When is the best time to visit Alaska? Unless you want to experience Alaska at its coldest, it's best to visit sometime between May 15 and September 15. This is the window during which Alaska cruises operate and when most campgrounds and hotels are open. The majority of tourist attractions are also open during this timeframe, though some may open a bit later or close a bit earlier due to extreme cold. However, some uniquely Alaskan experiences can only be enjoyed during other times of the year.
Timing a Trip to Alaska
With its unique terrain and breathtaking scenery, Alaska is a beautiful vacation destination. When planning a trip to this state, it's important to time your trip just right. Weather is an important consideration, but you also need to take into account what sights you want to see and what you want your experience to be like before deciding when to travel.
- Peak tourist months: The peak tourist season falls between mid-June and mid-August, largely because many families plan vacations to coincide with the summer break from school.
- Crowd avoidance: If you want to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season yet still visit when most things are open, plan your trip between May 15 and mid-June or between mid-to-late August and September 15.
- Best cruise prices: May and September tend to offer the lowest prices on cruises, as these months bookend the peak months when rates are highest. As a bonus, these months tend to be the least crowded with tourists.
- Mount McKinley viewing: According to The MILEPOST Alaska Travel Planner managing editor Kristine Valencia, "Many Alaskans recommend May and June as the most promising period for views of Mount McKinley."
- Most daylight hours: Valencia indicates that tourists seeking the maximum number of daylight hours will "have really long days for sightseeing in June and July." The summer solstice, which is the longest day of the year, occurs around June 21.
- Salmon fishing: The peak time for salmon fishing in Alaska coincides with the peak tourist season of mid-May through mid-September. This is true for most types of fish that anglers seek in Alaska.
- Bird watching: Mid-April through May is the best timeframe to spot migratory birds returning from warmer climates. In wetland areas, shorebirds are abundant in May, then again in August and September.
- Whale watching: The best multi-species whale viewing time in Alaska is between April and September. Gray whales can be seen as early as March, but other species can't generally be spotted until at least April.
- Northern lights viewing: You're most likely to see the northern lights between mid-September and late April, so you'll have to visit during the off-season to have a chance of witnessing the aurora borealis.
- Ice fishing: If you're brave enough to tackle ice fishing in Alaska, you'll want to schedule your trip between December and March. You may also be able to glimpse the northern lights during this timeframe.
You should also be aware of pest season in Alaska. Black flies tend to be really bad in Alaska from the middle of May through early June or July, which happens to coincide with a portion of peak tourist season. If you want to avoid dealing with black flies, time your trip before or after these pests are usually at their worst.
Driving to Alaska
If you are traveling to Alaska by car, you will be driving the Alaska Highway, which is also known as the Alcan Highway. It begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and crosses into Alaska more than 1,200 miles later. It officially ends at Delta Junction, Alaska, which is located at mile marker 1422. The road continues on under another name to Juneau, which is referred to as the unofficial termination point of the Alaska Highway. There are, of course, other roads in Alaska, but there is no other way into the state by motorized vehicle. According to Valencia:
- "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 the road offer excellent surfacing. Relatively few stretches of road fall into the 'poor' category -- that is, chuckholes, gravel breaks, deteriorated shoulders, bumps, and frost heaves."
Driving to Alaska may seem to be a bit daunting for anyone who doesn't live in western Canada. Fortunately, it's easy to visit the state by airplane or cruise ship. You can even travel within the state via the Alaska railroad.
Camping in Alaska
Even if you don't drive all the way to Alaska, you can still go camping by renting an RV or renting backpacking or tent camping gear. Camping in Alaska is definitely seasonal and weather-dependent. Valencia indicates that most of Alaska's campgrounds are open from the latter part of May until September. She states, "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." When temperatures rise in the spring, they can reopen.
General Campground Overview
According to Valencia, "Camping is a great way to see Alaska." The state's many parks and fishing areas are popular places to camp, she states. Examples include:
- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service manages several camping areas within Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on the Kenai Peninsula, which is a popular fishing spot.
- Denali National Park is a popular spot for campers. There are six campgrounds within the park and there are several private campgrounds outside the park along the Parks Highway.
- Alaska has the largest state park system in the United States, hosting more than 3,000 campsites within a 119-unit state park system. Camping is available at 40 state recreation sites, five state parks, 14 state recreation areas, and a state historic park.
- The Bureau of Land Management maintains 15 campgrounds in Alaska, mostly 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 South-central Alaska).
Expert Camping Favorites
According to Valencia, "You really can't go wrong when it comes to camping in Alaska." She does have a few favorite spots, but encourages visitors to find their own special places to camp. Her favorites include:
- Granite Tors Trail Campground: Located in the Chena River State Recreation Area (SRA), this campground 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, but none with hookups. There's a good reason this campground is special to Valencia. She states, "My daughter landed her first fish here (a grayling) when she was just 7."
- Chena Hot Springs Resort: If you're looking for a campground with RV hookups near the Chena River SRA, Valencia recommends that you continue on to Chena Hot Springs Resort at the end of the road, which she describes as having a full-service RV park, 80 lodge rooms, and a restaurant. She states, "Outdoor hot springs pools and a host of summer activities make this is a popular destination for visitors and Alaskans alike."
- Marion Creek Campground: This Bureau of Land Management campground is just north of the small town of Coldfoot on the Dalton Highway. Valencia describes it as "a unique stop." She explains, " In summer, it's home to the farthest north public campground host in America. Like other Bureau of Land Management 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."
- Blueberry Lake State Recreation Site: Valencia states, "This is one of Alaska's most beautifully situated campgrounds. It also makes a great picnic stop if you are on your way to or from one of the Valdez campgrounds. It is tucked into an alpine setting between the tall mountains peaks of the Chugach Range, about 30 miles from Valdez on the Richardson Highway. Hike up to alpine terrain for beautiful 360-degree views."
- Porcupine Campground: According to Valencia, "This U.S. Forest Service campground 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."
The best ways to see Alaska are by cruise ship, train, or vehicle. Many tourists fly to Alaska and rent a car so they can drive to see the areas of the state that interest them the most. Some take a one-way cruise from Seattle or Vancouver to Alaska, then rent a car or camper to tour a portion of the state before flying back home or boarding another one-way cruise back to where they started.
Other travelers choose to combine a cruise with a train tour to Denali National Park, while many simply take Alaskan cruises, limiting their land exploration to port stops. With so much to see and do in this beautiful state, you could visit numerous times during different parts of the year and see different things each time.