Alaska in September is simply wonderful. As the summer segues into fall, Alaska is transformed. The tundra erupts in a blaze of colors, from ocher to scarlet and burnt orange. The vast Tongass Forest takes on its dazzling autumnal hues.
Animals begin to prepare for the winter, fattening up on berries and late-season salmon. The first snowfall dusts the mountains and, in the north, the aurora borealis dances across the night sky.
Whether you’re interested in culture and history or are here for the wildlife and spectacular scenery, here are some of the many reasons to take a September trip to the Last Frontier.
Snow on the Mountains
The first snow, known locally as “termination dust”, falls on the mountains at some point in September, creating the picturesque views that Alaska is known for.
The phrase was made up by early gold miners, as it means the end of summer and the approach of the harsh winter—and those gold prospectors didn’t stop just because the weather was getting cold.
Photographers will love the mesmerizing sight of the first snowfall, especially on a clear day. The white mountaintops scrape a deep blue sky, while the orange and yellow fall foliage on the lower slopes creates the perfect contrast. Fall really is one of the best times to visit Alaska.
The Aurora in the Sky
As the days get shorter, particularly in the north of Alaska, your chances of spotting the aurora borealis increase. Just head outdoors any time after 10 pm and you could get lucky.
Sometimes, the aurora presents itself as shimmering white patterns across the sky that dissolve and reform. Other times, you’ll see the full rippling curtains effect, with pinks and greens creating a magnificent light show.
The best place to see the aurora in September is around the beautiful town of Fairbanks, away from the city lights, although it’s possible anywhere north where it’s dark.
Flaming Fall Colors
Alaska’s fall colors manifest themselves earlier than in other states, and you should get a good display from early September onwards.
The aspens take on a brilliant yellow, while willow trees turn orange. Across the tundra, especially vivid in Denali National Park—one of the best national parks in Alaska—nature throws in deep crimson, too.
All this beauty is best admired from above. Experience flightseeing in Alaska on a tour over Denali and you’ll see the fall colors of the tundra in their full glory.
Or head up the Mount Roberts Tramway from Juneau and look down on the vast expanse of the Tongass Forest, stretching away beneath you. From Ketchikan, join a zipline adventure, flying down the mountainside over the tips of hemlock, spruce, and cedar trees.
Whale & Dolphin Sightings
Some of the whale species that visit Alaska are migratory and begin to head south as summer fades to fall.
However, you’ll still stand an excellent chance of spotting dolphins, which are here year-round, and resident pods of orca, especially as you explore the forested Inside Passage. Humpback whales stay around Alaska’s waters until November.
Juneau is one of the best places in Alaska to go whale-watching. You’ll set out on a small boat from Auke Bay to the deep trenches where the whales feed.
Guides will point out whale behavior, from “bubble net” feeding to tail-slapping, and if you’re lucky, breaching, when the whale leaps right out of the water.
Further north, you may even be lucky enough to spot graceful white beluga whales. The best place to see them is the appropriately named Beluga Point, on the road from Seward to Anchorage.
Plenty of Daylight
While it’s true that Alaska receives extremes in daylight—barely any in the middle of winter and 18 hours or more in midsummer—you’ll be just fine in September. Juneau, for example, receives 12 to 13 hours of daylight in September, which is plenty for enjoying the great outdoors.
What you may notice, especially if you’ve been to Alaska before in midsummer, is shorter evenings, with sunset between 7 pm and 8 pm. So there’s still plenty of time to look for the blow of a whale breaking the still water as the light fades, or to spot Alaskan birds flying home to roost for the night.
Animals Fattening up for Winter
Alaska is, of course, frozen and snowbound in winter, so fall is the time for large mammals to fatten up as much as they can for the lean months ahead. As such, you’ll see caribou and moose gorging themselves, and bears feasting on late salmon and juicy berries.
Aside from being one of the most beautiful places in Alaska, Denali is the best place to look for the “Big Five”, especially in September, when you could see moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears.
You also stand a good chance of spotting other popular Alaskan animals such as coyotes, red fox, lynx, wolverines, marmots, and otters on your Denali adventure.
Late Salmon Runs
Most people think the salmon runs are in July, but Alaska has five species of salmon, which run at different times. From late August to September, it’s the turn of the coho, or silver salmon, which has a delicate flavor and is delicious baked, poached, smoked, or grilled.
You could see the salmon run in rivers around Juneau and Sitka, as well as Talkeetna and the Kenai River. And where there are salmon, there’s always a good chance that there will be bears.
The Alaska State Fair
Should your travels take you to Anchorage, consider stopping by the Alaska State Fair. It takes place in Palmer, some 40 minutes’ drive north of the city, over 14 days and three weekends from the end of August to the first week of September.
