Still hoping to visit Alaska this year? No problem: Late summer and fall are the perfect time to go
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The summer 2022 travel season is a mess, and while Alaska’s remoteness might seem to offer a respite from the chaos, availability is low and prices are high.
That doesn’t mean it’s too late to book a trip, though. With 17 national park units — spanning rivers, monuments, preserves and historical parks — and 16 national wildlife refuges, there’s plenty of room to spread out.
Alaska’s plethora of outfitters and adventure tour companies facilitate ways to access the state’s natural wonders while based in its cities, too.
Finally, it’s a little-known fact that good weather in Alaska extends well into September or even October.
Popular parks also become far less crowded, so those who can wait until the second half of August or, even better, after Labor Day will have a pretty wide field to choose from.
And here’s the real secret: Plan carefully, and your trip might even include a viewing of the northern lights, visible from late August in the far north.
Here are some of my personal Alaska highlights and tips for making your dream adventure a reality.
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Visit Matanuska Glacier
Yes, you can visit a glacier in summer, and right from Anchorage, thanks to the proximity of this spectacular swath of gleaming blue ice and the many outfitters offering excursions there. Tours offered by Greatland Adventures, Glacier Tours, Mica Guides and Glacier View Adventures include a guided glacier walk, ice climbing, zip lining and more.
Where to stay
Stay at The Lakefront Anchorage, just 4 miles from downtown and 10 minutes from the airport, and your Alaska adventures can begin the minute you get off the plane.
In fact, you’ll be greeted by towering grizzly and polar bears (taxidermic, of course) upon entering the lobby. This venerable property takes full advantage of its location at the edge of Lake Spenard, with a dock for fishing and floatplane pickups.
Take your dinner or breakfast in the friendly, lively on-site restaurant. You can dine while gazing at stunning views of the Chugach Mountains reflected in the lake.
There’s still plenty of availability for select dates during August and September, with prices starting at $255 per night.
Also close to the airport and Lake Seward, the family-friendly Courtyard Anchorage Airport boasts an indoor pool, hot tub, fitness center and restaurant. You can still find rooms starting at $585 or 40,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night.
The hotel’s free airport shuttle service is a big plus if you’re hoping to travel car-free and avoid the sky-high rental car rates that have plagued travelers this summer.
Take an Uber or taxi to the train station for your Alaska Railroad trip to Fairbanks or Seward and you’re golden.
Take a helicopter tour
Don’t take any chances on seeing the notoriously fickle 20,310-foot summit of Denali; it’s so high it enjoys its own microclimate and is often surrounded by clouds.
The optimal way to view Denali is to take a helicopter tour over the mountain. The same is true for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which with 13 million acres of remote backcountry terrain is difficult to see any other way.
Alaska Helicopter Tours offers a roster of tours from half an hour to most of a day.
There are departures from Fairbanks, as well flights out of Merrill Field in downtown Anchorage, the Knik Glacier valley northeast of Anchorage and Talkeetna (the gateway to Denali National Park).
It will even take you paddleboarding on a glacier or fly you in for backcountry camping.
Soak in hot springs
No trip to the Fairbanks area is complete without a visit to Chena Hot Springs, which has been restoring health and inducing relaxation since miners began soaking away their aches in the early 1900s.
In addition to spending time in the natural rock pool, activities on site include the Aurora Ice Museum, an all-season attraction inside a refrigerated warehouse, and a kennel tour of the on-site dog sledding facility.
Where to stay
The historic, family-run Pike’s Waterfront Lodge is just plain old-fashioned fun. Located right on the banks of the Chena River, Pike’s has fire pits, decks and myriad sunning areas, along with goofy touches like a pile of rocks gathered next to the river for throwing.
Choose from a continental or hearty buffet breakfast enjoyed in the huge paneled dining room with its river views. And as if the homemade pies weren’t enough of a plus, the aromatherapy steam room couldn’t be more welcome at the end of a day of adventuring.
Select dates are still available for mid-to-late September, with room rates starting at $229 per night.
If you are looking to redeem points, the centrally located Hyatt Place Fairbanks is deservedly popular for its free breakfast, pool, airport shuttle and rooms outfitted with family-friendly amenities such as minifridges. Rates for August and September start at $246 per night, or 8,000 Hyatt points.
Ride the Alaska Railroad
Whether you’re trying to avoid the car rental price wars or are just a fan of train travel, one of Alaska Railroad‘s iconic summer journeys is a must.
The Coastal Classic makes the trip from Anchorage to Seward in just 4 1/2 hours, leaving plenty of time to fit in a boat excursion to Kenai Fjords National Park and be back in Anchorage by bedtime.
The trip offers one stunning photo op after another as the train winds along the shore of the Gulf of Alaska’s Turnagain Arm, then crosses the Chugach Mountains before descending to Resurrection Bay.
Alaska Railroad makes planning extra easy with daytrip add-ons and package tours you can book through its website. A full-day wildlife and glacier catamaran cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park (from Anchorage) costs $185.
Ride the Denali Star from Anchorage to Fairbanks (or vice versa) to take advantage of some of Denali National Park’s best wildlife viewing as moose, bears and deer wander unafraid along the tracks. Round-trip tickets for the seven-hour, 30-minute journey start at $288 for adults and $144 for children under 12.
