In 1971, the coldest temperature ever recorded in the United States was taken at a small settlement called Prospect Creek, located about 180 miles North of Fairbanks, Alaska. It was -80 degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s without windchill. Vostok, Antarctica, holds the world record lowest temperature at -129 degrees F. Almost nobody lives in either of those places, fortunately.
But there are cities – real cities, with thousands of people living in them – in the U.S., however, that regularly deal with numbingly low temperatures of their own. Fairbanks, Alaska’s average monthly minimum temperature is nearly -17 degrees F, for example. Duluth, Minnesota’s is a comparatively balmy 1.5 degrees F, but still sits comfortably on the list of the top five coldest cities in the country, compiled by USA Today last year using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Not surprisingly, the other three cities on the list are in North Dakota.
I lived in Duluth, Minnesota, for five years. Alaska for two. And I can vouch for the validity of both Duluth’s and Fairbank’s place on the list of coldest cities in the U.S. I’ve also spent a lot of time in North Dakota, having grown up in neighboring Minnesota. It is unquestionably cold in the winter. I also know there’s more to each town on this list than the bone-chilling numbers would lead you to believe. That’s why the people who choose to live in these frigid places call it home, and why it might actually be worth putting on a jacket (and at least a couple other layers) to check them out.
The five coldest cities in the country are cooler than you might think.
- Duluth, Minnesota
Average monthly minimum temp.: 1.5 F
Average monthly maximum temp.: 55.4 F
Lowest recorded temp: -41 F (1885)
Minnesota’s Duluth is the perfect mixture of Midwest small town friendliness and big (enough) city life, with the largest lake in the world (by surface area) on its front porch. In short: It’s flannel country. Positioned at the westernmost tip of Lake Superior, the country’s farthest inland port city is home to two colleges (three, if you count the one in neighboring Superior, Wisc., across the river), and 23 parks. Travel across the lift bridge in downtown and cruise 7-mile Park Point, the world’s largest freshwater sandbar (also a surfable beach break), or head north up historic Highway 61, three hours toward the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Some of the best micro brewed beer in the Midwest can be found at Fitger’s Brewhouse, and sea kayaking in the Apostles Islands is only an hour and a half away once the ice melts off the lake.
- Williston, North Dakota
Average monthly minimum temp.: 0.1 F
Average monthly maximum temp.: 55.8 F
Lowest recorded temp: -50 F (1983)
Population: 36,000 and growing…
In 2010, there was about 14,000 people in Williston, North Dakota. At that time, it was a small and shrinking agricultural town, located near the Northwestern border of the state, far away from just about everything except wide-open spaces. Then oil industry engineers figured out a way to extract oil from the Bakken formation, one of the largest deposits of oil in the United States, which Williston, conveniently, sits directly on top of. The city now has more than twice as many people living in it, and continues to grow rapidly. Using the influx of oil money, the now booming, but still relatively small rural Western town has built a new $70-million high school, a $68-million recreation center, and completely new water and sewer systems. Check out the Frontier Museum while you’re in town to learn about the town’s early history and then drive up to Cut Bluff Lookout for one of the best views of the Great Plains around. The rolling badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are also just 60 miles south of town, too.
- Fargo, North Dakota
Average monthly minimum temp.: 0.1 F
Average monthly maximum temperature: 59.5 F
Lowest recorded temp: -38 F (1982)
Once known as “The Gateway to the West,” Fargo is now the largest city in North Dakota, and is home to about 15% of the entire state’s population. Beautifully situated on the Western bank of the Red River, it’s only a hair warmer than nearby Grand Forks. The average monthly minimum temperature is one tenth of a degree above zero. Still, this bustling ice-cold city is the center of commerce, agriculture, and industry for the entire state, as well as Northwestern Minnesota. (The Minnesota city of Moorhead is just across the river, but slightly warmer on average.) Forbes has consistently named Fargo one of the top small cities to start a business or a career. While you’re there, visit the Red River Zoo and check out the Fargo Air Museum, which has a large collection of still air-worthy historic aircraft.
- Grand Forks, North Dakota
Average monthly minimum temp.: -3.1 F
Average monthly maximum temp.: 56.3 F
Lowest recorded temp: -39 F (2004)
The third largest city in North Dakota is also its coldest, according to its average monthly minimum and maximum temperatures (-3.F and 56.3F, respectively). It’s also home to the University of North Dakota and the Red River, which does have a tendency to flood, but is just plain beautiful most of the time. The city is one of the country’s top producers of honey, too; at least when the bees aren’t hibernating. Be sure to check out the North Dakota Museum of Art while you’re there and to walk the university grounds, since it’s beautiful year-round.
- Fairbanks, Alaska
Average monthly minimum temp.: -16.9 F
Average monthly maximum temp.: 52.3 F
Lowest recorded temp.: -60 F (1969)
Being the coldest city in the country comes with a few perks besides being able to quickly chill your beer outside. If you wear warm base and midlayers under your down parka, you can comfortably see the aurora borealis (the Northern Lights) 200 days a year in Fairbanks, on average. The city also hosts the World Ice Art Championships each year, and has hundreds of miles of cross-country ski trails. There are conveniently placed outlets in most parking lots throughout the city, so residents can plug in their engine block heaters when they park in the winter, too. Engines have a tendency to freeze at -20F otherwise.
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