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We just spent the first full week in September road-tripping through Alaska, and I’m still coming off that travel high!
Alaska is lovingly referred to as the Last Frontier (not to be confused with the Final Frontier #iykyk). There is so much ground to cover – so much that hasn’t yet been explored or touched by mankind.
Although rugged and vast, it is still best experienced by car, in my humble opinion. You all know I’m a big fan of road trips (see blog: healthy road trip snacks). Call it a control freak thing, but we like our independence!
With so many hidden trails, scenic pullouts, and the chance for wildlife to appear at any viewpoint, we wanted the freedom to pull over ASAP. Which, we did, a lot.
Once the snows melt in June and the days get longer, tourists usually flock to Alaska in summer.
But while we would have loved to experience summer’s long hours earlier in the season, we had a few good reasons for visiting Alaska in September.
There’s just something about the change in season that gets me in my soul.
If you live in a location with all four seasons, you lucky thing, then this might not appeal to you as much. But for this Phoenician, autumn hues lighting up a mountainside is a vibe. (See my New York Fall Road Trip post here as further proof).
Alaska in September offers fall photo ops galore, especially in open lands like Denali National Park and any turnout that shows the lay of the land. Andrew and I had a heyday finding the most scenic spots.
I actually didn’t expect to see so much color so soon in the month. Early September was surprisingly colorful all throughout our trip, and the further north we drove the more vibrant the leaves were.
More specifically, Alaska’s fireweed turns from vivid pink to rich auburn and I promise you it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Granted, Alaska is a pretty big place. Even during high tourist season, most outdoor spaces and roads are clearer than other tourist destinations in the Lower 48.
However, besides Anchorage and Fairbanks, there aren’t any big box stores out on the highways. Most restaurants and shops are run by local owners, which is awesome. But with the pandemic stunting many from reopening or running at full capacity, these places have long wait times.
As the weather cools down and school starts after Labor Day, however, there are less travelers to compete with.
Less tourists means less demand, which generally means lower cost.
To be straight honest, Alaska is EXPENSIVE. Tourists and locals alike pay a high price for gas, food, and events.
Once the temperatures decrease and visitor crowds thin out, though, many tour operators and restaurants lower their prices in hopes to squeeze the last bit of value from the season.
It may not be much, but every buck counts when you’re traveling through Alaska. More on that in the future!
If you can make it to Alaska before Labor Day in September, the state fair is totally worth a stop.
Yes, it has the common stuff most fairs have, like fried food and sketchy rides and rigged games. But the Alaska State Fair is also a great way to experience the cultural blends.
Every year, local farmers and gardeners compete in growing the largest produce and flowers. This year, the same farmer took both 2ndand 1st place for the largest pumpkins, weighing in at around 1300 and 1600 lbs., respectively.
There are also vendors selling handmade jewelry, wool clothing articles, and traditional native foods with plenty of delicious seafood options!
Whatever you do, you must try an Umiak. They stuff a blanched jalapeno with cheese, roll it in salmon, wrap that in bacon, grill it, and serve it up on jasmine rice. I could have eaten three all by myself!
I also highly recommend reindeer stew (yes, it’s real reindeer meat, but don’t worry, Santa has enough) and fry bread with either blueberry or rhubarb jelly for dessert.
Summertime in Alaska doesn’t exactly mean dry, rainless days. On average, August actually has a few more rainy days than September. But almost half of the month still receives rainfall. Snow isn’t likely in the lower elevations, but if you’re on a mountaintop during a storm the locals say you could see some flurries in September.
Although we only had two full sunny days during our 8-day road trip, we didn’t get too much rain, either. Skies were cloudy most of the week, and we definitely put our rain jackets to good use when the mists and scattered showers rolled in.
But the weather can change in an instant in Alaska. Like other coastal areas, weather fronts fluctuate a lot, which means you need to be prepared and always bring layers, no matter the season!
Between Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Seward, the temperatures hovered in the high 50s and low 60s during the daytime and rarely dropped below 50 degrees at night while we were there. This is about a 10 degree difference from July and August, but we were happy to trade Phoenix triple digits for this cool, fresh air.
I didn’t expect to have any issues adjusting to the extra daylight since my sleep schedule is awful anyway. But it is still a little trippy.
Maybe it was the lack of artificial light or just that our days were so full, but I found myself getting tired around sunset (AKA 10 PM), which is not like me.
In hindsight, I’m really glad September in inland Alaska only gets 16 daytime hours instead of 22 like June! The sun’s angle on Alaska takes some getting used to, as it seems sunrise and sunset rays extend for hours.
If you’re sensitive to light when you sleep and try to keep a regular sleep and meal routine, September in Alaska is a fair compromise.
On the plus side, more daylight hours means more time to explore and see Alaska’s highlights.
Contrary to my previous understanding, it’s never a guarantee to see the northern lights. Even Alaskans get excited when they come out!
Scientifically known as the Aurora Borealis, these colorful flashes appear in the northern hemisphere during dark, clear, and chilly nights.
After the summer solstice and the notoriously rainy month of August, the evenings start to get darker and colder in September, especially further north in Alaska. Plus, since it’s prior to winter’s snowfall, the skies are likely to be clearer. Thus, chances of seeing this natural phenomenon increases tremendously in September.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see them the entire week we were there despite the forecast showing medium activity. We ran into others who said they’d seen them up north on days we were down south. Go figure.
On our last night, the lights were expected to come out. However, our flight left at 1 AM which meant we had to be at the airport by 11 PM, just as the skies were finally going completely dark. We heard others say they definitely came out, but alas, we could not see them from our plane window.
While booking a local tour guide will probably give you the best opportunities, you can track the activity and likelihood on the Aurora Forecast up to 21 days in advance. You’ll really only want to make a trek out at night when the forecast shows a KP index of 4 or higher and the skies are cloudless and moonless.
Fair chance at seeing wildlife
Admittedly, we probably had unrealistic expectations in this category. I guess when we imagined Alaska, we thought we’d see a bear and moose on every hill just waiting for us to take their picture. When we booked our cruise, we figured orcas and humpbacks would splash right next to our boat.
Don’t get me wrong, we did see wildlife. Toward the end of our trip, a young moose meandered through a city park just feet away from us. Hordes of salmon mesmerized us as they journeyed upstream in shallow water.
During our day cruise with Major Marine tours, a female humpback and her baby broke the surface about 50 yards away. We also spotted puffins, a bald eagle, white mountain goats, floating otters, and sea lions along the cliffs. But without binoculars or a really deep camera lens (like this one on sale, if you own a Canon DSLR), most animals were only specks.
All that to say, Alaskan wildlife is active in September! Many are foraging and preparing for the long winter, but they can also hide really well amongst the fall foliage.
My advice, go with low expectations but keep your camera (and bear spray) ready at all times.
Alaska Recap to Come
If you ever get a chance to experience Alaska’s beauty for yourself, I highly recommend visiting in September! Even my Alaskan native friends say September is their favorite month.
Now that I’ve seen some famous parts of Alaska’s inland, I would love to take a cruise, train ride, or even bush plane flight to see the state’s more remote areas. Just add it on to my ever-growing bucket list.
Besides, we still need to check off the northern lights! I've now been to Iceland and Alaska during peak Aurora times and had no luck.
Next week, I’ll share all the highlights from our 8-day Alaska road trip.
Now that we've been there, we know what's worth the hype, what to see, where to eat, how to pack, and how to cut costs, too. We have so many photos and tips to share that I didn’t want to cram it all into one post. Stay tuned!