Center or south to Beluga Point provides even darker spots within a short drive.
The northern lights can sometimes be seen above the Anchorage skyline from the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail © Kevin Smith / Design Pics / Getty Images
After a summer of playing out in the wilds, Anchorage comes together in the winter months through a myriad of social, cultural, and athletic events. Check out the Alaska Botanical Gardens or Alaska Zoo’s holiday lights walking tours. Anchorage has a minimum of one holiday market a weekend beginning in late October, all spread out across the city from church basements to the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center. If you need to cool off after all of your holiday shopping, participate in the annual Polar Plunge on Goose Lake. Check out the Anchorage International Film Festival in December and Anchorage Folk Festival in January. Get your blood flowing at the Frosty Bottom fat bike race, and then warm up with a brew at The Alaska Craft Brew and Barley Wine Festival. Participants in the Alaska Ski for Women are as passionate about their costumes as their race times. By the end of February, Anchorage is ready to celebrate with its annual Fur Rondy. With a history predating statehood by almost twenty-five years, this ten-day festival is a serious celebration of winter with over 50 events. Don’t miss the fireworks, outhouse races, snow sculpture championships, and the running of the reindeer. Rounding out the winter events is the annual ski marathon, the Tour of Anchorage.
Embrace the elements, enjoy the jaw-dropping scenery of the Chugach mountains, relax and disconnect at Alaska’s newest outdoor wellness center, the Nordic Spa at Alyeska Resort. Move between hot and cold pools surrounded by the stunning northernmost rainforest. Rest in saunas and steam rooms, and complete your experience at the exfoliation cabin. The resort has a distinctive character, with wooden tubs, barrel saunas and exposed walkways that blend perfectly with the surrounding trees. An on-site bistro is the ultimate cap to a sumptuous experience.
Anchorage is a Nordic skier’s dream with plenty of world-class, easy-access trails, great rental and gear shops, and a city serious about all things cross-country. Visit the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage’s website for everything from daily trail reports and maps, weekly events, lessons and tours, and even backcountry cabin rentals. For ski rentals, drop by Trax Outdoor Center or the conveniently located REI in midtown.
Downhill & Backcountry Skiing
For downhill skiers, Anchorage offers easy access to the resort, backcountry, and heli-skiing operations in and around the city. Travel south along the breathtaking Turnagain Arm to Girdwood, and you can take your pick from skiing Alaska’s largest resort Alyeska or heli-ski in the backcountry with Chugach Powder Guides. If you don’t feel like traveling quite as far or need as many runs, try the smaller, non-profit Hilltop Ski Area or Arctic Valley Ski Area, both within 20 minutes of downtown.
Alyeska, Alaska’s largest resort, is less than an hour outside of Anchorage. © christiannafzger / Getty Images
If you’ve never tried snowshoeing, you might be surprised to find that the only required skill is walking. With snowshoes on, you can stay afloat on top of the snow while exploring unpacked hiking trails that would be off-limits without their aid. Anchorage is known for its hiking trails, many on the city’s eastern side in the half-million-acre Chugach State Park, with clear views of the Cook Inlet after a short elevation gain.
Snowmachines (which is what Alaskans call snowmobiles) are a powerful and fast way to see more terrain than possible by foot, ski, or sled. Anchorage’s surrounding areas offer winter snowmachine highways by way of frozen rivers and valleys and areas not accessible during the summer months. To get out on a snowmachine, book through a local tour operator and plan on a short but scenic drive. In the Matanuska Valley, north of Anchorage, try Alaska Backcountry Adventure Tours or Snowhook Adventure Guides of Alaska. In Anchorage’s southernmost enclave of Girdwood, Alaska Wild Guides and Glacier City Snowmobile Tours will get you out into the backcountry and to nearby glaciers.
Anchorage is the self-proclaimed home of winter biking, otherwise known as fat biking. With the first known official winter biking event, The Iditabike, in 1987, Alaskans have been perfecting the art of winter biking long before it became a buzzy trend elsewhere. Hiking trails, city trails, frozen rivers, and bogs become usable terrain for this winter cycle-crazed community. For tours and rentals, visit Alaska Trail Guides or Alaska Bike Adventures, which offer tours and various bike-related gear rentals. Alaska E-Bike even offers fat tire electric bikes and an up-and-coming heli-bike operation that can take you into the wilds.
The thick tires on fat bikes make it possible to pedal on snowy trails. © Daniel H. Bailey / Getty Images
Don’t let the logistical challenge of packing get in the way of a winter trip to Anchorage. Pack what you want and rent or buy the rest from well-established and high-quality shops. Alaska Outdoor Gear Rentals can help you with everything from skis and snowboards to jackets and winter camping gear. Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking is a local institution with expert staff, top-quality gear, and equipment rentals. As an additional bonus, Anchorage residents own, buy, and sell a lot of gear. You can find almost anything you need in multiple styles, sizes, and brands at the consignment shops Hoarding Marmot and Play It Again Sports.
After your lively and adventure-packed winter visit to Anchorage, you’ll have earned some hibernation time when you arrive back home!