Alaska Is a Winter Wonderland

If you're looking for a trip that takes you far outside your comfort zone, head north—far north
THIN ICE: Absorb the splendor of Exit Glacier and its counterparts before they disappear

This article appears in print in the January 2020 issue. Click here to subscribe.

The summer cruise ships out of Seattle are blissfully absent in winter, and it’s a great time for Seattleites to head to the Land of the Midnight Sun. There’s a lot to cram into the few daylight hours, and the long nights make for some nocturnal fun—don’t miss the northern lights (see page 40). Fly into Anchorage, then pick and choose from this wintertime itinerary:

Hit the slopes
Just 40 miles southeast of Anchorage is Girdwood, home of Alyeska Resort. There, adventurers can glide over mounds of fluffy powder within view of Turnagain Arm, a branch of the Cook Inlet. (There aren’t many places you can ski with a view of the ocean!) Don’t be fooled by a lower-elevation ski area: The snow is deep, the slopes are challenging, and the lines are short. Do you like waking at the crack of dawn to be first on the lift? If so, this isn’t the place for you—lifts open at a relatively late 10:30 a.m., thanks to the shorter days, so sleep in and enjoy a leisurely breakfast before hitting the slopes.

Though there’s half a dozen dining options at the resort, head into Girdwood (there’s a shuttle from Alyeska) to try the Cajun food at the Double Musky, a local institution.

PORT APPEAL: Coastal Ketchikan is known for its colorful totem poles.

Experience glacial splendor

Frozen lakes and the otherworldly blue ice of glaciers are distinctive Alaska winter phenomena, and you need to see them before they’re gone. Check out either the Skookum or Spencer Glacier, both located near Girdwood, by snowmobile; if you’re lucky, you’ll get to stand in a sci-fi-esque glacier ice cave. There are numerous guides and outfitters that will pick you up at your hotel, outfit you in gear and get you on your own “snow machine” (that’s Alaskan for snowmobile).

Wander the winter coast
The Kenai Peninsula is a popular warm(er)-weather destination, but if you’re game for some cold-weather touring, rent a good four-wheel-drive vehicle and travel an hour and a half from Girdwood to Seward, where the Alaska SeaLife Center sits on the shore of Resurrection Bay. It’s the only facility in Alaska that combines a public aquarium with marine research, education and wildlife response. You can get a close look at puffins, octopuses, harbor seals, sea lions and other marine life. The Exit Glacier is another hot spot (OK, a chilly spot) to visit in summer; in winter, take a dogsledding tour to the glacier and get firsthand experience in this supremely Alaskan form of transportation.

Alyeska Resort’s majestic lobby. Photo by Ralph Kristopher.

A three-hour drive south around the peninsula’s western curve will take you to Homer, the self-proclaimed halibut fishing capital of the world. You won’t be taking a charter boat in winter, but the beaches are stunning year-round, as are the food options. The Homer Spit is a long beach peninsula, pleasantly quiet in winter and definitely worth a look. Check out the Salty Dawg Saloon at the end of the spit: a dive bar institution originally built in 1897 and adorned with the hanging dollar bills of countless patrons.

Explore the waterways
For a more unusual vacation, try traveling the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System. It covers 3,500 miles of coastline from Bellingham to Ketchikan, Juneau, Whittier and all the way out along the Aleutian Island chain to Dutch Harbor. Due to recent budget cuts, the ferry system is eliminating stops in some of the smaller communities, but it’s still an authentic way to see many coastal locales not connected by roads. The main line can take you from Bellingham to Ketchikan in a 38-hour voyage. Once there, check out the town’s totem poles and take the Cape Fox Hill tram, a funicular that goes up to the Cape Fox Lodge, where you can enjoy a meal and the views of town.

As Seattleites, we’re often spared the hardships of winter snow, but we can miss the fun parts of the white stuff, too. A winter trip to Alaska can be a special experience. Who needs beaches and sunshine when you can head to a winter wonderland?

Getting there: Anchorage is about a three-and-a-quarter-hour flight from Seattle.

ART WALK: Visitors browse an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum. Photo by Oscar Avellaneda-Cruz

Spend Time in the "Big City"

Unless arriving by boat, you’ll likely fly in to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Before heading out for other adventures, save a day or two to check out the capital

For accommodations, the Hotel Captain Cook will put you in the center of the action. Named for the explorer who dropped anchor here while looking for a Northwest Passage to Hudson Bay, the hotel makes a posh home base for checking out the city.

You might not think of Alaska as having a museum scene, but the Anchorage Museum presents fantastic exhibitions and has a mission to “encourage global dialogue about the North and its distinct environment.” Through April, the museum is hosting an exhibition titled Snow Flyers, which focuses on human ingenuity in adapting travel to snowy environments. Its permanent collection features many Native Alaskan artists and showcases Alaska’s heritage. The Alaska Zoo focuses on Arctic and sub-Arctic species. No lions and giraffes, but bears, caribou, musk oxen and other cold-loving animals will delight and educate the family.

For some unusual fare, don’t miss a reindeer hot dog from the International House of Hotdogs food truck. For fancier eats, the Marx Bros. Café is the place to go, but get a reservation first, as it has only a few tables. Other great spots include the Glacier Brewhouse (get the bread pudding) and Moose’s Tooth for pizza.

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