Northern Lights Tours Alaska: Consumer Trip Report about Aurora Observation in Alaska
As promised here is my extensive trip report about the recent aurora tour. I have posted this already on Fodors Alaska Forum and do this in due time on the Alaska Forum of Tripadvisor.com too. Please feel free to publish this somewhere on your www.goalaskatours.com website. Thanks again for everything. J.Casale
We have done a fair amount of traveling (often with help from these forums) and so people are always asking us where we are going next. When we said we were going to Alaska in April, they would ask: "Are you taking a cruise?" Once we pointed out that it was still too cold and snowy for the cruises to be running, they would look at us like we were out of our minds and ask why we were going there. The answer was: to see the Northern Lights. Seeing the Aurora has been on dh's "bucket list" since he was a little boy. Since 2013 is the height of the 11 year cycle and we are not getting younger, we decided it should be this year. After much research, we decided on Alaska the first week of April since it would be the new moon, a little warmer, but still dark enough, and the skies had a better chance of being clear than in November (our other choice).
Typically we do our own plans, but since much of Alaska is pretty remote, we decided to go with a tour company we found on-line: Go Alaska Tours. They had a week-long itinerary that included a train from Anchorage to Fairbanks, a trip past the Arctic Circle to Coldfoot, and a couple of days at the Chena Hot Springs Resort near Fairbanks. It seemed like a good package and gave us multiple chances for seeing Northern Lights. But we knew that was still not a guarantee. We weren't sure what the rest of the trip would be like, but we were blown away. It far exceeded our expectations.
First thing to know before heading to remote Alaska is that the weather predictors have not figured out how to accurately predict the weather. I was able to check on my phone 10 days out for the weather in Fairbanks and Coldfoot and it looked like it was going to be mostly above zero both during the day and at night. HAH! Fortunately one of my friends who still skiis insisted on loaning me all of her good ski clothes. My winter clothes were quite old and I had gotten rid of most of them. I think I would have frozen if it hadn't been for her. Most days it was about 5 above at best and at night it dipped down to about 16 below. Fortunately we didn't have much wind and with my borrowed clothes I was pretty comfortable. Packing light is not an option when going to the Arctic. But we had to plan for a light trip up to Coldfoot as we were planning to fly back in a small plane and were limited to 20 pounds of luggage each. So we wore many of our layers and planned on wearing the same thing for several days in a row with a change of underwear to pretend that we were still in civilization. It was an experience.
So here is my trip report day by day:
Day 1: Anchorage
We arrived at about 1:30pm from Chicago and called the hotel to send the shuttle. We were staying in the Ramada Inn right downtown. It was clean, comfortable, and had a nice breakfast in the morning. They also provide free shuttle service from the airport and the train station. Since they don't feed you on planes anymore, we headed out to find some lunch/dinner and landed at La Cabana, a Mexican restaurant just a few blocks away. It was fabulous! They had local beer on tap and the Chicken fajita tacos were huge. I ordered two (a la carte) and could barely finish them. The guacamole was also excellent and DH had shrimp scampi that was terrific. After our meal, I took a walk around the downtown area just to stretch my legs. The mountains around Anchorage were beautiful in their snow cover and I was actually able to see the tip of Denali (McKinley) in the distance. I also saw a wedding going on outside the courthouse. I guess when it is sunny and about 20 degrees, it is warm enough to be outside in a wedding dress! I think it was a short ceremony!
Day 2: Anchorage to Fairbanks on the Winter Train
We woke to snow coming down and were kind of bummed as that meant that we wouldn't see anything. But they said that it could clear as we got out of the city so we held some hope. On the shuttle to the train we met a very nice guy from Maryland who it turned out was on the exact same package as us. We weren't sure how many people would be on the trip and it turned out that the three of us had the identical itinerary and then there was a woman from Austin who was with us most of the way but did not go to Coldfoot. So it was a nice little group and we got to be very good friends.
For the first hour or so of the train ride we couldn't see much, but dh has always wanted to take a train through a snowstorm and the woods were beautiful, so we enjoyed ourselves. Then when we had passed Wassila (didn't see Sarah Palin or Russia), it started to clear. By the time we got to a place where we could get views of Denali, it was clear and there was only a teeny bit of cloud cover left on the mountain. As we got closer, that lifted and we were able to see the whole mountain - very unusual much of the year. Between that view and the rest of the mountains, snow, trees, etc. it was a beautiful ride.
