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When trying to determine the best time to visit Alaska, it’s important to understand that the 49th state is as diverse as it is vast, covering 663,300 square miles. That means there is really no one right answer. Where will you be? In the southeast around the Inside Passage, the far north, or somewhere in between?
Often referred to as “The Last Frontier,” little has changed in the 49th state since those early pioneers and explorers arrived in the late 1800s.
There are still plenty of wilderness areas with everything from endless snow-capped mountains to rugged coastline, fjords, and Arctic tundra.
One can take part in a wide range of outdoor activities in any season, with everything from hiking, biking, fishing, rafting, and gold panning to dog sledding, snowshoeing, skiing, and snowmobiling possible.
Wildlife watching draws many here, with an abundance of animals living in various habitats across Alaska.
There are polar bears, grizzly bears, brown and black bears, moose, caribou, wolves, bison, mountain goats, Dall sheep, bald eagles, humpbacks, and other numerous whale species, sea otters, seals, and sea lions, just to name a few.
You can keep busy here from sun up to sun down no matter what the season. You might be hiking to a glacier under the midnight sun, taking advantage of those long daylight hours, or gazing at incredible displays of the northern lights dancing through dark skies in the fall or winter.
Boredom is a word seldom heard here. The only question is, when is the best time to visit Alaska for the activities you hope to enjoy?
The Best Time to visit Alaska – an overview
As mentioned, the answer to the best time to visit Alaska varies depending on your interests.
The state is an incredible destination for an escape any time of the year, but most travelers arrive during the warmer, brighter months of summer.
The farther north you go, the longer the daylight hours will be, bringing the chance to experience the Midnight Sun.
But even in Southeast Alaska, there are less than six hours of darkness at the summer solstice.
That means plenty of time to enjoy all that Alaska has to offer, with communities throughout the state buzzing with activity.
There will be a long list of options for tours, from bear viewing and whale watching to flightseeing and sports fishing, along with snow-free trails to hike, farmers’ markets, and fairs.
Mid-June through mid-August is the peak of the tourist season, although it officially runs from mid-May through mid-September.
If you plan to visit during this period, you’ll need to book your reservations well in advance as hotels, resorts, and vacation rentals can fill quickly.
If you plan to rent a car, do so as soon as you’ve booked your flight, or you could be without a vehicle to get you from point A to point B.
Once September 15th rolls around, the warmer weather excursions, some of the tourist attractions, and even some businesses shut down.
The winter months typically stretch from November through March, a time when visitors often enjoy a snowy wonderland.
It can be stunningly beautiful with landscapes covered in glittering white powder. However, freezing rain can be an issue in places like Juneau in the Southeast with a more mild climate as compared to Fairbanks and more northern locales.
There will be fewer travel options and shorter days, but on the plus side, there will also be fewer crowds and lower prices.
The opportunity for winter adventure is just as thrilling, with the chance to try your hand at dog sledding, snowshoe through a peaceful forest, test your luck at ice fishing, enjoy Nordic or alpine skiing, and much more.
Many come for the northern lights, which can be worth the trip alone.
As early as late August, the aurora can be seen around Fairbanks or further north on clear nights. There are many events that are unique to Alaska during this time too, like the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and World Ice Art Championships.
Best time to visit Alaska – Alaska Winter
Winters in Alaska can be beautiful, but they can also be harsh. This is a massive state, so that doesn’t mean everywhere you go it will be endless fields of snow and ice but no matter which area you’re visiting you can expect a long winter.
Southeast Alaska boasts the mildest weather but it’s still quite cold with average daily temperatures throughout the region hovering right around freezing from November through March. Precipitation here falls in many forms, including rain, freezing rain, sleet, and snow.
The Kenai Peninsula also enjoys one of the milder winter climates in the state with average highs in the 20s Fahrenheit and snowfall that rarely piles up to over four feet.
Farther north in the Alaskan Interior around Fairbanks, it often looks like a holiday card with thick blankets of snow. Here, temperatures dip down to -50 Fahrenheit most winters, and the average low in January is nearly 20 below zero.
The good news is that there are specialty lodges, hotels, and other comfortable accommodation available for those willing to brave the chill to marvel at a breathtaking spectacle of Mother Nature.
Winter temperatures can vary dramatically depending on the destination. During January, Alaska’s coldest month of the year, the average daily high temperatures in popular spots throughout the state are as follows
While snow can fall anywhere in the state, Southeast Alaska’s comfortable maritime climate means mild winters.
