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Chasing Aurora: A 3-Day Fairbanks Adventure

Updated: Dec 2, 2023


Fairbanks, nestled in the heart of Alaska's Interior, is renowned as one of the best places on Earth to witness the mesmerizing spectacle of the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. On almost everyone's bucket list, this celestial dance of light, caused by the collision of charged particles from the sun with Earth's atmosphere, paints the night sky with vibrant hues of green, purple, red, and blue.

So pack your parka and charge your camera as we embark on a cosmic quest to Fairbanks. In this 3-day escapade, we will chase the auroras and find interesting activities to do during the day. Get ready for a journey filled with celestial splendor, thermal layers, and the occasional dance-off with the universe!

Aurora Borealis over our igloo

 

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Best Time To Go / Weather

The best time to see the Northern Lights in Fairbanks is from late October to late March. During this period, the nights are long and dark, and the skies are clear, providing the perfect conditions for viewing the Aurora Borealis. During these months temperatures can dip to sub-zero levels, so be prepared for extreme weather. Since there is only 4-5 hours of daylight during winter, any outdoor activity needs to be planned accordingly.

Temps ranged from 25 - 15 degrees Farenheit when we went during Thanksgiving weekend in 2023. Coming from California, this was extremely managable with the winter gear we had packed for the trip.

By mid November, the sun doesnt rise far in the sky. It is a perpetual sunrise/sunset for the 4-5 hours of daylight.

Getting Around

Renting a mid-size SUV is an absolute must while driving around Fairbanks area in winter. When we went, it had been about a week since it had snowed last. Although all the highways were ploughed and salted, there were still sections which were icy. Ensure your rental SUV is equipped with all-weather tires (snow tires even better), an ice scraper to scrape off the ice/snow from the windsheild, and an extension cord to plug in the engine, to prevent it from freezing during sub-zeo temperatures. We did not find the need to use the latter two during our trip.

Parking behind our igloo

Tips To View The Northren Lights

Along with choosing the best time to go to Alaska, there are a few other factors that will make your experience more enjoyable:

  • Auroras are best seen on a clear, cloudless night. If you can see the stars, the chances of seeing the Northern Lights is high.

  • Download one of the Arora Chasing apps on your phone and monitor the probability in your area. I used the free My Aurora Forecast app. It alerts you when lights are imminent, has a map showing where the aurora is (zoom in and out), live aurora web cams, and has short- and long-term forecasts.

  • Light pollution from cities can significantly hinder your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis. Venture outside of Fairbanks to darker locations, such as Cleary Hill, Denali National Park, or Chena Hot Springs Resort. These areas offer unobstructed views of the night sky, increasing your chances of spotting the dancing lights. The igloo hotel we stayed at (mentioned in this blog) is located on Chena Hot Springs Resort Road and provided us excellent views of the lights.

  • Capture the moment with a good camera. Although I had carried my Canon R6 DSLR camera with me, I soon realized that my iPhone 14 was capturing more vivid shots of the lights than my DSLR. Enabling time-lapse mode on my iPhone mounted on a tripod captured the dancing lights perfectly.

  • You may have seen pictures on the internet of really bright streaks of light, and folks complaining that the lights are nothing like it in real life. Well, I beg to differ. The brilliance of the Northern Lights depends on the KP index. Higher the KP, brighter the lights. During our trip, we saw dull streaks to lights popping in the sky like fireworls. Also, the lights make an appearance anytime between 6pm - 5am, based on various factors, such as clouds and KP index . So keep this time of the day/night free for Aurora viewing.

Northern Lights in front of our igloo.

Video of the dancing lights.



What To Pack

When we visited during Thanksgiving weekend in 2023, temps were comparatively mild. It had not snowed in more than a week. Average temperature was in the mid 20s in the AM and high teens in the PM (in Farenheit). If you do not have sufficient winter gear, have no fear. The Walmart in Fairbanks sells winter gear at one third the cost of what we pay elsewhere in the States.

Here's what we packed:

  • Shoes : We did not need snow boots. Our ankle length, waterproof Merrell hiking boots were sufficient for all the activities we had planned. Link here.

  • Socks : Merino Wool socks with an inside liner socks kept us warm throughout the trip. We bought ours on Amazon. Link here.

  • Snow Jacket/Parka: I was very happy with my snow jacket I bought at Costco prior to my trip. Link here. Also available on Amazon.

  • Gloves : We used our ski gloves with liner gloves.

  • Thermals : The heattech thermal wear from Uniqlo worked great under fleece layers. Link here.

  • Pants : We wore our ski/snow pants the entire trip. When mine ripped mid-trip, I was forced to buy a new pair at the local Walmart in Fairbanks. Imagine my surprise when I found all winter gear there was sold at 1/3 the price that we pay in SF Bay Area! I bought a great pair of snow pants for $25 at Fairbanks Walmart! BTW, this was also the Northernmost Walmart in the United States!

Northernmost Walmart in the US

Where To Stay

Hotels in areas with minimal light pollution increase the chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Some of them even offer Northern Lights viewing packages, which include transportation to prime viewing locations and aurora forecasts.

