Into Alaska

I couldn’t tell you where the impulse to go to Alaska came from, but once it entered my brain and my bones, it refused to go away. I knew going there for the first time, in winter, alone, sounded crazy to everyone else – and maybe a little crazy to myself, too – but I felt a pull toward it that I couldn’t explain. Suddenly it seemed every ad and Instagram post I scrolled past was for Alaska, or skiing, or seeing the Northern Lights (ad-targeting is, of course, very real and a whole separate issue!) but I felt as though there were all of these signs and subliminal messages telling me to take the jump. So I did!

I’d hemmed and hawed for long enough that I worried I wouldn’t make it north before the snow melted and the window of opportunity to see the Northern Lights closed, and that last-minute flights would quickly make my spontaneity too expensive. But after finally deciding to do the adult thing and commit to one airline, I checked Delta’s website every day until I found an itinerary that worked for my budget and decided to take a leap of faith. Friends and family were hesitant but supportive, and once I began building out the details of my trip – and actually touched down in Alaska – I knew without a doubt that I’d made the right decision.

With many of my travels, Airbnb options often play a huge role in my choosing an itinerary – or deciding to visit a place at all. I’ve stayed in cabins and treehouses, and now, thanks to Alaska, a tiny home and a yurt! After flying into Fairbanks, I took a quick Lyft to my first Airbnb, an absolutely gorgeous wooden tiny house hidden right behind the home of a local artist and archeologist. The place was a “dry” cabin, meaning no kitchen or bathroom, but it included a mini-fridge, microwave, and French press for coffee (a lifesaver!) and I used the full guest bathroom inside the house. For a two-night stay, I was perfectly happy with the amenities, and more than content to curl up with a good book on the couch downstairs or the loft bed upstairs. In the mornings, I made myself a mug of coffee and strolled through the snow-covered neighborhood and down to the gorgeous tree-lined Chena River. At night, I even saw little white snowshoe hares hopping through the lanes of the neighborhood.

In town, I put my Yelp-ing to work scouting out the best food, coffee and drink options. My first stop was the Crepery, where I devoured a savory salmon crepe. Across the street, Venue offers locally-roasted coffee, vegan and gluten free snacks, and a darling little gift shop for unique souvenirs. Also of interest on Fairbank’s main drag is Badmother Vintage and Lavelle’s Taproom for a variety of local and other craft beers.

Speaking of, it seemed the entire town had congregated at Hoodoo Brewery that Friday night, and I waited in a line out the door to get myself a pint of Kolsch (which was delicious and SO much cheaper than at all of our breweries in LA!)

The next morning, it was back to the airport to pick up my rental car, via my Lyft driver, Jeffrey, who offered a ride “menu” and advised me not to hit any of “his moose” during my driving that day. Due to the cost of the all-wheel drive SUV I needed, I decided to rent a car for just part of my trip and use Lyft to get around the rest of the time. In retrospect, given the cost of ridesharing and the relative affordability of gas in Alaska, I would have probably chosen to rent a car for my first day in town as well, but you live and learn! And a nice bonus: the rental car agent even gave me a free can of bear spray.

Once on the road, I headed out to North Pole, Alaska to visit the famed Santa Claus House. It is, understandably, a bit of a tourist trap, and the “Antler Academy” was closed for the season, but it’s a fun stop to pick up some Christmas ornaments or send a few postcards to loved ones from the North Pole.

About an hour-and-a-half northwest you’ll find the Chena Hot Springs Resort, where natural sulfur hot springs offer steamy relief from the cold year-round. But that’s not the only attraction; in fact, I didn’t even take a dip in the hot springs, as I did not feel at all like peeling off all of my layers of winter clothing and putting them back on again. The resort also offers dog sledding, snowshoeing, an ice museum, and aurora-hunting tours around the area.

I knew I wanted to experience dog sledding, and it was a good thing I chose to do it there, as I later heard that other tour companies had canceled their tours that week due to the snow melting so rapidly. At $60 for a 15-minute ride, it’s not a cheap experience, but I was fortunate enough as the last tour of the day to have the sled to myself, and it was a really beautiful way to see Alaska. And who can resist these faces?

