Ulelele player on the beach at sunset
High on Adventure


Storyand photos by Yvette Cardozo
  Dragon Slide ice sculpture, Fairbanks   Reindeer nibbles moss near Fairbanks  
Fairbanks contrasts: Dragon Slide ice sculpture at the Ice Art World Championships
and a reindeer nibbling moss along the author's Reindeer Walk

            The train from Denali National Park to Fairbanks was late ... because there was snow and the occasional moose on the tracks, plus some hitchhikers along the way to pick up.

            Yup, that’s winter in Alaska.

            The point of the trip was to see northern lights, see some wildlife, take a ride in a sled behind a team of dogs. And yes, definitely, soak in the steaming waters of Chena Hot Springs.

            Check. Check. Check. And .... ahhhh... Check.

            So, it was a trip to experience Alaska in winter when many people think they should stay far, far away. And they shouldn’t. Definitely not from Fairbanks, which is in interior Alaska not all that far from Canada.

            The trip was fairly short. Way too short. But we got to Chena Hot Springs, photographed northern lights, rode on a bus briefly into Denali National Park and came back to Fairbanks aboard the Alaska Railroad.


            If you get to Fairbanks in winter, do NOT miss Chena Hot Springs. The spring basin is like the world’s best hot tub. 

            My memory of a trip to Chena Hot Spring a few decades ago includes a basic changing room and a dash outside barefoot over snow to the spring. That is definitely not what you’ll find today. There’s a nice locker room with separate sides for women and men (picture your local gym). When you exit the locker room, there’s a covered walkway literally to the edge of the water, where a ramp takes you nicely into the water.

            The water is about chest deep, warm but not too warm. And there’s fine gravel on the bottom to walk on. At night, the scene, swirling with steam and glowing in green light, becomes ever so slightly unworldly. I LOVED it.

  Chena Hot Springs, Fairbanks  
Chena Hot Springs
  Fairbanks Northern Lights  

           To photograph northern lights, we went to Aurora Pointe, also just outside Fairbanks. There’s a convenient building where you can attach your camera to your tripod (you NEED a tripod). Then you just carry it outside, wait for a good display and shoot away.

            Or, since my SLR camera refused to cooperate, use your cell phone, which probably like mine, can take amazingly decent aurora photos. All the aurora photos with this story except one come from my not-all-that-new Samsung Galaxy S10 cell phone. Hand held. Would have been even better if I’d had a way to put it on a tripod.

            Though northern lights can take on many colors, the most frequent ... the one most people see ... is a vibrant green. When the lights are REALLY good, as they were for me once in Canada, they’re like flowing, undulating rivers of green sand covering the entire sky. And even better, they can morph into all sorts of colors ranging from green to blue to magenta.

Fairbanks Aurora glowing green
photo by Quentin Roberts

            Fairbanks is one of the world's best places to see the aurora, which exists in a donut around the earth's magnetic north and south poles. That band, by sheer coincidence, lands squarely on top of Fairbanks most of the time.

            The quick and dirty explanation for northern lights: they happen when electrically charged particles from the sun interact with the earth's magnetic field and various gasses in the atmosphere. The energy from this is released as colored light. And if the lights are strong, it’s breathtaking.

  Dinner on the train to Fairbanks   Icitini drink at Chena Hot Springs, Fairbanks  
Dinner on the train from Denali to Fairbanks
Icitini at Chena Hot Springs

            We also travelled by bus as far as the road went this winter into Denali National Park. That was the 14 mile mark. Normally, the bus can go farther but there had been a rock slide so that’s where our trip ended. The scenery was of low hills with mountains on the horizon, open plains, trees and LOTS of snow. At the ranger station, they were serving reindeer sausage which was not gamey at all but WAS spicy.

            We packed a lot into four days.

            We went for a walk in the woods with a reindeer and his guide at Running Reindeer Ranch. There, we learned that caribou are the wild cousins of domesticated reindeer. They’re taller, leaner and can run VERY fast. Like up to 40mph.

