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Alaska in May: How to Plan a Shoulder Season Visit

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There’s a stark difference between living in Alaska and visiting: when I lived in Alaska, I would have told you that the best time to visit is “during the summer” or maybe – if I was feeling like a less-petulant and more helpful teenager – “June.” Now that I’ve moved away and I plan my own trips each year, I know better: shoulder season is the sweet spot.

In Alaska, shoulder season can be roughly defined as early May until Memorial Day and from Labor Day to mid-September. During these short windows, the weather is still good, the cruise crowds are less crowdy, and most tours, restaurants, and hotels are open either in preparation for or winding down from the peak summer season.

Alaska in May Hero

In this post, I’ll cover that first shoulder season in Alaska: May. May is a fantastic time to visit Alaska, and one I’ve taken advantage of a few times in recent years (most notably my Uncruise in 2017 and aboard Windstar in 2022). In this post, I’ll share what you need to know to visit Alaska in May: weather, daylight hours, things to do, and what to pack. Let’s jump right in!

In this post, I promote travel to destinations that is the traditional lands of many Alaska Native groups, including the Aleut, Athabascan, Haida, Inupiat, Tlingit, and Yuit peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

This post was originally published in February 2023, and is updated annually, most recently in February 2024.

Weather in Alaska in May

Talking about the weather in Alaska is a tricky matter, mainly because the weather varies a lot across the regions. On average, the month of May’s weather typically ranges from an average low of 40°F to an average high of 55°F – but there’s a huge range as the month goes on too, with temps warming as summer approaches.

So that you can get a general picture, I’ll briefly mention the weather you can expect in Alaska’s three regions as well. 

  • The coastal regions (like Southcentral and Southeast) boast the warmest temperatures in May in Alaska. The temperature in the coastal region averages lows around 40°F and highs around 55°F. 
  • The Interior is right in the middle weather-wise, with temperatures ranging between 30 °F and 55 °F. 
  • In the Arctic, you’ll find the coldest temperatures during May. You can expect temperatures around 15°F and 24°F. 

May is also the month with the least amount of precipitation, though it is not completely impossible to experience a late-season snowy or rainy day. The latest snow I remember growing up in Alaska was on May 11th. (I had a middle school track meet, and quit the next day – I hate running, I’m definitely not running in the snow!)

Daylight Hours in Alaska in May

Alaska - Fireweed

Just like the weather, how much sunlight Alaska receives varies depending on the region. Leading toward the summer solstice on June 21st, May boasts some of the longest days of the year and gets longer as the month goes on.

  • In Anchorage, days extend from about 16 hours at the start of the month to over 18.5 hours by the end.
  • Further north, Fairbanks has even longer days, starting at 17 hours on the 1st and over 20.5 hours by the 31st.
  • Down in Juneau, days are about 15.75 hours long at the start of the month and 17.75 hours at the end.

In general, you should plan for nice, long days you can take advantage of to pack even more into each day of your Alaska itinerary.

Top Events in Alaska in May

As May signifies the end of spring and the beginning of summer, it’s the month where most of the big summer activities and events kick off. Tours begin, hotels re-open, and restaurants shift to summer hours by no later than the Memorial Day weekend (May 25th-29th in 2024).

There are also some fantastic events happening across the state specifically this year, and I want to highlight those in case you find yourself in these places and want to experience something truly special that doesn’t happen all summer long.

Juneau Maritime Festival (May 4)

The Juneau Maritime Festival is an annual celebration that pays homage to the rich maritime heritage that has shaped the identity of this coastal community. It brings together locals and visitors for a day of nautical-themed festivities. You can participate in boat races, tug-of-war, harbor tours, and seafood tastings. The event also organizes interactive exhibits so you can learn about the maritime history of the region and family-friendly activities for those coming with little ones.

Valdez Halibut Derby (starting May 21)

Would you like to put to test your fishing skills while enjoying the natural beauty and abundant marine life that Alaska has to offer? The Valdez Halibut Derby is your go-to option. This annual fishing event kicks off on May 21st in the picturesque town of Valdez. Anglers from far and wide gather to participate in this exciting competition, vying for the chance to land the largest halibut and claim prestigious prizes – it features a $10,000 cash Grand Prize for the largest Silver!

Kodiak Crab Festival (May 23-27)

The Kodiak Crab Festival is another event for those who adhere to the to travel is to eat ideology… This festival spans five days, where there’ll be a little bit of everything: traditional tournaments, games, races, competitions, and of course, lots of food.

You can participate in all the activities you want, although the most signed-up is eating fresh crab meals. There’ll also be cooking demonstrations by famous Alaskan chefs and workshops with tons of tips to help you take your cooking arsenal to the next level.

North Words Writing Symposium (May 29-June 1)

If you love writing or reading, the North Words Writing Symposium is a wonderful way to celebrate the power of the written word. This event brings together writers from across Alaska and other states to share their works in beautiful Skagway.

There’ll be numerous workshops where writers can hone their skills and panels with prominent figures discussing various literary topics. Not everything is about writing, though. The event organizes outdoor activities to unleash the senses and, why not, find some inspiration in the wonders of nature.

