The Case for Visiting Alaska in Wintertime

After falling for Alaska in the summer, David Amsden returns to ski its soft-powder snow, explore melting ice shelves, and learn what the locals have always known—that the 49th state is truly amazing in winter.
The Case for Visiting Alaska in the Winter
Julien Capmeil

It was the first week of April, the dawn of spring in most of the Northern Hemisphere, but in Anchorage it still felt very much like winter. Snow was everywhere: piled high on rooftops and cars, lining the sidewalks in colossal embankments, floating in clumps in the Cook Inlet, and shellacking the nearby Chugach Mountains, which form a fierce and jagged amphitheater on the city's eastern edge.

I'd come to Alaska in part to ski those mountains, thanks to a chance encounter I'd had the previous year. While visiting the state for the first time in the way that many do—on a midsummer cruise—I met a guy from Anchorage at a bar. After recounting how I'd fallen for the state after a day spent hiking imagination-defying landscapes, I made a predictably naive remark about how the winters must be brutal.

Signage at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard home store in the resort town of Girdwood

Julien Capmeil

Breakfast at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop in Anchorage

Julien Capmeil

“Oh no,” he said. “Winter here is the absolute best.”

He described jaunts to a ski resort with surreal terrain and no crowds, weekends spent holed up in cabins reachable only by bush planes that land on frozen lakes, and weather that (at least around Anchorage) was less punishing than you might think. Go after February, he advised, when the sunlight is back but the snow is still deep.

I began my first day by exploring Anchorage, mainly because I've long been intrigued by cities that seem overlooked—or, in the case of Anchorage, cast more as an entry point than an ultimate destination. Alaska's largest city, home to nearly half the state's 730,000 inhabitants, has a fascinating history and heritage. Indigenous cultures here date back to long before it became a tent encampment of frontiersmen. An earthquake leveled the place in 1964, four years before oil was discovered and opened a spigot of money that shaped the mini metropolis one encounters today. Anchorage feels somehow both brand new and dated, consisting primarily of a downtown of utilitarian towers and a sprawl of strip malls that resemble those towers tipped on their sides. Everyone in the state knows the quip about Anchorage's best feature: “You can see Alaska from there.”

Mark Fleenor, owner of Sheep Mountain Lodge, landing on Matanuska Glacier

Julien Capmeil

Club Paris, a mainstay of Anchorage nightlife since the 1950s, serving steaks and Alaskan halibut

Julien Capmeil

“We are definitely due for a revamp,” joked Rachel Pennington, part of the family that owns Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, a local staple where I stopped in for breakfast on my first morning. “But that's part of the fun. So much here is hidden that you have to be willing to look for it.”

Her bakery, a past James Beard Award nominee, is a prime example. Occupying a former medical clinic, the space now houses an artisanal liquor store, a produce stand, and a coffee shop where one can purchase potted succulents and oat milk lattes. After a delicious made-from-scratch croissant, I drove around the city at random, eventually settling in for a tasty lunch at the Midnight Sun Brewing Co., one of the many craft beer spots peppering an industrial swath of town. By evening, my apprehension had morphed into fondness, helped by the martini I nursed at Club Paris, an old-school haunt that is one of the few establishments remaining from before the earthquake. Around the corner I found excellent whiskey cocktails and ramen at a place called, aptly, Whiskey & Ramen. Newly opened in a sleek bi-level space, it would not have been out of place in my Los Angeles neighborhood. But by then I was feeling gloriously far from home.

A salmon dish at Alyeska ski resort

Julien Capmeil

Goods at Mother Hubbard’s

Julien Capmeil

The next morning I steered my rented 4x4 out of the city and onto the Seward Highway, where the full magnitude of Alaska's wilderness hit me. Hugging the Turnagain Arm, a narrow saltwater inlet where pods of beluga whales congregate in summer, the road is framed by mountains that shoot skyward from the sea as if being launched. It is the kind of natural majesty you absorb not so much with your eyes as with your cells.

My destination was Girdwood, a former mining colony 45 minutes from Anchorage. Today it is centered around Alyeska, the state's premier ski resort, which rose with imposing elegance from a forest of evergreens. I'd be based here for the next few days, staying at the resort's on-mountain hotel. Having not been on skis in a year, I thought I'd start by clocking some downhill hours on the mountain's 2,500 vertical feet of terrain before attempting something I'd long been both intrigued and intimidated by: backcountry skiing, which Alaskans speak of with religious fervor.

