For those passing through on a cruise and permanent residents of the great state of Alaska alike, it’s easy to see why this destination draws in more than two million visitors in its warmest months alone. Crack open a leg of Alaskan king crab. Hike across glaciers and along stunning coastlines. Take a wildlife tour that acquaints you with otters, sea lions and more. In a state with weather as epic as its landscapes—plus many quirky seasonal activities and festivals to enjoy—it’s good to know the following tips before you plan your trip to this great state. (For example, did we mention it’s illegal to wake a sleeping bear for the purpose of taking a picture? The more you know!)
Weather in Alaska
(All temperatures quoted are in Fahrenheit.)
Springtime is always an awaited season for locals as March is the first month since October where temperatures average above freezing. Brown bears become more active as they wake up from a deep winter slumber, and gray whales also complete the journey home around late March. So, if you catch a cruise out of Seward, you might just witness breaching, spouting and tail slapping from a few returning visitors.
With temperatures in the mid-60s, relatively low humidity and daylight that lasts beyond 11:00 p.m., Alaskans embrace a nocturnal persona. This warmer weather not only attracts visitors to the festivals and city events but also to the great outdoors. With flowers in full bloom and wildlife active and ready for the camera, summer is the ideal season for an adventure to one of the state’s eight national parks.
As fall rolls around, residents plan for the rapid decline in temperature and daylight hours. Highs linger around the 40s and 50s from September to October and then quickly drop below freezing for November. While these months remain fairly dry, snowfall can begin as early as October. For the tourists who brave the cold in the fall months, they might be treated to an appearance of the northern lights. Starting in September, if the weather conditions are right (clear and dark skies), it’s one of the great spectacles in the natural world.
Cold temperatures settle in during December, January and February. While average temperatures hover around the teens, wind chill, lack of daylight and heavy snowfall often drop the temperatures well below zero. On January 23, 1971, the town of Jim River made history with a record low temperature of −80, the lowest temperature ever recorded anywhere in the United States. Regardless of where you are in Alaska, though, more than enough activities can keep your mind off the chilly conditions. With the right gear, you can explore open crevasses at Matanuska Glacier, take an icy plunge at Seward’s Polar Bear Jump and ride along with a musher on a real dogsled (or just play with the husky puppies in training).
Backroads Pro Tip
If you love your trip to Alaska, consider making it your next home. That way, you can get paid to experience the day-to-day adventures! Yes, you heard that correctly. You get paid to live in Alaska. Once you’re a permanent resident for more than a year, you’re eligible for the Permanent Fund Dividend. Investment earnings on mineral royalties fund this dividend, and it has an average annual payout close to $2,000. That’s a round-trip plane ticket to Hawaii when you need to warm up!
Despite the freezing temperatures and variable daylight hours, Alaskans seem to find a reason to celebrate their history, climate and culture all year long!
• Iditarod Sled Dog Race (March)
Mush! Let’s go! All right! Hike! The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, wherein every team consists of a musher and a team of 12 to 16 dogs, is held each year in early March. Commemorating the sled teams who delivered mail and supplies from town to town during the gold mining days, this race is nearly 1,000 miles long, treks from Anchorage to Nome and takes about 8 to 15 days. With blizzard conditions, nearly no visibility and treacherous climbs, only “dogs suitable for arctic travel” are allowed to compete in the race. Believe it or not, this rule was instated in the early 1990s after a team with standard poodles competed for three years.
• Summer Solstice
Many visitors and locals alike come together to celebrate the summer solstice. On June 21 and the days surrounding, celebrations of the longest day include the Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon, the Slam’n Salm’n Derby, Solstice Festival, Hero Games and more!
• World Ice Art Championships (February through March)
Most people have built sand castles at the beach, but have you ever tried to carve one out of ice? Each year in February, more than 100 sculptors from 30 different countries come together in Fairbanks for the world’s largest ice sculpting contest. Throughout the six-week period, over 45,000 visitors experience an alternate universe carved out of more than four million pounds of “Arctic Diamond” ice. Luge down an ice slide, climb on animal-shaped sculptures, or walk through a life-size ice cabin with your entry ticket.
