This Small Town in Alaska Is One of the Best Places to See the Northern Lights

Northern Lights in Coldfoot, Alaska
Photo:

Guang Shi/Getty Images

To the untrained eye, Coldfoot doesn’t look like much more than a rest stop on a highway for ice road truckers heading to the oil fields on Alaska’s northern coast. The entire town consists of a post office, a motley collection of old-school gas pumps, an inn made of trailers that once housed pipeline workers, a troopers office, a simple restaurant, and a runway for bush planes. 

But for those keen on roughing it in the nearby Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve or witnessing the northern lights dance across the night sky, this little outpost nestled at the base of the Brooks Range is a great jumping-off point for Alaska-sized adventures

Popular Interagency Tourism Center on the Dalton Highway, Coldfoot, Alaska

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History of Coldfoot, Alaska

Coldfoot, like many communities in Alaska, started during the gold rush. In 1989, fortune seekers came to what was then called Slate Creek in search of riches. Legend has it the village was rechristened after several prospectors got “cold feet” about spending the winter in the Arctic Circle and retreated south (not that we can blame them — the coldest recorded temperature in Coldfoot was -82 degrees Fahrenheit). Eventually, the miners moved on and Coldfoot became a ghost town. However, in the 1970s, it saw a second boom, thanks to the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Today, just under 300 people live there year-round. 

How to Get to Coldfoot, Alaska

Dalton Highway in Winter outside Coldfoot, Alaska

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Drive yourself: From Fairbanks, Alaska’s second-largest city by population size, it’s about 250 miles on the Dalton Highway to Coldfoot. The highway is considered the most dangerous in Alaska — especially in the winter when conditions are icy — due to narrow roads, steep cliffs, poor visibility, and fast-driving 18-wheelers. If you decide to drive yourself, be sure to fill up on gas ahead of time, download maps (you won’t have cell reception) for offline viewing, and bring enough snacks and water. If you don’t have your own car (we’d recommend something with four-wheel drive), consider renting from Arctic Outfitters. Their vehicles are equipped with a CB radio, tire-changing equipment (including two spares), a satellite phone, and an engine block heater and extension cord. 

Travel with Northern Alaska Tour Company: This bush plane company has two options for traveling to Coldfoot. Either you can fly each way (about one hour and 45 minutes) or you can fly up and take a shuttle bus back. The second option is cheaper and you’ll get to see the area from both a bird's-eye and ground level perspective, but it is a longer commute.

Where to Stay in Coldfoot, Alaska 

There aren’t many lodging options in Coldfoot — your only choice, apart from camping, is staying at The Inn at Coldfoot Camp, made up of a collection of trailers that once housed those who were building the oil pipeline. The rooms are modest — everything you absolutely need and nothing you don’t. Each has two twin beds and a small bathroom with a hot shower.

Aerial View of Coldfoot, Alaska along the Dalton Highway

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Where to Eat and Drink in Coldfoot, Alaska 

Like the accommodations, there’s only one dining option in Coldfoot: the Coldfoot Trucker’s Cafe. The winter menu includes all your typical breakfast fare (served all day), a variety of basic burgers and sandwiches, a soup of the day, two salads, and a host of carb-centric sides. Still, it’s pretty good and the portions are huge. In the summer, the location runs a breakfast buffet from 5 to 9 a.m. and a dinner buffet from 5 to 9 p.m. For lunch, they offer “no-fuss sack lunches,” including a sandwich, chips, and cookies, which can be brought on your backcountry adventures. There’s also a small gift shop adjacent to the cafe that sells sundries like granola bars, fruit leather, and candy. 

In the same building as the cafe is The Frozen Foot Saloon, which sells reasonably priced beer and wine. 

Things to Do in (and Around) Coldfoot, Alaska

Northern Lights above mountains in Coldfoot, Alaska

Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images

Arguably the main reason people visit Coldfoot is to see the northern lights. Chances are, if it’s a clear night, they’ll appear at some point. It’s impossible to say when, so often it’s a waiting game. Luckily, it’s an activity you can do from the warmth of your accommodations (though if you prefer, Coldfoot Camp offers a nightly excursion to the village of Wiseman to await the aurora borealis in a heated cabin with hot beverages and a knowledgeable guide). 

A good resource for gauging when the lights may appear is the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Their website offers some predictions. There are also oodles of apps that can alert you to the possibility of a solar show in your area. 

Alaskan Sled Dogs Pulling Red Sled on Snow Mushing Tour through Coldfoot, Alaska

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If you’re looking for a guided adventure during the day, Coldfoot Camp can arrange one. Here are a few standout options (all of which can be booked through their reservations office):

  • Koyukuk River Float: Only offered from mid-May to mid-September (the rest of the year is just too cold), this float down the Koyukuk River offers visitors the opportunity to learn about the flora and fauna of Arctic Alaska with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. With any luck, you may even see a moose or bear from the safety of your raft.
  • Arctic Snowshoe Outing: Though this is a guided activity, it’s still a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure trip, as guests can dictate how far they want to snowshoe along the Clara Creek. Hot drinks and snacks are served along the way.
  • Dog Sledding: Coldfoot Camp’s resident musher takes guests on daily one-hour backcountry trail runs with their team of sled dogs. Afterward, visitors can tour the kennel and meet the racers.
  • Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve Flightseeing Tour: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is the northernmost national park in the U.S. It’s also the second largest, but the least visited. There aren't roads or infrastructure of any kind in the park, so unless you’re highly skilled, it’s not advisable to go on your own. However, one way to visit this national park is via a flightseeing tour. Coldfoot Camp can arrange a one-hour flight to see some of the 8,472,506 acres of Alaska’s wild and raw Arctic backcountry.
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