Adventure Into Autumn
Fall is one of Alaska’s best-kept secrets. The crowds have sailed south for the winter, shoulder season discounts are in effect and the newly darkened sky glows with the Northern Lights. It’s still warm enough to enjoy outdoor activities, though you might catch sight of a fresh dusting of snow on the mountaintops.
Each region in Alaska has its own unique expression of fall. Check out this season's regional highlights and choose your own fall adventure.
With an excellent road system, the long ridges of the Chugach mountains and the lake- and river-dotted Kenai Peninsula, Southcentral is rich with fall scenery. Glaciers stand out brightly amongst yellow leaves, and a leisurely road trip along a scenic byway is the perfect way to capture the full breadth of Alaska's autumnal colors. Take a drive down the Seward Highway, stopping to photograph bright foliage, wildlife and steep mountains rising out of the waters of Turnagain Arm.
Fall is also an excellent time for whale watching in Southcentral. Orcas (killer whales) spout in the region’s waters, while humpback whales breach and bubble feed as they migrate south for winter. Catch a day cruise to photograph these in addition to tidewater glaciers either from Whittier in Prince William Sound, or Seward at the mouth of Resurrection Bay. Dominated by mountains and glaciers, the sight of a whale breaching against this backdrop is a once-in-a-lifetime view.
The Interior region of Alaska shines during autumn. The leafy, mossy tundra undulates with reds, oranges and yellows, and the boreal forest, made up of aspen, willow, birch and spruce, lights up with equal enthusiasm. At night, the Northern Lights put on a show almost every evening; spend a few nights up here and you’re sure to spot them.
The fall passes so quickly in the Interior that literally every day is different. One day a tree might just be passing from green to orange, the next day it could be bright yellow and just after that a stiff breeze could send all the leaves fluttering to the ground.
One of the best ways to experience fall in the Interior is by riding the train. It runs from Seward to Fairbanks, but for the best fall colors, board in Anchorage for a ride to Denali National Park. Just south of Denali, Broad Pass is famous for its fall-painted tundra. The pass is lined by mountains, the tops of which are often dusted with snow this time of year. The train rumbles right through this stunning scene, and you can photograph it from the second story of a domed rail car.
Consider carrying on to Fairbanks by train the next day for more leaf peeping from the train. Once in Fairbanks, explore the Chena River Recreation Area. You’ll find excellent hiking amongst the fall leaves and granite outcrops. After your hike, soak away the time surrounded by fall’s natural beauty at Chena Hot Springs.
Southeast Alaska’s fall is mellower than its northern neighboring regions, thanks to mostly-fir forests and fewer chances to spot the Northern Lights. But mellow does not mean boring. Enjoy the views of forests speckled with yellow deciduous trees, whale watching and late-season fishing.
As with the Southcentral region, whale watching is excellent during fall in Southeast. Here you’ll have the chance to glimpse humpback whales feeding, and you can also spot orcas. Some tours run as late as October 1 so you have plenty of time to catch an intimate, small boat tour.
Juneau has enough miles of road for a mini road trip. Rent a car and drive the short distance to Mendenhall Glacier, which you can view in autumn almost all to yourself. The visitor’s center is open year-round, but hours are reduced after September.
Late-season fishing is also an exciting way to experience autumn in Southeast Alaska. Fly fisher-folk can cast for pink and silver salmon from shore or from one of the Juneau area’s many creeks. Dolly Varden and cutthroat trout can also be found anywhere spawning salmon are, as they love to munch on salmon eggs.
For more brilliant fall colors consider a road trip along the Dalton Highway, colloquially called the “Haul Road.” This unpaved road is open year-round, but there are almost no facilities on the way to Deadhorse. For a less intense journey, consider a trip to the Arctic Circle, which is only a four- to five-hour drive from Fairbanks via the Elliot Highway. Note that the highway is so far north, fall colors peak in mid-August.
Venture out to the Southwest via the Alaska Marine Highway in the fall season for an action-packed autumn adventure at shoulder season prices. The Alaska ferry thrums from Homer out to Dutch Harbor/Unalaska twice in September, and if you can catch an autumn sailing you'll be treated to deep and richly colored fall tundra along the way.
Kodiak Island, the first port of call in the Southwest region, often surprises travelers who realize they can "do it all" in this remote destination. September steelhead fishing, incredible wildlife and spectacular scenery are popular draws for tourists looking for the complete Alaskan experience. Immerse in the fall colors with a leisurely drive through Kodiak’s approximate 100 mile-road system. Then take a short charter boat or plane to reach the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge for a glimpse of the world’s largest carnivore, the Kodiak brown bear, foraging amidst the fall colors. Here, visitors may also see eagles, whales, puffins, sea otters, sea lions along with the beautiful coastal scenery.