Twenty-four-hour darkness and sun at midnight. Ice-worm festivals and sweltering outdoor salmon bakes. Sun-dappled rainforest and freezing-cold arctic tundra. Alaska is a place of extreme seasonal and regional contrasts.
In a state that practically invented social distancing, you’ll rarely encounter crowds, but costs can be high, and the weather can deliver an uncomfortable shiver even in spring and fall. Here are some pointers on the best time to visit the Last Frontier.
High season: May to September
Best time for wildlife viewing
Summer is the best all-round season to visit Alaska. You can hike late into the evening (the sun never sets in the far north), bask in surprisingly balmy temperatures, and enjoy the state’s greatest feature – its spellbinding wilderness – without having to worry about aggressive snowstorms, inaccessible backcountry, and shuttered facilities. Not surprisingly, over 85% of Alaska’s annual visitors arrive between May and September, a large portion of them on cruise ships whose sailings coincide with the warmer weather.
This is the season when almost everything is open – from national park visitor centers to ice cream vendors – and the wildlife is at its most active. By July, most trails are accessible, migrating salmon attract humongous bears to riverbanks, and the fishing season is in full swing.
Minor downsides include higher costs for accommodation and the sporadic invasion of day-trippers in small towns where cruise ships dock.
Shoulder season: April and October
Best time for self-sufficient budget seekers
The climate of Alaska’s panhandle, the long sliver of land that cuts into British Columbia is balmier than the interior. If you want to enjoy some early or late season outdoor activities (including hiking, biking, and kayaking) before or after the cruise ships arrive, April and October are worth considering in this region. Expect plenty of rain and perhaps a little snow and bear in mind that a lot of businesses shut up shop when the cruisers go home. As a result, you’ll need to be more self-sufficient during the shoulder months.
Some smaller cruise-ships begin their southern Alaska itineraries in early April.
Low season: November to March
Best time for the aurora borealis
Winter is mainly for hardcore travelers. Skiing is popular, but mostly local. The state’s diminutive ski areas lack the international reputation of Aspen or Whistler. Other winter activities such as dogsledding and snowmobiling are also on the menu.
Winter is very dark and very cold with cruise-ship orientated businesses closing and classic outdoor activities like kayaking and backcountry hiking becoming difficult to access. Wild animals are less visible in the snow, including the colossal bears who go into hibernation.
Notwithstanding, there are few bright spots. The aurora borealis (northern lights) is more spectacular during the longer, darker nights, particularly in the north around Fairbanks. A few esoteric festivals attract specialist travelers. The famous Yukon Quest and Iditarod dog-sledding races draw spectators to Fairbanks and Nome in February and March respectively.
It’s c-c-c-cold! Only the courageous visit Alaksa in January. The rewards? Spectacular northern lights, artistic ice-sculpting, uncrowded skiing, and dog mushing. You can even take a ride on the Aurora winter train between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Key events: Willow Winter Carnival.
The freeze continues with temperatures struggling to break above 0ºF (-17.8ºC), but weak rays of sunlight start to filter back to the dark settlements in the far north.
Key events: Yukon Quest (Fairbanks), Cordova Ice-worm festival.
The chill continues with glimmers of light on the horizon. With longer days and slightly less frigid temperatures, March is possibly the best month for winter activities and welcomes one of Alaska’s biggest events, the Iditarod dogsledding race.
Key events: Iditarod (Nome), Tired Iron (Fairbanks).
The spring melt is on and people start preparing for the summer bonanza. Daylight stretches beyond 9pm in Fairbanks and hiking at lower elevations becomes possible in the panhandle.
Key events: Alaska Folk Festival (Juneau).
The cruise-ship season transforms Alaskan ports including Ketchikan, Skagway, and Seward into busy hubs. Seasonal roads such as the Top of the World highway open for traffic.
Key events: Kodiak Crab Festival, Little Norway Festival (Petersburg).
School’s out and family-orientated cruise-ships hit the ports in the southeast. Most trails are becoming snow-free, Denali National Park opens its main road to buses, and the midnight sun brings magic to the land north of the Arctic Circle.
Key events: Spenard Jazz Fest (Anchorage), Midnight Sun Festival (Fairbanks), Nalukataq (Utqiagvik).
Active salmon runs attract big brown bears, particularly to iconic rivers in Katmai National Park and Kodiak Island. Days are long, temperatures are warm, and spirits are high.
Key events: Mt Marathon Race (Seward), World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (Fairbanks).
Summer continues and the landscape is almost fully defrosted. Hit the high elevation trails. This is the perfect season for long-distance hiking and kayaking excursions. Ripe berries attract hungry bears.
Key events: Alaska State Fair (Palmer), Gold Rush Days (Valdez).
A crossover month where you can still partake in hiking but may also get a chance to glimpse the northern lights. Prices drop as cruise traffic diminishes. Fall comes early in the north.
Key events: Seward Music & Arts Festival.
Longer nights draw in. Cruise-ship dependent businesses close for winter. A distinct off-season atmosphere takes hold.
Key events: Alaska Day Festival.
Tourists are as rare as polar bears, but Alaska’s local nightlife is buoyant in larger towns and cities driven by an all-in-this-together sense of community.
Key events: Sitka WhaleFest, Alaska Bald Eagle Festival (Haines).
Put on warm clothes, requisition a snowmobile, and grab a camera to capture the unique beauty of an Alaskan winter. Clearer skies mean the ice-crusted face of Denali is more visible than it is in the summer.
Key events: Winter Solstice.