            So many were picked off by preditors in earlier years, that by the 1930s, maybe 600 were left in all of Alaska. Through management, though, today they number more than 10,000.


            And if you’ve got kids, do NOT miss Hotel North Pole. Room 319 is dedicated year round to Santa and Christmas. You can arrange a visit with Santa ($150 plus more if gifts are involved). Let the hotel know your child’s gift wishes and Santa will present them with a present.

            The Santa Claus House, along with its canned goodies, was truly fun. There’s a huge Christmas tree laden with ornaments (yes, you can buy one...I did). There’s a chance to sit with Santa (not on his lap if you’re a grownup) and maybe even kiss him on the cheek. And take a picture with him outside (my slightly Twilight Zone photo was courtesy of an app in my phone that I didn’t know about, appropriately called Color Point.)

Santa hotel room

  Santa statue near the North Pole Hotel, Fairbanks  
Santa room at the Hotel North Pole
Santa statue near the Hotel North Pole

            I really liked the trip back from Denali Park to Fairbanks on the train. The seats are comfy, the passing forests, occasional town and twilight-lit mountains were wonderful. And of course, I had dinner on the train.

            It’s not quite what you might remember from circa 1940s movies, but is great fun. The food, sigh, came off as slightly (only slightly) better than high school cafeteria lunch and arrived, sadly, on cardboard plates. Still, there’s the romanticism of, well, eating on a train while the snowy mountains roll by. And the wine was quite nice.

            Also on our the list of activities - and you should not miss:

              * A dogsled ride (you’re in the basket, a guide runs the dogs) at Chena Hot Springs.
            * A guided snowmobile tour at Chena Hot Springs.
            * The World Ice Art Championships, held just out of town and featuring dozens of incredible ice sculptures. Best to visit at night when colored lights make the whole scene gorgeous.
            * University of Alaska Museum of the North, which includes, among other great stuff, The Room Where You Go To Listen. If you are really lucky, there might be the rumble of a far off (hopefully not damaging) earthquake somewhere.
            * Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, where you can learn about the land and it’s people.
            * The Ice Museum at Chena Hot Springs. Give yourself plenty of time inside and yes, it’s cold in there.
            *And the Greenhouse Visit to learn about how you grow veggies way, way up north.
            We packed all this into four frenetic days. Along with business meetings (it was a convention). You should definitely schedule more time ... more days to explore without feeling rushed.
  Bowhead whale skeleton at the U of Alaska Museum of the North  
Bowhead whale skeleton at the University of Alaska Museum of the North


            Running Reindeer Ranch - https://runningreindeer.com/
            University of Alaska Museum of the North - https://www.uaf.edu/museum/
            Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center - https://www.morristhompsoncenter.org/
            Hotel North Pole - https://www.hotelnorthpole.com/
            Chena Hot Springs - https://chenahotsprings.com/
            Santa Claus House - https://www.santaclaushouse.com/visit.asp
            Alaska Rainroad - https://www.alaskarailroad.com/
            Winter clothing rental in Fairbanks - https://akarcticwear.com/
            Explore Fairbanks – www.explorefairbanks.com 


  Yvette Cardozo is a writer/photographer who loves adventure and the outdoors, specifically skiing, scuba diving and cycling. If it involves interesting food (ethnic delicacies, high arctic "country food," molecular gastronomy and whatever else is interesting or weird), so much the better. She has skied in Kashmir, India, scuba dived both the Arctic and Antarctic, run a dogsled team above the arctic circle and more. She is a member of SATW (Society of American Travel Writers), TJG (Travel Journalists Guild) and NASJA (North American Snowsports Journalists Association). Her stories appear in the Chicago Tribune, NY Post, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, among other newspapers, along with Just For Canadian Doctors, Sport Diver and several international magazines.   Yvette Cardozo