Secrets of Fall's Shoulder Season
NOTE: In 2015 President Barack Obama officially renamed Mount McKinley to its Athabascan given name, Denali, meaning "the High One."
Autumn in Alaska is less a season than a transition between summer and winter. As the midnight sun returns to a more normal schedule, Alaskans are both resting from the intense summer and preparing for rapidly approaching winter.
Thanks to this wind-down, late August and the first half of September may be the perfect times to visit Alaska: the crowds have thinned, the sun has set for the evening and made way for the Northern Lights, and the brilliant fall leaves are on display for their quick run.
Here are four reasons Alaska’s fall season is a secret you should know about:
While the Aurora Borealis, that undulating curtain of white, green and sometimes red light that dances across the sky, are firing year-round in some areas, they are only visible at night. Alaska’s midnight sun is certainly a unique attraction, but one of the benefits of a dark night is a chance to watch these mystical lights play a silent show on nature’s own movie screen: the night sky.
The Northern Lights begin showing themselves in Fairbanks in late August and early September, when the sun has returned firmly below the horizon for several solid hours. Lucky visitors will spot them in and around Anchorage in mid-September.
Alaska’s summer season is relatively short, which means that most travelers congregate at the same time, in June, July and August. But as the days shorten, the cruise ships begin their journeys to southern climates for the winter and popular attractions become much more mellow.
There are many advantages to thinner crowds: you don’t need to plan as far in advance, as hotels aren’t likely to be completely booked. That lets you be more spontaneous with your vacation. The same goes for tours and excursions, and you’ll find more individual attention from tour guides, who have smaller groups to lead. Tourist attractions are less crowded, which means, for example, that you won’t need to jostle for that perfect photo of Mt. McKinley on the top deck of a train.
Bears will not have gone into hibernation yet, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to spot these and other famous Alaska wildlife. In fact, the smaller and quieter the crowd, the more likely you are to spot a bear, moose or caribou.
Fewer travelers means more competition among business owners for your attention, and that means discounts on rooms, excursions and more. A fall visit is easier on your budget than a peak season one, and you might find your entire vacation discounted. Cruises, RV rentals, flightseeing tours, and even souvenirs: prices on almost everything will be lowered to attract your business. You can expect discounts of 10 to 25 percent, and these price drops usually begin around September 1.
Alaska isn’t famous for leaf-peeping, but it should be. Lasting only a few short weeks, Alaska’s leaf show is fast and furious. There’s no slow fade here: leaves flame brilliant reds and oranges and change their hues daily until covered by the first snow. One of the best ways to enjoy Alaska’s fall colors is on the Alaska Railroad between Anchorage and Denali; in Broad Pass the mountains will be covered in vibrant colors, and if you take the train up one day and back the next you’ll likely notice a significant change between the two days.
Other excellent locations for viewing Alaska’s fall leaves include along the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood, where birch and alder trees fire off bright yellow leaves above Turnagain Arm, and along Chena Hot Springs Road between Fairbanks and Chena, another bright, tree-lined drive. Further north, the tundra also changes shades, it’s low-lying mosses and shrubs offering a quieter but no less magnificent display.