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Best Time To Visit Alaska: Weather, Wildlife And Events

Jaw-dropping, majestic, and photographic might be words to describe the landscapes in Alaska. It’s one of the most beautiful and unique states in the United States, but it is a destination often forgotten by those living further south.

When planning a trip, deciding on the best time to visit Alaska depends on the desired activities and sights, as well as the region to visit.

If you’re interested in seeing the Northern Lights, the optimal time to travel contrasts greatly with seeing whales in their natural habitat and salmon fishing season.

Snow-capped mountains in Glacier Bay National Park

The Last Frontier is known for many things. Magnificent tidewater glaciers, the towering Denali, the wildlife “big 5,” coastal fjords, arctic tundra, and the annual Iditarod race that travels from Seward to Nome.

With so many bucket list possibilities, choosing a month or a season is a tough choice.

Understanding Alaska’s Seasons

Alaska is a land of diverse weather patterns, and its seasons don’t necessarily align with other tourist destinations.

The state’s location in the far north of the United States means that its seasons are unique and often extreme. Understanding the seasons in Alaska and its unpredictable weather is essential for planning a visit to the state.

Spring In Alaska

Spring in Alaska is a time of change, as the snow and ice begin to melt, bears emerge from hibernation, and the days start to get longer. The season typically starts in April and lasts until June. May in Alaska is wonderful and our favorite time to visit.

Humpback whale
A humpback whale I spotted near Juneau

Expect a mixed bag when it comes to weather, with snowfall still on higher elevations, often mixed with rain. Although, spring is also a great time to see the state’s wildlife, as animals welcome young and humpback whales arrive from Hawaii to their summer feeding grounds.

It can be fun watching their surface behaviors that range from tail slaps and fin waves to colossal lunges above the water’s surface. The truly lucky ones might even witness the phenomena of bubble-net feeding.

CITYHIGHS/LOWSDAYLIGHT
Anchorage41F/28F15.5 hrs
Fairbanks39F/20F16 hrs
Juneau38F/30F15 hrs
Ketchikan47F/36F14.5 hrs

Summer In Alaska

Summer in Alaska is short but sweet, with long days and mild weather. The season typically starts in mid-June and lasts until August or September. Expect crowds in popular destinations, and higher than usual pricing, no matter the transportation mode.

Riding an e-bike in Skagway
Riding an e-bike in Alaska in July

During this time, the state experiences 24 hours of daylight in places like Barrow. Other hot spots like Fairbanks have little darkness, ideal for outdoor activities like fishing, hiking, kayaking, and biking. If you’re a night owl, visiting the Last Frontier in June offers extended daylight hours for activities.

However, mosquitoes are prevalent in the rainforest, until the night frost keeps the bugs at bay. Expect wetter weather by the end of August and more chances of rain into September.

While this chart features the daytime averages, we’ve experienced mid-80s in July on one trip, and rain every day on another vacation.

CITYHIGHS/LOWSDAYLIGHT
Anchorage61F/46F19.5 hrs
Fairbanks69F/52F21.45 hrs
Juneau58F/48F18.3 hrs
Ketchikan64F/52F17.5 hrs

Fall In Alaska

Autumn in Alaska is a time of transition, as the leaves begin to change color and the temperatures start to drop. The season typically starts in September and lasts until October or November. Like spring, expect fewer crowds and lower prices on hotels and cruises.

Denali in the fall with warm colors
Denali in the fall

The days begin to get shorter, and the weather becomes wetter, with snowstorms becoming more common on higher ground. Although, fall is also a great time to see the state’s wildlife, as bears begin to prepare for winter.

Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park is a popular place to watch bears binge feed on salmon. Admiralty Island, home to over 1500 coastal brown bears, provides another destination to watch the omnivores feast in Pack Creek.

However, many tour operators wrap up the year in early to mid-September so arriving after that means missing out on bucket list adventures.

CITYHIGHS/LOWSDAYLIGHT
Anchorage42F/32F12.3 hrs
Fairbanks35F/22F12.5 hrs
Juneau41F/34F12.3 hrs
Ketchikan49F/41F12.25 hrs

Winter In Alaska

Winter in Alaska is long and harsh, with temperatures dropping to -40°F in some areas. Winter starts in late October and lasts until mid-April. With few hours of daylight or none at all, it may seem much colder.