That comes thanks to the North Pacific Ocean and the precipitous coastal mountains along the shore. It’s a mixed bag of rain, snow, and occasional sunshine, with the first snowfall, often occurring in late October, but it usually won’t accumulate at lower elevation levels until late November.
Over 100 inches of snowfalls in the mountains behind Juneau, feeding the glaciers and icefield while bringing smiles to the faces of skiers and boarders.
In Homer and places on the Kenai Peninsula, winters are long with an average of five hours of daylight in December. You can expect freezing temperatures, frequent snow, occasional wind, and often partly cloudy skies.
While it’s not as mild as Southeast Alaska, The Kenai enjoys one of the state’s mildest winter climates, rarely getting more than four feet of snow.
Winters in Anchorage aren’t as cold as you might think, with average temperatures warmer than cities like Chicago and Minneapolis.
The weather may be unpredictable but it’s not unbearable. Thanks to its position on an inlet of the Pacific, warm currents and air streams can blow in providing pleasant days even in the middle of winter.
The average snowfall varies from year to year, with December through February receiving anywhere from less than seven inches to more than 26.
With Fairbanks less than 200 road miles from the Arctic Circle, daylight hours are few and you can expect plenty of snow with temperatures well below zero.
This is a time where you can experience what -40 degree temperatures do to liquid by tossing a cup of hot coffee into the air and watching it freeze before it hits the ground.
It snows throughout the winter, which here, is all the way from October through April. It gets deep, piling up to an average of six to seven feet.
The air is dry and there’s very little wind, which results in light, fluffy powder.
In the winter, some animals are easier to spot with snow covering the ground as there is less vegetation to obscure sightings.
The world’s largest bald eagle concentration can be observed near Haines along the Chilkat River, although you’ll see many throughout the state.
Tracks of lynx, fox, river otter, marten, mink, and wolves can easily be seen in the snow. In February, owls begin their evening courtship hooting.
Anchorage’s moose population explodes come winter with the animals heading to lower levels to find food.
They can be seen in abundance on the Kenai Peninsula around Homer and up north in Fairbanks too. Watch for Dall sheep that hang out along Seward Highway just south of Anchorage.
This is the time of year when they frequently leave rocky perches and can be seen standing near the road.
Far north one can see muskox strolling through the snowy tundra or even a polar bear shaking off the water in the middle of a swim in the Beaufort Sea.
Caribou, lynx, and the snowshoe hare are commonly spotted thanks to their enlarged feet that aid them with their travels.
Alaska is a paradise for winter activities, home to some of the world’s most challenging ski areas, although there are gentle slopes for beginners too.
Snowboarding is one of the most popular snow sports and there are also fat tire bikes available for rent so you can cycle biking trails throughout the winter.
For those who want a more peaceful way to explore the landscapes, cross-country skiing is ideal. Visiting in March?
You can watch the world-famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Throughout the season it’s possible to hop on a sled by joining a guided dog sled tour.
More about Alaska
Best time to visit Alaska – Alaska in Summer
From mid-May through mid-September, Alaska enjoys long days and mostly pleasant temperatures that are ideal for getting far away from the chaos of city life.
Temperatures typically range in the 60s and low 70s, although it can occasionally get into the 80s in some areas.
The peak of the season is June to August – by mid-June, it’s as warm as it will get all year. It becomes a land of endless sun, with 19 hours of daylight in Anchorage while it stretches for 22 hours in Fairbanks.
In the summer you’ll have access to remote mountain areas, rivers, and more via bush planes, where you can forget about cell phone and email interruptions.
Witness a time when brown and black bears emerge from hibernation while colorful wildflowers bloom. National parks that close for the winter like Denali National Park will be open by late May.
Although Kenai Fjords National Park is open year-round, the weather will be more reliable now for thrilling excursions like floatplane rides and flightseeing, while the landscapes are lush and green.
Taking a scenic railroad trip or heading to a remote wilderness lodge are all possible now.
As with every season, temperatures vary depending on the area of Alaska you’re in, although summer brings the warmest months of the year. July is officially the warmest, with the average in popular spots throughout the state as follows –
Juneau: 64°FHomer: 61°FAnchorage: 67°FFairbanks: 70°F
Alaska’s Southeast region, around the Inside Passage, experiences a maritime climate that’s heavily influenced by the Pacific Ocean.
While there are often beautiful days of sunshine, much of the area is the rainforest which means you’ll want to be prepared for rain or light mist at any time.
Ketchikan has fully embraced its moniker as the “Rain City,” proudly displaying a “liquid sunshine gauge” on the dock to show just how wet it is, claiming an average of 150 inches annually.
