Fairbanks (and environs) in the spring: Ice caves, parks and Appletinis

In Alaska Travelgram, Fairbanks by scott

Exploring an ice cave at Castner Glacier, 143 miles from Fairbanks.

By SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Jennie Flaming of Ordinary Adventures

Jennie is a born-and-raised fourth-generation Seattleite and former Fairbanksan. She writes about outdoor adventure and travel in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada. She recently spent a long weekend in Fairbanks. This is her report. –Scott

I lived in Fairbanks for four years and even though winter was admittedly a little much, I really miss cold, sunny and snowy days!

A winter visit to Fairbanks is more than just the World Ice Art Championships at IceAlaska and seeing the aurora borealis, even though both of those things are awesome! (UPDATE: the IceAlaska park now is closed for the season!)

Juno Kim recently wrote a great round-up of towny things in Fairbanks during the winter, so I’ll focus on a couple of amazing winter day trips along with some tips for in town too.

Entrance to the ice cave at Castner Glacier

Castner Glacier Ice Caves

If you like the open road with no traffic, amazing mountain views, stunning winter landscapes, glaciers and ice caves, then a day trip down the RIchardson HIghway to Castner is definitely for you!

The Richarson Highway has some epic views of the Eastern Alaska Range and Tanana River

It’s a 2.5 – hour drive (143 miles) from Fairbanks . Look for a plowed out area on the right just south of Castner Creek at Milepost 218. From here, (carefully!) cross the highway and start your trek on the south side of the creek where the packed boot path is.

Starting the hike to Castner Glacier

It’s just over a mile following the creek up to the entrance to Castner Ice Caves. You can’t actually see it until you are right on top of it so just follow the path and it will take you right there.

Approaching the entrance to the cave, which is in the shadowy area in the middle right

The edge of Castner Glacier and the ice cave entrance

Entering an ice cave is inherently risky and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it without a guide in the warmer months when it’s less stable. If you decide you want to enter the cave, understand you do this at your own risk! Make sure to keep your eyes on the ice above you and stay away from any larger rocks that could fall from above. A big rock crashed down from the roof of the cave while I was inside and I was glad I wasn’t standing right under it. I didn’t feel comfortable going beyond where I could stand up, though some people were definitely doing that.

This is as far as I go, but you do you…at your own risk

The ice under your feet can also be unstable or thin so pay attention to the floor of the cave as well. Microspikes are also helpful for navigating the icy floor.

Inside the ice cave

Make sure to take the time to notice the little details of gravel trapped in the ice, or the way the sun hits the scalloped edges of the cave. Every time I turned around I noticed something new!

The day I went it was just above zero, but the 10-15 mile an hour wind made it REALLY cold. Wind in this area is pretty common so be prepared with something to break the wind.

I was mostly warm enough in this outfit, although it would have been nice to have some rain pants or insulated pants to block the wind

On the way back to Fairbanks, make sure to stop at Big Delta Brewing Company – they have good beer (not just their own but other beers from around Interior Alaska and Valdez) and amazing food! I think the Summit Sandwich I had was the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten in Alaska. True story! Their pizza also looked amazing though I didn’t try it. They also had amazing salads which isn’t a guarantee in Interior Alaska.

Winter day trip to Denali National Park from Fairbanks

When I lived in Fairbanks, we would usually go down to the park at least a couple times a winter to ski on the park road. Back then either they didn’t have much going on in the winter or I just didn’t know about it, but either way I was so excited to see that you really can visit Denali during the winter, and if it’s a gorgeous bluebird day like the day I went, I might even say it’s better than summer. Denali is certainly clearer!

Denali from Mountain Vista

If you visit in late winter (after mid February) the road is usually plowed out to Mountain Vista. I’d say it’s worth the wait to be able to drive that far and see Denali from inside the park, and drive the road when there’s no one on it.

Denali Park road

Talking with the ranger who was on duty that day at the winter visitor center, I learned that they think the best snowshoe route is Horseshoe Lake, which is a three mile loop starting behind the visitor center. You can also strap on snowshoes and really go anywhere you want, as long as you watch out for moose.

In addition to the winter visitor center (which is a different place than summer, it’s in the Murie Science and Learning Center), there’s also an indoor picnic area right next door. The IPA (indoor picnic area) is open every day and has restrooms, a water bottle filling station and plenty of tables and chairs. They also have some basic information and maps.

Another highlight of winter in Denali is a more intimate visit to the sled dog kennels, which are only open on weekend afternoons.

There was a bus tour just leaving, but only one other visitor and you can interact with the dogs at their kennels. I got the impression that things were a little different each day, depending on what work they were doing and weather. The sunny day I was there the dogs were all excited to have me pet them and they were enjoying lounging in the sun.

If the road is open far enough, I recommend getting out to Mountain Vista, where you can see Denali. There’s a mellow, flat half mile loop from there (and pit toilets and trash cans) as well as a longer trail to the Savage Cabin that connects to the Savage River loop.

There were no other cars or people at Mountain Vista when I was there and there’s no cell service, so make sure to tell somewhere where you are if you go. I also had my Garmin inreach mini with me.

On the way back to Fairbanks, stop at Three Bears to stock up on snacks, or if it’s early enough in the day, stop at Rose’s Cafe in Healy. You can also stop there for breakfast on the way down. The food is amazing!

Chena Hot Springs
I didn’t have time to go out to Chena on this trip, but it’s one of my favorite winter places near Fairbanks (I even got engaged there during the winter!). You can stay out there, but the hotel is often booked and it’s an easy day or evening trip from Fairbanks since it takes just a bit over an hour to get there.

Chena Hot Springs in winter

If you go, make sure to go to the Ice Hotel and YES get the Appletini to drink from your very own ice martini glass!

Appletinis from an ice glass in an ice bar in an ice museum

If you’re heading back after dark, keep your eyes up (unless you’re the driver, then eyes on the road!) and on the look out for the Northern Lights. Chena Hot Springs Road is dark and has a number of pullouts that are usually plowed to pull over and look for an Aurora.

Other Fairbanks winter fun
In addition to ice cave and Denali day trips, hot springs and Aurora viewing, there’s plenty of other fun to have in Fairbanks during the winter! Take in the miles of amazing cross country ski trails or the beautiful open trails at Creamer’s Field.

Creamer’s Field on a perfect winter day

Where to stay: Near Creamer’s Field, you’ll find comfy condo-style digs at the Wedgewood Resort. The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is right next door. DON’T MISS IT. If you want to stay near the airport, check out Sophie Station Suites. There’s a great restaurant on the second floor: Zach’s… “a Fairbanks favorite.”

Make sure to go to see the Ice Alaska park at night so you can see the ice carving and ride the slides with the beautiful colored lights. (UPDATE: Put this on the calendar for 2023….the ice park is closed for the season!)

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, my favorite of this year’s entries

This year they had lots of carved ice games, like here where you can play ice chess in ice chairs

Impressive Bowhead whale skeleton

The new Bowhead whale skeleton hangs over the lobby at the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North.

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