While winter travel isn’t on most travelers’ radar, it can be a wonderful time to enjoy unique seasonal activities like snow mobiling, skiing, dog sledding, and ice fishing.

The days are short, with only a few hours of daylight in some parts of the state. However, winter is also a great time to see the Northern Lights, take the Alaska Winter Train, and savor the wintery landscapes with few tourists.

Alaska winter train
Alaska winter train

So, bundle up, embrace the cold weather, and visit the Fairbanks Ice Museum, a little gem that’s just as cold inside as outside.

Keep in mind that some roads and attractions may be closed due to snow and ice. Since Alaska is vast, weather can greatly vary with extreme tundra conditions up north to barmier conditions in the southeast. Fairbanks, being closer to the arctic circle, is much colder than other regions.

CITYHIGHS/LOWSDAYLIGHT
Anchorage25F/15F5.45 hrs
Fairbanks6F/-5F4.45 hrs
Juneau24F/17F6.5 hrs
Ketchikan35F/30F7.25 hrs

Road Trip Vs. Cruising

When planning a trip to Alaska, one of the first decisions to make is whether to take a road trip or a cruise. Both options offer unique experiences and come with their own advantages and disadvantages. Here, we will discuss the best months for each option.

Best Months For A Road Trip

Mid-May through to mid-September are the best months to hit the road. During this time, the weather is milder, and the days are longer, allowing for more time to explore the state’s vast wilderness.

The peak season for road trips is from June to August, when the roads are fully open. Popular routes include Anchorage to Denali, Anchorage to Seward and Homer, as well as the Alaska Hwy from Fairbanks to Tok.

Alternatively, the Alaska Railroad provides a scenic way to tour the state’s vast wilderness, while allowing someone else to do the driving.

Best Months For Cruising

May to September offers the best time for Alaska cruising. The peak season for cruising is from June to August, when the days are the longest.

However, this also means that the ports can be crowded, and the prices can be higher. April/May and September/October are shoulder seasons for cruising, offering lower prices and fewer crowds, but cooler temperatures.

Hubbard Glacier from the Promenade deck on the Queen Elizabeth
Viewing Hubbard Glacier from my cruise ship

Taking a cruise and land tour combines the best of both worlds. Most of these packages combine a 7-day cruise with 3 to 11 days on land, depending on the budget. Some of the longer trips travel into the Yukon to Whitehorse and Dawson City.

When deciding between a road trip and a cruise, consider your preferences and travel style. A road trip gives more flexibility and the ability to explore off-the-beaten-path destinations.

On the other hand, a cruise offers the best way to see Alaska’s tidewater glaciers such as Hubbard in Disenchantment Bay, and Margerie in Glacier Bay National Park.

Overall Guide

Alaska is a state that offers a variety of experiences throughout the year, from wildlife viewing to the Northern Lights. The following may help to narrow down your target season.

When Can I See The Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, can be seen in Alaska from late September to April. The peak viewing period is in December and January.

Alaska's aurora borealis
Aurora borealis in Alaska

During this time, the nights are long, and the sky is dark, which creates the perfect conditions for viewing the colorful Aurora. Some hotels even offer a wake-up call if the aurora appears, and passengers have seen them on end of the season cruises.

However, the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon and can be unpredictable, so it is important to check the weather and aurora forecast.

Best Months For Wildlife Viewing

Alaska is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including bears, moose, caribou, and whales. The best months for wildlife viewing depend on the type of wildlife you want to see.

In southeast Alaska, look for Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goats, and Stellar sea lions in winter. By spring, humpback whales arrive, bears emerge from hibernation, and tufted puffins are visible in northern coastal regions.

Salmon, moose, mountain goats and deer are sighted more often in summer, while fall starts the raptor migration. Harbor seals and sea lions continue to be sighted throughout the warmer months.

Sea lions spotted near Hubbard Glacier
Sea lions spotted near Hubbard Glacier

Beaver are more active in autumn, and certain animals (moose, deer, and goats) are in rut. The rut is particularly wonderful to witness, as dominant males fight for the right to be the alpha male.