Homer and the Kenai Peninsula enjoy mild summer temperatures with little rain and highs that rarely break 60 degrees.
It’s the season with the best weather for the area’s most popular types of outdoor recreation, including bear-viewing tours and halibut fishing which runs from mid-May through mid-September.
In Anchorage and its surroundings, summertime temperatures hover around the low 70s. Flowerbeds will be bursting with color and newborn calves arrive early in the season, typically around the first week of May.
King salmon will be returning to spawn and beluga whales follow fish close to the shore. The days are long but the sun will eventually set and it’s never dark enough for street lights.
Around Fairbanks, the subarctic summer sun brings 22 hours of daylight with the most shining from mid-May through mid-July.
The interior tends to be fairly dry as it’s protected from rain and storms by the soaring Alaska range. Temperatures can reach 80 degrees, although they’re typically in the mid-70s range.
It’s not unheard of to have extremes of as much as 30 degrees in just one day as the region that experiences the most temperature variation in Alaska.
There may be no better place in the U.S. to see wildlife than Alaska, with its 15 national parks and federally protected lands alone covering an area that’s the size of California.
While an impressive array of animals can be seen in any season, summer is arguably the best time for wildlife watching.
Moose and their calves are frequently spotted alongside roadways while mountain goats scurry across rocky peaks, bears fish for salmon in streams, and seal pups are born on coastal islands.
Keep an eye out for bald eagles perched in trees or soaring through the skies above waterways searching for a feast and puffins that arrive in July. In the Wrangell-St. Elias area of Southcentral Alaska, caribou herds are often seen.
Whale watching tours are popular now, with opportunities to view various species of whales. Grey whales are the earliest arrivals, passing through the waters near Seward, Kodiak, Sitka, and Ketchikan in April and May.
Orcas are most commonly seen in May and June, while some 500 humpback whales call the Inside Passage their summer home with peak sightings in July and August.
Belugas are often seen just south of Anchorage along Turnagain Arm between mid-July and August when salmon are running.
Main summer activities
Recreational activities are practically endless in the summertime. It’s the best season for a halibut fishing charter in Homer, although you can also choose a salmon fishing or combination charter here. Ketchikan is particularly renowned for its salmon.
Of course, nothing says “I’m in Alaska” like hiking under the Midnight Sun. In Juneau and other destinations, you can even walk on a glacier.
While visiting Fairbanks, you might float down the Chena River and take part in popular middle-of-the-night activities like golfing, running, or even playing or watching baseball with the famous Alaska Goldpanners playing their historic solstice game on June 21st.
Flightseeing, rainforest walks, and Jeep safaris are just a few of the other popular activity options during an Alaskan summer.
Best time to visit Alaska – Alaska in Spring
April is when the weather begins to transition from winter to summer. This is the short Alaskan springtime and a great time to visit before the summer crowds arrive.
It’s when the rivers that froze over during the winter start to break up and every week adds about an hour of daylight after months of darkness.
Wildflowers bloom along the Inside Passage and you’re more likely to see some of the larger animals migrating through. Late spring is a great time to see calving glaciers.
In Alaska, spring is short-lived, with March and April often considered part of winter and summer starting in mid-May.
Of course, temperatures vary depending on the particular destination, with the middle of spring averages in some of the most popular areas as follows –
Spring is characterized by the snowmelt and ground thaws that mean mud, puddles, and soggy trails, requiring that rubberized footwear you’ll see most Alaskans wear.
Throughout much of the state, unlike the continental U.S., there is less rain with most of the moisture from that snowmelt.
Expect more sun and temperatures in the 40s that continue to rise as the season progresses, but there will be plenty of snow on the mountain tops.
Sunsets bring alpenglow colors to the peaks, with surreal shades of red, pink, and orange.
The state is bursting with life in the spring with ptarmigan migrating to the river valleys of central Alaska in March, while millions of shorebirds and waterfowl return to wetland areas like the Copper River Delta in April.
Spring is when the moose newborns arrive and there’s a good chance you’ll see a moose and calf wandering the streets of Anchorage.
Grey whales are the first migratory whale species to return, arriving by early May although they can be seen as early as mid-March.
With the ice pack receding along with western Alaska, spring is the best time to view bowhead whales, walrus, and seals too.
Bears will be emerging from their dens and the green vegetation that starts to pop up draws mountain goats, Dall sheep, and more into places where they can easily be seen.
