Alaska conjures up images of extremes: endless darkness or the sun at midnight; arctic tundra or magnificent autumnal leaves; dog sledding through the snow or hiking through sun-dappled mountains; whale watching or ice fishing.
With all of these differences in weather, activities, and landscape, what is the best time to travel to Alaska?
In short, it really depends on what you’re looking for.
The best time to travel to Alaska is June-August for the scenery, wildlife, and weather.
For the Northern Lights, snow sports, and icy solitude, travel to Alaska in the winter months.
Spring and fall are shoulder seasons when you can get holiday discounts and fewer crowds, but the weather can be unpredictable.
No matter when you decide to visit, one thing should be known. The vast state of Alaska can be reached year-round, always offering some kind of gorgeous scenery, exciting sports, and fascinating festivals.
Ultimately, choosing the best time to visit Alaska depends on your priorities: are you looking for whale watching, a relaxed cruise, skiing, or a bargain deal on your vacation?
Let’s take a deeper look at the best times to travel to Alaska to meet every traveler’s needs.
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Best Time For All-Around Alaskan Travel: June-August
The ideal time to travel to Alaska is in the summer, from mid-June to mid-August. In fact, 85% of visitors to Alaska travel during the short summer season.
While this is one of the most beautiful times of the year to see Alaska, it does come with some drawbacks.
The peak travel season comes with the disadvantages of higher accommodation and food prices, larger crowds, facilities at peak capacity, and mosquitos. Still, these are minor compared to the advantages of seeing Alaska at its prime during these months.
Pro Tip: If traveling from June to August, you will want to book your summer vacation well in advance. Accommodations and flights tend to fill up fast.
Let’s look at why these are the best months for Alaskan tourism.
Best Time To Go For Weather
From July to August, you’ll bask in the best weather Alaska has to offer. The temperatures are pleasant, ranging from 63-73⁰F (17-22⁰C), and there are nearly 24 hours of daylight on 21 June, the year’s longest day.
We feel the need to call out the pleasant summer weather because of how much it contrasts with Alaskan winters. Don’t underestimate the aggressiveness and intensity of Alaska’s weather in the colder months!
Summer is the safest and most beautiful time to explore the Alaskan wilderness.
One of the main advantages of traveling to Alaska from mid-June is that snow has melted, even at higher elevations. All summer activities, like hiking, fishing, kayaking, or exploring Denali National Park and Glacier Bay National Park, are available and accessible.
You can fill the hours with visits to festivals because of the Midnight Sun – farmer’s markets, art, and music festivals abound, as does a special solstice celebration.
And while “summer” is the best time to visit Alaska, not all summer months are created equal. While June is dry and warm, August is one of the rainiest months, so be prepared for unpredictable weather as the summer progresses.
Best Time To Go For Wildlife
Another reason people love Alaska in the summer is the wealth of wildlife you can see, so be sure to pack your binoculars!
Many tourists visit Alaska to see the whale migrations and enjoy cruises where the massive marine mammals can be sighted. Summer is the season for beluga whales, orcas, and humpback whales, as they gather in feeding pods to feast on the bloom of phytoplankton caused by warm currents. By mid-August, the whales leave for warmer waters.
Other sea mammals to look out for are dolphins, seals, sea otters, and Pacific Walruses, unique to remote western Alaska.
In early summer, many animals give birth – at this point, you’ll have the chance to see bear cubs, seal pups, deer fawns, and moose calves!
With the spawning of salmon, streams and rivers attract bears and eagles, especially on Kodiak Island and in Katmai National Park. Also, look out for bears feasting on ripe berries as summer turns to fall.
Moose and muskoxen emerge for rutting season in August, and you can often see the animals congregating along public roads, lakes, streams, and rivers.
Like I said, there’s so much wildlife to see during the summer!
Best Time To Go For Scenery
Alaska’s natural surroundings are a sight to be seen in the summertime. As the snow melts, Tte landscape is transformed, with rushing rivers of icy melted snow, leafy trees, and blooming flowers.
