Last updated: 06:00 PM ET, Fri September 30 2016

Why Fall Might Be The Best Time To Visit Alaska

Destination & Tourism | Will McGough | September 30, 2016

Why Fall Might Be The Best Time To Visit Alaska

As the northern-most state, Alaska’s weather patterns and reputation for cold have cornered its tourism season to the small window of summer. But maybe it’s time to give fall a shot – namely, the end of August to the middle of September. Sure, colors are changing all across North America, yet I wonder if anywhere else can compete with the seasonal transition occurring in Alaska, both in the environment and amongst its people.

Up Here, It’s a Different Kind of Fall

Yes, like everywhere else, the leaves are changing. It’s mostly cottonwoods in the low-lying valleys, and they turn bright yellow amongst the green pines and the mountainsides and valleys become majestic paintings. But there’s another kind of fall in Alaska, one that takes place on the ground. The wilderness here is full of open tundra, many without trees. The ecosystem exists entirely on the ground in the form of riverside mosses, berry patches, and rough foliage, all of which undergoes a colorful change during the month of September. Blueberries ripen, moss glows vivid green, and underbrush flashes autumn colors. It’s a sight unseen for the majority of the lower 48.

The Weather’s Actually Not That Bad – And Even Enhances the Beauty

According to Betsy Bradbury, Co-Owner of Kennicott Guides, the “sweet spot” for fall travel in Alaska is Sept. 1-15. The weather is cooling down but not freezing, and many environmental changes, in addition to the fall colors, are occurring.  

During this part of the year, the sun’s low angle is notorious for creating soft light and an alpine glow on the mountains that is, according to Bradbury, “consistently jaw-dropping.” And while it doesn’t typically snow at lower elevations this time of year, it will snow overnight on the tops of the peaks, creating a beautiful contrast between the fall tundra and the white-capped mountains.

You Get to Travel with Locals

As the tourist season winds down and seasonal employees begin to have more time off, they hit the road with a passion, determined to fit in a few adventures before winter arrives. This is good news for the traveler – you’re much more likely to encounter locals off the clock, opening up the opportunity to not only mingle, but observe how they interact with their own state.

“The end of the tourist season is when many Alaskans finally have the time to travel,” said Bradbury. “There’s a great local vibe during the fall because of it.”

Supply and Demand Are in Your Favor

Another byproduct of fewer tourists is that room rates decrease drastically as the season comes to a close. This is true across the board, whether in a city like Anchorage or a more remote location like McCarthy. For example, the same room at the Captain Hook Hotel in Anchorage – the base camp for adventures to the Talkeetna Range and Denali National Park – can be more than a hundred dollars cheaper per night in September than in June or July.

The Stars Have Just Come Out, and the Northern Lights Are Possible

If you want to see the Northern Lights there’s no cutting corners – you’re bound for the Northern-most regions of Alaska, Canada, or Scandinavia during the dead of winter, when you have the best chance, statistically speaking, to see them due to more hours of darkness and clear skies.

However, more casual crusaders might find compromise in an early September hunt. Your chances aren’t as good, but the flipside is that it’s not as cold and the days aren’t as dark, so your trip can be about much more than the hunt for the Lights. Northern Lights tours in areas like Fairbanks are already up and running in September, giving you the opportunity to see the Lights at night without sacrificing the light of day.

Also occurring in Alaska during this time is an even bigger, broader change as the Midnight Sun hands the baton to the Northern Lights. During the summer, Alaska receives nearly 24 hours of daylight, and in the winter, the opposite is true. Something to understand and appreciate is that fall is when the locals are beginning to see the stars for the first time.

“Because of the long days in the summer, we don’t start to see the stars at all until August,” Bradberry said.

Imagine that! 

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