After refueling with a salmon burger and Alaska Brewing Co. Hefeweizen at the resort restaurant, it was time for my tour through the Ice Museum. It is, basically, exactly what it sounds like: a building made of ice and filled with breathtaking ice sculptures, an ice bar at which you can order Appletinis in ice martini glasses, and even four separate themed ice “hotel rooms.” Visitors are offered complimentary parkas, but I found that I was perfectly fine inside with my own gear, and while there isn’t a ton to see, the craftsmanship of the work is pretty breathtaking and at just $15 for the tour it’s definitely worth a visit.

I opted not to take one of the resort’s aurora-hunting tours, as I had already booked my own a few days later, so after sunset I grabbed a white mocha from the resort cafe and hiked up to the “aurorium,” a heated lodge with a large glass wall facing north. Despite a crystal-clear sky studded with stars and a promising forecast for auroral activity (as much as it can really be predicted, anyway,) the Northern Lights didn’t show themselves. I was a little disappointed and a lot cold, but the night was still stunningly clear and quiet, and chattering with other tourists in the aurorium and along the snowy path up to it, I felt such a sense of belonging knowing I was surrounded by like-minded people determined to seek out these kinds of experiences, despite the darkness and cold. Both of which, I’ll admit, were certainly factors in me deciding to leave the resort when I did (after slipping on some ice in the parking lot first, of course. Not to worry, the damage was just a minor bruise to my knee and little scrape to my camera.) I was nervous about driving the highway back to Fairbanks too late, as I’d been warned that patches of ice and rogue moose in the road could pose dangers even to the most alert drivers. Fortunately, the drive was uneventful, but even still I arrived back at my Airbnb after 2 a.m., feeling cold, exhausted, and utterly alive.

The next morning, I packed up my things and took a stroll with my morning coffee to say goodbye to the peaceful neighborhood, then gassed up and set out on the road to Denali National Park.

The drive is about an hour and a half south, though closer to two once my photo stops were factored in, and the road is so well-traveled even in the winter that I didn’t have any issues on my journey.

I did, however, underestimate just how much of a ghost town the area surrounding Denali was during the off-season. Not that I was expecting hustle and bustle, mind you, but if you’re visiting outside the window of Memorial Day to Labor Day, expect to find restaurants boarded up, shops vacant – even the stop lights are off. There are only a few gas stations within the area of the park, and extremely slim pickings for food options, but I was perfectly contented to pack my PB&Js and head into the national park for some much-needed nature.

The winter visitor center was open, staffed with friendly park rangers and equipped with maps, bathrooms, and a small souvenir selection (it was also the only place in the park where I got cell phone reception.) Winter visitors can also stop by the park headquarters and the sled dog kennel, where the “canine rangers” are normally stationed, but were sadly out on patrol when I paid a visit. The main park road is closed past Mile 3 in the winter, so on my first day in Denali I drove out as far as I could to Mountain Vista, parked my car, and walked the short loop that offers a sweeping view of Denali and the tundra around it.

When I returned to the park the next day, I was itching for a bit more of a trek, and decided to take advantage of the free snowshoes or boot grips included with entry to the park. There was too little snow for snowshoes to be necessary, but the grips worked perfectly in keeping me from slipping on the ice. I set out on the Triple Lakes Trail, encountering just one other hiker, but did come upon several gorgeous snowshoe hares nestled in the trees right off the trail who were kind enough to hang around until I could snap some photos.

Alone in the forest, I felt nearly giddy, breathing in the fresh air so deeply, snapping photos to my heart’s content, trekking over suspension bridges and stopping to rest near the partially-frozen river in a bed of pine needles with the sunlight on my face, listening to the sound of the snowmelt rush downstream. I was surrounded by snow-capped mountains, ponderosa pines, birds and chipmunks and all sorts of animal scat on the trails that indicated other wildlife was also afoot all around me. I felt so at peace, so unburdened, so alive. In that moment, I made a mental note to myself not to let that feeling go.