Visiting in early June can still mean snow at high elevations and lots of mud on hiking trails. You can still appreciate the fantastic natural beauty when ziplining, kayaking, and on horseback tours.
Fishing in Alaska’s magnificent rivers is also a summer experience, best undertaken in July and August.
Best Time For Winter Alaskan Travel: February And March
Winter brings an entirely different atmosphere to Alaska, allowing you to revel in colder, snowy weather and the opportunities it brings.
One of the main advantages of winter travel is that it’s considered the off-season, so there will be far fewer tourists as many travelers tend to avoid the extreme, bitter weather and short, dark days.
Still, if you are keen on seeing the Northern Lights and participating in winter sports, this is the ideal time to visit Alaska.
Let’s examine why February and March are some of the best times to travel to Alaska.
Best For Northern Lights
If you want to see the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, your best option is to visit Alaska in February and March. It’s still dark at night, making viewing the natural spectacle ideal, but the skies are less hazy.
There are lodges open for viewing the Northern Lights, and you can snuggle up by the fire after chilly outings. Not too shabby of an experience if you ask me!
Best For Winter Sports
By February, the snow will be dry and perfect for sporting activities. These conditions coincide with longer days, with up to 12 hours of light per day by the end of February, with clear, warmer (less freezing) days.
You’ll have enough daylight to enjoy downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and ice skating.
By March, the snow may be thinning at lower elevations, but you can head north to continue with snow sports right into April. At this point of the year, you’ll also be able to start salmon fishing!
And in terms of events, the famous Yukon Quest and Iditarod dog sledding competitions occur in February and March, two of Alaska’s biggest drawcards this time of the year.
Best For Culture
The cold doesn’t deter Alaskans from embracing winter. Without tourists, focus can return to local culture!
In Anchorage, particularly, there is a wealth of music, theater, and performing arts during this time. Festivals also take place outside, for example, the Juneau Alaska Folk Festival in February. There are carnivals and ice-carving competitions – namely the World Ice Art Championship happens at this time.
You can even take a trip on the winter train between Anchorage and Fairbanks!
Best Time For Budget Travel: April, May, And September
April, May, and September are part of the shoulder period in Alaska, during spring and fall. Tourists are drawn by the discounted prices for accommodation and airfares, lack of crowds, and drier weather.
Be aware that April is generally an unappealing month in Alaska, with spring taking the form of “breakup.” It isn’t the most scenic time to visit, as the melt causes lakes of muddy slush and lingering patches of snow.
Weather can be chilly and unpredictable in both spring and fall, with evening temperatures particularly low. April and May don’t have much rain, while September can be either crisp and warm or wet and stormy.
If you’re interested in visiting in the shoulder months, September will be your last chance. By October, it’s snowing again.
Having said all that, let’s consider why you should travel to Alaska in the shoulder season.
Best Time To Go For Low Prices
The shoulder months are a great time to go to Alaska if you’re looking for travel deals.
Look out for discounts on travel packages, accommodation, excursions, and dining, as you can get up to 25% off in the shoulder season.
You can get great deals on cruises starting in April, although most only swing into service in May.
In spring, Ketchikan, Skagway, and Seaward are hubs of activity, and tourist facilities open at discounted rates. Prices rise during summer and the school vacation but drop again in September before the cruise industry closes for winter.
Best Time To Go For Quieter Vacations
Because you’re traveling out of season, you won’t have to deal with the throngs of crowds that you’d typically experience in the high season, especially if you travel before and after the cruise ship season (which runs from late April to mid-September).
The days are longer, with daylight up until 9 or 10 pm. Roads are open, including the Top of the World highway and roads into Denali National Park, but you won’t find much traffic yet.
On top of that, you can savor Kenai Fjords National Park without the tourists, allowing you to really appreciate its serene beauty.
Daily temperatures reach around 30-40⁰F (-1-4⁰C), making activities like biking and hiking (in sturdy, waterproof boots) possible at lower elevations in the panhandle from May through summer into September.
