I may call the “Lower 48” home –, but my heart is still in Alaska, the state where I grew up. I love writing about Alaska! There’s something special about this unique place, and the fact that it’s so easy for Americans to visit. (Yes, it really is easier than you think: see here.) Given that I write about Alaska so much, I obviously get asked a lot of questions – and one of the most important ones is about the best time to visit Alaska.
I grew up in Alaska, and have experienced The Last Frontier in all four seasons. (Yes, there are four!) I also spent three summers working in the hospitality industry for a major cruise company. I’ve seen the pros and cons of visiting during the the most popular time to visit Alaska (summer). Through it all, I’ve discovered that when someone asks when to visit Alaska, it’s a tricky question to answer.
I start by breaking down each Alaska season, what you can experience, and then my recommendations for the best time(s) to travel to Alaska. If you want to learn about the best time to go to Alaska – and why this is a hard answer to give, read on!
Alaska Seasons, Weather & Activities by Month
Growing up in Alaska, we joked that there were four seasons in Alaska: winter, breakup (spring, when the snow melts), construction season (summer, when they can finally build and pave roads), and mosquito season (autumn, when the mosquitos thrive). All jokes aside, there actually are four seasons in Alaska, and they vary a lot. From what you can experience to the weather and daylight hours, it’s important to understand the differences between each Alaska season before you decide when the best time to go to Alaska is for you.
Over the past few months, I’ve built out a series that dives into each season in Alaska and why to visit then. You can read more by clicking the links in this section, but let me break it down anyway so you can understand my later recommendations about the best time of year to visit Alaska.
Winter in Alaska
Winter in Alaska is long; it takes up half of the year! Winter in Alaska stretches from October to March.
During those winter months you’ll experience freezing temperatures, snow, and darkness. I spent 15 winters in Alaska while growing up and can tell you that living up there is not for the faint of heart. There is something special about winter in Alaska though. Surviving the Alaskan winter – or even visiting during those cold, dark months – creates a special bond between people. There are certain activities you can only do during the winter in Alaska, and certain events that only occur then – like the famous dog sled race, the Iditarod!
Alaska’s winters are perfect for those who love winter activities and are up for adventure. If you’re considering it, read my other reasons for visiting Alaska during the winter.
Spring in Alaska
Breakup season, aka Spring, is exactly what it sounds like: the short season where the temperatures are warm enough to melt the snow and ice from the winter before.
Spring runs (more or less) from late March to mid-May. (Sometimes even late May, if there are late-season snowfalls!). It’s a short two months where the state goes from a frozen white north to a verdant palette of flora and fauna coming back from hibernation.
Alaska’s spring season is great for those who are up for adventure but don’t love cold weather – and want to escape the crowds. If you’re considering it, read my other reasons for visiting Alaska in the spring.
Summer in Alaska
Alaska’s summer is when the best of the Last Frontier is on display. Summer occurs between June and August; it’s a short season – but packed with opportunity for memory-making experiences.
As a visitor, you probably won’t experience “construction season” as the locals do, but you will see that everything’s a-buzz during the Alaskan summer. All of the tourist amenities are available, and crowds of people come to Alaska to experience them all under the Midnight Sun.
And speaking of locals, it’s really the summer that keeps many around. It may be short, but it’s glorious. Living in the natural wonderland that is Alaska means you’ll see many Alaskans out hiking, backpacking, camping, boating, fishing – you name it! When it’s summer, it’s all game.
Sold on summer in Alaska? Read my other reasons to visit Alaska in the summer.
Fall in Alaska
Last but not least, fall – aka mosquito season – but at least now you’ve been warned! Yes, the mosquitos are at their worst during Alaska’s short autumn.
Fall in Alaska is the short window of September to mid-October. Especially early in the autumn (and late summer), the mosquitos can be really bad, so be sure to pack bug spray if you end up visiting during this season.
Lest I scare you off, there are actually good reasons to visit Alaska during the autumn. Summer crowds taper off as the temperatures drop, but it’s easy to pack for autumn/winter in Alaska and take advantage of the open space. The Alaskan scenery is also stunning during the autumn: the trees turn golden yellow and the tundra becomes a patchwork of garnet red, russet brown, and burnt orange. Animals searching for their final pre-hibernation meals are active – or in migration for the impending winter.
