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Alaska in May: Weather And Activities In The Shoulder Season

May is a great month to travel to Alaska and in fact, it’s my favorite time to visit. The snow melts as the landscape transitions to warmer weather, and the wildlife becomes more active.

The weather is milder, and the days are getting longer, making it an ideal time to explore the Last Frontier. We savored the not-so-chilly weather in the early weeks and enjoyed the mountain vistas still covered in snow.

There are many things to do and see when traveling to Alaska in May. Consider hiking, wildlife watching, taking a train ride, or attending one of the many festivals and events happening across the state.

Disenchantment Bay in May
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From the Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau to the Kodiak Crab Festival, there is something for everyone to enjoy.

So, grab your reading glasses and a comfy chair while we cover the weather, what to pack, the best places to visit, and the top activities to try. Whether you are a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveler, we’ve got you covered.

Weather Overview

Alaska’s weather in May is very pleasant as most areas begin to warm up and the snow starts to melt. Southeast Alaska will warm up first, and the northern regions will follow later. Those from the south might find the weather a little cold in May and might be better to travel to Alaska in June.

Temperature Ranges

The temperature ranges in Alaska in spring can vary depending on the region. In the Arctic and Far North regions, temperatures can fall between the low 20s and mid-30s Fahrenheit.

The interior regions experience the warmest weather, with averages between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. When traveling by cruise ship, expect 35 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit in the coastal regions.

Spring Climate

In May, Alaska experiences a spring climate, making it a great time to explore the Last Frontier. The days are longer, with up to 22 hours of daylight, giving you more time to explore the beautiful scenery.

While May tends to be drier than the fall and winter months, you can still expect a mixed bag of weather conditions.

Visiting Mendenhall Glacier on a cool day in May

Rainfall is expected, so it is essential to pack rain gear. We prefer waterproof gear over water repellent because the latter doesn’t keep us dry on a six-hour outdoor excursion in the rain.

Snowfall is also possible at higher elevations, so be prepared for snow-covered landscapes and limited accessibility. Even in July, we’ve encountered snow in the White Pass near Skagway and Mount Roberts in Juneau.

Overall, visiting in May provides an excellent opportunity to experience the beauty of spring in Alaska. While spring flowers might not be out on higher elevations, it’s a great month to experience the transition out of winter.

What To Pack For An Alaska Trip In May

When traveling to the 49th state in May, it is essential to pack for changing weather conditions, even if the forecast calls for dry weather. We recommend bringing warm layers, as temperatures can range from the 40s to the 60s Fahrenheit.

Additionally, waterproof and windproof outer layers are essential, as rain and wind can be expected in coastal areas. Remember to pack sturdy, comfortable shoes for any hiking or outdoor activities.

Wearing Vessi shoes in the water at Nugget Falls
Wearing Vessi shoes in the water at Nugget Falls

Vessi shoes, our favorite runners, are waterproof, washable, and great for everyday wear. Avid hikers may prefer hiking boots with ankle support.

When traveling to a glacier, temperatures can be cooler but feel much colder near the ice.

Cruising In Alaska

Initially, cruise lines offered itineraries in May, but now some companies offer cruises in mid-April. Cruising offers one of the best ways to experience the state’s breathtaking scenery and wildlife. Plus, it’s the only way to see some tidewater glaciers.

Since most passengers prefer to cruise in July or August when kids are out of school, those who cruise in May could enjoy a vessel at less than capacity.

Hubbard Glacier in May
Hubbard Glacier in May

Here are some things to consider when choosing a cruise itinerary, deciding between early May and late May, and selecting cruise activities.

Choosing A Cruise Itinerary

When selecting a cruise itinerary, consider the ports of call and the activities available at each stop. Popular ports of call in Alaska include Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, Sitka, and Icy Strait Point.

Since not all ships have moved to Vancouver or Seattle for the Alaska season, Alaska ports will be less busy in May. If you’re not fond of crowds, a May cruise may suit you.

A cruise and land tour in May offers much lower pricing than one in July or August. Guests in Denali National Park may spot larger mammals as they move to feeding grounds.

It’s best to avoid itineraries to Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm in the first few weeks of May. During those weeks, ice in the channel often prevents ships from reaching the end of the fjord where Dawes and Sawyer Glaciers sit.

Cruising in Tracy Arm Fjord
Cruising through Tracy Arm Fjord in May

Additionally, when looking at shore excursions, some tours, such as dog sledding on a glacier or flightseeing, may be offered from mid-May onwards. As mountains are still experiencing snow melts in May, expect to encounter muddy trails or even impassible ones in some areas.

Early May Vs Late May

Factor in the weather when deciding between early May and late May for your Alaska cruise. Early May can be colder as the region emerges from winter, with temperatures ranging from the mid-30s to mid-50s Fahrenheit.

Even a week can make a huge difference. I’ve worn long pants and a coat one week and capris and a t-shirt the following week. However, when it comes to weather, it’s all about luck.

It’s why most tour operators don’t kick-start their businesses until mid-month.

Late May tends to be warmer, with temperatures ranging from the mid-40s to mid-60s Fahrenheit. However, both early and late May offer unique advantages.