You can also do like the Alaskans do and take advantage of the quiet in April to start hiking and kayaking, undeterred by the mud and melt.
In the fall, you can tackle silver salmon fishing in the Kenai Peninsula. You’ll be able to revel in the peace of your solitary outdoor activities!
Best For Unique Highlights
In the shoulder season, you can catch some of the most popular Alaskan bucket-list items and delight in unique activities in this quiet period. Here are some highlights.
- The Northern Lights are still visible into mid-April and from mid-September, including from cruise ships.
- Lovers of extreme and adventure sports can try crust skiing in spring. This sport happens at the higher, northern elevations, where the snow can continue into early June.
- Gray whales migrate in spring rather than in summer, so you have the opportunity to see these beautiful creatures off the Seaward coast.
- Once temperatures rise in May (and stay warm in September), animals are on the move for grazing and waking from hibernation. You will be able to see migratory songbirds, waterfowl, herds of moose, muskoxen, caribou, grizzly bears, mountain goats, and lynx.
- A unique sight in fall is the Arctic fox, whose coat begins changing from its summer browns and greys to winter whites.
- Wildflowers start blooming along the coast in May, making for gorgeous hikes.
- Vivid red, yellow, and orange fall displays in September and October are brief but beautiful, lasting only a week or two. Travel along the Alaska Railroad for the best views of fall foliage, and look out for ripe red berries (and the bears they attract) that abound at this time of year.
Best Time For Holiday Activities: November and December
In November, days get dark and short, and the snow sets in. Temperatures fall, hotels and attractions close, as the sports season only kicks off in mid-December. You’ll need heavy cold weather gear as it gets exceptionally bitter. By January, Alaska is hibernating in the face of formidable weather.
However, not everybody avoids traveling during this time. Alaska still appeals to hardy travelers in this holiday season, as prices remain low and seasonal events abound.
Best For Holiday Activities
Despite the weather, November and December are full of seasonal cheer: towns glitter with twinkling lights, decorations, and Christmas trees for the holidays. The Alaskans hold several winter festivals at this time.
This is a great time to attend local community events and rub elbows with the locals, as there aren’t many tourists around.
December is an excellent time for a vacation with the whole family, as plenty of entertainment is available and cozy lodges are open. Ice skating and hockey seasons are in full swing, and the snow is dry enough for winter sports to kick off.
Take the family snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and dog sledding – leave kayaking and hiking for the summer. Warm up afterward in the hot springs or by the fire with some board games and hot cocoa!
Best For Winter Wildlife
Although you’ll see more wildlife in summer, you have the opportunity for some exciting sightings. With bare trees, you have a better chance of seeing mountain goats, moose, deer, and sheep before the snow gets too deep, although it’s too late for bears.
The world’s largest migration of bald eagles also takes place in November at the Chilkat River, near Haines, and is a spectacle worth observing, with thousands of birds hunting salmon. During this time, look out for owls!
By December, there won’t be many animals, but you might be lucky to see lynx prints and a wolf or two.
Best For Natural Beauty
Winter weather allows you to see a different side of Alaska. However, take care to wear adequate cold-weather clothing as you enjoy the icy natural beauty.
- View the Northern Lights on the dark winter evenings. You can still find beautiful lodges open in the north, around Fairbanks, with the best views.
- Photograph the spectacular beauty of Denali in all its icy glory.
- Immerse yourself in the winter landscape when ice fishing at Quartz Lake.
Alaska’s majestic beauty and rich wildlife make it a bucket list destination you visit all year round.
Most people feel the best time to travel is in the summer to experience warmer weather, whale migrations, and outdoor activities–but there’s beauty and adventure to be found in every season of the year.
A trip to Alaska in winter offers the Northern Lights, snow sports, and the Iditarod dog-sledding race.
For those traveling on a budget, consider traveling in the shoulder season — during both spring and fall — for unique experiences and excellent discounts!
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