Alaska has long beckoned travelers with its awe-inspiring landscapes, abundant wildlife, and rugged wilderness that is unparalleled anywhere else in the United States.
From the towering Alaska Range to the fjords of the Inside Passage, this state offers a wealth of natural beauty and outdoor adventures year-round. But for those planning a journey to the nation's largest and most remote state, the question remains: When is the best time to visit Alaska?
Summer is the standard answer. That's when visitors can take advantage of the most activities, like cruising and fishing. But the other seasons also have their advantages, especially for those keen on seeing the Northern Lights or the start of the world-famous Iditarod.
Read on for the best time to visit Alaska, whether you dream of skiing or catching a colossal salmon.
For 100 years, the Alaska Railroad has connected the port town of Seward to Fairbanks in Alaska's sparsely populated interior and, for much of that time, has offered to take travelers along for the ride.
While there's no bad time to ride one of the Alaska Railroad's historic trains, there are parts of the year where the train doesn't run the entire track. From early May to late September, all the routes are operated daily. The rest of the year, only the Aurora Winter Train (which runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks) operates, and it's on a greatly reduced schedule (some months only see train service on weekends).
In the early 1900s, roadhouses were common throughout what is now the state of Alaska. They served as a hybrid inn, eatery, bar, post office, and more for fortune seekers moving to Alaska. Typically, they were found every 10 miles (thought to be the distance someone could walk with all their stuff in a single day) and numbered in the thousands. Today, only a handful remain, including the Talkeetna Roadhouse, where the rooms are cozy, and the sourdough pancakes draw locals and travelers alike.
With clear waters and an abundance of fish species, Alaska offers anglers serious potential for "it was this big" stories for decades to come. However, deciding when the best time to visit this fisherman's paradise depends on what you're hoping to catch.
Alaska is renowned for its salmon runs, but each of the five salmon species has its unique taste, texture, and size, so the best time to target these fish depends on what variety you're interested in. For visitors, the two most popular salmon species are typically king salmon (whose season runs from May to mid-July) and silver salmon season (from late July to early September).
Beyond salmon, other popular targets for fishermen include halibut (May to September), arctic char and grayling (June to August), and trout (May through September).
In a past life, Waterfall Lodge was a salmon cannery, but now guests can come and stay in converted staff quarters and spend their days reeling in as many salmon, halibut, rockfish, and ling cod as fishing limits and luck allow.
With ranges like the Chugach Mountains and abundant snowfall, Alaska offers top conditions for skiers and snowboarders. Midwinter, specifically January and February, is widely regarded as the peak of the skiing season in the state. The snowpack is at its deepest, and temperatures tend to be milder (like low 20 degrees F) than in the preceding months. With the longer daylight hours-at least compared to December-there's time to enjoy the slopes and stunning vistas.
If you're looking for resort skiing, head to Alyeska Resort. Just south of Anchorage, Alaska's only true ski resort is known for being "steep and deep" and having the longest continuous double black diamond ski run in the country. The 2023–2024 season is slated to be big for Alyeska: It's joining the Ikon pass, and its Nordic spa has fully opened.
For those looking for untouched powder stashes all their own, Tordrillo Mountain Lodge is the best bet. The remote property offers multi-day heli-skiing experiences, where guests are whisked into the backcountry by helicopter to access terrain otherwise nearly impossible to reach.
While the aurora borealis, aka the Northern Lights, technically happens every night in Alaska, it's not always visible-a few conditions need to be met first.
For one, it needs to be a dark night. Considering Alaska sees the midnight sun for much of the summer, mid-September to early April offers the best opportunities for seeing the lights. Typically, the Northern Lights are at their strongest (and produce the biggest, most vibrant shows) in the weeks leading up to and just after the equinox, which occurs in late September and mid-March. That's due to the tilt of the Earth, which makes it easier for the electrically charged solar particles that make up the lights to reach the planet's polar regions.
Fairbanks, Alaska, sits directly under the Auroral Oval, a band that hugs the northernmost climes where most of the auroral activity takes place, meaning it sees the lights an average of 240 nights per year. Borealis Basecamp, an upscale glamping resort where guests stay in geodesic igloos with skylights, sits roughly 30 miles from Fairbanks (and its light pollution), making it an ideal place for aurora chasing.
Given Alaska's fjords, abundant wildlife, and 6,640 miles of coastline, it's no wonder that cruising is one of the most popular ways for visitors to explore this remarkable state.
The prime time to cruise Alaska is during summer months, from June to August (though the season starts in late April and extends through early October). This period offers some of the best weather conditions (with temperatures ranging from the 50s to 70s Fahrenheit). It's also when animals (and port towns) have come out of hibernation or, in the case of whales, have returned to their summer feeding grounds.
Each summer, plenty of ships explore Alaska's coastal waterways, ranging from 12-person expedition-style sailings to mega-ships with passenger numbers in the thousands. Consider Alaska Dream Cruise's Remote Alaska Adventure (a 10-day sailing on the only Indigenous-owned cruise line in the country through the Inside Passage), Hurtigruten Expeditions's Inside Passage, Bears, and Aleutian Islands (an 18-day sailing that starts in Vancouver and ends in Nome), or Lindblad's Exploring Alaska's Coastal Wilderness (an 8-day sailing between Juneau and Sitka)-to name a few.
Alaska offers remarkable animal experiences year-round, although, for whales and bears, the best time to see them is during the summer. That's because bears are in hibernation and whales are breeding in warmer waters during the winter.
Most of the many tour operators that offer to take guests to see humpbacks, orcas, and minkes in cities like Juneau, Seward, and Homer start their season in April and end in October.
And while there are bears (including black, brown, and polar) throughout Alaska, it's worth a visit to Katmai National Park or Lake Clark National Park if you really want to stack the deck-they have some of the highest density of coastal brown bears in the world.
If you're looking for a base camp to do both whale-watching and bear-viewing, consider Tutka Bay Lodge, located near Homer. It's common to see whales from the property, which is nestled in a private cove. However, Tutka Bay can help its guests arrange for off-property half-day excursions for the animals, too.
Each year, roughly 50 mushers depart from downtown Anchorage for a nearly 1,000-mile race to Nome, a tiny community on the Bering Sea, as part of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Often referred to as "The Last Great Race," the long-distance dog sled race spans some of the most challenging terrain and harshest weather conditions on the planet.
For more than 50 years, mushers and their dog teams have embarked on their journey from Anchorage amid the excitement and fanfare of the ceremonial start, which always takes place on the first Saturday of March. After pulling out of the downtown core of Anchorage, the teams pack up and drive to Willow, about 70 miles away. On the following day, the race officially starts. Roughly eight days later, the fastest team arrives in Nome.
While it's possible to watch the conclusion of the race in Nome (and the progress of the race from the various communities along the route), there aren't many places to stay in rural Alaska. Most visitors choose to stay overnight in Anchorage and just participate in the ceremonial and official start festivities. It's also where Fur Rendevous, a two-week festival leading up to the Iditarod, takes place. One good option near the celebrations is the Hotel Captain Cook. Billed as the only luxury hotel in Anchorage, its 546 guest rooms have hosted nearly every celebrity and dignitary who has passed through Alaska, ranging from Sir Elton John to President Barack Obama.