Travel from Colorado to Alaska to see the aurora borealis

I’ve seen glorious sunrises, colorful sunsets, and glowing full moons in Colorado, but the opportunity to see the northern lights hovering in the night sky drew me to Alaska last February. On my third night in Fairbanks, I got lucky with the perfect conditions and stood outside in the chilly air watching as the aurora borealis shifted shapes and colors among the stars.

Fairbanks sits under the Aurora Oval, an area around the Earth’s magnetic poles. Although this phenomenon is viewed when there is a clear, dark sky, it occurs because of solar activity. A trip to see the northern lights requires patience, a willingness to stay up — or get up — late at night and in the cold, and flexibility (conditions change and prime viewing conditions can be fleeting). Yet those challenges make it exciting to chase the aurora, rather than just see it on Instagram. The aurora season in Fairbanks lasts from mid-August to mid-April.

It might seem odd for a Coloradan to travel to Alaska in winter, but in addition to the northern lights I sought out other activities that don’t happen at home such as getting up close with reindeer, visiting an ice museum, and riding a train into a national park. I thought I’d experience bone-chilling cold since Alaska is known for months of below-zero temperatures in winter, but it was relatively mild and several degrees above zero in late February.

Get to know Fairbanks

While much of Alaska is coastal and therefore quite distinctive from Colorado, the interior has some similarities to the Rockies. Fairbanks is a city of about 32,000 people and home to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Its history and proximity to outdoor recreation are similar to Denver. Both cities were founded when gold was discovered in the area, but only began to thrive when railroads turned these budding towns into waystations for miners and others in need of supplies.

Both Alaska and Colorado have deep histories involving native peoples. The Morris Thompson Cultural Visitors Center in Fairbanks is home to a timeline of exhibits that explore the history of Native Alaskans (be sure also to step outside and visit the moose and caribou antler arch!).

If you enjoy Denver’s History Colorado Center, be sure to stop by the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In addition to animals familiar to Coloradans, you can learn about wildlife in Alaska including steppe bison, whales, polar bears, seals and grizzly bears. “The Place Where You Go to Listen,” part of the museum’s Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery, is an ever-changing experience created by composer John Luther Adams tuned to the sounds of interior Alaska. Does the aurora borealis have a sound? Can you hear snow?

While Denverites denote a sense of place by using the 5280 label for its altitude of 5,280 feet above sea level, Fairbanksans highlight 65 — as in the city’s latitude of 65 degrees north of the equator. As in Denver, businesses adopt this sense of place in their names. Drop by Lat 65 Brewing Co. and Lat 65 Ciderhouse for local ales on tap such as Chena Pilsner and Interior Helles Gold Lager.

Much like home, when you get outside Fairbanks you can spend your visit skiing, soaking in hot springs, hiking, exploring mountain ranges, and joining a dog sled excursion. But there are also activities you won’t find at home.

Running with reindeer

One activity that doesn’t require great physical skill or stamina is walking in the boreal forest with reindeer. Prior to visiting the Running Reindeer Ranch, I was asked to watch two videos, one on etiquette and safety and the other on history. You might think, as I did, that caribou and reindeer are the same. Reindeer are livestock, much like cattle, whereas caribou are wild, migrating animals.

When we arrived at the park, we gathered in a circle where bits of lichen had been spread about and then waited nervously as the reindeer were released from their pen and ran to this food. The important lessons we clung to: Don’t touch their antlers and “be a tree.” These reindeer are basically pets, each with a name, and can be petted.

We slowly followed the reindeer up a hill and along a path as they wandered freely among the Alaskan birch in deep snow licking the bark for more precious lichen nibbles. After 45 minutes’ walking and learning about the reindeer from a guide, we could pose for photos with a leashed reindeer.

You also can see a small herd of reindeer at North Pole, a village on the outskirts of Fairbanks. The big attraction here is, yes, Santa, and the expansive gift shop where he can be found posing for photos and listening to Christmas wishes.