Central Alaska has other species, such as the artic fox and caribou, seen in winter, and Dall sheep, Bison, and wolves, spotted year-round.

Summer Solstice Vs. Winter Solstice

Alaska experiences long days during the summer solstice, which occurs around June 21st. During this time, the sun can be seen for up to 24 hours in some parts of the state.

In contrast, Alaska experiences long nights during the winter solstice, which occurs around December 21st. The amount of daylight can factor into the decision of which season to travel.

Activities And Events

Each season offers events and activities, which may also play a part in the decision process. Here are some of the top ones to keep in mind when deciding on the best season to travel.

Spring in Alaska is a good time to visit if you’re interested in birdwatching or whale watching, as many species are starting to migrate back to the state. Some popular spring events include the Alaska Folk Festival and the Girdwood Spring Carnival.

Summer is the peak tourist season in Alaska, and for good reason. Some popular events during the summer months include the Anchorage Summer Solstice Festival and the Sitka Summer Music Festival. It’s also a great time to ride one of Alaska’s gondolas for picturesque views.

Fall in Alaska is a time of transition, and a good time to visit if you’re interested in fishing, as many species are in season. Some popular fall events include the Alaska State Fair and the Kodiak Crab Festival.

Dog sledding in winter
Dog sledding in winter

With snow at lower elevations, dog sledding doesn’t require an expensive helicopter. This is also the best time to see the Northern Lights. Some popular winter events include the Fur Rendezvous Festival in Anchorage and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Alaska Travel Tips

When planning a trip to Alaska, it’s important to keep a few things in mind to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience. Here are some travel tips for Alaska:

How Many Days Do You Need To See Alaska?

As such a large state, covering 663,300 square miles, unless you have unlimited time you won’t be able to see it all in one Alaska trip.

On a road trip, while 7 to 14 days is often recommended, by focusing on one area and taking a variety of shorter excursions, a five- to seven-day trip can make for a good first visit.

You’ll get an overview of the unforgettable scenery, wildlife, the chance to enjoy some outdoor adventures, and perhaps delve into the state’s history.

If you have more than a couple of weeks, you can create a truly epic trip. Consider driving to Alaska in your vehicle, or doing a cruise and land tour, with perhaps the occasional flightseeing tour.

Dress In Layers

Alaska’s weather can be unpredictable, so it’s important to dress in layers. This will allow you to easily adjust to changing temperatures throughout the day.

Brian wearing a Helly Hanson 3-in-1 jacket
Brian dressed in layers and a waterproof jacket

We recommend bringing a waterproof jacket, warm hat, gloves, and sturdy shoes. Having access to laundry will cut down on the number of packing items.

Bring Insect Repellent

During the summer months, mosquitoes and other insects can be a nuisance in Alaska. We recommend bringing insect repellent to avoid being bitten.

Consider Booking A Tour

Alaska is a vast state with many remote areas that can be difficult or impossible to access on your own. Consider booking a tour to ensure you see all the highlights and don’t miss out on any must-do activities.

Activities that require an excursion include dog sledding on a glacier, flightseeing, helicopter flight and walkabout, and float plane to Misty Fjords.

Cruise passengers can get closer to Hubbard, Sawyer, and Dawes Glaciers on a Glacier Explorer Tour, booked through their cruise line.

Prepare For Daylight

During the summer, Alaska experiences long hours of daylight, with some areas experiencing 24 hours of light. This can affect your sleep schedule, so we recommend bringing an eye mask to ensure a good night’s rest.

Conclusion

The best time to travel to Alaska ultimately depends on your preferences and chosen activities. The summer months from May to September are the best months to experience the midnight sun, go hiking, or see wildlife.

However, the winter months from November to March are the optimal time to see the Northern Lights. It’s important to note that some activities may not be available during the winter months due to weather conditions.

So, whether you choose to discover Southeast Alaska in spring with its many emerald islands or make a early fall trip in search of salmon, an Alaska trip is sure to provide countless memories, and a yearning to return again.

Snow-capped mountains in Alaska, aurora borealis and dog sledding in winter