Girdwood Brewing Company

Julien Capmeil

The immense Matanuska Glacier

Julien Capmeil

But the weather turned out to be so perfect—bright sun and a bluebird sky—that it would have been a mistake to miss the opportunity for a backcountry outing. And so it was with considerable nerves that I skipped the groomed runs at the resort to meet up with Mike Welch, operator of an independent local outfitter called Sundog Ski Guides, who had offered to take me out for a tutorial. Tall and limber, with the crow's feet that come from spending most of the year squinting into Alpine sun, he projected an easy confidence that was a balm for my jitters. “The only thing I personally love more than skiing this part of the world is introducing it to people for the first time,” he said. After a brief lesson on how to use the avalanche beacons in case things got hairy, we put skins over our skis and began walking up into a valley framed by downy slopes.

We gained some 2,000 feet of elevation over four miles. Halfway up, as an avalanche precaution, Welch had us separate by about 100 yards for the remainder of the hike. Following the path carved by Welch's skis and poles, which resembled a seam stitched through fabric of otherworldly white, I felt impossibly tiny, overwhelmed by the quiet. Time and space took on dreamlike properties. So did my thoughts. By the time I reached Welch at the summit, I could barely remember my own name.

Displays of Native art at the Anchorage Museum

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Making the most of Alyeska’s 1,610 skiable acres

Julien Capmeil

“Weird shit happens out there, doesn't it?” Welch said with a sage grin.

We stood at the top of a mountain known as Tincan Peak, the enormity of Alaska's famed backcountry stretching before us, range after range interlocking like an M.C. Escher woodcut. The tree line ends at 1,500 feet, so unlike in the northeast or the Rockies the view consisted only of icy cornices, peaks, and gullies sheathed in a penetrating blanket of snow. After admiring the panorama over sandwiches, we removed the skins from our skis and tipped in, slaloming down a steep section that leveled off in a small saucer-shaped valley.

I thought I'd skied powder before. I'd thought wrong. This stuff was chest deep and humbling. At first its impact on me was a torrent of foul language rather than euphoria, but once I got the hang of it, I had as much fun as I'd ever had on skis in my life. Carving our way back down the mountain felt not so much like skiing but like floating through an alternate reality.

A refuge hut for skiers atop Matanuska Glacier

Julien Capmeil

Cocktails at Whiskey & Ramen in Anchorage

Julien Capmeil

Returning to Alyeska, I was worried that I would never again be able to enjoy resort skiing. The next three days dispelled this concern while presenting another: Would I ever want to ski anywhere else? First conceived in 1959, when a crew of locals pooled together money to develop the mountain, the resort does not have the size or frills of its glossier counterparts in the Rockies. But it does offer the sorts of luxuries that make for transcendent days on the slopes: terrain to satisfy the palate of just about any skier or snowboarder, with no lift lines or elbowing your way through the gear-cloaked masses for that afternoon beer. Because of the lack of trees, most of the mountain is an open bowl, with the named trails acting mostly as suggestions, unlike the defined runs that cut through forest in most ski areas. This makes the experience about as close to backcountry skiing as you can get while still having the convenience of lifts—with the surreal bonus of staring at the churn of ocean water through the Turnagain Arm, which is visible on every descent.

The vibe in Girdwood, a woodsy little hamlet, is much like that on the mountain: unfussy, ripe with tumbledown charm, checking all the essential après-ski boxes without the manufactured authenticity of so many ski towns. One evening I kicked back with a pint at Girdwood Brewing Company, with its airy taproom, outdoor firepits, and rotating food trucks. Another, I ate an exquisite meal of bibimbap at Jack Sprat, an eclectic, buttery-lit mainstay run by Frans and Jen Weits, a couple originally from Michigan. Chair 5, a low-key restaurant-bar, cooked up exactly the kind of burger one craves after a day in the snow. It was refreshing not to encounter anyone from outside of Alaska. Where the barstool chatter at Vail can turn quickly stock portfolios, at Chair 5 I chatted with a rowdy group of local skiers about the incoming “bore tide,” a phenomenon in the Turnagain Arm that creates a single wave that breaks for miles on end. They talked about plans to surf it the next morning with the nonchalance of New York cyclists discussing a loop through Central Park. “Wanna join?” one asked.

Alyeska at night

Julien Capmeil

Taxidermy at Sheep Mountain Lodge

Julien Capmeil

It all adds up to a world-class ski destination that, improbably, is still primarily the realm of the locals. But this may be changing. In 2018, Alyeska was purchased by Pomeroy Lodging, a Canadian company that is pushing to spread word of the property to residents of the Lower 48. The current ski season marks Alyeska's first as part of the Ikon Pass. The hotel has been making various upgrades, most notably a new 50,000-square-foot Nordic spa that debuted in 2022. Set in the forest adjacent to the main gondola, with a slick restaurant of floor-to-ceiling windows and blond wood tables, the facility is a transporting oasis with outdoor hot tubs and cold plunges, steam rooms, an exfoliation cabin, and a semicircle of barrel saunas built from cedar and tucked into a glade. This is not, needless to say, the Alaska of frostbite and frontier lore, though the no-phone policy happily prevents it from being pure influencer catnip. During my three days of downhill hijinks, it proved a welcome respite that left me primed for more adventure.