The train itself was pretty comfortable. The seats are not quite as good as Amtrak, but they do recline a little and the windows are quite big. If you can get an even number row on the left hand side of the train, that is the best. We were able to move around as the train was not even half full, although in the summer it can be packed. The meals in the dining car were quite tasty and the staff was very attentive. I chose to buy the rail guide for $5 and thought it was helpful at knowing what we were seeing.
We arrived in Fairbanks at about 8:00 and called our hotel to send a shuttle. We were staying at the Springhill Suites by Marriott in downtown Fairbanks. Very comfortable, but unless you are used to a double bed, ask for a king suite.
We wanted to have every chance of seeing Northern Lights so I had arranged with Chandalar Ranch outside of Fairbanks to pick us up at 10pm and take us out to their site to look for the Aurora. The woman traveling with us decided to go also. We saw very faint lights that night, so it wasn't a total bust. We also learned that what you see with your eyes and what your camera sees are two different things. The green shows up much brighter on the camera and often it can also see the red that your eyes may not be seeing. We saw what looked like a wispy white cloud, but when a guy staying at the ranch showed us the picture he had just taken, it was definitely green. In fact, we found later in the trip that sometimes the guides will take a picture to be sure what they are seeing is aurora. We got back to the hotel at about 3 and had to be up at 5 to get to the offices of the Northern Alaska Tour Company which was taking us north. Our sleep patterns really got mixed up on the trip and dh is still trying to get his days and nights back in the right order!
Day 3: Fairbanks to Coldfoot
Before the crack of dawn, the three intrepid explorers left the Springhill Suites by Marriott (very nice hotel, BTW) and went to the General Aviation section of the airport to the offices of Northern Alaska Tours. It turned out that we were being transported to the Arctic Circle with a group of people who were going there and back in a day tour and would then be picked up by staff from Coldfoot. There were three others going on to Coldfoot to visit their kids who were working there.
The drive would take us on the Steese Hwy to the Elliott Hwy and then to the famous "haul road" known as the Dalton Hwy (featured in Ice Road Truckers). The Dalton was built to support the construction of the pipeline and was not open to private vehicles until sometime in the 90's. Parts of it are still gravel and there is NOTHING along it. We stopped at a grocery store on the way out of town to purchase food for the trip. Additionally, the only "rest areas" on the way were outhouses used by the truckers. Suffice it say that some of them were pretty gross, but fortunately when everything is frozen it doesn't smell.
We left in snow again and clouds which stayed pretty much the whole way up. The sun peaked through at times, but we were not able to see the Sawtooth Mountains as we should have. What we did see, however, were a couple of moose and two lynx. The lynx were really exciting since our driver has said they were there, but that she had never seen any.
We made several sightseeing stops along the way and were treated to the history of the area both by our driver and by some DVDs (she tended to put those on when the driving was particularly treacherous and she had to pay attention). The only other vehicles we saw were big semi trucks and not too many of them. One time we even stopped to go sledding! That was a hoot!
Finally we made it to the Arctic Circle and had a little ceremony and were presented with certificates. We took some very chilly pictures (the temperature had been hovering on either side of zero all day) and had a hot drink. Then the wait began. Unfortunately cell phones do not work up there and communication is dicey at best. So the message of our arrival time had not gotten through to the folks at Coldfoot and we had to wait over an hour for them to get there. They finally arrived at 5:30 (we had left Fairbanks at 6:30, just to put this in perspective).
After saying farewell to our guide we continued on to Coldfoot (about an hour and a half). Coldfoot is basically a truck stop on the Dalton Hwy. There is a post office that says it is open three days a week, a Trucker's Cafe, a gas pump, and the Slate Creek Inn. The inn is created out of the nodular units that housed the pipeline workers. The rooms are very small with two twin beds, a sink in the corner, and a walled off corner with a toilet and shower. Very basic, but clean and heated. If you like luxury - don't go there. If you want to experience the community of the truckers and see what the wilds of Alaska are like - by all means go.
After dinner and a brief nap, we headed out to Wiseman (a former gold mining community that no houses 14 full time residents - mostly related to each other) to look for Northern Lights. We also got to meet Jack (one of the residents who has lived there most of his life). It was fascinating to talk with him about his experiences living in Wiseman. That alone would have made for a great evening, but the fact that we saw an even better aurora display made it that much better. We could see the green this time and some of the pictures taken even show a little red. We discovered (thanks to Jack) that our cameras were really not designed for taking aurora pictures so we just watched and agreed with our new friend on the trip that we would just download his. In some way that was even better since I could just experience them. We kept thinking they were done and they would start up again. There was an indoor-outdoor thermometer at the cabin and at the end of our viewing it read minus 16! Amazingly we weren't feeling that cold. Finally at 3:30am they were done and it was starting to cloud over, so we headed back and were in bed by 4. This became a very typical pattern to our sleep.