To increase our probability of viewing the lights, we stayed at the Pleasant Acres Reindeer Ranch, located on Chena Hot Springs Road, 30 minutes away from Fairbanks and the city lights. This ranch has 4 igloo style rooms built overlooking an active reindeer farm. Each igloo comes with tastefully decorated bedroom, kitchenette and bathroom. We were able to see the Northern Lights right from our bedroom windows, without having to step outside in the freezing cold. The igloo also has a wrap-around balcony from where we could see the reindeers feeding and playing in the snow. This igloo ranch is close to many of the winter activities listed below.

I highly recommend this igloo hotel for your stay in Fairbanks to view the Northern Lights, as it totally eliminates the need to book a separate Aurora viewing tour.


Reindeer roaming outside our igloo


Our igloo room


Video of our igloo hotel



Day 1

Snowmobiling with Midnight Sun ATV Tours

Begin your Alaskan adventure with an exhilarating snowmobile ride through the pristine wilderness surrounding Fairbanks. With Midnight Sun ATV Tours, you'll zip across snow-covered trails, taking in breathtaking views of the Alaska Range and the Chena River. Before starting the tour, you will be outfitted with warm gloves, balaklavas, snow bibs and a heated helmet. After a quick tutorial, experienced guides will lead you along safe and scenic routes, ensuring an unforgettable experience. Midnight Sun ATV Tours is located just 5 miles from Pleasant Acres, off Chena Hot Springs Road.


Snowmobile adventure

Video of snowmobiling

Dog Sledding with Chena Outdoor Collective

Embrace the spirit of Alaska by embarking on a dog sledding expedition with Chena Outdoor Collective, located less than half a mile from Pleasant Acres. As you glide across the snow-covered landscape, you'll be guided by a team of friendly and energetic Alaskan huskies. Experience the thrill of sledding firsthand and learn about the history and significance of this traditional mode of transportation. Our dog sled ride felt extra special when we learnt that our musher and the 10 dogs pulling our sled were part of an Iditarod Dog Sled racing team.



Dog sledding adventure


Video of our dog sledding adventure


Northernmost Indian Restaurant In The World

In the midst of all your activities, make time to visit Hari Om restaurant in Fairbanks, the Northernmost Indian Restaurant in the world. This restaurant rose in popularity when Guy Fieri featured it on his TV show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. The food we ordered was really good, and made up for the cold and unapporachable attitude from the owner, Chef Amit. We ordered onion pakoras, Vegetarian thali, Malai paneer and naan, all of which were delicous, despite the remote location of the restaurant.


Hari Om Restaurant in Fairbanks


Learn to Curl at Fairbanks Curling Club

Immerse yourself in a unique Alaskan pastime by taking a curling lesson at the Fairbanks Curling Club. This winter sport, often referred to as "chess on ice," involves strategically sliding stones across a polished ice surface to score points. Twice a month, the club offers friendly instruction and opportunities to practice your skills before joining a game. We had immense fun learning this interesting but difficult winter sport.


Learning to Curl at the Fairbanks Curling Club

As the day draws to a close, save the evening hours to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights dancing across the night sky in the privacy of your igloo hotel.





Day 2

Castner Glacier Cave Hike

Castner Glacier Cave near Fairbanks is a winter wonderland that you won't want to miss. The cave is formed every year from meltwater, making it a natural wonder that is constantly changing. The hike is about 2.5 miles round trip, and takes about 2.5 hours to complete, but it is worth it for the stunning views of the glacier and the surrounding mountains. The trailhead is located 10 miles south of Delta Junction, which is a 3 hr drive from Pleasant Acres Reindeer Ranch.

A frozen lake at the foot of the Delta range, on our way to Castner Glacier trailhead

The trail, blanketed in pristine snow, runs parallel to the northern banks of the frozen Castner creek, and leads adventurers through a silent wilderness where the only sounds are the crunch of snow underfoot and the occasional creaking of frozen branches.The entrance to the cave beckons like a portal into another world, and as you step inside, you're greeted by the ethereal glow of blue ice formations that seem to defy the laws of nature. It's a subterranean world where every drip of water has been frozen in time, creating a mesmerizing labyrinth of tunnels and chambers. The air inside is crisp and pure, and with each step, you're reminded of the powerful forces that shape this icy cathedral. It's not just a hike; it's a pilgrimage into the heart of winter's majesty, where nature's frozen artistry takes center stage, leaving you in awe of the wonders hidden within Castner Glacier Cave.


Castner Glacier cave and hike

North Pole

No visit to Fairbanks is complete without visiting Santa Claus at his house in North Pole. The town of North Pole is located 30 minutes south of Fairbanks, where Santa's house beckons visitors with its promise of Christmas cheer and endless joy throughout the year. This enchanting destination, adorned with twinkling lights and festive decorations, is more than just a store; it's a portal to a world where the spirit of Christmas lives on throughout the year. You can take a picture with Santa and Mrs.Claus, while sipping on hot cocoa and nibbling on freshly baked gingerbread cookies.

