Most people think of traveling to Alaska in the summer. That’s a splendid time, yet every
season offers distinct—and distinctly unforgettable—pleasures. From the northern lights of winter to fall’s quiet beauty, Alaska puts on a show year-round.

Travelers deciding on the best time to go should consider what they want to see and do, and factor in the weather. Cost conscious? You can save by visiting in early fall or spring when fewer visitors are around. Here, we’ve put together a guide to what’s best for Alaska travel in every season.

Alaska travel in spring

In April and early May, Alaskans bid winter goodbye—often in fun ways. At the ski resort in Girdwood, competitors try to ski across a large puddle at the foot of the mountain.

Snow is still hanging around in northern regions and higher elevations, such as Denali National Park and Preserve. This is the time to go if you’re moved by majestic, white-tipped peaks and want to enjoy the park with fewer visitors—perhaps stopping by its dog kennels or hiking near the Murie Science and Learning Center.

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In more temperate south-central Alaska, migrating birds attract folks to the sandy shorelines of Homer for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in early May. More than 130 species were spotted during the 2020 event—from snow geese to short-eared owls. Spring, too, marks the advent of whale-watching season, and the town of Kodiak celebrates Whale Fest in late April as the leviathans pass on their way from Hawaii to their Alaskan summer feeding grounds.

Weather tip: May is relatively dry, with only a 25% chance of measurable rain on any given day. By August, the chance of rain is just over 50%.

Alaska travel in summer

Alaska’s in full swing from mid-May to mid-September, thanks to comfortable daytime temps and extra hours of daylight. Even the flowers know it’s their time to shine: Fireweed, the state’s showy, hot-pink perennial, blazes along the roadsides.

In June, Anchorage sees up to 19 hours of sunlight a day, and statewide temperatures are sublime: A typical summer day up north in Fairbanks hovers in the 70s, while coastal spots such as Sitka enjoy weather in the 60s. It’s perfect for Last Frontier fun like salmon fishing, gold panning and hiking.

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Whale-watching is good all summer, too, with the best months in June and July—when 500 or so humpback whales make the Inside Passage their home, putting on breathtaking displays. (The bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve are most active now, as well, and it’s worth a day trip to see them catching salmon or playing in the falls.) Alaskan cruises typically ply the waters throughout the season, so you can coast along the icy landscape of Glacier Bay and dock at charming ports such as Skagway, Haines and Ketchikan.

Weather tip: Pack a swimsuit—by day, it’s often warm enough to enjoy your ship’s pool. At night, temps can fall into the 40s and 50s, so layers are key, too.

Alaska travel in fall

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By Sept. 15, a noticeable calm sets in. Cruise ships have headed south for the winter, while autumn’s colors emerge—a glorious time for a road trip or train ride. Forests of birch, alder and aspen turn red and yellow, popping against the brilliant blue sky.

In Denali National Park and Preserve, the tundra’s shades of green transform into a carpet of red and gold. Travelers can take advantage of specials in lodging and transportation as the end of the busy season approaches. Locals find time now for their own trips, and you’re more likely to share a chat with them in one of Alaska’s roadside diners or on a hiking trail.

Weather tip: With fewer visitors in Denali, fall is a spectacular time to spot Dall sheep, bears and other creatures that call the park home year-round.

Alaska travel in winter

November to March is an increasingly popular time to visit—when the glorious aurora borealis competes with spectacular ski conditions and the handiwork of ice sculptors from around the world. For those chasing the northern lights, December to March is prime time, thanks to the long, dark nights.

Fairbanks makes an excellent base, offering many locally guided outings to special viewing spots—such as a hot spring or a cozy yurt. You can even ask your hotel if they offer a wake-up call when the northern lights are out, dancing in hues of green, teal and white. Back in town, Fairbanks has plenty of restaurants, plus the wonderful University of Alaska Museum of the North. March also brings the World Ice Art Championships, when you can watch sculptors from around the world carve massive ice blocks, and then view the results—illuminated by colored lights—along the Chena River.

’Tis the season, too, to take advantage of Alaska’s terrific ski conditions. Snow generally starts falling in mid-October and stays into mid-April. Three of the state’s seven ski resorts are within 50 minutes of downtown Anchorage, including luxurious Alyeska—renowned for its “steep and deep” powder and more than 1,600 skiable acres.

Weather tip: Sky gazers, bundle up in Fairbanks! Average temperatures in January fall between 0 and 15 degrees F, but can go much lower.

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This story was featured in the
September/October 2020 issue of AAALiving Magazine

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