When Is the Best Time to Travel to Alaska

Kathleen Roberts
After planning your trip, check out some hiking and camping tips in this slideshow.

When is the best time to travel to Alaska? The answer to this question and more can be found in The MILEPOST. This publication is decidedly the most complete travel guide on Alaska ever written. If you are planning a camping trip through the last great wilderness of North America, Alaska road maps are not enough. The MILEPOST is simply a must-have. Recently, LoveToKnow had the opportunity to talk with MILEPOST editor Kristine Valencia about what goes into this travel guide as well as what you need to know about camping in Alaska.

About The MILEPOST

The MILEPOST is an incredibly in-depth travel guide dedicated to the state of Alaska. Editor Kristine Valencia worked on travel books at Lane Publishing & Books before taking on work for The MILEPOST. That was over 25 years ago, and Kristine has been happily editing this Alaska guide ever since.

The MILEPOST itself has been in publication for more than 60 years, with annual updates. The book is unique in that it gives a mile by mile guide through the state while pointing out everything you will want to see along the way. More extensive than Alaska road maps, the guide will point out all the major attractions as well as campgrounds, gas stations, fishing spots and even historical information. Throughout the book you'll also find helpful symbols to direct you to campgrounds, fishing, gas stations, wildlife viewing and medical aid. Take this book with you and you'll feel like you have an old Alaska native along for the trip, guiding you along the best way to go so you can be assured of the best camping trip you have ever had. You can get your own copy each year around March 1.

Interview with Kristine Valencia

North of Kluane Lake

About the Book

LoveToKnow (LTK): How was this book researched?

Kristine Valencia (KV): The information in The MILEPOST has been gathered over many years and represents the contributions of dozens of field editors. The MILEPOST is really a huge storehouse of information that we examine annually for its relevancy and accuracy. The editor and a small staff of field editors drive the roads every year-from about May to October-taking notes on what has changed or what is new along the highways and byways of Alaska and northwestern Canada. We also send out books to all of the communities and government agencies for fact checking. People often ask: Do I need to get a new MILEPOST every year? Does that much information change? As someone who edits the book every year, it sure seems like we have a lot of changes: road conditions change, businesses close, new businesses and attractions open, prices and hours change, etc. We certainly see people making their way around Alaska with older editions of The MILEPOST, so it can be done, but even Alaskans make a habit of buying a new book every year, realizing that it's best to have the newest information.

LTK: Explain how this book has evolved through the years.

KV: When the Alaska Highway opened for civilian traffic after WWII, it was a rugged road and facilities along the highway were few and far apart. (In 1947, there was not a single garage for 600 miles between Fort Nelson and Whitehorse, or between Whitehorse and Fairbanks.) On such a road a reliable guidebook was essential, and in 1949, William A. "Bill" Wallace published the first edition of The MILEPOST, after the mileage location posts "that filled such a vital need along the wilderness road." It was a 72-page saddle-stitched edition, filled with the facts and practical information Wallace had gathered during his many trips up and down the highway.

Demand for The MILEPOST grew, and so did the book, as more roads were built and new businesses appeared along the highways and in town. By 1962, the guidebook had more than doubled in size. It took a small crew of hard-working field editors to drive the roads every summer, updating the highway logs and selling advertising. In 1967, the book was perfect-bound with 280 pages. In 1975, it grew from glove-compartment size to magazine size and 498 pages. The 2009 edition is 800 pages.

LTK: What is the main purpose of this book?

KV: Our goal is to be the most useful Alaska guidebook a traveler can carry, a guide that's like traveling with a trusted friend who really knows the country. As we like to say: "We don't want you to miss anything but the chuckholes."

When Is the Best Time to Travel to Alaska and Other Common Questions

LTK: What do most readers want to know about traveling Alaska?

KV: Our FAQs have not changed much over the years. They are: "Is the Alaska Highway paved?" "What is the best time to travel?" and "How/where can I take the Alaska ferry?"

Here are the answers we give (abbreviated version):

LTK: Is the Alaska Highway paved?