Day 4: Dalton Highway to Atigun Pass
We got up at about 10 and went for breakfast at the Trucker's Cafe. Great biscuits! Then we bundled up and met our guide, Dave, at 11:30. We drove through Wiseman so we could see it during the day (very cute little collection of houses - even two B&Bs). Then we began our drive further north up the Dalton. The day was brilliantly sunny with an incredibly blue sky over the snow covered mountains. The Dalton takes you through the Brooks Range which more than made up for not seeing the Sawtooth Range (much smaller than the Brooks). Again the only other vehicles we saw we trucks - at least until we got to the Chandalar Shelf. There we saw several private vehicles parked in a pull-off. Way off in the distance we could see figures moving across the snow. They were probably hunters. One of the vehicles was a van that had been there all winter and had a stove pipe coming out the roof and a pile of wood next to it. I can't even imagine Staying in that all winter!
We reached the Atigun Pass and stopped for a bit to have our sack lunch (BTW - the Trucker's Cafe puts together an excellent lunch). The views were amazing and the basically zero temperature was tolerable thanks to the fact that we had the right clothing. We drove a little farther down the road to where there were some dall sheep and then began to head back to Coldfoot.
After we got back to Coldfoot, dh and I decided to do a dog-sled ride. That was SO fun. The dogs started jumping up and down and barking as soon as we drove in. They were smaller than I thought they would be, but SO strong. And friendly! They also love to run. The ones who were chosen to be our team were so excited and the others looked sad that they couldn't go. The ride itself was amazing and gave me a better appreciation for people who do this for 9 days on the Iditarod.
After dog-sledding it was time for dinner and a nap before going back to the cabin in Wiseman. Jack was not there this time and it was too cloudy for any lights. We waited for a while to see if they would appear and played some poker to pass the time. We had cards but no money or chips so we bet imaginary money. We might have done strip poker, but we all had so many clothes on it didn't seem to make sense ! At 2:30 we finally decided it was time to head back. It had started to snow and we were obviously not going to see anything.
Day 5: Back to Fairbanks
We were supposed to fly back today but woke to a snow storm. At first they thought it might clear by late afternoon but by 1:00 the pilot in Fairbanks said it was not going to clear and he could not get up there to get us. So we were given the choice of staying another night and trying to get out the next morning so we could still make it to Chena Hot Springs or they would drive us back (they meaning our guide and driver Dave). We were a bit hesitant about driving and asked if he was sure and how long it would take. He said it was no problem and he would get us to the hotel by 9 or 10 that night if we left at 2. So we decided that we would do that. He said he thought it was the right choice since there was no guarantee we would get out the next morning.
We got some bag lunches from the Trucker's Cafe and finally left about 2:30 (we decided that there is an Arctic version of island time!). The drive was quite an experience. I actually felt very confident in Dave's driving and although we slid a few times, it was nothing out of control. We made really good time since we had food and didn't stop much at all. We made one stop at one of the outhouses and that was it. We saw quite a few trucks on the road - one was stuck getting up a hill and one had rolled off the road and landed on its side. Otherwise it was pretty uneventful. We stopped at a store before getting to the hotel so we could buy some drinks, snacks, and salmon jerky and were at the hotel by 9:15. We stayed at the Springhill Suites by Marriott again. Had a quick bite in the restaurant (before the kitchen closed) and then headed off to bed. As we arrivied we ran into our friend who had gone to Bettles Lodge and got to hear about her experience. I decided I was glad we went to Coldfoot although Bettles sounded nice. We got to experience the trucker community and see more of the Brooks range. We also got to see the pipeline which was really interesting.
Our friend said that being at Bettles was like staying at the home of a friend. It was very warm and relaxing. She had a great experience dog sledding with a local guy (since the guy that usually does it for the lodge wasn't around). There were some researchers from a university there and then her so it was a very small group. She really enjoyed her stay and saw some great auroras.
Day 6: Chena Hot Springs
We slept in and grabbed a bit of breakfast from the complimentary breakfast (cereal yogurt and fruit - plenty for me). Then we did a bit of e-mail since we had been TOTALLY out of touch for a while. Following that we headed to the indoor pool and spa. Very relaxing and it felt good to swim some laps even though the pool was small.
We got picked up at 1:30 by Bob (nice guy - as are all of the people in Alaska) and drove to Chena Hot Springs Resort. The roads were still pretty snow covered and the trees were gorgeous. On the way we stopped and got pictures of a mama moose and her baby.
