The magenta fireweed blossoms taper to a narrow point as the sun sets beyond Mount Susitna. I’m sitting at the parking lot near the top of Mt. Baldy near the town where I grew up, watching the end of another Alaskan autumn day. The majority of the tourists from the peak summer season have returned home; I’m back visiting Alaska in the fall to discover why this shoulder season is increasingly drawing intrepid travelers. While I wouldn’t say it’s the “best” time to visit Alaska based on most criteria, it’s still worth considering!
Similar to visiting Alaska in the spring, more visitors are planning trips to Alaska in autumn. There are many reasons – the top ones of which I’ll detail below. Since most of the cruise companies have increasingly extended their season into mid-September, you might still rub shoulders with white sneaker-clad tourists up until the 15th of the month. After that, you can enjoy a blissful four weeks of Alaskan autumn with nobody around but the locals.
I love visiting Alaska in the autumn; I did it in both 2014 and again in 2021. If you’re considering a trip, read on for reasons to visit Alaska in the fall. This year, a short summer tourism season makes fall the ideal season to plan your Alaska vacation.
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are 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.
1. You Can Drive into Denali National Park
Arguably the best reason to travel to Alaska in the fall is the chance to drive your own vehicle into Denali National Park. Let me explain a bit more to justify why I say that.
Typically, you can only visit Denali National Park aboard a bus tour operated by the National Park Service. But every year in September (the second weekend after Labor Day), the public can enter a lottery for a one-day permit to drive private vehicles up to 92 miles into the park. You can enter the NPS Lottery here; in 2020 the lottery window opens on June 1st.
Growing up in Alaska, I had the chance to ride into Denali a few times when my parents won lottery passes – back then, only Alaskan residents could enter! Now, anyone can enter and if you’re lucky enough to win a permit you’ll have to plan your trip for the specific day you win. (If you don’t win the lottery, there are other incredible things to do in Denali too!)
2. You Can Experience Winter-ish Weather
According to locals, you know the summer is coming to an end when the fireweed (in my featured image) blooms all the way to the top – after that autumn comes quickly with winter on its heels.
Autumn is short in Alaska – it only lasts 6-8 weeks between when the birch leaves first start to turn yellow and when the snow and darkness have fully claimed the land. Broadly speaking, I only count September and part of October as autumn. By late October, winter has Alaska in its grip.
Alaska in September
September is the best month to visit Alaska in the fall; between Labor Day and the September equinox, you can enjoy colorful tundra, animals preparing for hibernation or migration, and far fewer crowds. (This last point is something I cover in greater detail below.)
Due to dramatic changes in the temperature and daylight hours, September is a transitory month. After temperatures in the 60s in August, by September temperatures in Alaska range from an average low of 42°F (6°C) to an average high of 55°F (13°C).
Alaska in October
As I mentioned, October is the month where the seasons change from a short autumn to the long winter. The beginning of October is much more like September: changing landscape colors and snow-free days. By the end of the month, you can expect snow on the ground across most of Alaska – or the drenching rainy season further south.
While there’s a large variance between the beginning and end of the month, in October temperatures in Alaska range from an average low of 29°F (-2°C) to an average high of 41°F (15°C).
3. You Can Try Winter Activities
Especially as the autumn carries on, it’s very possible to experience the winter’s first snow during your trip to Alaska in the fall. Even better, it won’t be frigidly cold, so you won’t have to bundle up quite as much to try these Alaskan winter experiences. Here are some activities to inspire you for the Alaskan winter without the cold temperatures in that season:
- Viewing the Northern Lights – Did you know that September 21st is typically one of the best days of the year to see the aurora? That means that you have a great chance of seeing the northern lights in Alaska in the fall as the skies get darker each day.
- Downhill/Cross-Country Skiing – Once there’s snow on the ground, those who love skiing and other snow sports can take full advantage of how much snow comes down each year! Whether you enjoy fresh powder at Alyeska resort or try your hand at cross-country skiing (or even skijoring with a few dogs pulling you!) there are plenty of runs and trails to choose from.
- Dog Sledding – Speaking of dogs, dog sledding switches from summer training to winter training once there snow flies. While some kennels stop offering tourism experiences as they train for races like Fur Rendezvous and the Iditarod later in the winter, others allow you to board a sled and fly across the frozen ground.
You can’t experience everything that Alaska has to offer in the winter until it gets colder and there’s more snow and ice (such as for ice fishing) but autumn is a great season to visit if you want a taste of what life is like in winter.
4. You’ll See Alaska’s Autumn Colors
There’s a dramatic change in colors over the course of the year in Alaska. The winter is a palette of greyscale – black night skies, white snow, and the grey berms and mountainsides. Spring brings green that turns vibrant and verdant in the summer. But fall has the truly dynamic color scheme: evergreen mixes with amber yellows, and the tundra becomes a quilt of burgundy, burnt orange, and rusty browns.
When I think back on traveling to and around Alaska in the fall, the colors are vibrant in my mind. I just love watching the striking changes in the scenery as the seasons change.
5. You Can Save by Booking in Autumn
Here’s another point that’s similar to Alaska if you visit during the springtime: because there are fewer crowds and less demand, fall usually means cheaper costs to visit Alaska. Hotels will be less per night as the autumn goes on, and flights will fall toward their low-points for the year.
In fact, because most people plan trips to Alaska in the winter or the summer – but not in between – you may actually find the lowest airfare and hotel prices of the year during the autumn (or spring)!
Is the Fall a Good Time to Take an Alaska Cruise?
As I’m planning to go on an Alaska cruise this September (2020), I sure hope so!
All jokes aside, fall is a great time to save money on Alaska cruises, and experience all the rest of the great reasons I’ve already mentioned. You can cruise for wildlife and sea life as they migrate around the Alaskan waterways, stay up to potentially see the aurora dancing overhead, and sample Alaskan culture, food, and history without hoards of summer tourists and multiple mega-ships in every port you visit.
I’m personally very excited to report back on my experience cruising in Alaska this autumn, and I hope you’ll consider joining me on my Alaskan Dream Cruise in September too!
What is the #1 fall experience you’d like to have in Alaska? Let me know in the comments – and any questions too or join me in my Alaska Travel Tips Facebook Community!
Need More Alaska Travel Advice?
My Alaska ebook bundle will help you plan an unforgettable Alaska trip, with tips on what to do in Alaska (including on a cruise), where to go, and the best Alaska itineraries.
Get the bundle for just $19.99!