Posing with the REAL Santa and Mrs.Claus at North Pole

Top L: Christmas store; Top R: Beautiful Christmas murals outside Santa's house

Bottom L : The post office where all letters sent to Santa in the North Pole are received; Bottom R: Worlds largest statue of Santa.

Complete your North Pole visit with dinner at North Pole Crepery. This mom-and-pop establishment dishes out sweet and savory crepes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with friendly banter from the Macedonian couple who run the place.

"Pizza" crepe at North Pole Crepery


Return to your igloo room for yet another night of aurora chasing.




Day 3

Chena Hot Springs Resort

Just 30 minutes from Pleasant Acres Reindeer Ranch is the geothermal paradise that is Chena Hot Springs Resort. This all-natural wonderland offers a rejuvenating escape from the Alaskan chill. Start your day 3 with a soak in the resort's mineral-rich hot springs.  A day pass of $20 is required to enjoy the outdoor hot springs and the indoor pools and spa. The hot springs are HUGE, with water of varying temeratures. It was a surreal experience to soak in steaming hot water, surrounded by the most beautiful snowscape. The tranquil surroundings and the gentle steam rising from the pools create a sense of serenity that will leave you feeling refreshed and revitalized.


Enjoying a rejuvenating soak at Chena Hot Springs

After your invigorating soak, head to the resort's lodge for a delightful lunch. Savor a hearty meal prepared with fresh, local ingredients, relishing the flavors of Alaska. The lodge's warm and inviting atmosphere provides the perfect setting to unwind after a spa day. All the items we ordered for lunch were delicious and came in huge portions.


Top L : Turkey sandwich on a crossiant and fries; Top R: Thai yellow curry with rice

Bottom L : Vegetarian sandwich on foccacia; Bottom R : Tomato bisque soup


Next, embark on a captivating journey into the world of ice at the Aurora Ice Museum. The guided tour starts at the Activity center, and costs $10 per person. Marvel at intricate ice sculptures and displays, each meticulously crafted from pristine Alaskan ice. The museum's immersive exhibits showcase the beauty and power of ice, transporting you to a realm of frozen wonder. While in the ice museum, indulge in a unique experience at the resort's ice bar. Sip on a chilled appletini, the vibrant green cocktail in a martini glass made of ice. The bar's ambiance provides a touch of whimsy, making it the perfect spot to cap off your day at Chena Hot Springs Resort.


Aurora museum at Chena Hot Springs resort

Return to your igloo hotel for a final night of aurora chasing from the comfort of your room.



Optional Trips

If you have more time on your hands, then check out some of these optional tours/activities:

  • Antler Arch : Similar to the Antler Arch in Jackson Hole, WY, there is an arch made of moose antlers, situated in a nice park by the Morris Thompson Center and the Chena River. It is not overly impressive, but it does make for a good photo op.

  • Arctic Circle Tour : The drive to the Arctic Circle is along Dalton Highway, rated as the most dangerous highway in the US. Due to the condition of the Highway (most of it is gravel) and the time it takes to drive to the Arctic Circle (6 hours), it is advisable to go in a tour bus, and during the summer with longer daylight hours. We decided to skip this trip, as we will be driving mostly in darkness due to the short number of daylight hours, and we did not find it worthwhile to spend an entire day just for a photo op at the Arctic Circle sign. If you do decide to make the trip on your own, make sure you rent a vehicle from Alaska 4x4 Rental as most other rentals do not allow driving their vehicles on the Dalton Highway.

  • Museum Of The North at UAF : This is a great museum to learn about Alaskan wildlife and Alaskan history. Situated in University of Arizona, Fairbanks, the architecture of the museum building is quite stunning.

  • Trans-Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint: Just outside of Fairbanks, you can get a close-up look of one of world's engineering marvel. The pipeline runs over 800 miles through the Alaskan wilderness, carrying with it millions of dollars of black gold to the nation's refineries.


After 3 days of winter adventure, as we reluctantly packed away our thermal gear and bid adieu to the captivating winter landscape of Fairbanks, we couldnt help but feel a sense of gratitude for the celestial spectacle that unfolded before our eyes. Fairbanks, with its crisp air and frozen wonders, has proven to be the ultimate stage for nature's cosmic light show. As we ventured back to the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the memories of those enchanting nights beneath the aurora borealis lingered like a shimmering secret, a reminder that in the quiet of winter, the universe has a way of putting on the grandest of performances. Until next time, Fairbanks, keep the lights on and the skies dancing – for wanderers like us, and for those who have yet to be captivated by the magic of your Northern Lights.



2 Comments


shivam.paul
Dec 03, 2023

I love all the details and I am just going to follow this. This trip will be a gift to myself. Love all the picture. The Indian thali looks yum in that cold weather. ATV ride, will have to do that. So yes a cruise with my parents and the Aurora trip for myself and my supporting kids. My husband is saying no to the cold 😂

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Lakshmi M
Lakshmi M
Dec 02, 2023

A beautiful writeup of your Winter Wonderland trip. Definitely will help us plan our trip, hopefully next year.

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