Chena Hot Springs is a very interesting place to visit. The rooms are pretty basic (not as much as Coldfoot) but they were fine for what we needed. The beds were a little soft for my taset, but we seemed to sleep well after full days and late nights.
The first thing we did was to do the tour of the Geothermal plant and greenhouses. Chena is a great place for environmentalists. They produce all of their own electricity by using the hot springs and they also use the hot springs to do radiant heat for the rooms. The greenhouses were very interesting and the lettuce and tomatoes they grow there are fabulous.
After that tour we went into the Ice Museum which I thought might be a bit hokey, but it was really cool (literally and figuratively). The carvings are amazing and the whole structure is unbelievable. They even have rooms you can stay in, although we decided that would not be something that would appeal to us. The appletini that they serve in an ice glass was quite good and lots of fun. Even though there is a charge to go in there, it was worth it.
They were not running the snowcoach up to the warming yurt unfortunately so I went and checked out the climb to the "aurorium" (a little cabin up on a ridge). DH has bad knees so I wanted to make sure he could do it. Looked possible. We had dinner (excellent food) and then went in the hot springs lake for a bit before taking a little nap. Then at 11:45 we met outside to walk up to the aurorium. The skies were crystal clear and we were hopeful. After waiting about an hour and beginning to be less hopeful, the skies began to light up with aurora. It was by far the best display we had seen yet. They were all over the sky, not just at the horizon. At one point I was lying on my back in the snow to get the best view of them. It was amazing. We were freezing, but we just couldn't stop watching. Finally at about 3:30 they seemed to be done and we headed down the hill to bed.
Day 7: Chena Hot Springs
We slept in again and wandered over to the restaurant in time for lunch. As we were finishing our other friends wandered in and we moved to a bigger table. There was nothing on the agenda for the day other than enjoying the resort. I wanted to get some exercise and debated renting some snowshoes but decided just to take a hike on some of the trails. DH stayed behind to rest and the other two joined me. We had a great hike and saw lots of tracks that we couldn't identify (and one that I was pretty sure was a wolf - turns out I was right). After dinner we went in the hot springs again and then rested before time for aurora viewing. DH decided to stay back and use the viewing room in the activities center (it looks out over the airstip and he said it was really very good for viewing). The others and I went up to the aurorium again. We had to wait quite a while again, but eventually the aurora started. Not as good as the night before but they were really dancing. It was even colder than the night before so we kept going in and out. I can't imagine doing this trip in January or February when it is even colder. I think we planned it perfectly by going in early April. The end of March would have been good too.
Day 8: Chena back to Fairbanks and home
We got up in time to check out and then went to have breakfast. After breakfast the rest of them went to the cafe and just relaxed while I went for a swim in the hot springs and then the indoor pool to swim laps.
At 2 we had booked a snowmobile ride with Vanessa (one of the staff there - the best guide!!). Actually I should say that we went for a snow machine ride since that's what they call them in Alaska. We got all suited up and she showed us how to operate our machine. It was a gorgeous day - warm and sunny (about 20 degrees). There was very little wind and we had a terrific time. DH tipped his snow machine over at one point, but no injuries. Those of you who remember Laugh-In might remember the old guy on the tricycle who would fall over. That's about how it was. It was a terrific way to finish up our trip.
At 5 Bob showed up to drive us back to Fairbanks. We dropped our friends off at their hotesl (they were flying out the next morning) and headed to the airport. Had an uneventful flight back to Anchorage and then the overnight to Chicago. Got home tired, but exhilerated from a great trip.
This trip would not appeal to everyone, but for those who are adventurous, it is definitely worth it. The nice thing is that you don't have to be in great physical shape to do ti like many adventurous trips. As long as you have the right clothes, it is an amazing experience. The key is to look at the average cloud cover (March and April are the best) and try to go around the new moon (although I am told that the aurora can stil be seen with a full moon and it makes for some interesting pictures). Give yourself plenty of time so that you have multiple nights for aurora viewing. We went out five nights and saw it four times, although the first night was not much. Understand that things may have to change due to weather and as long as you go with that expectation you will not be disappointed.
The people we met all along were so warm and friendly. It didn't matter if they were native Alaskans or transplants - they all seem to love it there. I think you would have to in order to choose to live in such a rugged environment. I loved that we could experience it and then go back to a more familiar place. If anyone wnats any additional information, feel free to e-mail me at [email protected] If you have read this far, there must be something that interests you.
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