On a recent Sunday evening, as a snowstorm moved into the area, Denali Brewing Co.'s downtown Talkeetna location was buzzing.
Couples and families filled wooden booths in the main dining room. A Salmon Berry Tours group exploring Alaska took over a table in the middle of the action. The bar seats were full, too, occupied with a mix of chatty travelers and locals who told moose-sighting stories, shared beer samples and discussed the previous weekend's ski race.
Talkeetna's population swells in the summer, when seasonal workers station in Alaska and cruise ship guests, tour groups and independent travelers make their way to the 49th state. Winters certainly are quieter in this small town (the most recent U.S. Census registered Talkeetna's population at 876), and some businesses close during the colder months.
Still, the region's off-season scene appeals to a wide audience.
A jump in winter tourism was something I heard about throughout my March visit to Talkeetna and Fairbanks, and on Alaska Railroad trips between the two destinations. Tour groups hopped on and off at Denali National Park, Healy and Fairbanks on the northbound journey; while traveling south, I asked a dining car staffer how that day's numbers compared to a typical winter outing.
"Today is busy, but it feels manageable. Yesterday was even busier - we served about 300 people," he said, adding that the team frequently welcomes between 300 and 500 guests on summer days.
The Alaska Railroad is addressing increased winter demand with a new Denali in a Day tour and additional midweek Aurora Winter Train service introduced earlier this winter.
The story was similar in Fairbanks, where Anchorage-based Salmon Berry Tours responded to a boost in winter bookings by opening a seasonal satellite. The company now runs a handful of fully guided and all-inclusive tours out of Alaska's Golden Heart City.
Jerry Evans of Explore Fairbanks reported that other area operators have added ice fishing, snow machining and dog mushing experiences to already-popular aurora borealis tours. The destination has seen an uptick in charters, as well, including many groups visiting from Asia.
Outside of Fairbanks, at Chena Hot Springs Resort, a pool house clerk checked in tour guests and groups of friends arriving for an evening soak.
"This is our busiest time of the year," she said as she handed out towels and talked newcomers through the hot springs experience. A post on the Chena Hot Springs Facebook page confirmed that the resort was nearly fully booked through the end of March.
Back in Talkeetna, several annual happenings keep hotels busy this time of year. March opens with Iditarod-related events at select properties, followed by the Trio in Talkeetna Fat-Bike World Championship race. This year, the annual Oosik Classic Ski Race/Tour drew also more than 700 competitors, crew and spectators to Talkeetna in mid-March.
Baking pies at the Talkeetna Roadhouse. Photo Credit: Renee Brincks
By next month, the town will begin welcoming climbers who are gearing up to explore the Alaska Range and summit Denali. As of March 20, 452 individuals had registered for mandatory pre-climb orientation at the National Park Service's Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station.
Many will stay at the Talkeetna Roadhouse before and after they tackle the challenging routes.
During my March stay, I asked about business during a pie-baking class with Talkeetna Roadhouse owner Trisha Costello. She said that the property's six rooms and associated cabins frequently sell out in the late winter and early spring.
Some guests travel from afar for special events, aurora viewing and outdoor adventures. In fact, I heard several international travelers and out-of-staters swap stories about mountaineering excursions and skiing routes over breakfast at the property's family-style dining tables.
Other guests, Costello added, are locals enjoying a winter getaway.
"We get a lot of guests from Anchorage and Wasilla, and really from all across Alaska. Here, we consider everyone in Alaska to be local," she said.