Leaving Alyeska, I drove through light flurries back toward Anchorage, then hooked northeast along the foothills of the Chugach Mountains and headed deeper into the state's interior. After about three hours, I found myself far removed from anything resembling civilization, even though I'd barely penetrated a state that is nearly three times the size of France. My destination was Sheep Mountain Lodge, one of Alaska's many off-the-grid hideaways. Consisting of cozy single-occupancy log cabins fanned out along the foot of a mountain, Sheep Mountain Lodge has the advantage of being reachable by car and close to the Matanuska Glacier, a 27-mile-long cathedral of ancient ice.

The heated pool at Alyeska Nordic Spa

Julien Capmeil

A simple, chic room at Alyeska

Julien Capmeil

Pulling in, I was met by Mark Fleenor, who runs the property with his wife, Ruthann. He grew up in Tennessee and spent years flying planes for NGOs in Afghanistan before settling in Alaska because few other places could sate his appetite for adventure. Inside the lodge's main building, I saw a photo of him ice climbing the glacier and another of him scuba diving inside of it. “People think we're bundled up in this barren, inhospitable land half the year, when really we're just having an insane amount of fun,” he told me. Then, with earnest bluster: “You ready to get intimate with the glacier yourself?”

With that, he handed me off to a buddy of his, Ryan Cote, who runs snowmobile tours out of the property. Soon I was piloting one of these machines along a frozen creek toward the base of the glacier. After 30 minutes we stopped at what I failed to immediately recognize as a wall of ice because it looked almost soot-stained. But what came into focus was extraordinary: the surface as clear as a cut diamond, the black projected by the stones suspended inside it. It was a frozen snapshot of a seismic shift tens of thousands years old. “It's called basal ice,” Cote explained. “It's essentially the base of the glacier, the part that moves along the floor until it reaches this point.” In just a few weeks, as the weather warmed, where we were standing would be water and what we were looking at would vanish into it.

The view of the fjord below Alyeska Resort

Julien Capmeil

The next morning, my last before heading home, I rose from a deep slumber, the result of a second snowmobile excursion through the powdery hills above the property, a superb dinner of local salmon back at the lodge, and the fine bottle of bourbon Fleenor had brought out for a nightcap. Now Fleenor was whipping us up espressos in preparation for seeing the glacier from another vantage point: the seat of his cherry red helicopter. Minutes later we were hovering above it. There were sections that resembled vertebrae, others that looked like waves crashing into each other. The scale only became more incomprehensible the more I stared.

Eventually, Fleenor landed the helicopter atop the glacier and handed me a pair of ice cleats to slide over my boots. “Ready to go inside?” he asked.

Every summer, Fleenor explained, he spends hours flying over the glacier in search of such spots: wormlike caves formed by meltwater moving through cracks in the ice. Come late fall, when freezing temperatures stop the melting, he explores them, looking for any he can bring guests to. “You know the slot canyons in Utah? This is basically that,” he noted. “But rather than taking eons to form, here we get new ones every year that only exist for a few months. Pretty rad, right?”

A deconstructed banana split at Whiskey & Ramen

Julien Capmeil

A bakery in Girdwood

Julien Capmeil

I followed him down the shaft, a narrow passage that opened up to a world of sublime and paralyzing beauty: curving, swooping walls of ice that reflected the sun in vivid shades of aquamarine and cobalt, everything perfectly still while also seeming alive, as if breathing. As we ventured in farther, the cave darkened, tapering to a point where interlaced ice crystals, fine as silk, dangled and seemed to dance. We were the only humans inside a glacier twice the size of Manhattan, our feet atop 900 feet of solid ice. In a corner of my brain, I felt a flicker of gratitude toward the man I'd met in the bar and the few simple words that had brought me to Alaska in the winter.

Just outside Anchorage, the family-friendly Alyeska Resort has amenities, five restaurants, and a new Nordic spa with a series of hot pools. There are 76 trails suitable for skiers of all levels, with lessons available. For those looking to go deeper, Sundog Ski Guides takes groups and individuals into the Chugach and Talkeetna ranges, with all-local guides able to introduce the area even to those with no backcountry experience. For a cozier experience, book one of the free-standing cabins at Sheep Mountain Lodge, northeast of Anchorage. Guests can snowmobile and take helicopters to ice caves and glacial canyons before returning to a feast of blackened local halibut. No matter what your itinerary, you will likely pass through Anchorage, where the Hotel Captain Cook is in the center of town.

This article appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.