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Exploring Anchorage in Winter: Something For Everyone

I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska and have recently made a habit of returning each year for the New Year’s holiday. Over the past several years, in talking about my trip, I’ve noticed incredulity that my visiting Alaska in the winter has turned into curiosity, commensurate with the state’s growing winter tourism business.

“What is there to do in Anchorage in the middle of winter,” is the invariable question that comes next.

“Plenty,” I tell them.

I tend to wile away my time visiting favorite old haunts, seeing friends and taking in the city that has perfected the art of the cabin fever remedy. The city seems to glow from within, thanks to a decades-old program that encouraged residents to keep holiday lights throughout the winter to illuminate the city.

In spite of short days, residents can be found skiing downhill or cross country, ice skating on various frozen lakes, skijoring, fat tire biking, enjoying performances at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, dining in the city’s restaurants, taking in exhibits at topflight art museums, trying inventive mixology or attending a world famous drag show at a local gay bar.

That’s when eyes tend to glaze over.

“Yes,” they press, “But what is there to do?”

For those bent on traditional forms of tourism, the growth of the winter visitor industry means visitors wanting to take tours and excursions in the coldest months won’t come away disappointed.

While the giant cruise line tour buses and rail cars go to the storage yards for the winter, local operator Salmon Berry Travel & Tours continues tours year round. I recently rode along on the popular Turnagain Turn, a full-day excursion from Anchorage that takes visitors along the scenic Seward Highway through 40 miles of ocean-hugging byway.

In the winter, the low angle of the sun on the horizon gives a peculiarly ethereal light to the mountains and oceans, making them appear otherworldly. There are plenty of stops for photo opportunities and guides share stories about the ghostly petrified forests created by the 1964 earthquake.

The Takeaway

Even with fewer crowds in the winter, there are plenty of tourism facilities still open, including many of the popular shops in Downtown Anchorage. In the off-season, however, visitors have a far better opportunity to experience the city’s everyday thrum for a more organic Alaskan experience.

Getting There

In addition to the state’s namesake Alaska Airlines, United and Delta also offer year-round service to Anchorage.

Where to Stay

There are several major chain hotels in Downtown Anchorage. The Hotel Captain Cook is an independent property that is steeped in local history.

Good To Know

Car rental is one of the best ways to explore the city and the region. Cars rented locally during the winter typically come equipped with an oil pan heater, ice scraper, and snow tires.

Visitor Information Centers at the airport and in Downtown Anchorage remain open throughout the winter season.

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