When planning your holiday vacation, the Last Frontier may be the last place you’d think to go for balmy breezes and sandy strolls — and you’d be right. But that’s what summer is for! The holidays are your chance to cuddle up in cozy sweaters by crackling fires sipping hot cocoa after engaging your outdoor adventurer spirit with dog sledding, skiing, snowshoeing, and sleigh rides, all while marveling at Mother Nature’s most spectacular performance — the northern lights.
As a born and raised Alaskan, I can say with certainty that we from the largest state in the union, celebrate the holiday season just a bit bigger than everyone else. So, don your gay and (super duper) warm apparel, and let’s go!
1. North Pole
Alaska already wins best holiday destination with the man himself in residence! North Pole is located just 15 minutes from Fairbanks in the interior of the state, and its 2,700 residents keep the holiday spirit going year-round.
Drive down Mistletoe Lane and Kris Kringle Drive past the garland and light-draped homes and giant tree in the center of town on your way to enjoy the Christmas in Ice winter ice park, which draws big crowds each year. Ice sculpture contests, ice mazes, ice slides, fireworks, and holiday festivities abound, while over on Santa Claus Lane at the North Pole Post Office, Santa’s “elves” open and respond to the 400,000 letters received from eager believers around the world.
Next, you’ll want to head to the gingerbread-styled Santa Claus House where national television broadcasts live throughout the month of December. Take photos with the 43-foot wooden Santa before meeting the jolly old fellow himself, then head over and introduce yourself to the other half of the team at Antler Academy located next door. Get up close and personal with Santa’s trusty steeds in their pens, learn about reindeer games, and even pet and feed them. Maybe they’ll put in a good word for you with the big guy.
Pro Tip: Lodging in North Pole may be harder to secure at this highly popular time of year, but nearby Fairbanks is an easy distance and a much larger city that offers plenty of accommodation options.
Just a quick sleigh ride down the road from North Pole is the city of Fairbanks, which decks its halls and brings its festive holiday game enough even to challenge its famous neighbor. The winter solstice on December 21 is an auspicious day in the great white north, where daylight visits for only a handful of hours, so solstice signals the return to the light and time for a big party!
The Winter Solstice Celebration kicks off amid a Fairbanks dazzling in holiday décor and showcases some of the best Alaskan artisan products and spectacular ice art installations, which can be discovered along the pathways while exploring around town.
Stop for a visit with Santa, then embark on a short but merry ride on the Santa Train at Tanana Valley Railroad Museum in Pioneer Park. Upon your return, why not add a reindeer walk to your itinerary? Running Reindeer Ranch has friendly reindeer ready to stroll — no running required.
The Design Alaska Holiday Concert sets the mood while piping hot culinary creations warm the belly and the evening is topped off perfectly with the bespoke solstice fireworks welcoming the coming of the light.
You needn’t wait to indulge in the light, though. Just an hour down the road is a mecca of all things wonderful — Chena Hot Springs. There’s a reason visitors make pilgrimages here from all over the world. The famous healing minerals of the springs recharge the body while gazing at the aurora borealis overhead recharges the soul. This year you’ll be one of those people who emerge from the holiday season looking refreshed, revived, and renewed.
Pro Tip: While at Chena Hot Springs, be sure to visit the Aurora Ice Museum, which is the largest year-round ice building. Everything from stairs to corridors to ceilings are entirely crafted of sparkling ice. A magnificent sight, but you might want to crawl back in the hot springs afterward.
A particularly charming little coastal town in the Southeast Panhandle, Petersburg brings a Scandinavian flair to its holiday festivities in honor of its Norwegian heritage. Julebukking is the height of holiday spirit during Christmas week in “Little Norway” and a bit reminiscent of Halloween wassailing. Residents dress up in costumes and masks and masquerade from store to store singing Christmas carols in return for treats while the audience tries to guess who they are.
The annual Petersburg Festival of Lights is a sight to behold as the entire town parades down Nordic Street behind Santa carrying candles to light the giant community Christmas tree. They gather together around the tree enjoying live music and dancing, warm cider, and joyful traditions from the old country.
