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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 – and honestly, it’s my favorite time to visit Alaska.
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 the cruise companies have increasingly extended their season until the end of October, you might still rub shoulders with white sneaker-clad tourists throughout the season. This is very different than in years past, where mid-September through October were usually local’s-only and a nice chance to visit and possibly catch the first snow of the season, depending on which part of the state you want to visit.
I love visiting Alaska in the autumn; I did it in both 2014 and again in 2021. And though the season is changing in terms of cruises still occurring, many of the same forces that affected autumnal travel in Alaska are still at play (seasonal businesses closing, etc.) – and the reasons to visit are still as good as ever! If you’re considering a trip, read on for reasons to visit Alaska in the fall.
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.
This post was originally published in April 2020, and was updated in July 2023.
1. You Can Drive into Denali National Park
Note: The 2023 Denali Road Lottery was canceled in 2023 due to the Pretty Rocks landslide. I don’t know whether it will be offered in 2024, but have included the link to check below.
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; be sure to bookmark that page if you want to try and enter in 2024, assuming the lottery happens.
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 – and my favorite time to visit all year. 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 when the seasons change from a short autumn to a 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 grey berms and mountainsides. Spring brings green that turns vibrant and verdant in the summer. But fall has a truly dynamic color scheme: evergreen mixes with amber yellows, and the tundra becomes a quilt of royal earth tones: 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?
Great question, dear reader. I’ve taken an early-autumn cruise (mid-September 2021), and think that’s about the latest I would advise cruising in the autumn. I actually wrote a post about end-of-season Alaska cruises and why I (almost) never recommend them (there are very specific travelers I would recommend them to).
In short, the weather, wildlife, and experience in port are dramatically worse during the mid-September through October window, compared with earlier in the autumn (and the summer months). There are great deals during this time, but that’s about the only thing in the ‘pro’ column for cruising Alaska during this season. Be sure to read the post above if you’re considering an autumn Alaska cruise.
Have any questions about visiting Alaska in the autumn? Let me know in the comments below!
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