A Taste of Homer (TBA)

Whether you’re sybarite or not, it’s impossible to deny how thrilling it is to discover a new place’s gastronomy. Homer is famous for being a “foodies town.” Those visiting Alaska in May are lucky to be on time to enjoy A Taste of Homer. The festival reunites Homer’s best restaurants so you can delight your palate with exquisite dishes. There’ll be a huge variety, from decadent seafood to succulent burgers. 

Juneau Jazz & Classics Festival (TBA)

Sure, Alaska is known as an outdoor destination. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for the arts. Such an example is the Juneau Jazz & Classics Festival. This annual event, held in Juneau, showcases a diverse range of musical genres, including jazz, classical, and contemporary styles. You can see renowned musicians from around the world performing in concerts, workshops, and intimate venues.

Sitka Salmon Derby (TBA)

For all the fishing lovers out there, Sitka Salmon Derby is your opportunity to show how well you know how to handle that fishing rod. The Sitka Salmon Derby has been going on for 68 years already. drawing people from Alaska and other states who want to catch “the big one” in Sitka’s waters. It’s also a great plan if you’re traveling with your family as everyone can participate. 

Valdez Fly-In & Air Show (TBA)

If you appreciate the wonders of flight, the Valdez Fly-In & Air Show promises an unforgettable experience. The Valdez Fly-In & Air Show is an exhilarating aviation event that takes place annually in Valdez, Alaska. This event brings together aviation enthusiasts, pilots, and spectators to witness aerial displays and explore a variety of aircraft up close.

From high-flying aerobatics to precision landings, the air show showcases the skill and expertise of pilots from around the country. The event also features opportunities for attendees to engage with pilots, attend workshops, and participate in aviation-related activities.

What to Pack for Alaska in May

Okay, now you know the weather, how long the days are, and some special things to do in Alaska in May… but what on earth do you pack for such a dynamic month?!

While I already have a packing list for Alaska (as well as one specific to cruising), here are a few tips specific to visiting in the shoulder season (like May):

  • Layers, layers, layers. In all my packing lists, this is my top advice – and it’s true in between, too. I always start with Unbound Merino base layers and add on from there depending on the day’s forecast.
  • Prepare for rain, even if the forecast doesn’t call for it. Alaskan weather changes rapidly in the good season, so you should be ready for it in the shoulder season too. I love a long rain coat to stay dry even if the wind kicks up too.
  • Waterproof boots will do you well. Again, it just helps to keep your feet dry and warm if you want to have a good trip. Alaskans sport their Xtratufs all year, so take their lead and invest in a pair too.
  • Pack an eye mask. As the days are long, you’ll be glad to block those long sunlight hours out. My favorite (which I use literally every day) is the funky-looking but super-effective and comfy OwlzzZ Sleep Mask.
  • Don’t forget a hat, gloves, and sunglasses to be prepared for everything.

Follow that advice, consult my packing lists, and you’ll be all set!

Have any other questions about visiting Alaska in May? Let me know in the comments below!

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I grew up in Alaska and it’s my favorite place to visit – let me help you make your trip planning easier!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

10 Comments

  • Pam Abts

    So excited for my first trip to Alaska on May 11. I am so fortunate to be able to spend a month there. Thanks to you for all of your tips and recommendations! With your help I feel as though I have made the best plan for a memorable vacation.

  • Marine

    Hi Valerie,

    Many thanks for all the recommendations in your article, it helps a lot.

    I plan to visit Alaska with a friend by the end of April to mid-May (2 weeks and half). We plan to arrive in Fairbanks and take the train down to Anchorage. Then we’ll do a roadtrip around the south (Talkeetna, Wasilla, Homer, Seward, Valdez, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Denali Park).

    Do you recommend that the roads are ok to drive in? Also, as it’s not quite the beginning of the season like in June, do you think we still have chances to hike, or do another activities without being restricted by the weather?

    Thank you,
    Marine

    • Valerie

      You will definitely encounter weather concerns on your itinerary given when you’re visiting. I recommend googling historic data about snow/weather and which roads open by when – you may not be able to visit Denali or Wrangell-St. Elias that early in the season.

  • Lala

    Hi Valerie,

    I used your suggestions on a trip to Anchorage, Whittier, Seward in 2022. Now I’m heading to Cruise from Seattle to GBNP in May 2024. Also from Cleveland! Lovely to see you enjoy Edgewater Park as well. 🙂

    I’m wondering if we will see much wildlife on the cruise – whales? seals? Or should i plan to try a shore trip in Juneau or Skagway?

    Are the glaciers in GBNP diminished from warmer climate?

    Thank you

    • Valerie

      You probably won’t see any wildlife on the cruise tbh! You definitely want to do a smaller boat excursion in Juneau at least – Skagway’s waterways are less common for whales too.

      Also to your second question, basically all glaciers in Alaska are receding due to climate change.

  • Hansini Seth

    Hi Valerie,

    Thanks for sharing all the information. It is very helpful. I am planning my alaska trip from memorial day weekend for a week which is end of may 2024. Is the weather decently good to visit? I am planning to see Denali and Kenai during my trip. What can I expect with the weather? Will the boat tours in Kenai and flight tours in Denali be open?

    • Valerie

      In the last week of May, everything is open – Memorial Day kicks off the summer season! I can’t predict the weather though 🙂

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