Explore Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords
Ocean tours and excursions
See orcas, sea otters, dolphins and wildlife galore on a day cruise with Seward Ocean Excursions, which offers several options depending on time, distance, season and weather.
Clamber aboard the Missing Lynx, Lost Lynx or Wayward Lynx for the half-day Kenai Fjords and Resurrection Bay Tour ($169), offered through Sept. 15, which includes a visit to Bear Glacier.
The longer, six-hour tour, offered through Aug. 31 ($299), covers the same itinerary but ventures deeper into the national park and Aialik Bay.
Have all day and keen to splurge? Sign up for an eight-hour private trip ($2,318), which provides more time for beach stops and more personalized wildlife tracking — and to get that perfect up-close photo.
Longer trips often involve visits to the Chiswell Islands, a haven for horned and tufted puffins and other seabirds.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Located just outside the national park entrance, Adventure Sixty North specializes in trips that go deeper into the park, offering half-day heli-paddle trips to Bear Glacier and longer excursions featuring guided kayaking and paddleboarding.
Sign up for one of its multiday kayak camping trips (including women-only options!) to fully experience the silence and serenity of the icy fjords.
Adventure Sixty North is also the only outfitter with access to Exit Glacier during the winter, transporting visitors by snowcat to the visitors center. From there, it’s an hourlong snowshoe hike to the foot of the glacier itself — the only way to see the famed poster child for climate change up close.
Where to stay
Just steps from the Seward Small Boat Harbor and a 10-minute walk from downtown, Seward’s Gateway Hotel, which opened in May 2021, offers a convenient and comfortable base of operations for visiting Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park.
You can still book for select dates in late August and September, with rates starting as low as $199 per night. Daily breakfast is included to give your day a speedy start.
You’ll want to leave plenty of time to explore the historic downtown, walk along the waterfront and visit the well-designed Alaska SeaLife Center.
See bears in Katmai National Park
While Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park is fully booked this season, sister property Kulik Lodge offers three-, four- and seven-night fly-out fishing and wildlife spotting adventures until Oct. 1.
A three-night, all-inclusive package (including round-trip airfare from Anchorage, as well as all meals and excursions) starts at $5,495 per person.
Fly into the heart of bear country with Regal Air, based out of Anchorage, which offers shore excursions to bear hot spots in both Katmai National Park and Lake Clark National Park. You can visit with brown bears and black bears on foot or via ATV with half-day and full-day options.
Take a floatplane to see walruses
Popular Trygg Air offers scenic seaplane and floatplane trips from Anchorage ($1,700 per person) and King Salmon ($1,000 per person), landing on the beach at Cape Seniavin, where walruses congregate below 100-foot cliffs.
Trygg also flies sightseers to Brooks Falls and Brooks Camp from Anchorage ($1,000 per person) and King Salmon ($300 per person) to see the bears. During the flight you’ll pass over the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and look down on gigantic volcanoes, including Novarupta, which last erupted in 1912.
Experience the aurora borealis as early as August
While the northern lights are for the most part a winter phenomenon, they start earlier the farther north you travel into what’s known as the Auroral Oval — the band in which the solar flares responsible for the otherworldly flashes of green and purple light are most prominent.
One of the best places to witness the phenomenon is in the storied truck stop known as Coldfoot Camp, well above the Arctic Circle.
A trip to Coldfoot also includes the chance to drive the Dalton Highway, easily one of the loneliest and most rugged roads in America — it’s now famous thanks to the History Channel’s “Ice Road Truckers” reality show.
While you can travel to and from Coldfoot by bus, the ride takes between eight and 12 hours depending on road conditions, making it an adventure most would prefer to experience once, not twice.
The solution: Fly one-way with Warbelow’s Air, which offers other unique and fascinating trips as well, including the chance to go along on mail delivery flights to some of Alaska’s most remote rural villages.
Also flying the Coldfoot-Fairbanks route, Wright Air provides daily scheduled services to Coldfoot and 16 other interior villages, as well as charter flights.
Take up dog sledding
While dog mushing is primarily a winter sport, teams planning to run the Iditarod, Yukon Quest and other races train all year, typically on glaciers or high-altitude snowfields.
Visitors can do the same by signing up for a glacier dog sledding tour such as the “summer camp” run by Seavey’s Ididaride. Its signature 1 1/2-hour wilderness dog sled ride and tour costs $99 per person.
No musher comes more highly recommended than Outer Range Dogsled Tours, located in Healy, just outside the entrance to Denali National Park. Longer rides include “mushing school” and the chance to drive the sled and learn about caring for the dogs.
Visit with Santa’s reindeer
Kids and animal fans will love visiting Running Reindeer Ranch, where you can take a walk with the herd through a serene forest and get your picture taken with one of the friendly four-legged residents. Tour options also include yoga with reindeer, which is as amusing as it sounds.
Believe it or not, the above is a mere sampler of the Alaska adventure options still open to last-minute planners.
Outfitters, pilots and boat trips are also available to help you explore Gates of the Arctic National Park, Glacier Bay National Park and the Juneau and Ketchikan areas, among many other places.
With more than 100 flights a day arriving in Anchorage via Alaska Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Air Canada and many other carriers, and plenty more in and out of Fairbanks, getting there to start your adventure shouldn’t be a problem either.
Featured photo by Rachel Harding/Getty Images.
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