Alaska is a popular vacation destination in the summer months, but most tourists miss some of its most spectacular qualities that are only available in the winter. Unlike many people wrongly assume, Alaska is not always dark and cold during the winter. Winter is the best time to view scenery and enjoy thrilling outdoor recreational opportunities.
The Alaska Vacation Most Tourists Miss
From May to September, world travelers flock to Alaska’s shores. They pack cruise ships to see stunning glaciers and wildlife. Charter fishing boats fill up with novices hoping to reel in some delicious halibut and salmon to ship home. Crowded buses and trains carry binocular-toting tourists into the vast interior regions, where they see jagged peaks and fierce beasts. The state’s population swells as young people take summer jobs in hotels and on cruise ships.
But as the leaves turn and the last cruise ship departs, the vast wonder of Alaska remains. Residents switch their tires over to studs as they see the first snow collecting on nearby peaks. They begin to unpack their winter toys. They grin because they know what the tourists don’t true Alaskan beauty and adventure is about to be unveiled.
Alaska in Winter
Many people don’t even think about going to Alaska in the winter because they assume it will be too dark and cold. Those assumptions are only partially accurate; the weather and light conditions depend on where you go and when.
Southcentral Alaska is generally the best vacationer’s destination in the winter months. This area is the state’s population center and has many attractions that are accessible by road. It includes Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley, the Kenai Peninsula, and Valdez and Cordova. This region has mild winters when compared to much of the rest of the state due to its proximity to the coast. While there is snow on the ground from about October to April, the winter months consist of many calm and clear days. In the later winter months of February and March the high temperatures are in the 20s and 305. The air is dry, so it doesn’t feel as cold as it might in Wisconsin or Minnesota.
Since the region is hundreds of miles south of the Arctic Circle, it also doesn’t have extreme darkness. During the shortest days of December, Southcentral Alaskans see about five hours of daylight. By February and March, the area has between ten and twelve hours of daylight.
Southcentral Alaska’s population centers sit in the valleys of some spectacular snowy peaks. The mountains iridescently glow purple, pink, and orange during long-lasting sunrises and sunsets. You need only step outside and look up to capture this beauty, even if you are in downtown Anchorage. Anchorage is also a great viewing place for Mount McKinley. The tallest peak in North America is often hidden from view during the rainy summer months but is usually visible during the winter. Good viewing locations include Earthquake Park, Airport Park, and Kincaid Park.
If you’re near the water you may catch a glimpse of a strangely beautiful sight among the mud flats of Cook Inlet and the Knik Arm. Huge, muddy chunks of ice litter the shore, while broken sheets of ice flow on top of the ocean current. The huge span of the tide here is the cause. As the powerful waters move in and out, they toss the ice around, building it up and breaking it apart at the same time.
If you are an outdoor enthusiast, bring your gear. Alyeska Resort, located in the town of Girdwood just south of Acnhorage, has some of the most thrilling and scenic downhill skiing and snowboarding in the country. Or if you’re an expert, take a helicopter ride to fresh powder for an unforgettable backcountry experience.
Snowshoeing, sledding, and cross-country skiing are popular pastimes that don’t cost a dime beyond your equipment. Local shops offer rentals if you don’t have your own. The Southcentral region has an abundance of trails inside and outside of city limits. The expanse of the Mat-Su valley and its peaks is a great place to go off trail.
A description of Alaskan recreation wouldn’t be complete without mentioning snowmobiling. Most visitors can’t pack a huge machine, which is why there are several rental facilities. The Kenai Peninsula offers some great trails as well as some open hill terrain that beckon those who enjoy adrenaline rushes.
Not only is there plenty of snow to go around, but there’s ice too. Dozens of frozen ponds and small lakes stocked with salmon and trout are great for ice fishing and skating. Or if you’re really adventurous, enjoy some guided ice climbing on the area’s frozen cliffs.
The Elusive Aurora
If you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. You have to be looking, or you might miss it. You should be somewhere dark, away from the glare of city lights. Check with the forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the best viewing times and locations.
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