Ice caves to Northern Lights: Spring break in Alaska is cooler than you think


When my friend asked if I would visit her in Alaska during Spring Break, I thought, “Who goes to Alaska in March?” But despite the lack of activity I assumed there would be during the offseason, we were able to find plenty to do — hike a glacier, road trip from Fairbanks to Anchorage and back, go dog sledding and more. And it wasn’t even that cold; we had temperatures in the mid-30s throughout the week.

It was my last spring break as a college student, and instead of spending it like most college kids who traveled south to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico or the Florida Keys to party, I packed my bags and headed north.

My friend lives in Salcha, Alaska, just 36 miles southeast of Fairbanks. For our road trip, we left Salcha at 4 a.m. to fit everything into a weekend trip: We took Alaska 3 to Fairbanks, hit Denali State Park to Palmer, then got on Alaska 1 to go to Matanuska Glacier. After our hike, we continued driving to Anchorage, where we stayed the night and visited the conservation center in Portage the next morning.

Here are seven stops we made along the way:

North Pole (the town)

North Pole is a tiny town outside of Fairbanks. It’s one of those, blink-and-you-miss-it towns, except you don’t want to miss it because the whole town is entirely Santa Claus-themed. Red-and-white stripes are painted on every building. And what you really can’t miss is the 40-foot-tall, 900-pound Santa that towers outside of the Santa Claus House. Naturally, we had to stop to take a photo in the sleigh and to see the gift shop filled with year-round Christmas treasures. Admission is free. 101 St. Nicholas Drive, North Pole, santaclaushouse.com.

Denali State Park

Denali National Park is one of the most widely traveled to and talked about places in Alaska. It is where mountaineers travel to climb Denali, also known as Mount McKinley — at 20,310 feet, it’s the highest mountain in North America. But if you don’t fancy negative temperatures, hiking through vast amounts of snow or climbing dangerous mountains, a spring drive down Alaska 3 through Denali State Park (which is adjacent to the national park) is probably right for you, especially since the national park rarely has public access during the winter months.

The scenic drive through the state park was definitely worth waking up at the crack of dawn for — I did not know mountains could get so high, and that’s coming from a Colorado Native. Seeing my first moose and her calf was also a treat.

A visit to Denali State Park is significantly different in winter versus summer. The landscape is barren and white during winter, but summer is lush green. Winter months tend to bring fewer tourists and wildlife as well. Weather conditions could be extreme and roads could be closed, so calling ahead is strongly recommended. 907-745-3975, http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/denali1.htm.

Tourists with Matanuska Glacier Adventures hike out to Matanuska for the 2 p.m. tour dressed in warm clothes and

Hayley Sanchez, The Denver Post

Tourists with Matanuska Glacier Adventures hike out to Matanuska for the 2 p.m. tour dressed in warm clothes and “Stableicers” attached to their boots on Saturday, March 25, 2017.

Matanuska Glacier

I’m not sure if my excitement over seeing a glacier stemmed from being told that the giant masses of ice are slowly melting away, or if it was because of all the Instagram creeping I did during the long drive. Regardless, my anticipation was worth it when I could see a 27-mile-long and 4-mile-wide hunk of white greeting me from Glenn Highway. For just $100, folks, I was given a grand tour of the ever-changing glacier and a pair of “Stableicers,” a rubber-like band equipped with metal spikes that wrapped around the edge of my boot and prevented us from slipping on the ice.

The colors of the glacier were unreal. From far away, Matanuska just looked white. But as I got closer, the cerulean became more and more prominent and morphed into a deep and smoky purple inside one of the caves. You’ve never seen real black ice until you see ice so clear and deep that it does not reflect light. If we were quiet enough, we could hear the ice popping against itself as it shifted. I felt like I was in a sci-fi movie or on a different planet, maybe Neptune.

The only driving access to the glacier is at 66500 Glacier Park Road, Sutton, Alaska — just off of Alaska 1. Tours are $100 and equipment is included. Planning a visit during winter? Dressing in warm clothes with several layers, snow pants, boots, neck warmer, hat, gloves, etc. is strongly recommended. You can schedule a winter or summer tour through Matanuska Glacier Adventures at 888-253-4480 or matanuskaglacieradventures.us.

