Why visit Alaska in winter? Sled dog races, outhouse races and more

Going to Alaska to snap out of the winter blues may not come to mind right off, but the state offers visitors a legendary dog sledding race, raucous festivals (one in the shadow of Denali), awe-inspiring northern lights, and the continent’s most northern ski resort.

You can participate in the Running of the Reindeer in downtown Anchorage during the city’s Fur Rendezvous or catch a weekend train to check out Denali Winterfest.

“The running of the reindeer can get pretty rowdy,” said Teri Hendricks, communications operations manager for Visit Anchorage. “It’s a fundraiser for Toys for Tots. The run has six different starts downtown for people wanting to participate.”

This will be the 13th year for the Running of the Reindeer in downtown Anchorage. Reindeer are domesticated caribou and are raised for meat in Alaska.

This will be the 13th year for the event which features around six reindeer spoofing Pamplona, Spain’s running of the bulls. It is followed by Running With the Critters, in which children run with the mascots of various schools such as moose, Hendricks explains.

Events surrounding Anchorage’s Fur Rendezvous – known locally as the Rondy – pick up steam Friday, Feb. 28 with the Rondy Fireworks display and runs through March 8. The festival overlaps with the famed Iditarod sled-dog race which has its ceremonial start March 7, in downtown Anchorage. In fact, both the reindeer and the critters are scheduled to run that same Saturday . The Jim Beam Jam music festival follows on Feb. 28. 

The Iditarod sled dog race starts in Anchorage commemorating the 1925 race by Alaska mushers to get a supply of life-saving serum to Nome, which was in the grips of a diphtheria epidemic. The race covers 1,049 miles of wilderness ending in Nome.

The Rondy is making the most of Leap Day 2020, with a  fat tire bike race, a blanket toss, parade and outhouse races all scheduled for Feb. 29. The latter features teams racing home-built porta-potties on skis through the roads of Anchorage. 

Multi-day events at the Fur Rondy include musical melodrama, a carnival with rides, the Alaska State Snow Sculpture Championship, snowshoe softball, local sled dog races and the Charlotte Jensen Native Arts market, where 150 native Alaska artists are scheduled to participate.

As for this year’s Iditarod Race, some 57 mushers have signed up to race across over a thousand miles of wilderness between Anchorage and Nome in western Alaska. The race can last anywhere from five days to two weeks and commemorates the mushers who raced against time in 1925 to get lifesaving serum into Nome because of a diphtheria epidemic.

2020 marks the 85th year for the Rondy. In the mid-1930s when Anchorage had a population of only 3,000, resident Vern Johnson started the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Festival as a way for locals to blow off steam. At the time, fur production was Alaska’s third-largest industry. Since then, the festival has transformed into a celebration of the end of winter and native customs.

Outhouse Races at the Rondy date back to 1935 and underscore Alaska's quirky side. Visitors to Alaska will find outhouses at the end of piers, on top of mountains, on the side of cliffs and behind mansions – all still in use.

About 40 miles south of Anchorage, in the hamlet of Girdwood, is the Alyeska Ski Resort with seven chairlifts, 76 named trails and over 600 inches of snow annually. Forbes has consistently ranked Alyeksa among the top ski resorts in America, placing it as high as No. 4 in its 2014 list. 

Visitors with more interest in views than skiing can take a tram to the top of the slopes. Up there, you’ll also find the resort’s Seven Glaciers Restaurant, featuring spectacular views of the surrounding glaciers, peaks, and the sea (Alyeska is less than five miles from an arm of the Gulf of Alaska.)

For those who have a taste for something more rugged, head to Alaska one week earlier and participate in the Denali Winterfest (Feb. 21-22). at the Denali National Park Visitors Center. Cross country ski races within the park, hockey, a dinner and ice sculpting are a few of the activities the following day.

You can find lodging in the nearby town of Healy, located about 15 minutes northeast of the park.  For $77 each way, the Alaska Railroad offers passenger rail service aboard the Aurora Winter Train between Anchorage and Healy on weekends, giving visitors 250 miles worth of wilderness viewing along the same route the Denali Star follows in summer.

Whether you head for Anchorage, Girdwood, Denali or even Fairbanks, another reason for an Alaskan winter visit are the spectacular Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis with their moving, dancing hues of greens, blues, reds and whites.

Whether you opt for Anchorage, Girdwood, Denali or even Fairbanks, the Northern Lights are another reason to visit Alaska. March is one of the peak months to see the sky light up with moving, dancing hues of greens, blues, reds and whites.

For places to dine, Anchorage offers fine dining (Jen’s, Simon & Seafort’s, Glacier Brewhouse, Kincaid Grill) to casual and fun (Moose’s Tooth, Snow City Café, Bear Tooth Theatrepub and Gwennie’s). And in Girdwood, try the eclectic Double Musky Inn, which serves Alaskan seafood New Orleans-style.

Alaska has roughly 20 breweries, many of which are in Anchorage. As for watering holes try Chilkoot Charlie’s (aka Koot’s), The Peanut Farm Sports Bar & Grill, Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse, F Street Station, McGinley’s Pub and Alaska’s ultimate dive bar, Darwin’s Theory.

If all this becomes overwhelming, the Fancy Moose Lounge at Millennium Hotels’ Lakefront Anchorage offers patrons a panoramic view of Lake Hood, where floatplanes land returning from the Alaska Bush. it’s ideal for some tranquility while sipping a drink.

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