The Best Times to Visit Alaska for Northern Lights, Bear Spotting, and National Parks

From cruising to catching the northern lights, these are the best times of year to visit Alaska.

A whale's tail out of the water with snowy mountains in the background in Juneau

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Alaska has a way of reminding you just how connected we are to the natural world. Its wild coastal plains can leave you awe-struck while its towering snow-capped mountains leave an imprint on your very soul, and its glacier-rimmed fjords can make you feel like you’ve just stepped foot on an entirely new planet. 

In the far north of Alaska, the Brooks Range extends 700 miles from the coast and veers into Canada’s Yukon Territory. South of Fairbanks is Denali, the tallest mountain in North America at a staggering 20,310 feet. Further down along the coast, the mountains get smaller and more rounded, and their lush green forms poke over beautiful tidewater glaciers.

With so many diverse regions, it can be unnerving to figure out which to tackle in a single trip and when to visit. Before booking flights, consult this definitive guide on the best times to visit Alaska.

The Best Times to Go to Alaska for Ideal Weather

The weather in Alaska runs through some rather large extremes. For example, Fairbanks experiences average temperatures as low as three degrees Fahrenheit in January, but can also push upward of 72 degrees in July, according to WeatherSpark. The same can be said for snowy days, too. While December in Fairbanks, its snowiest month, only sees 5.1 inches of snow on average, the state’s capital city of Juneau sees an average of 23 inches in the month of January. The good news with these varied climates is that there is something for everyone — be it a traveler looking for a snow-filled getaway under the northern lights or a few warm-weather days for a backcountry hike. 

Northern lights in Alaska's Brooks range

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The Best Time to Visit Alaska for the Northern Lights

Many travelers come to Alaska to see the aurora borealis, more commonly called the northern lights. This prime time to visit is between August to the middle of April, when a combination of clear night skies and decent aurora activity means spotting auroras is relatively easy. However, the northern lights tend to become more intense around the spring and fall equinoxes (March and September), which are also times when Alaska experiences fewer cloudy days, giving visitors their best chance at a good view. 

Alaska sits right under the Arctic Ocean, so visibility is high across most of the state. However, for optimal viewing experiences, it’s a good idea to head north and get as far away from cities and major towns as you can to avoid any light pollution. Luckily, there are dozens of easy-to-book tours offered out of Fairbanks that take guests into the backcountry so the only light they see is from the sky above. Flexible on your travel dates? Use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center to track the northern lights and time your visit around solar events. 

The Best Times to Visit Alaska on a Cruise

Cruising remains an important, and hugely popular, method of traveling through Alaska. While ships sail all summer long, there are distinct benefits to getting a head start on cruise season by visiting in May. In addition to being the driest month, May is also ideal for its reduced crowds, lower fares, and better wildlife viewing. Though, the summer months are popular for a reason: June boasts the longest daylight hours, and July has the warmest temperatures. 

The Best Time To Visit Alaska for Fishing

Throughout the year, there’s great fishing to be found in Alaska. After all, fishing here is a multi-billion dollar industry, and seafood remains the state’s top export. For travelers seeking something extra special, try visiting Ketchikan: a remote fishing town near the southern tip of Alaska. Known as the salmon capital of the world, it’s a popular cruise excursion stop-off, and not just for fishing. In the height of summer, the water can get up to 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

But almost any coastal town in Alaska has at least some kind of fishing community, and with over three million unnamed natural lakes, you can imagine just how plentiful the fishing is in America’s northernmost state. If it’s classic Alaskan King salmon you’re after, show up mid-May through July, when the fishing for that species peaks. Meanwhile, if you’d like to try your hand at ice fishing, head inland to Quartz Lake anytime after October.

The Best Time to Visit Alaska's National Parks

Warmer temperatures and more daylight in July and August make visiting places like Denali National Park and Glacier Bay National Park a dream. But if it’s a quieter, more remote experience you want, try showing up later in the season, when crowds have dwindled and yet enough daylight remains that you can do a self-guided hike in the backcountry. Travelers should note that Denali Park Road — the park’s only roadway — remains open through early September for bus tours dedicated to spotting wildlife (a 15-mile portion of the road is also open for private vehicles).

Of course, the shoulder season in September is also renowned for its gorgeous fall colors. “The mountains are gold, the berry bushes have turned bright red (with berries to pick), and you have the night sky to enjoy,” Jillian Simpson, vice president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, shared with Travel + Leisure.

The Best Time to Visit Alaska for Snow

May through September remains the busiest time of year for tourism in Alaska, but many folks are just as content planning a trip in winter. Why? Snow. With reports on the record-breaking snowfall in Alaska, the months of December, January, February, and March represent a fantastic opportunity to tackle Alaska’s magical snow-blanketed terrain by Nordic skiing, snowmobiling, and Alaskan dog mushing.

Grizzly Bears in Alaska with snowy mountains in the background

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The Best Time to Go to Alaska for Wildlife Viewing

Undoubtedly a big draw to Alaska is its fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities. To see the state’s famed bear population, your best bet is to plan a visit to destinations like Katmai National Park and Lake Clark National Park over the summer months (about mid-May to mid-September). According to Visit Anchorage, this is prime time for the salmon run, which means the bears are both super active and can be found in predictable spots along the riverbed.

Those planning a trip around the whale watching season are in luck, as that season runs for just a bit longer. According to Alaska Collection, gray whales usually arrive in the state by April, with the best viewing spot off Seward, while the humpbacks usually arrive by June, and both of these magnificent creatures usually stick around through September. However, there is good news for those visiting in the winter months. Orcas, Alaska Collection noted, stick around all year long. Though more arrive in the springtime months, you still have a good chance of spotting one no matter when you visit. There are plenty of other animals to see throughout the year, depending on where and when you visit. See Alaska’s official wildlife calendars by region on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website

The Worst Times To Visit Alaska

Alaska is different from the lower 48 states in many ways, but one of them is the lack of a comprehensive road system connecting all the different towns and regions. Because of this, flightseeing tours remain a popular way to get around the state, while simultaneously enjoying stunning birds-eye views of the mountains. Depending on where you want to visit in Alaska, the availability of these air taxis and airborne summit tours can change. For example, helicopter tours of Denali run from May through September, but a trip to Mount Redoubt Volcano on Natron Air can happen any time of year.

In many ways, there’s no such thing as a ‘bad time’ to visit Alaska, but when it comes to gorgeous day hikes and better weather for flying, the safest bet is to visit sometime between May and September.

Another important factor to keep in mind is daylight: in certain parts of Alaska during the summer, the sun never sets. Depending on your preferences, this could be either a blessing or a curse. Use a sunrise and sunset planner to help figure out precisely how much (or little) sunlight you’ll be in for during your Alaska adventure.

Hubbard Glacier and snowcapped mountains near the elias chain and the Yukon territory - Alaska
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The Cheapest Times to Visit Alaska

With the shoulder season primarily stretching from April to May and then again in September, those three months offer the best value for travelers on a budget, particularly if you end up on an Alaskan cruise. Many offer discounts on trips and credits for excursions during this time, making it a bit more attractive to those looking to save. 

As far as hotel rooms go, rates for a long weekend stay in Anchorage in July may be significantly more than what you’d pay for the same stay earlier in the season (April), or later in the season (September), another example of how a pre- or post-summer visit can be a cost-effective way to enjoy this highly underrated state.

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