Editor’s note: This is a recurring post that has been updated with additional information.
With over 424 million acres — 57 million of which are federally-designated wilderness — Alaska is the largest and least densely populated state in the U.S.
Glacier-capped mountains are bisected by deep valleys and vast meadows, providing a seemingly infinite amount of outdoor recreational opportunities. Icebergs float off the coast, creating the perfect habitat for unique wildlife you won’t find elsewhere in the country.
Elevations throughout the state range from sea level to 20,310 feet. This means it’s not uncommon to encounter a wide range of weather conditions — from 70 degrees and sunny to subfreezing and snowing — occurring on the same day in different regions.
Travelers visit Alaska in search of adventure, stunning scenery and solitude — all of which you can experience year-round. The winter months deliver some of the best skiing and riding in North America, while the summers often promise warm and clear days.
The best time to go depends on what your priorities are. Read on for the best times to visit Alaska for the northern lights, wildlife viewing, snow sports, cruises, and good deals on flights and hotels.
When is the warmest time to visit Alaska?
Most visitors head north to Alaska in the summer, between May 10 and Sept. 15. Temperatures are highest June through August, with highs often in the 60s. As the summer progresses, the chance of rainfall increases. In August — the rainiest month of the year — the state receives an average of almost 3 inches. April and May are significantly drier and only slightly cooler.
When is the coldest time to visit Alaska?
Most people associate Alaska with cold, and it often is. In the mountains, it is not unlikely for the temperatures to drop well below zero at night. In Anchorage, however, the average daytime high in January — the coldest month of the year — is in the low 20s.
For some, these cold temperatures mean one thing: dry snow and a lot of it. The heart of winter in Alaska occurs between December and March. But that’s not to say “The Last Frontier” shuts down by any means. In fact, the skiing is at its prime, ice-carving competitions and winter carnivals happen throughout the state, and people partake in dog sled races.
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When to visit Alaska for the northern lights
The northern lights are most active between September and April, with the highest activity often occurring in March. While the lights are unpredictable, staying up late is best to increase your odds of seeing them. During the winter, peak times are between 11:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m. During September and March, the peak time starts and ends about an hour later.
The best time to see wildlife in Alaska
As the state with by far the most wilderness in the country, it’s no surprise that Alaska is a great place for wildlife viewing. The type of animals you’re likely to see depends on what season you’re there.
Spring is one of the best times to visit Alaska in search of wildlife. Temperatures are beginning to warm, and vegetation hasn’t fully grown in or concealed the best views. Bears, caribou, sheep and mountain goats are all active, and you can find them in easily accessible areas. If you are along the coast of western Alaska, you may also spot a bowhead whale, seal or walrus.
Summer is a special time for wildlife viewing. Salmon spawn in many of the state’s streams, drawing bears and eagles. Moose often congregate along roads, and muskoxen begin to rut in July. Alaska is also the only place in North America to see the Pacific walrus, which will be at some of the more remote beaches and islands in the western part of the state.
Once the leaves begin to change, you can spot wildlife grazing among a sea of vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. Fall is the mating season for moose, goats, caribou and muskoxen, often bringing them to open areas where visitors can easily see them.
Bears tend to stock up on food in preparation for the winter, so your best bet for spotting one will be near a salmon stream or berry patch. A variety of whales begin to migrate along the western coast.
While winter in Alaska is obviously cold, it can also be good for wildlife viewing. With no leaves on the trees, there is much less to obscure your views. Head to the Chilkat River near Haines in November to see the largest bald eagle migration in the world. Mountain goats, deer and Dall sheep all rut in the late fall before the snow gets too deep. Winter is also a great time to practice your footprint identification skills.
When to go to Alaska if you want to avoid the crowds
Since Alaska is the most remote and wild state in the U.S., it isn’t difficult to escape the crowds even during the busiest times.
Alaska is busiest from mid-June through mid-August, which is also when you will likely experience the best weather. If you’re worried about crowds, your best bet is to visit in April through May and September. During these months, the days are still long and good weather windows are still probable.
The best time to go hiking in Alaska
From singletrack forested trails ideal for novices to challenging, multi-day glacier treks, Alaska has an incredible network of trails for all levels.
Trails at lower elevations around Anchorage are generally accessible once the snow has melted by the end of May. In the mountains, a safe bet is to plan a hiking trip from early to mid-June, with prime conditions lasting through mid-September.
Generally speaking, June through July are the best times to hike, with less rain, fewer muddy trails to negotiate and optimal wildlife viewing. The midnight sun also means you’ll have plenty of daylight to cram in your outdoor adventures; around the summer solstice, you can expect around 22 hours of daylight in Anchorage.
The best time to go on a cruise to Alaska
Cruise season in Alaska runs from late April through September. According to a spokesperson for Princess Cruises, the best cruise weather typically occurs from mid-June through August. The shoulder seasons — which run from the end of April through early June and September — are less crowded and cheaper, but the weather may be rainy and colder.
The cheapest time to visit Alaska
While lodging is generally cheapest during early winter, airfare costs vary widely based on your point of origin.
In the popular cities of Anchorage, Seward and Healy (near Denali National Park), the most expensive times to book lodging are the second week in June through the third week in August. During the low season, especially November and January, room rates are at their lowest, according to Kayak. Tuesdays are the cheapest nights to stay, and Thursdays are the most expensive. In general, booking around 75 days before your stay allows you to find the best deals.
Overall, Anchorage is the least expensive city to stay in and has the most identifiable seasonality curve, with midsummer being the most expensive time to go. Prices stay relatively flat all year in Seward and Healy but see a slight decrease between October and December.
According to data based on annual price trends provided by the travel search engine Skyscanner, we can determine the cheapest times to travel to Anchorage from a few major U.S. airports. Flights from New York are generally cheapest in August, but flights from Los Angeles or Atlanta may be cheaper in April. Flights from Chicago are often the cheapest in February.