Boarding our 6-hour flight from Chicago to Anchorage in late December, we were far more anxious than usual for the start of a trip. Thoughts of headlines such as ‘Australian tourists freeze to death in Alaska’ were constantly looping through our heads. Most Australians don’t handle extreme cold very well and we’re no exception. Adding to our apprehension were the astonished expressions when we’d told people we were visiting Alaska in winter. ‘But why in winter?!’ they’d ask, and we’d repeat our well-rehearsed list of reasons to visit an extreme state during its most extreme weather, to reassure both them and ourselves that we were making the right decision. Even as the plane wheels touched down in Anchorage on what looked to be a runway made of solid snow, we weren’t sure if we’d made the right decision. And our apprehension wasn’t ridiculous. Alaska does get very cold, regularly dropping as low as -15° C (5° F) in Anchorage, one of the more temperate cities. Add to that the short days (we’re looking at ~6 hours of daylight around the winter solstice in Anchorage), and you have what sounds to be an extremely unappealing holiday destination.
Spoiler: we did not freeze to death. Not even a little bit. What we did experience, though, was a freaking amazing holiday in one of the most unique places we’ve ever visited. We divided our time more or less evenly between the two largest ‘cities’ in Alaska, Anchorage and Fairbanks, which gave us a good taste of two different sides to the northernmost state. Sandwiched between mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Anchorage has pretty much every activity you could imagine you’d want to do in Alaska. World-class museums? Check. Dog sledding? Check. Nordic skiing? Definitely check. Hiking and/or mountain biking? Absolutely. Seeing moose? Triple check (yep we saw three moose wandering around suburban Anchorage)! As we’d already planned a few activities for Fairbanks, we wanted to spend most of our time in Anchorage taking in the great views and checking out the local food and brews. Read on for our highlights.
Like 99% of the US, getting around without a car can be difficult. This is certainly the case in Anchorage so we recommend hiring a car. Before booking a car, it’s a good idea to have an idea of where you want to drive as this will influence what kind of car you need. We hired a cheap two wheel drive car on our trip and had no issues going anywhere in Anchorage as the roads are ploughed often, but heading into the hills surrounding the city was a different story. If you see a sign saying snow chains and four wheel drive only, don’t ignore that sign! If you really want to explore the roads less travelled, check if your rental company has any extra equipment such as studded tyres and/or chains to minimise the chances of getting stuck. If you have never driven on snow it can be a bit daunting but here are some tips that might help.
It’s probably a bit nonsensical that one of the first things we recommend you do in Anchorage is leave it, but here we are. To fully appreciate the scenic beauty of this part of the state, jump in a car and head down the Seward Highway to Alyeska. With the right weather conditions you’ll be treated to stunning views of mountains, glaciers and the Turnagain Arm as you twist and turn along the coast. The drive to Alyeska Resort and neighbouring Girdwood only takes about 45 minutes but you’ll probably want to stop along the way to take photos at the many pull-out spots. Just be careful stopping in thick snow if you only have a front-wheel drive car. Once you arrive, Alyeska is a great place to hurtle yourself down a mountain with planks strapped to your feet if you’re into that sort of thing. However, if you’d rather skip straight to the aprés ski like us, jump on the Alyeska Aerial Tram to get to the bar and cafe at the top and soak in the jaw-dropping views. It costs $30 and is a zippy 4-minute journey in winter, with a more sedate pace taken in the summer months. The price is pretty steep (pun intended) so if the visibility is poor, save your pennies for nearby Girdwood Brewery for one of the most scenic tasting flights you’ll ever have, or the Girdwood Picnic Club for some delicious eats (the egg nog latte and baked mac and cheese blew us away). Girdwood also has a bunch of popular nordic skiing trails if that’s more your jam.
Alaska came late to the craft brewing scene, but beer fans will still find ample breweries. The first stop for us was Turnagain Brewing, which operates an unassuming tasting room in the suburb of (you guessed it) Turnagain. A flight of six beers will set you back $14. The beer list is always changing but if you can, we recommend trying the Funk 49, which is a deliciously unusual citrus sour, and the Nitro coffee porter. We’d also recommend Midnight Sun Brewery. Try to visit on a Thursday evening to join the free brewery tour that starts at 6 pm. The tour is really casual so it’s a good idea to let one of the bar staff know you are interested in the tour otherwise you may miss the group. We’ve been on several brewery tours now and while the general principle of brewing is always the same, we do enjoy hearing what makes each brewery unique. What we really enjoyed about this tour was that we had the chance to try some in-progress brews, which added an extra dimension to the otherwise familiar spiel about the brewing process. Keep an eye out for Midnight Sun’s most unique beer tap too!
To soak up all that beer, head to Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria. This place is a bit of an icon in Anchorage despite only having been around since 1996. Having a self-nominated pizza aficionado in our midst, we couldn’t resist making the short trek from our motel for some delicious pizza. Visiting on a Friday night probably wasn’t the best plan because the place was absolutely heaving, but after a somewhat uncomfortable 45-minute wait crammed against a doorway we got our table. We ordered two pizzas, a Call of the Wild (reindeer meat!) and a Napoleon. And by god, were they worth the wait. These were without doubt the best pizzas we’ve had since arriving in the U.S. The brews weren’t bad either.
Have you ever looked at a mountain bike tyre and thought it looked a bit skinny? Someone in Alaska did, and the fat bike was born. Otherwise resembling a mountain bike, fat bikes have enormous tyres that can also be studded in winter for extra traction. As we were in the birth state of this giant invention it seemed only fitting to give it a shot. Downtown Anchorage has several places you can rent bikes from, with prices starting at around $25 a day. As the tyres are much larger and softer than on other bikes, fat biking requires a lot more effort to get moving so bear that in mind when planning your ride. We can offer that advice because we were a little too ambitious when we chose to get dropped off at Kincaid Park, a popular mountain bike park just south of the airport. We’ve ridden on mountain bike trails before but snow is much harder work and less forgiving to small errors. That said, if you are an experienced rider, the scenery and serenity is amazing but for everyone else we recommend just sticking to the Coastal Trail. It is just as pretty but a lot less concentration is required. The trail runs all the way from Kincaid Park to just past Resolution Park (look out for the statue of Captain Cook) and from there it’s an easy ride to return the bikes in downtown.
As always, there’s a bunch of things we didn’t get time to do. We missed Anchorage Museum which is meant to be fantastic. We also wish we’d had time for the Alaskan Native Heritage Center and for more hiking, especially popular trails like Flattop to get kickass views of Anchorage and surrounds. If you’re nervous about hiking on your own, there’s a group who do twice-weekly hikes around Anchorage for a $1 donation per person. We were also keen to try a reindeer hot dog on our visit but alas, all the hot dog vendors seem to be seasonal food trucks and therefore don’t operate in the winter. Looks like we’ll have to come back in summer!