Sounds pretty good, right? Read the rest of my reasons to visit Alaska in the fall.
The Best Time to Visit Alaska
Okay, given all that information, how do you decide when to visit Alaska? There both is and isn’t a “right” answer for this question.
Broadly speaking, the best time to visit Alaska is during the summer.
In Alaska’s summer, almost everything you want to do is available: almost all of the hotels, tour operators, and experiences cater to summer tourists. If you visit between June and August, you’ll have your pick of bucket list-worthy experiences to enjoy under the midnight sun. The trade-off is that Alaska is more crowded and expensive during the summer because almost everyone wants to visit during this time.
But if you want to do certain winter experiences (seeing the northern lights, dogsledding, etc.), you should plan a trip in the winter.
So the real answer is that the best time to travel to Alaska is during the season where you can do the activities you want, has the crowds (or lack) you’re willing to tolerate, and which fits your budget.
The Best Month to Visit Alaska
If you want me to be more specific, the best month to visit Alaska is June.
During June, you’ll enjoy the best of the summer weather on top of the benefits of summer travel I already mentioned (availability, access, options). It’s possible to experience snow if you visit earlier (May) and rain is quite common in Alaska as the summer goes on – we used to joke that it starts raining on the 4th of July every year, just after the fireworks at midnight on the 3rd! (This obviously varies by location, but June is the driest month of the summer.)
Other Great Times to Visit Alaska
I get asked a lot about three other Alaska travel experiences/topics and when it’s best to do each of those, so let me break them down.
The Best Time to Visit Alaska for the Northern Lights
If seeing the northern lights in Alaska is on your bucket list, you might wonder: which of the (many) winter months will be best to try and see the aurora?
It turns out this is not just a matter of weather and darkness – the aurora activity actually varies throughout the winter, with peaks near the two equinoxes. Globally, northern lights activity is at its strongest near the autumnal equinox (September 20/21) and the vernal equinox (March 20/21).
Combining this with what we know about precipitation and cloud cover in Alaska – since you need clear skies to see the northern lights – September/Octobre is actually not a good time to try and see the aurora. Instead, the best time to see the northern lights in Alaska is in March.
I took my most recent aurora trip to Alaska in late February/early March 2020. The skies were clear, the weather was cold, it was very snowy, and I saw the aurora every night!
The Best Time to Visit Alaska for an Alaska Cruise
If you want to take an Alaska cruise, you might when the best season for that will be. Cruise companies of all sizes continue to expand their seasons, with most starting in late May and cruising through early September. Some small-ship providers (like UnCruise, whom I cruised with and love) even cruise in late April and into late September!
This is probably the most complex “when to visit Alaska” question to answer though.
- You cannot cruise in Alaska in the winter. So that’s out, narrowing it down a little!
- Broadly speaking, the best time to take an Alaska cruise is during the summer. There’s more wildlife to see in the Alaskan waterways and the weather is at its best.
- If you are up for adventure or on a budget*, the shoulder seasons can also be a great time to cruise. In the spring you can see whales on their migration north; in the fall, they’ll be headed back south.
*Speaking of budgets…
The Best Time to Visit Alaska on a Budget
If you’re on a budget but still want to have an amazing Alaska experience, the best time to visit Alaska is during the shoulder seasons.
Specifically, I would plan your trip between May 7th and Memorial Day or between Labor Day and September 23rd-ish. Why so specific?
- Most summer activities and experiences won’t be open much earlier than May 7th each year, which is when the major cruise ships usually begin bringing passengers. (This is similar to what you’ll find in other highly-seasonal summer destinations like Bar Harbor, Maine and Acadia National Park.)
- Labor Day seems to be a magic day where the crowds begin to evaporate in Alaska – but most things are still open for a few more weeks. September 23rd isn’t an exact date for when I think the season has ended, but Denali National Park usually closes to visitors around this date each year, and that’s one of the biggest draws for visitors.
If you’ve been wondering how I’ve managed to visit Alaska so often in the past few years, it’s by taking advantage of these narrow shoulder seasons to save money. Some of last few trips have been in September (2014) and May (2017, twice that month!).
Now that you know the best time to visit Alaska – or that there are many options, depending on what you want to do: when is the best time to go to Alaska for you?
Have other questions about when to visit Alaska? Let me know in the comments!
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