You’ll find big-name bands, local food producers, lumberjack and raptor displays, cook-offs, “biggest vegetable” contests, and beer tents, as well as rides and games.
The fair has been going since 1936 and is a major feature on the calendar for locals.
Spectacular Moose Antlers
Visit Alaska in September and you could spot male moose—bulls—at their most spectacular. These impressive beasts, the largest of the deer family, grow to up to seven feet tall at the shoulder and can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.
Moose feed all summer in Alaska, building strength for the fall rutting season, and the increased daylight sets off a chemical reaction that causes their antlers to grow at an astonishing rate, peaking in September.
The bigger the antlers, in the moose world, the more impressive the male. Watching males clashing antlers, in a display of dominance, is quite a sight.
So keep a lookout for these noble creatures; you could spot them in forests, meadows, and on stony Alaskan beaches anywhere along the Inside Passage, displaying their finery.
Once the mating season is over, a bull moose has no further need for his heavy antlers and needs to conserve strength for the winter. So as the snow falls, moose will cast their antlers, starting to grow a new set when spring comes.
More than 50 types of berries grow in Alaska. September is a great month for foraging wild blueberries, which are packed with nutrients and make a great sweet treat while on a hike.
If you are picking berries while hiking in Alaska, remember that bears enjoy this snack, too; it’s a good idea to carry a bear bell, or make a lot of noise, or best of all, hike with a guide. Also, not all berries are edible, so only pick and eat if you’re absolutely sure what you’re doing.
If wild foraging isn’t for you, September is the time to try fresh berry cobbler, a specialty served in any restaurant offering local Alaskan food. Berries are stewed and topped with a buttermilk biscuit before being baked in the oven. Served with whipped cream or a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream, this is an unforgettable Alaskan dessert.
September is mushroom season in Alaska. Locals who know what they’re doing will happily forage for wild mushrooms including porcini and golden chanterelle in the forests.
Of course, you need to be completely confident in your own expertise before picking your own mushrooms, as some are poisonous. But what’s interesting is to go out with a local and learn about the deep connection Alaskans feel to the land.
Icy Strait Point, as an example, is owned by the 950-strong Tlingit community. Most of the guides here are Tlingit, and if you join them for a tour, you’ll most likely learn how they forage and fish.
Try a guided hike to the Spasski River Valley, a scenic lookout point where you could see bears fishing in the river below, and the perfect opportunity to learn from your guide about the berries, mushrooms, fern tips, and seafood that are part of the Alaskan diet.
Everything Is Still Open
While it’s tempting to think that Alaska will be winding down for winter in September, this isn’t the case. The season is short here, and tourism is essential to the economy, so businesses will certainly stay open for at least two weeks after Labor Day.
Most all excursions are operating. From Skagway, for example, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad runs a full schedule in September, clattering up the White Pass and across the mountains, over spindly bridges and through long tunnels.
The views from up here are magnificent, especially if the first snowfall has dusted the surrounding Alaskan mountains.
You’ll see Bridal Veil Falls, one of the best waterfalls in Alaska, hopefully in full flow if there’s been some rain, and a spectacular sight against the flaming colors of the forest.
If you take this excursion, it’s interesting to bear in mind that during the frenzied days of the Gold Rush, at the end of the 19th century, the arrival of fall was no deterrent to the gold prospectors.
This was before the railroad had been built. They would trek over the mountains to the Klondike Gold Fields all winter long, carrying their gear on pack horses and enduring unimaginable conditions of snow, ice, and mud.
The Fish Are Biting
Fish species vary according to the seasons in Alaska, but September is a great time to catch halibut, whether you’re an enthusiastic angler or a complete beginner. Ketchikan and Juneau are just two spots from which halibut fishing trips operate.
Your captain will have a good idea of where the fish will be, and you’ll be provided with all equipment. The thrill of fishing in Alaska aside, these trips are a great way to spot whales and dolphins and to admire the jagged mountain peaks all around you.
If you’re successful in your mission, your catch will be professionally prepared for you and shipped home as a memory of your time in Alaska in September.
No More Mosquitos
Bugs are certainly a presence in Alaska, as they are anywhere with so much humidity and light; the Tongass Forest is officially classified as a temperate rainforest. But the good news is, by September, all the mosquitos have died off, so you won’t be troubled by them.
This isn’t to say that the peak summer months are especially problematic when it comes to mosquitoes, but you will need to use insect repellent then. In September, you won’t need it.
Are you feeling the call of the wild? Browse our cruises to Alaska in September and plan your fall adventure.