Pro Tip: Petersburg also hosts the Polar Dip for the particularly adventurous and hardy revelers wishing to ring in the New Year with a splash.
Located just 2 hours north of Anchorage in the Mat-Su Valley, picturesque Talkeetna is a nature lover’s dream and perfectly combines the holidays with outdoor pursuits in one word: Winterfest. This festival starts the first week of December with the “Wilderness Woman” competition and keeps the seasonal cheer going all month long with the bachelor auction ball, ceremonial Christmas tree lighting, the parade of lights, and a progressive dinner showcasing the freshest Alaskan gourmet delicacies.
Talkeetna is a good springboard spot for trips into Denali National Park, which in the summer months is often crowded and expensive but provides an ideal winter wonderland experience at off-season rates during the holidays. Work off those seasonal indulgences with snowshoeing, snowy winter hikes, cross-country skiing, and snow biking.
If that sounds exhausting, get your mush on and let the sled dogs pull you. Of course you haven’t lived if you haven’t gone ice bowling — Alaska truly has something for everyone.
Pro Tip: Flightseeing around Denali, North America’s highest peak, is a bucket list event that is even more spectacular in the winter months. You’ll find it difficult to top this once-in-a-lifetime experience — a Christmas gift for the ages.
Alaska’s distinguished capital city located in the southern island chain known as the Inside Passage takes its leadership role with plenty of jolly good cheer by turning into a magical Christmas snow globe during the holiday season. From the government buildings to businesses to private homes, everything is decorated and lit to perfection, and it’s even more dazzling from above…
Light Flights take delighted passengers by helicopter around the city and the magnificent Mendenhall Glacier. Best of all, in the season of giving, proceeds from the rides go to local nonprofit charities.
Every Christmas Eve, Juneau residents walk in the beautiful Torchlight Parade, lighting the path up to the Eaglecrest Ski Area to show Santa the way. Wander the sparkling streets listening to Christmas carolers, sipping hot cider, and browsing the Christmas market featuring one-of-a-kind Alaska-made gifts. Admire the fishing boats expertly outlined in Christmas lights in the harbor and after a decadent dinner, take in the sounds of Christmas at the Holiday Pops Concert.
Pro Tip: Being an Alaskan town, Juneau must have at least one unique tradition, and it does not disappoint. Be sure to join in the annual Juneau Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count to help document the spectacular array of the avian world thriving in this wildlife wonderland.
The largest city in Alaska celebrates the season with classic holiday flair and is ideally located to enjoy day trip revelries of nearby towns on the Kenai Peninsula as well. Around town, Christmas decor is on full display at Town Square Park and with neighborhoods trying to out-Christmas each other.
There are one-horse open sleigh rides and the Christmas Village heralds all things of good cheer with delights for the eyes, ears, and stomach. Ice sculptures and carolers abound, and even the animals at the Anchorage Zoo get into the holiday spirit with Zoo Lights.
The famed Alaska Railroad Holiday Train is a highlight of the season, running from late November through December — and it usually sells out, so it’s best to book early. The popular round-trip adventure features holiday music, Santa and his elves, and the experience of actually being inside a snow globe as you travel through the wintery wilderness to the town of Seward.
Seward, Homer, and Kenai, located on the Kenai Peninsula just south of Anchorage, all boast good tiding-worthy gatherings and events, from Seward’s Luminary Ski Event on New Year’s Eve to Homer’s winter king salmon fishing to the Christmas Comes to Kenai Festival.
Pro Tip: Girdwood, home of Alyeska Resort, is just 40 miles down the road from Anchorage and hosts myriad holiday festivities and wintery outdoor fun including their Torchlight Parade on New Year’s Eve, during which skiers and snowboarders descend the mountain with torches in hand followed by fireworks and parties spreading good cheer for all to hear.
Many dream of visiting Alaska and some do — but few think to experience her in the winter. Those who take the opportunity discover her most pristine, sparkling gifts. What more wondrous place is there to celebrate the happiest time of the year? Merry Christmas and happy holidays!