Ice as art

Fairbanks is home to the annual World Ice Art Championships with competitions for single-, double- and multiblock sculptures. Once you enter the Ice Park in downtown Fairbanks you’ll find ice slides, a giant chess table made of ice, an air hockey table made of ice, and more. After crossing a wooden foot bridge, you enter a forested area where sculptors are hard at work. During the competition in late February through mid-March sculptors create their work — life-size elephants and bears, larger-than-life salmon, and all kinds of fantastical creatures — using hand and power tools.

By night, the sculptures are lit by colorful lights that evoke the aurora borealis, with surprising colors peeking out from behind clear ice and between the trees. Some of the sculptures end up at the Aurora Ice Museum at Chena Hot Springs Resort, 60 miles away, which includes a bar where an ice sculptor makes martini glasses out of ice and the bartender serves up perfectly chilled cocktails such as appletinis. Billing itself as the “largest year-round ice environment,” the museum is filled with sculptures, kitschy rooms for overnight guests, and daily tours (that include parkas to wear if you don’t have one).

Another only-in-Alaska option is to stay overnight at Chena Hot Springs where you can start your evening with a cocktail in a glass made of ice, then soak in the outdoor pool and watch the aurora borealis light up the night sky. It was cloudy the night I was there, but there’s lots to do — snow machining (snowmobiling), dog sledding, cross country skiing. After a full day of fun, you can climb into bed and, if conditions are right, respond to your “aurora wake-up call” to see the lights.

Visit a national park

Not only does Alaska have 10 more national park units than Colorado, they are a lot bigger. I visited Denali National Park and Preserve, about 110 miles from Fairbanks, with 7,408 square miles of wilderness (plus 2,085 square miles of a preserve). This park hosts about 600,000 visitors annually and is home to Denali (formerly called Mount McKinley), which tops out at 20,310 feet. In contrast, Rocky Mountain National Park, about 60 miles from downtown Denver, covers 415 square miles and hosts about four million visitors a year. The highest point in Rocky, Longs Peak, is 14,259 feet.

Much like at RMNP, roads partially close inside Denali National Park during winter so visitors cannot drive throughout the entire park. The road stops at Mile 14, and that’s where the cross country skiing and snowshoeing can begin. We visited during the annual Winterfest weekend and a historic cabin was open for visitors. Park rangers stoked a fire in a snow pit for making s’mores. Winterfest also includes local fare such as salmon chowder and reindeer meat hot dogs served in the visitor center, snowshoes for rent, and snow sculpting demonstrations.

The highlights of my brief winter visit to Denali were a visit with the park ranger’s sled dogs and riding the train back to Fairbanks. The Aurora Winter Train (basically the same as the Denali Star Train that runs in summer) on the Alaska Railroad makes three stops between Anchorage and Fairbanks, including at Denali. There is a dinner service option on the train, and you’re likely to see moose ambling along as we did as you take in the grand scenery outside.

Catching the northern lights

Chasing the northern lights is primarily a winter activity. In summer, the big draw in Fairbanks is enjoying “midnight sun” — thanks to the latitude, there’s sunlight seemingly for 24 hours a day.

While you might spot the northern lights in Fairbanks, it’s best to get away from city lights, ideally with a local guide. Aurora Pointe is just 15 minutes from Fairbanks and, with a reservation, you can sit comfortably indoors by a cozy fire, checking the aurora cam, ready to dash out into the cold to see the aurora borealis. (You can bring your own food and drink to enjoy, too.) Aurora Chasers provides transportation, a photography workshop, a portrait, and hot beverages. Borealis Basecamp, about 25 miles from Fairbanks, has clear-roofed geodesic domes (modern igloos!) from which you can watch the blackened sky light up with the aurora’s greens, pinks and purples from the comfort of your bed.

As winters change and even recede in their duration, amount of snow, and prolonged cold temperatures, a visit to Fairbanks is an opportunity to experience this season in a unique way.

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