While summer-lovers in much of the United States are still staunchly clinging to their flip-flops, a cooler wind has begun to blow in the northern reaches of the continent. By mid-August, fall is starting to descend on Alaska. Soon, the state will be arrayed in glorious colors. Lengthening nights hold the potential for northern lights sightings. Cooler weather coaxes wildlife to lower elevations. Crowds diminish as the high tourist season comes to an end.
In short, it’s one of the best times to visit Alaska.
While there are lots of benefits to visiting Alaska in other seasons, autumn is hands-down my favorite time to be in the 49th state. It’s not because they have the best pumpkin-spice lattes or the cutest boots-and-scarf photo ops. Rather, I love fall in Alaska’s interior because it looks like this:
Jaw-dropping, heart-stopping beautiful.
I was fortunate to be able to spend three autumns in Alaska, including a large chunk of time in the incredible Denali National Park and Preserve. Today I want to share some of my favorite photos from my favorite season in the Great Land, as well as tips and information for planning your own autumn getaway to the Last Frontier!
While many other parts of Alaska are gorgeous during the fall season, I have a soft spot in my heart for Denali. The combination of lofty, majestic mountains, intricately braided rivers, wide-open spaces, and abundant wildlife is hard to beat. Regardless of the season, you’re struck by another fantastic vista everywhere you turn.
Denali is also one of the most accessible national parks in the state, making it an easy addition to your fall trip itinerary. The visitor center is located just off the appropriately-named Parks Highway (AK-3). It’s about four hours by car from Anchorage and two hours from Fairbanks, both of which have major airports.
As an alternative, consider making the trip from Anchorage by train for an incredibly scenic journey. It will double the travel time, but you’ll be rewarded with a gorgeous ride that includes large swaths of wilderness that is inaccessible by road.
Part of what makes Denali great is that there is only one road into the park. Private vehicles are prohibited beyond Mile 15 with the exception of those that are selected in the end-of-the-season Denali Road Lottery. Not only does this help to control crowds – which will already be growing smaller as summer wanes – but it also means that the human impact on the park is minimized. In Denali, you don’t find people approaching or harassing wildlife in the same way that you do at other parks where visitors have more freedom to move about. The limited traffic also ensures that the fragile ecosystems and breathtaking landscapes stay pristine.
The high season for visitors in Alaska is mid-June to mid-August, and Denali is a hugely popular stop on most itineraries. You’ll be glad of the extra breathing room if you visit in late August or September. You should note, though, that parts of the park road
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The “Alaskan Big Five” consists of grizzly bears, moose, Dall sheep, wolves, and caribou, all of which can be found in Denali National Park and throughout Alaska. Each of these species has evolved to survive the harsh temperatures of an Alaskan winter. Thus, the mid-day heat in summer can be enough to send them into higher elevations or cooler, shaded spots where they may be difficult to see. As autumn arrives, however, the new chill in the air can result in
My closest encounter with Dall sheep, for example, came in the fall when a herd crossed the road right in front of my bus. During the summer, they tend to appear only as tiny white specks in the higher reaches of the mountains. No binoculars needed this time!
Wildlife sightings are unpredictable, even in the unpopulated and remote expanses of the state. Visiting during a cooler time of year, however, or going wildlife spotting in the early morning or late afternoon when the temperatures are lower, will greatly increase your chances of seeing something!
Perhaps you’ll even get lucky and catch sight of the most elusive of the Big Five: the wolf.
Finally, another advantage
There’s no guarantee as to whether the aurora will appear and how long it will last when it does, but you can always check the northern lights forecast to see what your chances might be!
Other Great Reasons to Visit Alaska in the Fall
- You could save some money! Hotel and some excursion rates go down as peak season ends. You also can usually find great deals on cruises and other package vacations as you enter “shoulder season.” I do, however, advise against booking one of the last cruises or tours of the autumn, as excursion options and access to national parks may be more limited (see my tips, below).
- In many places, the ubiquitous and annoying clouds of mosquitos tend to dissipate.
- While the midnight sun is a fun phenomenon and many hotels are equipped with blackout curtains, some visitors find that it wreaks havoc on their circadian rhythm and makes it difficult to get good rest. The days and nights are much more balanced during the fall, so you won’t have any trouble sleeping!
- The weather is still beautiful, if a bit cooler and more unpredictable. It’s perfect for a great hike!
Tips for Planning a Fall Visit to Alaska
- As with any season in the 49th state, the weather can be unpredictable. Make sure your Alaska packing list includes plenty of layers, sturdy shoes, and a good rain jacket/windbreaker. A hat and gloves are wise for cooler mornings and evenings and in case you happen to hit a cold snap.
- Be advised that snow can fall at any time, even in August or early September, and may result in road closures in remote areas and parks.
- Many major tourist outfits, including tour providers and some hotels and restaurants, will be closed or limiting their offerings by the end of September. Consider visiting from late August to mid-September for peak colors (exact peak timing can vary based on weather) and maximum excursion opportunities.
- You have lots of options for accessing Denali National Park, most of which involve park buses. Some of these buses offer photo stops and expert narration along the journey; others are purely for transit to hiking and camping points within the park. Check out this page for more information and to choose your adventure!
- Even though you’ll be visiting outside of the high season, it’s still prudent to pre-book your accommodations, tours, and transportation.
I hope this post has inspired you to consider planning a visit to one of my favorite states during my favorite season! You can’t go wrong traveling to the Great Land at most any time of year, but there’s something truly special about Alaska in autumn. I hope you soon get to experience it for yourself if you haven’t already!
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This article about Alaska in the fall was first posted on August 28, 2018, and last updated on August 30, 2020.
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