April in Alaska is more like late winter as the northern lights can still be seen in the night’s sky, and in many places, there will still be plenty of snow for skiing and other winter sports.
In Juneau, the Eaglecrest Ski Area will be open through the second week of April depending on snow conditions.
By the end of April, the snow will have melted, making this a good time to get a head start on hiking without the crowds.
You’ll want to wear those waterproof rubber boots all the locals will be donning due to the muddy conditions.
In Southeast Alaska, you may be able to join an early-season small-ship cruise to explore the islands and fjords while seeing the snowy peaks rise above the ocean.
There will be fewer tourists, less rain, and lower rates.
Best time to visit Alaska – Alaska in Autumn
Early fall in particular is one of the best times to visit Alaska, with the much busier summer season coming to an end while the reds, oranges, and golds start to peak.
Pink fireweed will be blooming too. Plus those first days of autumn can bring mild, beautiful days that are ideal for short hikes without the worry of mosquitoes and blueberries will be ripe for picking too.
Generally the farther north you are, the quicker and colder the temperatures will be once fall arrives, with temperatures varying depending on the region.
In October, you can expect average high temperatures as follows
The shorter days and lengthening nights of fall bring the possibility of viewing the aurora borealis, but you’ll want to bring your warmer clothes with the average first snowfall in Fairbanks in late September, while it usually holds off in Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula until mid-October.
October or November sees the first snow in Southeast Alaska.
The end of September generally marks the end of the tourist season as in most places by mid-October snow will be blanketing the ground with temperatures at freezing or below.
Most major marine tours and cruise lines end their season now although specialty, custom tours can be arranged for the adventurous traveler.
In early autumn, mountain goats, moose, caribou, and musk oxen will be mating and frequently wandering through open areas that make them easier to spot.
Bears will be feasting on berry patches and in salmon streams while beluga, bowhead, and grey whales migrate along the west coast.
You might see aggressive antlered caribou and moose males spar in late September.
In the Arctic, ptarmigan, hares, lemmings, and arctic fox are turning white.
If you arrive before the first snow hits, hiking is one of the most popular activities in the fall, although wants the landscapes are blanketed with powder many trails can be traversed in snowshoes.
The sweet spot for whale watching tours and glacier cruises is mid-September through early October when they’ll still be running but typically offer discounts.
Steelhead, rainbow trout, and silver salmon will be running and the lakes will be open for fishing so you might want to pick up a fishing license.
Best time to see whales in Alaska
If your goal is whale watching, the best time to visit Alaska is during the summer months, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see whales at other times of the year.
Grey whales typically arrive from Mexico and Hawaii in April and early May, sticking around through September. Humpback whales can be seen between May and September, but the peak time is July and August.
It’s possible to see orcas from May through September in Southeast Alaska and near Seward in the waters of Resurrection Bay, but the best time is early May through early June.
The elusive blue whale inhabits the northern and eastern areas of the Gulf of Alaska in July and August, but their massive size means they stay far from shorelines.
While belugas can often be seen along Turnagain Arm south of Seward for the six-week period from the middle of July through August when sockeye salmon and other salmon species are running.
Best time to Go on a Cruise in Alaska
The main cruise season in Alaska falls between May and September although some companies offer sailings that depart in late April and early October.
Sailing as early or as late in the season as possible can make it more affordable with discounted rates while avoiding the biggest crowds of the season, but you’ll also have to consider your weather preferences.
The Inside Passage, the state’s most popular cruising destination, experiences temperatures that range from 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer.
May and September are typically 10 degrees cooler. Prices are based on demand, with the cheapest rates in May, early June, and September.
July is the most expensive month to cruise the Alaskan waters. If you plan to cruise between mid-June and late August, you may need to book as far as a year in advance.
Also read: The best Alaska cruises for whale watching
Final Thoughts on the best time to visit Alaska
Unless your goal is to witness the northern lights and immerse yourself in a winter wonderland, the best time to visit Alaska is between June 15 and August 15.
As noted, every season has its benefits. If you’d like to save money and avoid the biggest crowds while avoiding extreme weather, you might aim for late May through mid-June or around early September.
Just remember that if you plan an Alaska itinerary during the peak season, book as early as possible as those dates will sell out quickly.
About the author
K.C. Dermody has traveled the world, visiting some 40 countries and nearly all 50 U.S. states. She has a passion for learning about different cultures and taking part in outdoor adventures. When she’s not writing, you might find her swimming with sea lions in the Sea of Cortez, watching whales in Alaska, paddling among icebergs in Newfoundland, or enjoying a pint with the locals in an Irish pub.