If I thought Denali was beautiful, the drive to my next stop, the small town of Cantwell, was positively otherworldly. Around every corner was a breathtaking vista of pearl-white mountains and frozen fjords that made me pull over at virtually every turnout – only to do the same thing again just a few hundred yards up the road. The scenery outdid itself with each mile I drove until I finally arrived in Cantwell, where I was staying for the night, and found myself in the closest place to Heaven on Earth I’ve ever been. There were mountains everywhere I looked, their slick white faces iridescent with pink and yellow and colors I didn’t even know mountains could be, glinting in the afternoon sun. The sky was a powdery blue and the horizon ringed with white mist. It was like the surface of the moon. Blindingly white, cold, quiet, untouched. It felt like there wasn’t another soul around.

I could have lingered out there forever, but I wanted to make it to my Airbnb for the night before it got dark, and I’m so glad I did. Following a winding, snowbanked path off the main road and then up a slight hill, I arrived at my yurt (yes, yurt!) and as I stepped out of the car and surveyed the landscape around me I was in complete awe. My Airbnb, surrounded by one other yurt and the owner’s home, overlooked a deep valley crowned on all sides with majestic mountains. The sunset was so stunning, so life-affirming, I felt myself witnessing something I was sure I’d only see once, and I couldn’t bring myself to go inside until darkness fell completely that night.

Once inside the yurt, which was surrounded by a wrap-around deck and an outhouse (!) a few yards away, I was pleasantly surprised at the set-up: there was a bunk bed, wood-burning fireplace, kitchenette, stove, and sink (although no running water.) The circular room was topped off with a little skylight, onto which I watched the snow pile up as the night wore on.

It was really magical, that night. As I trudged through knee-high snow to the outhouse (which was completely fine, I promise!) I was struck by the silence: I could hear the snow falling, the swish of my arms against my jacket. I could hear myself breathe. And there was hardly any light at all, just the faint glow (which I hoped against hope might be the Northern Lights) of a small town in the far, far distant horizon. I have never felt less lonely being alone, or more content with my own company. In fact, I lapped up the solitude, and the silence, and the beautiful emptiness surrounding me, so greedily, listening to music and podcasts and wandering through the snow and reading by candlelight as it fell softly outside.

By morning, the snow was still falling, and enough had piled up that I wondered whether I’d have trouble getting back out to the main road again. But the wife of my Airbnb host, who brought me coffee as she nonchalantly pushed her baby in a stroller through the snow, assured me it was nothing to worry about. And it wasn’t; I’d rented a car with all-wheel drive for a reason, after all.

Following my second visit to Denali, I decided to break up the drive back to Fairbanks with a quick stop in the town of Nanana. It’s the home of the Nanana Ice Classic, and served as the first checkpoint for multiple Iditarod races. There isn’t a whole lot to do in Nanana in the winter (though I did pass an artisan market that I assume will be open come summer,) but if you’re a fan of architecture or urban exploration like me, it’s worth a stop.

Minor as it might seem, this is one of the things I loved most about traveling alone. I absolutely relished in having the freedom to stop wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, with no one’s schedule or interests to abide by but my own.

Once back in Fairbanks, I checked in to my accommodations for the next two nights – Billie’s Backpacker Hostel – which had earned rave reviews on Airbnb and TripAdvisor. I’d decided to end my trip with a hostel partly out of budgeting concerns, and partly because I’d initially worried that after so many nights alone, I might want the company of some other travelers. As it turned out, I was perfectly happy with my own company, and in fact even ended up getting a room in the hostel to myself the first night, as the place was fairly quiet in the off-season.

For less than $40 a night, I had a comfortable and safe place to sleep and leave my luggage (although I do believe someone swiped my brand-new jar of peanut butter), access to the full kitchen and cozy lounge area, and even coffee in the mornings. I really couldn’t ask for much more! The next day, my last full day in Alaska, I was even able to arrange for my tour to pick me up at Billie’s, as I didn’t have my rental car anymore, which saved me some money and was super convenient.

There are so many things to do in Alaska in the winter, from snowmobiling to ice fishing to glacier hikes, but those activities definitely don’t come cheap, so I decided to invest in dog sledding and a bus tour up to the Arctic Circle. I had no idea that this was even something you could do until I started researching activities near Fairbanks, but I’m a sucker for a good excursion, particularly if it takes me somewhere I would absolutely never go otherwise. I booked the Arctic Circle and Northern Lights driving tour through Alaska Wildlife Guide, and couldn’t have had a better experience (even though, spoiler alert, we didn’t end up seeing the lights.)

