Alaska: when should I go?

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Home Forums General Forums General Lightweight Backpacking Discussion Alaska: when should I go?

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    Josh B
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western New York

    Hello all,

    I’m planning a trip to Alaska with my wife for my 30th birthday. I plan to spend 10 days there. I’ve never visited the state before.

    Most importantly, I’m curious to know people’s recommendations on the best time of year to visit.

    Also, what are must-see locations, hikes, activities etc? I’d like to do a mix of backcountry, day hikes, and general site seeing.

    Brad Rogers
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southeast Tennessee

    I’ve been backpacking in Alaska twice – eleven days in Brooks Range in 2015 and fourteen days in Wrangell-St Elias NP in 2017.  Both times I went were in late August and the weather turned out fantastic.  More importantly, the mosquitoes, which can be insane (particularly in Brooks Range) were nonexistent.   I did get one night of  snow in Brooks Range, but it ended up being just a couple of inches and melted off the next day.

    Both trips were flying into the backcountry and the trip in (and out) were fantastic.  I think both companies (Wrangell Mtn Air and Brooks Range Aviation) do general sight seeing flights.  I didn’t spend much time in McCarthy, and realize it’s turned into a little bit of a tourist trap, but I do regret not being able to spend a little more time there and see the Kennecott Copper Mine in more detail.  They do tours through it that I was not able to do.

    Josh B
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western New York

    Great advice, thats exactly what I was thinking timing wise. Thanks, Brad.

    Alex K
    BPL Member


    we spent all of July roadtripping and backpacking last year in Alaska and it was perfect from tip to tail. Bugs in Lake Clark NP in mid-July weren’t great, weren’t terrible – certainly remember worse in the Adirondacks as a kid. Depends a bit where you are, though. Worst bugs were probably at Tetlin NWR early in the month.

    Hard to pick in terms of must-see, the state is (obviously) enormous and every day was filled with “woah”s. My must-go-back’s (right now) are something like – backcountry expeditions in Wrangell-St Elias, Denali, and ANWR, and a Northern Lights trip in winter to some friends that live outside Fairbanks.

    We’re not particularly hard core, so we went with for our Lake Clark trip and they were A+ folks all around. They handled flights in and out, our route (turquoise lake to twin lakes), and we opted for them to handle food too. Would love to go back for any of their other trips.

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    Realize that Alaska is over twice the size of Texas and four times the size of California.  My family of origin spent 15 years, two vacations a year, going to someplace different each time, in California.

    10 days?  Do you want a budget survey trip to see some of the iconic places that are easily accessible?  Or a more ambitious off-trail experience accepting that you’ll get to one or two places but have a more immersive experience there?

    If it’s a big trip to 1-2 locations, I’d look at backpacking in Denali NP; backpacking and/or packrafting in the Brooks Range / Gates of the Arctic; or a sea kayaking expedition in Southeast or Southcentral Alaska.  As you go north, the season is short.  In my area (the Kenai Peninsula) mid-May through late September is viable (and the freezing nights early and late in that window knock the bugs down).  In “Panhandle” / SE Alaska, there’s even more marine influence and April through September are reasonable (you’ll get wet whenever you go there).

    For a 10-day survey trip, I would (and have) had people fly into ANC, rent a car (a Corolla is fine – the state highways are paved), and hit the wide range of attractions along the “road system” from Fairbanks south to Homer and Seward.

    Day 1: arrive, rent car, get groceries and bear spray (if you want).

    Day 2: Drive to Denali NP and spend a night there having reserved a spot on the park bus for late on Day 2 or early on Day 3.  When researching Denali activities, ignore any reports that don’t mention the multi-year road closure at Polychrome Pass.

    Day 3 drive to Fairbanks, see Museum of the North on the UAF campus, maybe get lodging out of town in May, August or September in hopes of seeing some aurora (impossible in June and July).  For some reason, there’s pretty good Thai food to be had in Fairbanks.

    Day 4 drive south through Delta (for a different route) and keep an eye to the S and SW for views of Mt Saint Elias / Wrangell.  Big trails, wilderness and mountain climbing to be done there, but I’d skip it during a survey trip.  Consider taking the long and winding road out to Macarthy (famous for its mass murderer) and the Kennicott Copper Mine ghost town.  If so, spend the night in the area.  The food truck at the gas station in Glennallen beats the other food options along that route.

    Day 6 drive to Seward, arrive in time to see the SeaLife Center aquarium) a nicely done modern aquarium.  IF THE MARINE FORECAST is good, take a day or 1/2-day cruise out onto Resurrection Bay.  DON’T make advance reservations despite their push for you to do so.  There are always seats available on multiple sailings each morning to see whales, dolphins, puffins, goats, sheep, eagles, etc, but if it’s a rough day, it’s no fun to be out in big water.  During rough marine conditions or after an early 1/2-day trip, take the Exit Glacier trail to the Harding Icefield Overlook.  Bring binocs to see mountain goats on the steepest slopes above you.

