Everyone has a favorite season to visit Alaska, but we have to admit there’s a strong case for the fall. Late August and September bring a wash of colors to the landscape, not only across the foliage but also in the night sky, as aurora season kicks off. Purples, reds, yellows and oranges light up the forests and tundra as much as flowing, vibrant greens illuminate the night sky. The shoulder season travel deals are just an added bonus.
While fall can often come and go quickly, it’s worth the effort to time your Alaska vacation just right. We’re talking mid-to-late August in the Arctic and spreading south throughout September. The Inside Passage, dominated by the Tongass National Forest’s evergreens, can even see golden-yellow cottonwood trees, red low-bush blueberry and bright highbush cranberry plants well into October.
When it comes to finding the best fall colors, we asked for advice from the local photographers who always seem to capture the season just right. Here are a few of their favorite spots across the state:
“The color change in the foliage usually happens quite rapidly and by mid-September most of the state is covered in a beautiful display of striking yellows and mellow oranges. A fall favorite of mine is traveling the Glenn Highway all the way out to Glennallen [from Anchorage]. At about 3.5 hours each way, you will pass through Chickaloon, where there is an iconic roadside pull off with an epic view of King Mountain that looks stunning draped in the blanket of autumn. A short while after, you will drive through the town of Glacier View that has plenty of pull offs to take in the incredible sight of the Matanuska Glacier. Then you will find yourself coming up on the town of Eureka, where I am always overwhelmed by the intense display of colors with epic mountain backdrops. Finally you will arrive in Glennallen, which hosts my favorite view in Alaska, an almost perfectly straight highway leading directly to the middle of Mount Drum. The trip can’t be beat in my opinion. Fall in Alaska is easily my favorite time of year with crisp air and cool hikes and beautiful aurora-filled nights. I personally always find myself wishing it will never end.” — Ian Merculieff
“My favorite fall foliage is in the Brooks Range. The soft purples, vivid reds and oranges and searing yellows of the Arctic are truly breathtaking. Even north of Atigun Pass where there are no trees, the tundra is ablaze with color. From Coldfoot to Galbraith Lake, you can take in the whole timeline of fall colors. Not to mention, it’s the best spot for fall aurora too since Coldfoot is right under the auroral oval. Timing it is tricky though. The colors peak about 2-3 weeks before they do in Fairbanks. If you time it right, you can follow the colors as they trickle down to the Interior and Southcentral Alaska.” — Robin Farmer
Denali National Park and Preserve
“By far my favorite aspect of fall colors in Alaska is catching the tundra during its brief period of brilliance. You can catch entire mountain valleys colored red and orange at the end of August and beginning of September. Driving the Denali Highway or taking the bus into Denali National Park and Preserve is probably the best way to experience these vibrant landscapes.” — Matt Hage
“Fall is my favorite time of the year in Alaska. The trees are changing colors, snow is just dusting the mountain tops, the aurora is popping out and the weather isn't too chilly to catch them! I always take a road trip from Anchorage to Kenai in September to catch the colors. There are a few cabins off the side of the road that make great subjects against the changing leaves. As soon as you come around the bend above Kenai Canyon, your jaw will drop. The almost unreal glacial blue river against the changing orange and yellow leaves is a match made in heaven. The contrasting colors are guaranteed to make you fall in love with Alaska. — Ellen Carty
“In autumn in Alaska, the color palette changes from predominantly blue and green to the state's colors; blue and gold! This is especially pronounced at twilight, when golden leaves of birch and aspen sparkle against a deep blue autumn sky. One of my favorite places to capture this is along Turnagain Arm in September, within twenty minutes of sunset.” — Jody Overstreet
“Fall in Alaska may be quick, but the colors from the leaves, the land and the earlier sunsets are all spectacular. I like to head north of Anchorage to Hatcher Pass. There are plenty of trails and areas to explore in the mountains, from both the Palmer side and the Willow side. A quick trip up to the April Bowl Trailhead is sure to pay off. Also, there are those few sweet months before winter sets in where you can get out and enjoy the northern lights without the cold temperatures. Hatcher Pass at night is a great place to hunt for a light show.” — Jovell Rennie
Looking for more vacation-planning tips from local experts — find them here. And don’t forget to check out the Alaska Vacation Planner for more ideas.
Editor’s note: The health and safety of Alaska’s visitors and residents, along with its member businesses, remains a top priority to the Alaska Travel Industry Association throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Alaska tourism businesses are open under the Reopen Alaska Responsibly plan and can help you decide if it’s right for you to travel now or in the future. We encourage you to stay in touch with your travel providers for the latest updates and travel requirements.