How does one find these little snowy outposts? Most areas dwell within the larger cities (read: Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks). All have web sites explaining their respective attributes and drawbacks, existing, as most businesses in Alaska do, with a minimum of fluff. With the exception of Alyeska, a ski vacation to the 49th state will not likely reward with hot tubs, spas, and disco nights in the lounge. They also will not cost an arm, leg, or your firstborn to participate, either, and the down-homey, friendly ambiance certainly has a fan base.
Some things to consider before heading out: Skiing or riding in Alaska requires a bit more preparation, especially in the clothing and keeping-warm-and-fueled department. Ditto for travel arrangements. Here are our suggestions and recommendations for a family ski/snowboard trip to Alaska.
Best time to ski or ride? Christmas; before, during, or after. Alaska is a joyous, snowy, magical place during the December and January holiday season. Sleigh rides, lights, and special deals make a Last Frontier ski area tons of fun. That said, the advent of springtime in the Lower 48 means prime ski time in Alaska. Days are longer, snow is smoother, and the scenery gorgeous well into April. Yes, April.
Where Should We Go? If this is a first time skiing outside the Lower 48, and a resort-style experience desired, begin by flying to Anchorage on Alaska Airlines, rent a car and drive 45 miles south to Alyeska Resort. Modern, big, and full of apres' ski activities for the entire family, Alyeska brings big resort happenings to funky Girdwood. Dog mushing, Nordic skiing, or just hanging around the beautiful Hotel Alyeska are rewarding experiences in themselves, and the resort does love families. Look for ongoing package deals via the resort web site.
Feeling adventurous? Fly into Anchorage, stay at one of the hotels found in the Great Alaska TourSaver (we like Dimond Center) and head up to a local hideaway for backcountry skiing or riding within a half-hour drive of town. Arctic Valley is a completely volunteer-run operation at a site owned by the Anchorage Ski Club. Most older folks who grew up in town learned to ski here, and the area operates four chairlifts with intermediate to expert runs, but recently opened a pony tow and, (wahoo!) a tubing area for those who would rather slide on their kiesters. The Alpenglow Chalet serves simple meals, and kids are free to roam about, watch movies, and play with toys in the no-frills lodge (with adult supervision on occasion, of course). The road to Arctic Valley, on Fort Richardson Army Base land, is steep and potentially scary for some folks, so rent a 4 WD vehicle. But once up top, gazing down at the cityscape of Anchorage, few want to leave. Stay for the sunsets, and bring a camera.
Juneau, Alaska's capital, has its own ski area in the form of Eagle Crest, a middle-of-the-road area that caters to the southeast Alaska crowd. Nicely outfitted with lifts and runs for just about anyone, Eagle Crest has yet to open for 2010-11, but should boast some pretty good snow when it does. (www.skijuneau.com)
Fairbanks? You bet. Even the Far North has its alpine runs, albeit on the chilly side. This is where the unexpected can and does happen, from closures because of weather and/or wind to frostbite. Called Mt. Aurora SkiLand, this little area claims to run the farthest north chairlift, and probably does, too. About 20 miles from Fairbanks, SkiLand is open only on weekends and can draw a healthy crowd when the weather is nice. Plus, they offer a Northern Lights viewing package at neighboring Mt. Aurora Fairbanks Creek Lodge, a charming, 12-room bunkhouse/roadhouse that provides true Alaskan hospitality. Fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks via Alaska Airlines or Era Aviation and rent a car at the airport. Don¿¿¿t forget to ask for an extension cord at the rental desk for the car.
What Do I Need to Bring? The warmest ski clothes possible. Kids need balaclavas/masks/hoods, extra-warm mittens, snowsuits, and those wonderful Little Hotties hand and toe warmers. Nothing ruins a ski vacation faster than cold children. Fashion is trumped by function in Alaska, so aim for warmth and hang the looks. Ski rentals are available at a few places like Sports Authority and Alyeska, but if you have your own, bring it along. Better to be comfy in your own gear than miserable in someone else's.
Anything Else? Plan for cancellations due to weather. Visit local Convention and Visitor Bureaus in each city to make sure everyone has found an activity to his or her liking. Dog mushing, hot spring soaking, Nordic skiing, sleigh riding, aurora viewing, eating, drinking; it's all here.