Early May has fewer crowds, better pricing, and more opportunities to see wildlife like bears and deer. However, late May has longer days, slightly warmer weather, more whale sightings, and additional opportunities for outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, and boating.

Arriving in Juneau on a wet day in May
Arriving in Juneau on a wet day in May

Cruise Activities

Alaska cruises offer a wide range of onboard activities, from spa treatments to cooking classes. Those who like to swim should select a cruise ship with an indoor pool.

However, many passengers choose Alaska cruises for the outdoor activities available at each port of call. Some popular activities include:

  • Mendenhall Glacier: Visiting Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center provides an opportunity to see another glacier, one that’s rapidly retreating.
  • Dog sledding: If the budget allows, experience the thrill of dog sledding on a glacier or through the Alaskan wilderness. Glacier dog sledding, while a bucket list excursion is offered from mid-May onwards. Dog mushing on dirt is a more affordable option for families.
  • White Pass & Yukon Route Railway: The White Pass Railroad offers trains from Skagway into the Yukon as soon as ships arrive. It takes two weeks to clear the tracks of snow for the start of the season. This ride in vintage rail cars is a must for anyone visiting Skagway.
Riding the White Pass train in Skagway
Riding the White Pass train in Skagway

No matter what activities you choose, an Alaska cruise in May is sure to be an unforgettable experience.

Outdoor Adventures

May is a great time to explore the outdoors in Alaska. The weather is mild, and there are plenty of activities to enjoy. Here are some of the best outdoor adventures to experience in Alaska in May.

Hiking Trails

Many cruise lines offer guided hikes on glaciers like Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau. Check the timing, as many of these tours aren’t offered until the later weeks.

Alternatively, travelers can enjoy a plethora of hiking trails in all ports and cities, and May is a great time to explore them. The lower elevation trails are usually free of snow, except for the ones at the top of Mount Roberts gondola in Juneau.

In the early weeks, trekkers will benefit from the lack of mosquitoes. However, as the weeks progress, the pesky bugs accompany hikers uninvited. They’re in a rainforest, after all.

Some of the best hiking trails in Alaska include the Portage Pass Trail, Flat Top Mountain Trail, and the Twin Peaks Trail. These trails offer stunning views of glaciers, mountains, and wildlife.

For a more leisurely trail, the route to Nugget Falls at Mendenhall Glacier is suitable for all ages, regardless of your hiking ability. Treks to waterfalls are lovely in spring, as the winter melt creates gushing cascades not seen in the warmer months.

Visiting Nugget Falls
Visiting Nugget Falls in early May

Observing Wildlife

May is a great time to observe Alaska’s wildlife, but it’s important to do so responsibly. In spring, animals welcome new life, and it’s important to view them at a safe distance. You never want to get between a protective mother and her young.

We recommend booking a guided excursion with a reputable company to ensure a safe and respectful experience. It’s essential to keep a safe distance from animals and never approach or feed them.

As bears emerge from hibernation, you’re more likely to see them on higher ground. The Klondike Hwy from Skagway to Emerald Lake is a prime example.

Humpback whales are arriving in Alaska to begin binge feeding during the warmer months to sustain them through the winter.

Whale Watching Tours

May is the perfect time to take a whale watching tour in Alaska. The whales are migrating north and may accompany your cruise ship, if that’s your mode of transportation.

Some of the best places to go whale watching in Alaska include Seward, Juneau, and Icy Strait Point. Species spotted include humpback whales, orcas, and gray whales. 

Humpbacks migrate from Hawaii to feed in Alaska’s marine-rich waters during summer. Males, usually the stronger swimmers, arrive in early May, followed by the females and their young.

Whales misty flume
Spotting a whale’s misty flume

No matter where you book a tour, most operators guarantee sightings.

Fishing Opportunities

Alaska is known for its world-class fishing. King salmon fishing begins in May, so it’s a prime opportunity for avid anglers. The later weeks welcome the start of halibut season.

Some of the best places to go fishing in Alaska include the Kenai River, the Copper River, and the Kasilof River. You can fish from the shore, go to a lake for trout fishing, or hire a guide to take you out on a boat. Many places will even clean, package, and ship your catch home.

Overall, May is a great time to explore the outdoors in Alaska. Whether you enjoy hiking, whale watching, or fishing, there is something for everyone. Just remember to wear the right clothing according to the weather and bring plenty of water and snacks.

Festivals In May

Alaska is not only known for its stunning, untouched landscapes but also its rich cultural heritage. The month of May is an excellent time to experience Alaska’s cultural events and festivals, which range from quirky to creative and everything in between.

One of May’s biggest and most popular festivals is the Kodiak Crab Festival. It takes place over Memorial Day weekend in the charming coastal town of Kodiak. The festival features vendors, live music, food, carnival rides, and the best part, fresh crab.

Another festival worth checking out is the Sitka Whalefest, which celebrates the migration of gray whales and other marine wildlife. The festival includes lectures, music, and a parade.

But for some, the Great Alaska Craft Beer Festival in Haines is a must-visit to celebrate what Alaska is great at – brewing beer!

Hubbard Glacier, Alaska in May, harbor seals and a waterfall in Tracy Arm Fjord