KV: All of the Alaska Highway is paved, although highway improvement projects often mean motorists have to drive a few miles of gravel road. The asphalt surfacing of the Alaska Highway ranges from poor to excellent. Much of the highway is in fair condition, with older patched pavement and a minimum of gravel breaks and chuckholes. Recently upgraded sections of road offer excellent surfacing. Relatively few stretches of road fall into the "poor" category, i.e. chuckholes, gravel breaks, deteriorated shoulders, bumps and frost heaves.

LTK: When is the best time to travel to Alaska?

KV: Many Alaskans recommend May and June as the most favorable months for travel to the North, as well as probably the most promising period for views of Mount McKinley. Summer solstice-the longest day of the year-occurs around June 21st, so you'll have really long days for sightseeing in June and July. The high season for travel in the North is June through August, usually the warmest months. But summer can also be the wettest months. The weather is as variable and unpredictable in the North as anywhere else. Many businesses are seasonal, especially along the highways, where services and attractions often do not open until late May and are closed soon after Labor Day in September. In the Interior of Alaska, fall colors start showing in August, and by the first week in September, it can be quite chilly at night.

LTK: How/Where can I take the Alaska ferry?

KV: The Alaska Marine Highway provides passenger/vehicle ferry service in three regions: Southeast, Southcentral/Prince William Sound and Southcentral/Southwest. There is also Cross-Gulf service in summer connecting Juneau in Southeast and Whittier in Southcentral. The Alaska ferry system has two seasons: May 1 to Sept. 30 (summer), when sailings are most frequent; and Oct. 1 to April 30 (fall/winter/spring), when service is less frequent. Alaska Marine Highway System summer 2009 schedules and tariffs are included in The MILEPOST and available online at FerryAlaska.com.

LTK: Your book is divided according to major highways. Why did you choose this method of organizing rather than just dividing by regions?

KV: When The MILEPOST began in 1949, there just weren't that many highways, and it only made sense to "log" the Alaska Highway as one long road (which it is to anyone driving it). As new roads were built-in both Alaska and northwestern Canada-they were logged from beginning to end as well, and there's sense to that: Our readers drive the roads, not the regions.

Besides, more than 90 percent of Alaska's road system lies within two of Alaska's six regions, Interior and Southcentral. Southeast Alaska communities-and their roads-are combined into one section in the book.

Camping in Alaska

Muncho Lake

LTK: What should a first-time visitor keep in mind when planning a camping trip to Alaska?

KV: Alaska and Canada have both government and private campgrounds. With few exceptions, these campgrounds are located along the road system, and most roadside campgrounds accommodate both tents and RVs. Season dates for most campgrounds in the North depend on weather. Campgrounds are generally open from mid- to late-May until September.

The farther north the campground, the shorter the season. Once temperatures reach freezing in the fall, campgrounds must close because they can no longer provide water. Freezing nighttime temperatures also keep some campgrounds closed until mid- to late May.

The MILEPOST® logs all public roadside campgrounds, and includes facilities (water, firewood, tables, etc.), camping fees, length of stay limits and other information. The MILEPOST® highway logs also include private campgrounds. Keep in mind that government campgrounds generally do not offer hookups or other amenities as private campgrounds do. Government campgrounds also may not be able to accommodate large RVs and 5th-wheelers. A number of private campgrounds on the highway-because they are located away from city services-must provide their own power and water, and may curtail these services at night.

LTK: Where are the most popular places to camp in Alaska and why?

KV: The busiest campgrounds are generally those near the fishing areas. Fish runs on the Kenai Peninsula, for example, keep campgrounds hopping in summer. Another busy spot is Denali National Park, where there are six National Park Service campgrounds within the park, and several private campgrounds outside the park along the Parks Highway.

Alaska has the largest state park system in the United States, with more than 3,000 campsites within a 119-unit state park system. Camping is available at 40 state recreation sites, 5 state parks, 14 state recreation areas and a state historic park. The Bureau of Land Management maintains 15 campgrounds in Alaska, most in the Interior. The U.S. Forest Service has dozens of campgrounds in Alaska's two national forests: Tongass (in Southeast Alaska) and Chugach (in Southcentral Alaska). The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service manages several camping areas within Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on the Kenai Peninsula.