    Day 7 maybe stay in Seward another day.  There’s a nice 1/2-day hike to peakbag on the east side of Resurrection Bay or Lost Lakes Trail 7 miles north of town is lovely – you get up to 2000 feet elevation which in Alaska is fully an Alpine setting.

    Day 8 drive to Homer.  Russian River Falls Trail is short (3 miles round trip) and easy but allows you to look down on the Sockeye salmon doing the Nat-Geo as they bash themselves against the rocks in the cascade, repeatedly.  Skyline (to the east of Cooper Landing) is a short steep trail that gets you to a ridgeline with expansive views (potentially including Denali, but that much viz is rare in summer).  Skyline Traverse takes you along the ridgeline over multiple summits and in difficulty and vertical feet is equivalent to hiking Half Dome or bouncing the Colorado River in GCNP in a day (but with no heat or altitude or permits to contend with).  Bring enough water for the whole day.

    In Homer, there are fabulous views right from town; bird- and whale-watching day cruises; halibut charters (“halibut – the other white meat!), art galleries, and long walks on sandy beaches.  Islands and Oceans Visitors Center and the Pratt Musuem are small but worth stops.  Sea kayaks can be rented and you can make arrangements to have you as a hiker or with a sea kayak to be dropped at a trailhead or protected bay on the south, roadless side of Kachemak Bay in M-Bay State Park.  If you want a private remote setting, Porter’s Alaskan Adventures has off-the-grid log cabins (but with a sauna) on Hesketh Island and they take you with or without kayaks there and back.  Cheaper would be the yurts for rent in the State Park (reserve ahead for either of those).

    Day 9-10 head back to ANC to catch your flight.  Stop at the Portage Glacier Visitor Center.  If you have a 1/2 day, consider going to the weird town of Whittier which is accessed by the world’s only bidirectional road/rail tunnel and in which, all town residents live in the same building.  Or, along the highway going to Anchorage, there’s the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center with various megafauna, some of them rescues that can’t be released.  In Girdwood, we like Jack Sprat for lunch or dinner but the three bake shops are also good for lighter fare.

    I like the small, forested Alaska Zoo on O’Malley in Anchorage AFTER you’ve had a chance to see Alaskan critters in the wild.  They have one or more of everything on display including things you will NOT have seen (musk ox, polar bears, and wolverine).

    A cool thing to do on the Kenai, if you don’t try to survey the entire road system, is the OTHER, not Boundary Waters wilderness canoeing trail system in the country.  You can go out on the Kenai Canoe Trails for a day or weekend or two weeks and won’t see anyone else once you’re past the first lake.  I’ve dropped people at Paddle Lake and picked them up 1 or 2 nights later (or one VERY long day) at tidewater where the Swanson River empties into Cook Inlet.  I’ve got much better gear than is rented in Sterling and my canoe is ideal for 2 people camping or 3 on a day trip (but can hold one more than that).

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    On your narrower Q regarding timing.  In my area on the Kenai Peninsula, we encourage our friends and family to come in mid- or late-May or early September.  That way, they avoid most of the tourists but the snow is gone, and (hopefully) recent freezing nights cut down the bugs.  Also, we’re not so busy with our own trips and fishing and have time to spend with them.  And they *might* see the aurora.  That’s impossible in June or July as it never gets dark enough, even at 1 am.

    If you have to catch a bunch of salmon,

    that means June and July.  If you prefer ocean fishing for halibut, that can be done any month of the year:

    but early June or any time in August isn’t wrong.  You get the crazy-long days and watching “combat fishing” and dip-netting are their own tourist attractions: 

    Luke Schmidt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Alaska

    David has a lot of good ideas. I’d ask what kind of experience you want and how much you want to spend once you get here.

    Do you want to backpacking on a trail or in the bush? Do you want to spend $500+for a bush plane flight? The answers would determine my suggestions.

    AK Granola
    BPL Member


    In Interior Alaska…

    • March for best skiing
    • June for flowers
    • late July early August for berry picking
    • September for fall beauty
    • Sept-March for aurora
    • Nov-March full moon walking
    • Mosquitoes – May-September
    • Black flies – July-Sept
    • Bears – April-October
    • Grayling – April-May
    • Backpacking- June-early Sept. – lots of 30 miles or so trails within 2 hours of Fairbanks
    Sarah Kirkconnell
    BPL Member


    Locale: Homesteading On An Island In The PNW

    I floated the water on a tiny outdoor-oriented cruise in 2021, going from island to island under the peaks. Mostly because I am into whales and glaciers. And I got all of that. Alaska and the Yukon are beyond massive so I figured I was only going to be able to see a tiny sliver of it all.

    That moment in time going into Red Bluff Bay was one of my favorite nights of the trip. Now then, being it was 2021 almost no tourists were out so it was very quiet out there.

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