• Fur Rondy (February through March)
For more than 80 years, Alaskans have celebrated the end of winter with the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous, or Fur Rondy for short. Since its origin, the festival’s competitive offerings have changed from events like skiing and basketball to more obscure games. These days, some of the fan favorites include steering an outhouse on skis and running with reindeer. Guess this is what cabin fever does to you after a few months of darkness!
• Northern Lights (September through April)
When most people think of Alaska, they think of the northern lights. Scientifically known as the aurora borealis, your best chances of witnessing this phenomenon are from September to April. While the viewings can be unpredictable, you won’t need any binoculars to see the spectacle paint the sky with shades of blue, green and purple. In fact, the colors are even visible from space! You’ll want to bundle up, though, as you’re increasingly likely to see the marvel the farther north you travel into the Arctic Circle.
• World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (July)
On the third Wednesday of every July, the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics kick off with a series of events celebrating the Inuit, Iñupiat, Yupik and Native Americans. Featuring everything from the greased pole walk and the muktuk eating contest to the fish-cutting contest and the crowning of Miss WEIO in the cultural pageant, the games follow a jam-packed four-day schedule.
During the summer months, close to two million people visit Alaska, and more than 50 percent of those visitors come through on cruises. Given the size and expansiveness of the “Last Frontier,” though, it’s rarely a challenge to escape the crowds, especially when traveling with the goal of getting off the beaten path. Starting in September, the crowds lessen, and many take advantage of the shoulder season discounts that offer attractive deals on tours and hotels alike. Despite Alaska being the largest state, less than 800,000 people claim permanent residence. For comparison, more people live in San Francisco than in the entirety of Alaska!
• Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing
Slide on your skis and grab your poles because cross-country skiing is a staple of the Alaskan exercise routine! With hundreds of miles of trails throughout the state, there’s no need for that expensive gym membership. This cardio workout burns about 700 calories an hour on flat terrain and allows you to see the state on foot, both in the city and the backcountry. If cross-country skiing isn’t your forte, try snowshoeing! As they say in Alaska, if you can walk, you can snowshoe. It’s a great alternative for hiking enthusiasts in the winter.
From deep-sea charters to fly-fishing in your waders, fishing is a popular sport in the state, but it also fuels the seafood industry. Check out Kenai River, where salmon can weigh up to 98 pounds each. From May through September, you’ll see many sport fishermen out in the water, as well as the famed grizzly bears who also share a love for salmon – an important food source for them!
With over 500,000 miles to explore, you can pick the trail that suits your interests and ability level. Hike over rugged mountain terrain, through patches of wildflowers or along the bay coastline to take it all in. Looking for a challenge? Attempt to summit Denali! Standing at more than 20,000 feet tall, Denali is the highest mountain in North America, and it requires about three weeks of climb time and extensive training. While it might be a little chillier in April and May, this is the best time to summit; once June rolls around, you’re more likely to see precipitation at higher altitudes on the mountain.
• Sea Kayaking
Despite the chilly water temperatures, people can’t resist being out on the incredibly wild and scenic bodies of water found throughout Alaska. The state has more coastline than all other US states combined, so it’s no wonder kayaking, canoeing and boating are popular choices. During the warmer months, take a cruise through Kenai Fjords, and wave to the humpbacks, gray whales and orcas who are all in town for the season. Want to see a glacier up close? Hop in a kayak to paddle among floating icebergs and to see ice calving in real time. Be careful not to tip, though, or you’ll take an unwanted polar plunge!
Backroads Pro Tip
Looking to change up the scenery on your walk, bike ride or run? Take a stroll through Totem Bight State Historical Park in Ketchikan, which has the world’s largest collection of totem poles. Each totem pole tells a story that conveys cultural heritage or family lineage or inspires spiritual reverence for the Native American people.
Backroads Pro Tip
Alaska offers so much more than what you can experience via a tour bus or cruise ship alone. The greatest beauty and adventure here come from venturing beyond the pavement. From the highest mountain summits to the endless beautiful coastline and everything in between. Look for opportunities to hike, bike and kayak whenever possible. It’s active pursuits like these that will allow you a deeper connection to the magic of Alaska.