Seasons & climate

What are the four seasons in Alaska? Answer: Winter, June, July, and August. So goes the oldest Alaskan joke in the book, and while not strictly true — May and September can be beautiful times to visit America’s Last Frontier — the old joke does have a basis in fact. Alaska is a very cold place. Large parts of the state are in the Arctic Circle and the mostly unpopulated interior undergoes extreme swings of temperatures from season to season.

That is not to say there isn’t variety in Alaska. Each region: south central, the southwest, the interior and the far north all have local influences on their climate, and their latitude affects the amount of daylight they enjoy. During the far north’s summer, it is possible to marvel at the midnight sun and even in the winter in Anchorage, the Pacific Ocean keeps average temperatures around freezing point — much warmer than you would expect from a city so far north.

Alaska-Serentitylake

Month-by-month

Only the extremely brave (or foolish) venture to Alaska in January, such is the cold and lack of daylight. Instead, wait until February, when the days begin to lengthen and the mercury nudges ever so slightly upwards. The Northern Lights can be seen at this time of year in the interior and far north, depending on clear skies.

March and April are noticeably warmer and mark the start of spring. Take the Aurora Winter Train between Anchorage and Fairbanks, which showcases some of Alaska’s most stunning natural beauty, stopping off at Denali National Park to marvel at North America’s highest peak. For the adventurous, winter camping in Denali is free. Alaska’s ski season runs until April.

May marks the start of the tourist season and many attractions open their doors after winter, but with considerably smaller crowds than the high summer. Head to Seward to see migrating grey whales return in the spring, or to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre near Anchorage for calving season for moose and caribou.

June, July and August are when the vast majority of tourists visit Alaska and for good reason; the weather is warm and the days long. Head north to marvel at the midnight sun. The crowds are at their biggest in these months so it pays to book in advance.

September, like May, is shoulder season and a good time to visit with crowds thinning considerably. It is a great time for hiking and to make the most of cheaper deals, but the weather is changeable and snow possible. October brings the return of winter and a good time to see the Northern Lights. However, much of Alaska’s tourist infrastructure will now be closed until spring.

Festivals and events

Alaska has a culture completely separate to the lower 48 states and Alaskans love to celebrate this diversity with festivals throughout the year. The fierce winter allows the state to hold some of the most unique events found anywhere in the world. February sees the annual Yukon Quest, the toughest dog sled race on earth between Fairbanks and Whitehorse in Canada. February also brings Winterfest in Denali with ice sculpting, dog mushing and traditional food and music, and the Cordova Iceworm festival, a week-long festival rounded off by locals leaping into the freezing harbour water.

Spring and summer are full of events that make the most of the daylight. April brings the Alaska Folk Festival to Juneau, and Valdez hosts an annual Fly-In and Air Show in early May. June sees events celebrating the summer solstice, the most famous being the Midnight Sun Festival in Fairbanks, with live music and a baseball game that starts at midnight — without floodlights. The fourth of July is best celebrated in Seward, where there is a street parade and the world famous Mt Marathon race (a 5km race up and down the 921m high mount Marathon).

August welcomes the Alaska State Fair, a combination of a fun-fair and food festival and a chance for an end-of-summer blowout. For more gastronomy head to the Alyeska Blueberry Festival in Girdwood.

The end of summer is also the end of most of the state’s festivals, but fear not, because you can raise a glass to the upcoming winter on the Great Alaska Beer Train; a special run of the Alaska Railroad with some of Alaska’s finest beer on tap. The Microbrew Express runs in October, giving you a chance of seeing the Northern Lights with a beer in hand.

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