I typically write about places I’ve been and things I’ve done in Alaska but this one is still on my to-do list: a winter trip to see the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis.
We’ve traveled to Alaska in September when there’s a chance to see the lights but so far, no luck (although we did get snow). It seems that we are always a day late. Taking a trip in winter, especially further north (like Fairbanks) increases the chances of getting an aurora show, or so I’ve been told.
What is the Aurora?
The Aurora is a phenomenon that occurs at the magnetic poles of the earth, the Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south. When solar winds reach the earth’s atmosphere, electrons collide causing glowing lights to appear. For a much more in-depth explanation of the science, check out NOAA and Alaska Geophysical Institute.
To see the Northern Lights, you need four things.
- Auroral Activity-This is measured by the KP index which is a measure of the strength of the geomagnetic activity. The KP range is 0 (minimal activity) to 9 (strongest activity). KP values above 5 are indicative of a geomagnetic storm. There are many apps and websites that have KP index forecasts.
- Correct Location-If there is activity you have to be far enough north to see it. On some occasions, the activity is very strong and can be seen further south. Rarely it can be seen from the continental US.
- Clear Skies-If it is too cloudy, the lights can’t be seen.
- Darkness-This is where those long nights of winter come in. Even if there is strong auroral activity in the summer, the lights can’t be seen because it never gets fully dark.
Alaska in winter is cold, dark, and snowy and may not appeal to everyone. What else is there to do besides look at the northern lights? It should not come as a surprise that Alaskans have found ways to brighten up the long winter.
Commonly referred to as Fur Rondy, this is an annual festival in Anchorage. It started as a 3-day celebration in the 1930s to welcome home miners and trappers and has grown into an 11-day event. The annual fur auction is a long-standing tradition that goes back to the original days. There’s also a dog sled competition, a fireworks display, and a carnival. Winter sports are a big part of the festival with events such as snowshoe softball, curling, cornhole, and hockey. Some of the wackier events include the outhouse race. Yes, you read that right. People build outhouses on sleds and race down 4th avenue. And don’t forget the Running of the Reindeer. If those kinds of activities can’t knock the winter doldrums, I don’t know what will!
World Ice Art Championships
The World Ice Art Championships take place every winter in Fairbanks. Ice sculptors from all over the world compete in single and multiple ice block competitions. The sculpting teams use chainsaws and other tools to create elaborate ice carvings from huge blocks of ice that are judged and then left on display for visitors throughout the competition.
Check out the sculpture gallery from last year’s competition. The artistry and imagination of these artists are truly amazing.
Ski Land in Fairbanks and Alyeska Resort in Girdwood both offer downhill skiing and snowboarding. Cross-country skiing and snowboarding trails are easy to find in just about any park. For the more skilled and adventurous skiers, several companies guide heli-skiing trips into the backcountry.
Sled dog tours are popular year-round but in winter, there is snow so you can get the true mushing experience. Many companies run dog sledding tours all over the state. One of the more well-known ones is Seavey’s Ididaride, run by the Seavey family of Iditarod fame.
So, have I convinced you to try Alaska in the wintertime?