Alaska's vastness means the seasons change at different times in various parts of the state, and as a result, sports and cultural activities take place at different times in different places.
Climate & Seasons
The weather in Alaska can be extreme and unpredictable. The state is the first to get whatever Arctic Siberia or the void of the North Pacific have to throw at North America. The extremes of recorded temperatures are a high of 100°F (38°C) and low of -80°F (-62°C). At any time of year, your vacation could be enlivened by weeks of unbroken sunny weather or weighed down by weeks of unbroken rain. All you can do is play the averages, hope for the best, and if you do get bad weather, get out and have fun anyway -- that's what Alaskans do.
June, July & August -- Summer in Alaska is a miraculous time, when the sun refuses to set, the salmon run upriver, and people are energized by limitless daylight. The sun dips below the horizon in Anchorage for only about 4 hours on June 21, the longest day of the year, and the sky is light all night. Weather gets warmer, although how warm depends on where you go. June is the driest of the summer months, July the warmest, and August generally the rainiest month of the brief summer, but warmer than June. In most respects, June is the best summer month to make a visit, but it does have some drawbacks to consider: In the Arctic, snow can linger until mid-June; in Southcentral Alaska, trails at high elevations or in the shade may be too muddy or snowy; it's too early for prime wildlife viewing, and not all activities or facilities at Denali National Park open until late June. It's also the worst time for mosquitoes.
Summer is also the season of high prices. Most operators in the tourism industry have only these 90 days to make their year's income, and they charge whatever the market will bear. July is the absolute peak of the tourist season, when you must book well ahead and when crowds are most prevalent. Before June 15 and after August 15, the flow of visitors relaxes, providing occasional bargains and more elbowroom. Real off-season prices show up before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. But the length and intensity of the visitor season varies widely in different areas: In cruise-ship ports, it's busy from chilly early May into stormy October.
May & September -- More and more visitors are coming to Alaska during these "shoulder months" to take advantage of the lower prices, reduced crowds, and special beauty.
May is the drier of the 2 months, but as you travel farther north and earlier in the month, your chances of finding cold, mud, and even snow increase. In Alaska, there is no spring -- the melt of snow and resultant seas of mud are called breakup. Flowers show up with the start of summer. Many outdoor activities aren't possible during breakup, which can extend well into May. Except in cruise-ship towns, most tourist-oriented activities and facilities are still closed before May 15, and a few don't open until Memorial Day or June 1. Where visitor facilities are open, they often have significantly lower prices. The very earliest salmon runs start in May, but for a fishing-oriented trip, it's better to come later in the summer. Cruise ships begin calling May 1, and the towns they visit swing into action when they arrive.
Sometime between late August and mid-September, weather patterns change, bringing clouds, frequent rainstorms, and cooling weather, and signaling the trees and tundra to turn bright, vivid colors. For a week or two (what week it is depends on your latitude), the bright yellow birches of the boreal forest and the rich red of the heathery tundra can make September the loveliest time of year. Most tourist-oriented businesses stay open, with lower prices, until September 15, except in the Arctic. After September 15, it's potluck. Some areas close up tight, but the silver salmon fishing is still active on the Kenai Peninsula, and the season there continues until the end of the month. A lucky visitor can come in September and hit a month of crisp, sunny, perfect weather, and have the state relatively to him- or herself. Or it can be cold and rainy all month.
October, November, April -- From Southcentral Alaska northward, snow and ice arrive sometime in October; in Southeast Alaska, these are the months of cold, unending rain. Winter starts in November, but you can't count on being able to do winter sports, and darkness is prevalent as the year's shortest day approaches. April is a month of waiting, as winter sports come to an end and summer activities are blocked by melt and mud (although spring skiing can still be great in high-snow years). In-town activities are down in these months, too; with few visitors, many facilities are closed.
December Through March -- Winter is the whole point of Alaska. This is the time to see the aurora borealis. Communities get busy with activities such as sled-dog and snowmobile races; theater, music, and other performing arts; ice-carving competitions and winter carnivals; and all the rest of the real local culture that takes a break in the summer, when most visitors come. If you enjoy winter and its outdoor activities, an Alaska visit is paradise, with superb downhill, cross-country, and backcountry skiing; snowshoeing; snowmobiling; dog mushing; ice-skating -- anything that can be done on snow and ice.
By far the best time to come is late winter, February and March, when the sun is up longer and winter activities hit their peak. Anchorage's Fur Rendezvous is in late February; the Iditarod Sled Dog Race is in early March. Visiting in late March could mean thin snow at lower elevations for cross-country skiing, but downhill skiing and skiing at backcountry locations keep going strong. At Alyeska Resort, south of Anchorage, skiing is still active in April, and upper-mountain skiing sometimes extends beyond Memorial Day if there is enough interest. In Homer, you can cross-country ski and go salmon fishing on the same day in March. In Southeast Alaska, you might hit weeks of cold and clear weather.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.