I was one of only five tourists in my group, making for an intimate but comfortable drive, which was about 7 hours each way. Our guide, Dave, was incredibly friendly and knowledgeable, and along the way we stopped see the Trans-Alaska pipeline that winds through the state, and fueled up at the Yukon River Camp, which sits along, of course, the vast, frozen Yukon River and is virtually the only stop for fuel and food between Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle.

Reaching the Arctic Circle requires driving the Dalton Highway, which has gained infamy as the Ice Road Truckers’ highway. It’s also commonly regarded as the most dangerous highway in North America, with no guard rails, steep hills and few turnouts, and is so treacherous that most rental car companies make customers agree they won’t take their vehicles up there.

On the drive, we passed “ghost trees,” so heavy with frozen snow that they look like someone draped in a white sheet, and our eagle-eyed guide even spotted a beautiful gray wolf lingering alongside the road. Finally, we reached the Arctic Circle around sunset, and spent the next half hour or so taking photos, throwing snowballs, and listening to Dave tell us all about the Northern Lights, the midnight sun, and his upbringing in the far, far northern town of Barrow, Alaska.

The other girls on the tour and I laughed hysterically as we jumped and leapt through the snow to get our Instagram photos just right. Watching the sun go down around the Arctic Circle, knowing I was in one of the few places on earth where I could experience such a thing, I was more than a little awestruck.

On our way back to Fairbanks, as darkness fell and the snow did too, we still held out hope that the aurora might make an appearance. Dave was optimistic too, despite the near-constant rain and snow we were driving through. Unfortunately, even if the aurora were to come out to play, the night sky would have to be clear enough to see stars in order to see the lights, too, and all of the clouds overhead were not looking promising. We were so anxious to see the Northern Lights, several girls in our group mistook headlights in the far distance for the aurora and rushed inside the rest stop to drag us out into the snow for a look. Dave just shook his head and laughed, and as I sat there eating freshly-made Vietnamese food, surrounded by new friends at a snowy rest stop just south of the Arctic Circle, I realized I wouldn’t be as crushed as I’d anticipated if I didn’t see them. Of course, it was something I would’ve been overjoyed to see, and it’s still at the top of my travel bucket list as I mentally prepare for a return trip to Fairbanks and/or adventures in Norway and Finland, but I knew not to plan my trip around them, or have any regrets if I didn’t get to see them.

It was after midnight as we drove the final leg of the trip, all of us tourists nodding off in the backseat, but Dave expertly balanced traversing the snowy road and keeping his eyes peeled for both the Northern Lights and wildlife. Blinking the sleep from my eyes, I awoke to catch the tail end (literally) of a baby moose slipping into the forest with its mother.

While there are things that, in hindsight, I might have done differently, I can honestly say I have no regrets about my travels through Alaska. The trip was planned with just about two weeks notice, my supplies hastily ordered from Amazon and cobbled together with friends’ ski gear, my accommodations and activities booked solely based on my faith in Airbnb and TripAdvisor reviews – but everything went off without a hitch. I felt myself being pulled, unmistakably, toward Alaska, and even without a definitive reason to go there, or anyone to go with, I knew I had to honor that instinct. And in trusting my gut, I couldn’t have been rewarded any more richly. I checked off my first truly solo trip, got to see a gorgeous part of my country and have some truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences, met the friendliest people, and, maybe, inspired others to follow their travel dreams, too.

Just as I was never truly alone in Alaska, I wasn’t alone in my journey toward getting there, either. I consulted with women’s travel Facebook groups, close friends who had friends who’d taken similar trips, and was offered moral support from women at my work and in my writing class to take the leap of faith. I’m so beyond grateful to the people in my life who believed in me and gave me the push I needed to believe in myself, and to anyone considering something similar, my emphatic (and very cliched) advice would be to listen to what your heart is telling you. Go where you feel most alive. Go while you still have the time, the resources, the health, and the ambition to see it all. Just go! You won’t regret it.