The thought of visiting Alaska in the winter may fill you with shivers and a longing to hibernate, but for adventure-seekers, it is prime playtime.
Mesmerising mountains laden with snow create stunning backdrops, and the outdoor options are limitless. You can strap on snowshoes, grab a snowboard or skis, get a taste of dog mushing or cruise the backcountry on a snowmobile (stubbornly called a snowmachine by locals).
I visited in late January and early February and was smitten. I declared myself a future Alaskan. I vowed to buy Alaskan slippers, which are actually heavy-duty boots – XtraTufs – worn by many in the Last Frontier. I scoffed at the biting cold even as I slipped along icy streets in downtown Anchorage and wished for a thicker jacket.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’m accustomed to the cold and congratulated myself on braving Alaska’s winter temperatures. What I didn’t know at the time was that my trip coincided with the fourth warmest January ever recorded in the city.
I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed.
I may have escaped the worst of winter, but the warmer weather (we’re talking temperatures of about -2C to -6C) dashed my hopes of ice-climbing or checking out Alyeska Resort, which shut down because piles of fresh powder were in short order on its ski runs.
Winter in Alaska may be downright cold, but I was enraptured with winter skies that were crisp and blue rather than bleak and grey.
This brings me to my one grievance with taking a winter break in Alaska: longer hours of darkness. The sun did not come out until 9am, which ruled out early alpine starts.
Then again, it’s a rare chance to sleep in.
Here are some of the places I visited:
BIRD RIDGE OVERLOOK
Where: Chugach State Park, about 40km south of Anchorage along Seward Highway.
This hike has it all: steepness, breathtaking views and wild weather. It offers sweeping views of a waterway and countless snow-capped peaks with only a swivel of the head.
We started in a cool mist at sea level, peeking out over Turnagain Arm as we wound upward through a forest to an exposed ridge. That’s where the wind picked up and repeatedly knocked me over, forcing me to tromp through the snow just below the ridge.
As we scuttled up a rocky point to Bird Ridge, the mist turned to snow, even though the sun was still peeking through.
Many people stop there, which clocks in at 8km and 1036 metres of elevation gain. Others push on for the overlook, which is 19km and 1676 metres gain.
Where: On the threshold of the Alaska Range north of Cantwell.
Couloir routes are an exhilarating way to dress up a climb. Getting into a couloir in Washington state usually requires a long drive and a long approach, but in Alaska you apparently just pull over on the side of the highway and get going. It was another reminder of how accessible and limitless the possibilities are.
The gully didn’t look intimidating from the bottom, but the steepness of the 60-degree couloir became apparent as we moved higher. It was a tedious process to kick our crampons into the mix of ice and snow and then plunge in our ice axes before moving up. A quarter or so of the way up the 1066-metre couloir, we crossed a rocky area and paused momentarily to scarf down lunch. It was the only place on the route where it was safe enough to sit down.
A trio of mountain goats kept an eye on us but kept their distance as we kept climbing up, up, up. We were treated to some stunning views of some of the biggest mountains in the state.
Where: About 193km north of Anchorage, in the shadow of Denali.
History buffs and climbers should carve out time to visit this tiny, spunky town off the beaten path. It has evolved from a gold-mining town at the turn of the 20th century to the place where mountaineers ascending Denali catch an air taxi to the 2194-metre Kahiltna Glacier.
Its charm is said to have been the inspiration behind the community of Cicely on the TV show Northern Exposure.
The downtown area is a National Historic Site, with buildings dating back to the early 1900s, including the Talkeetna Roadhouse and Nagley’s General Store. Wander into the funky shops or skip rocks down on the river. Talkeetna is at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna rivers and draws salmon fishermen in the summer.
We arrived after dinnertime, hungry from a climb, and found our pub of choice was no longer serving grub. The friendly bartender, however, invited us to partake of the town potluck and hang out as long as we wished.
FLAT TOP MOUNTAIN
Where: Chugach State Park, about 24km from downtown Anchorage.
I couldn’t pass up a chance to sit atop the “most often climbed peak in Alaska” – or so says the state Department of Natural Resources.
It’s a relatively easy hike through some hemlocks and above timberline to a talus field. Scramble up to the aptly named flat summit, which is about the size of a football field.
The trail climbs 396 metres in 2.7km. In typical Alaska style, it offers gorgeous 360-degree views of Cook Inlet, Anchorage and the Alaska Range, where Denali dominates the distant landscape.
Where: Highest point of Seward Highway (274 metres) at the gateway to the Kenai Peninsula, 48km south of Girdwood.
This is a free-for-all winter recreation area where you can do just about any snow activity you can dream up. It’s known for its endless snow because it collects powder blown over the ridgelines but manages to avoid the winds.
We strapped on snowshoes and tied on sleds before we ventured into a back bowl between Tincan and Sunburst mountains to set up camp and properly enjoy a wintry Alaskan evening. There was a hot meal, cold feet and a quiet stillness you can’t find anywhere but the outdoors.
Snow camping in Alaska is a great way to really engage in the elements.