Most Americans, upon first traveling to Alaska, are shocked to realize just how big the state is. Yes, it’s part of the United States, English is spoken, and the dollar is used — but Alaska’s wild coastal plains, towering snow-capped mountains, and glacier-rimmed fjords have a way of making you feel worlds away from home.
In the far north of Alaska, the Brooks mountain range extends 700 miles from the coast, and veers into Canada’s Yukon Territory. South of Fairbanks is Denali, the tallest mountain in North America at a staggering 20,310 feet. Further down along the coast, the mountains get smaller and more rounded, and their lush green forms poke over beautiful tidewater glaciers.
With so many diverse regions, it can be unnerving to figure out which to tackle in a single trip — and more to the point, when you should go. Before booking flights, consult this definitive guide on the best times to visit Alaska.
The Best Months to Visit Alaska
The Best Times to Visit Alaska on a Cruise
Cruising remains an important, and hugely popular, method of traveling through Alaska. While ships sail all summer long, there are distinct benefits to getting a head start on cruise season by visiting in May, according to Lisa Syme, the vice president of Princess Cruises.
In addition to being the driest month, May is also ideal for its reduced crowds, lower fares, and better wildlife viewing. Meanwhile, June boasts the longest daylight hours, and July has the warmest temperatures. It’s also the best month for seeing humpback whales. (If you happen to end up in Seward, the gray whales tend to show up in spring.)
The Best Time To Visit Alaska for Fishing
Throughout the year in Alaska, there’s great fishing to be found. After all, fishing here is a multi-billion dollar industry, and seafood remains the state’s top export. For travelers seeking something extra special, try visiting Ketchikan: a remote fishing town near the southern tip of Alaska. Known as the salmon capital of the world, it’s a popular cruise excursion stop-off, and not just for the fishing. In the height of summer, the water can get up to 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
But almost any coastal town in Alaska has at least some kind of fishing community, and with over three million unnamed natural lakes, you can imagine just how plentiful the fishing is in America’s northernmost state. If it’s classic Alaskan King salmon you’re after, show up mid-May through July, when the fisheries for that species peaks. Meanwhile, if you’d like to try your hand at ice fishing, head inland to Quartz Lake anytime after October.
The Best Time to Visit Alaska’s National Parks
Warmer temperatures and more daylight in July and August make visiting places like Denali National Park and Glacier Bay National Park a dream. But if it’s a quieter, more remote experience you want, try showing up later in the season, when crowds have dwindled and yet enough daylight remains that you can do a self-guided hike in the backcountry. Travelers should note that Denali Park Road — the park’s only roadway — remains open through early September for bus tours dedicated to spotting wildlife (a 15-mile portion of the road is also open for private vehicles).
Of course, shoulder season in September is also renowned for its gorgeous fall colors. “The mountains are gold, the berry bushes have turned bright red (with berries to pick), and you have the night sky to enjoy,” Jillian Simpson, vice president of Alaska Travel Industry Association, told Trave + Leisure.
The Best Time to Visit Alaska for Snow
May through September remains the busiest time of year for tourism in Alaska, but many folks are just as content planning a trip in winter. Why? Snow. With recent reports on the record-breaking snowfall in Alaska, the months of December, January, February, and March represent a fantastic opportunity to tackle Alaska’s magical snow-blanketed terrain by Nordic skiing, snowmobiling, classic Alaskan dog mushing.
The Best Time to Visit Alaska for the Aurora Borealis
Many travelers come to Alaska to see the Aurora Borealis, more commonly called the Northern Lights. This is best done from the end of August to the middle of April, when a combination of clear night skies and decent Aurora activity mean spotting Auororas is relatively easy. In terms of location, Alaska sits right under the Arctic Ocean, so visibility is high across most of the state. There are, however, dozens of easy-to-book tours offered out of Fairbanks.
The Worst Times To Visit Alaska
Alaska is different from the lower 48 states in many ways, but one of them is the lack of a comprehensive road system connecting all the different towns and regions. Because of this, flightseeing tours remain a popular way to get around the state, while simultaneously enjoying stunning birds-eye views of the mountains. Depending on where you want to visit in Alaska, the availability of these air taxis and airborne summit tours can change. For example, a helicopter tour of Denali runs from May through September, but a trip to Mount Redoubt Volcano on Natron Air can happen anytime of year.
In many ways, there’s no such thing as a ‘bad time’ to visit Alaska, but when it comes to gorgeous day hikes, and better weather for flying, the safest bet is to visit sometime between May and September.
Another important factor to keep in mind is daylight: in certain parts of Alaska during the summer, the sun never sets. Depending on your preferences, this could be either a blessing or a curse. Use a sunrise and sunset planner to help figure out precisely how much (or little) sunlight you’ll be in for during your Alaska adventure.
The Cheapest Time to Visit Alaska
With the shoulder season primarily stretching from April to May and then again in September, those three months offer the best value for travelers on a budget, particularly if you end up on an Alaskan cruise. As Princess Cruises’ Lisa Syme told T+L, “I definitely recommend looking at May and September for promotional deals [like] on-board credits that you can use toward the cost of your excursions.”
As far as hotel rooms go, rates for a long weekend stay in Anchorage start around $100 per night in July — that’s more than double what you’d pay for the same stay earlier in the season (April), or later in the season (September), another example of how a pre- or post-summer visit can be a cost effective way to enjoy this highly underrated, vast wilderness state.