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, Alaska — about an hour southeast of Anchorage — is a nonprofit that takes in injured, abandoned or orphaned animals and gives them a permanent home on 200 acres of land. I was able to see my newly beloved and bulky moose friends up close, some growing in new antlers. l learned the new skin is called velvet and is covered in blood vessels, which helps feed the growing antlers; eventually the skin sheds and the antlers harden. The sanctuary also has caribou, wolves, bears, a bald eagle and more.

Check out the feeding schedule to watch birds of prey or lynx be fed, like I did. A day visit costs $15 per adult, and March and April hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mile 79 Seward Highway, Portage, alaskawildlife.org.

A few lingering Northern Lights are seen above black spruce trees in the early morning of Monday, March 27, 2017 at Mckenna Wall and Wyatt Dunlap's home in Salcha, Alaska.

Hayley Sanchez, The Denver Post

A few lingering Northern Lights are seen above black spruce trees in the early morning of Monday, March 27, 2017 at Mckenna Wall and Wyatt Dunlap’s home in Salcha, Alaska.

Northern Lights

I heard so much about the Aurora Borealis from my friend, the internet and other Alaskan tourists. The colored lights in the sky happen when solar flares from the sun reach Earth’s atmosphere and charge electrons, creating light. I was ready to see the lights and I patiently awaited darkness each night, hoping to see the greens and pinks rippling across the sky. It was not until the end of the trip, when we were driving back from Anchorage and had just reached Fairbanks, that we noticed a strange sort of dust floating. Hanging our heads out of the car windows, we looked up and watched the collision of electrically charged particles quickly evolve. First the cloud was pale and rigid straight, and then a long line formed turning from white to green. Before we knew it, emerald stripes dragged out across the night and began bouncing back and forth.

The Northern Lights are best seen on clear nights and in darker months like September through early April, said Jason Peters, owner of Alaska Aurora Adventures. “Fairbanks is optimum because it’s far enough north, and we’re actually above the band of lights,” he said. “You can’t see them nearly as well in Anchorage because it’s too far south.”

Alaska Aurora Adventures offers tours of the Auroras, the Arctic Circle and ice fishing. Their lodge is at 4385 Eielson Farm Road North Pole. www.alaskaauroraadventures.com

Ice Alaska ice park

Ice Alaska is open every year in Fairbanks from early February to late March. The park has an entire playground carved out of ice for kids and hosts single- and multi-block competitions for worldwide ice carvers and youth. Some of the most impressive sculptures were an entire log cabin, two mazes and the Statue of Liberty. But perhaps the most intriguing and entertaining part of the park was the giant ice slides you could ride down. They were incredibly slippery and were as dangerous as they looked — I left with bruises all over my legs. $15 per adult. 3570 Phillips Field Road, Fairbanks, icealaska.com/www/en/

Amy Dunlap of Salcha, Alaska gears up with eight English Pointer and Siberian Husky mixes to take Makayla Sanchez of Colorado Springs on a tour of the route she uses to practice for her races on Monday, March 27, 2017.

Hayley Sanchez, The Denver Post

Amy Dunlap of Salcha, Alaska gears up with eight English Pointer and Siberian Husky mixes to take Makayla Sanchez of Colorado Springs on a tour of the route she uses to practice for her races on Monday, March 27, 2017.

Dog sledding

My final (but hopefully not my last-ever) Alaskan adventure was mushing, or dog sledding. I was expecting somebody dressed in furry attire like Cuba Gooding Jr. from the movie “Snow Dogs” to come blazing out of the wilderness with giant Siberian Huskies. Instead our guide, Amy Dunlap, had more than 45 English Pointer-Husky mixes — English Pointers for the speed, and Siberian huskies for the fur. Dunlap laced up eight dogs and took us through the same route she used to prepare for her races. She said her and her husband, Jason Dunlap, spent more than $5,000 each year on beef to feed them. In the summer, the dogs get to hang out and run around.

Amy and Jason Dunlap offer private tours on their property in Slacha through Alaska Aurora Adventures.

And if none of these ideas sound like promising, winter alternatives, you could always rent a few movies from the alive-and-well Blockbuster in Fairbanks.



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