LTK: Where would you recommend the first-time Alaska visitor go camping to get the best Alaska experience?

KV: You really can't go wrong when it comes to camping in Alaska. There are many choices and each offers - if not always something unique - then at the very least a well-maintained, safe place to experience the great outdoors. Following are a half-dozen of my favorite Alaska camping experiences, but I'd urge visitors to make their own. There are many campgrounds along the highways and byways of the North to choose from and they are all listed in The MILEPOST.

1. Tors Trail Campground, Chena River State Recreation Area (SRA), is about 45 miles outside Fairbanks on Chena Hot Springs Road. It has a beautiful riverside picnic area, the Granite Tors hiking trail, and a loop road with 24 large sites. My daughter landed her first fish here-a grayling-when she was just seven.

If you want hookups, continue on to Chena Hot Springs Resort at the end of the road, which has a full-service RV park, 80 lodge rooms and a restaurant. Outdoor hot springs pools and a host of summer activities make this is popular destination for visitors and Alaskans alike.

2. Fairbanks is the bustling center of Interior Alaska and offers campers some great options: four campgrounds located right on the Chena River, and a fifth campground situated on the Tanana Valley State Fairgrounds next to Creamer's Field bird sanctuary. I always stop and camp in Fairbanks before taking off up the Elliott, Steese and Dalton highways, and before heading back down to Anchorage.

3. Marion Creek BLM campground, just north of Coldfoot on the Dalton Highway, is a unique stop. In summer, it's home to the "farthest north public campground host in America." Like other BLM parks in Alaska, it is a well-maintained campground in a pretty remote part of the state. Pick blueberries and lowbush cranberries in season and enjoy the quiet.

4. Russian River U.S. Forest Service Campground on the Sterling Highway is one of the Kenai Peninsula's busiest campgrounds when the "reds" are running, and it's exciting to watch the fishermen and hear all the fish stories.

5. Blueberry Lake State Recreation Site (SRS) is tucked into an alpine setting between the tall mountains peaks of the Chugach Range, about 30 miles from Valdez on the Richardson Highway. It is one of Alaska's most beautifully situated campgrounds and also makes a great picnic stop if you are on your way to or from one of the Valdez campgrounds. Hike up to alpine terrain for beautiful 360-degree views.

6. Porcupine U.S. Forest Service at the end of the Hope Highway is a nice little spot. There are 24 paved campsites set in lush vegetation, with a few overlooking Turnagain Arm. The charming, historic town of Hope is nearby, where you can eat out at Tito's Discovery Café.

LTK: What are some "must-haves" for any Alaska camping trip?

KV: I always bring insect repellent-sprays, coils, whatever-and I keep a couple of 99-cent bug nets handy. Even a slight breeze will ground mosquitoes, and I've had some almost mosquito-free camping trips, but it is best to be prepared.

LTK: What are some common misconception about camping in Alaska?

KV: I think bears worry a lot of visiting campers, but in reality camper-bear encounters are rare. Bear-proof litter bins and clean camps discourage bears from visiting campgrounds, and if there is bear activity-usually because the salmon are running-bear alerts will be prominently posted throughout the park.

LTK: What do you think everyone should know about Alaska camping?

KV: Alaska campgrounds are reasonably priced, well-maintained, usually uncrowded (except for those fish runs!) and located along every major highway. Camping is a great way to see Alaska.

LTK: What else would you like to add?

KV: You can now plan your trip with The MILEPOST Digital Edition, available free to all our readers who register in The MILEPOST VIP Travelers Club. The Digital Edition offers quick links to websites for hundreds of businesses and attractions in Alaska and northwestern Canada.

And after planning your trip, come see all that Alaska has to offer!

Travel Smart

As you travel you may want to keep your Alaska road maps in your glove box, but you'll want to keep The MILEPOST by your side through your entire trip through Alaska. To learn more about The MILEPOST, visit the website at Milepost.com.

When Is the Best Time to Travel to Alaska