Time: Feb 19 – 22 2014
Place: Fairbanks, Alaska
Company: Wife and daughter
Overview - A trip solely made to view the Northern Lights [NL]aka Aurora Borealis. Multiple reviews suggested that 3 nights in Fairbanks gives about 80-90% chance of viewing the Northern Lights. Hence, planned the trip for 3 nights.
There are a lot of things to do and places to go in Alaska but there was nothing much to do for us in February because we are not that much into dog-sledding or any other normal winter activities like skiing or snowmobiling especially in the freezing temperature of 20 below 0 degree Fahrenheit. Also, there are a number of things to do in and around Anchorage but since our main intent of the trip was NL and since Fairbanks was a better place than Anchorage for viewing NL, we chose Fairbanks as our destination. Looks like Alaska is a place which needs to be visited once in summer and once in winter to truly take in its variety of offerings in each season. Some folks pay the extra buck to visit during March or October to enjoy a bit of both but it still risks the NL view-ability.
This trip was on our thoughts since almost a year now but the right moment had never arrived. Although - considering that aurora was in its peak from 2013-2015 (peak happens only once in 12 years) we had to act fast. As a result, a lot of research and planning had gone into it. We came across a number of good sites such as the ones for aurora forecast by Todd and GI. There are also a good many Alaska travel agency sites such as Northern Alaska, Alaska Tours, 1st Alaska and even those offered by Alaska Rail Road. In addition to these, there were a number of websites like tripadvisor where actual visitors have given their two cents on dos and donts, and personal recommendations and driving tips in winter. The method of charging even a fuel car like an electric car was a new experience to me.
Flights to Alaska are very expensive. So with Google’s help, we were able to find the cheapest rate for only this set of days for this entire year(!) and booked it without thinking too much. On hindsight, despite all the exhaustive planning, the execution of the plan fell just short of satisfaction due to reasons given in Summary below.
Day 1: Drove in self car to Oakland off-airport parking lot at 8 am. Alaska Air Flight to Seattle and then to Fairbanks. Checked in at Best Western Plus at about 6 pm, after a squirm-ish time with car rental guys who had not misplaced the car reservation. The hotel guys called up at 10.30 pm that NL was visible and we put on layers and layers of clothing to brave the freezing temperature. We headed out in the car to a remote place where there was no city lights and were delighted to see a dazzling display of the green lights over the sky. It definitely was the experience of a lifetime. With a happy-happy thought that we were able to accomplish the objective of the trip, we went back to the hotel at about midnight.
Day 2: Went to North Pole to see Santa Claus house (unfortunately it was closed) but took some snaps in front of the huge statue and some ice sculptures. Then drove over to Chena Hot Springs Resort. It was a mind-numbing drive over icy roads that took over 2 hrs to drive the 60+ miles. Got real scared when the car started going on its own at times! The resort itself was nice with smokes emanating from the naturally hot springs amidst snow-laden surrounding. But with a limitation of no-toddler within the pool, we had to satisfy ourselves by just taking some snaps here and there. Then, went on a ice museum tour in the same campus to actually see an ice sculptor at work. The daughter could not withstand the cold too long and hence had to get back in the warmth of the car. Drove back to the hotel and took a brief nap.
Had booked for a tour to view the NL from a remote lodge with 1st Alaska Outdoor School via Alaska Tours and they took us on a 40 min drive to a lodge with a panoramic view of the sky. Within minutes, the NL made its way and we could see it end to end. While the previous night was more active, this one had a massive view. Although it was mainly green, it was still good to see the lights moving across the clear sky. We stayed for about 2 hrs in the lodge, taking turns to brave the chill weather (-24F) outside and after having had enough viewing, headed back to the hotel.
Day 3: Took it downright easy. Played with snow. Went to Alaska University Museum to take in the beautiful view from the top. Mount McKinley was not visible in the clouds. Had an extremely spicy food at Pad Thai. Drove over on the Steese Highway to view the Trans-Alaska pipeline and take some snaps. Then headed back to the hotel to pack and get ready to leave the next day.
Day 4: Got up early, rushed to the airport and took the 9 am to Seattle and then (after the kid enjoyed the train ride and the play area in Seattle airport) the 4 pm to Oakland. By the time we filed a complaint for the delayed car-seat and then took shuttle and drove back home, it was 7.30 pm.
There was some dissatisfaction on 'value for money' considering the things we missed. The blame was on booking the flight tickets prior to planning 'things to do'. This usually works in most vacations but for this trip, it should have been ideally the other way around (plan the things to do first and then book the flight tickets).
- The drive to Arctic Circle happens only on Fridays and we could not go on the tour since our flight was departing within a few hours from arrival of the trip (if taken, and if allowed with a toddler which I later found out was not recommended due to the dangers of the adventurous 16-hr day trip on a gravelly road).
- If we had planned for one more day, we could have driven down to Anchorage (to explore and experience some glaciers, enjoy some more scenic beauty south of Fairbanks including Denali National Park, driven on Stampede Road, etc) and flown back from Anchorage.
- If the trip had been postponed by a fortnight, we could have seen North Pole as it would have opened by then and also the World Ice Art championship displays.
But the greatest satisfaction and gratefulness lay in being lucky enough to view the NL on two out of three nights. Maybe we could have seen on the 3rd night too, if only it wasn’t so cold! We got tired wearing layers and layers of tops and pants. It took almost 30 mins just to wear everything and get ready (from top to toe) – and do the same thing for the 3 year-old! The temp being in 20s and 30s the following week made it feel even bad!
Anyways, this trip turned out to be just for NL and rest everything was for the sake of ‘passing time during the day’. Suffice it to say, that it was not hectic like most other vacations - which is how vacations ought to be in the first place!! Although slight repents on not having fully utilized the trip to see some of Alaska’s must-sees (hopefully one of the summers), the trip was for Aurora Borealis and thankful that we were lucky to see the Natural Light Show!