Those of us in the lower 48 are still holding tight to summer, but Alaska is quickly falling into autumn.
Fall is my favorite time of year and in Alaska, it is really something special. The days are getting shorter, the air is getting cooler, and the tundra is beginning to change colors. The time for summer fun is growing short. All creatures are preparing for the long winter ahead. Bears enter hyperphagia where they pack on the pounds to prepare for hibernation. Birds begin their migration south for the winter. Ptarmigan and arctic hares begin to change their appearance from brown to white to blend into the coming snows. People are no exception. Freezers get packed after hunting and fishing trips. Berry picking and canning the last bounties of summer gardens fill the end of summer days.
The fall season is short in the arctic, lasting just a few weeks. Old-timers say the fireweed predicts when the first snow will arrive. Fireweed blooms bottom to top and once the final blossoms have emerged, legend says you have only 6 weeks until winter.
Fall foliage has a different connotation in Alaska. It is not the spectacular reds and oranges of maple trees you expect to see in New England. The birch and aspen leaves turn from green to gold nearly overnight, but the tundra is the real star of the show with every shade of yellow, red, and orange.
It’s not only a beautiful time of year; there are also many unique activities making it a great time to visit Alaska.
Denali Park Road Lottery
Denali National Park is one of the best places to witness Alaska’s fall foliage in all its glory. The Denali Park Road leads over 90 miles into the park but you can only drive the first 15 in your private vehicle during the summer season (read more about it in my Denali National Park post). That all changes when September rolls around.
The road lottery happens during the second week of September when lucky visitors get the opportunity to drive the entirety of the park road in their own vehicle. This often coincides with brilliant fall colors across the tundra. The road lottery is popular with Alaska residents and visitors alike. It does require some planning as the application for the lottery is in May. The event takes place over four days and 400 permits are awarded for each day. In most years, about 10,000 applications are received for just 1,600 permits. With those odds, you can see why it’s called a lottery.
Military Appreciation Day is the fifth and final day of the fall event. Active military members and their families are eligible for passes to drive the park road. The passes for Military Appreciation Day are distributed via the military.
Once the road lottery is over, visitors may drive private vehicles into the park as far as Teklanika River which is at mile 30. Because the road lottery is canceled for 2022 due to the Pretty Rocks landslide and subsequent road closure, the road will be open to mile marker 30 for all visitors beginning the second week following Labor Day. Once the snow begins to fall, the road is only plowed for the first three miles, so the window of opportunity to drive deeper into the park is short and totally weather dependent.
Berry picking is another end-of-summer tradition. In Alaska, you may pick berries anywhere on public lands—even in state and national parks—but good luck getting any locals to give up their favorite spots. The competition can be fierce, and that’s just the two-legged kind. Bears also take advantage of berry patches. Talking loudly and making lots of noise while berry picking can help avoid a bear encounter. I don’t care what anyone says—no blueberry pie is worth spooking a mama grizzly.
Blueberries are the most well-known berry you’ll find but they are smaller than the cultivated blueberries we are used to seeing in the supermarket. You’ll also find cranberries, lingonberries, salmonberries, crowberries…so many berries! Be sure to know what you’ve picked before you pop one in your mouth. There are poisonous berries in Alaska. On our trip to Kodiak, my husband found some huge orange berries and immediately picked one and ate it. I was sure he would die and I’d get to meet Keith Morrison in a future Dateline episode. Spoiler alert—he’s fine and I still haven’t met Keith. We found out later they were salmonberries and safe to eat. Beware of any berry that is white and any berry that is red with a black spot (baneberries). Check your guidebooks or another reliable source before experimenting!
If berry picking isn’t your thing, you can still get a taste. Locally made products from wild berries such as jams, jellies, and pies can be found in local supermarkets and farmer’s markets. If you prefer to drink your fruit, Bear Creek Winery in Homer produces delicious wine made with local berries.
The Moose Rut
Seeing wildlife is at the top of my list on any trip to Alaska. Moose are common enough that you can often spot them by the roadside. Early September is prime time for moose. This is the time of year they begin their mating season or rut. Cows gather into herds and are courted by bulls. Bulls fight one another to win breeding rights with the onlooking herd of cows. They also dig pits in the ground, urinate in them and then splash the mud onto their antlers. Apparently, the ladies love it. Glad I’m not a moose!
Denali National Park is a great place to witness rutting behavior. This time of year they are often seen on the park road between miles 7-11, within the section you can drive yourself. It’s not uncommon to see serious wildlife photographers with their impressive gear set up on the roadside shoulder to shoulder with tourists and cell phone cameras.
In Anchorage, the Glen Alps section of Chugach State Park is another popular spot to see moose during the fall. Always keep a safe distance between you and the wildlife. At a minimum, stay 25 yards away from moose. If they notice you or change their behavior because of your presence then you are too close. For your safety and theirs, back away slowly and give them more space.
Aahhh, the elusive northern lights. On our multiple fall trips to Alaska, we have yet to catch a glimpse. On more than one occasion, we were just a day late to catch the show.
Three things are needed to see northern lights—a clear night sky, darkness, and solar activity. As the days get shorter, the nights finally become dark enough for aurora viewing. There are lots of apps and websites you can follow for aurora activity forecasts. Then of course there is the matter of weather and a little luck.
I think you know me well enough by now to know that I love bears. A visit to Kaktovik, Alaska is on my wish list.
Kaktovik is an Inupiat village on the northern coast of Alaska that borders the Beaufort Sea and lies within the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. It is tiny, with a population of fewer than 300 people. In recent years it has become a popular tourist destination for seeing polar bears.
The bowhead whale hunt takes place every year. Not only is it culturally significant, it is life-sustaining, providing food for the whole community. The subsistence whale hunt allows the people of Kaktovik to take three whales per season. The entire community participates in the celebration and works to harvest all usable parts of the whale. Anything that is left is taken to what is known as the bone pile.
During September and October, polar bears are drawn to the bone pile near the town. While waiting for the ice pack to form, they must hunt for food on land. Scavenging at the bone pile supplements their diet. The relative ease of seeing polar bears caused a sharp increase in the number of tourists to the area, which led to the formation of several commercial tour operators for the safety of both visitors and bears.
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Kaktovik placed restrictions on non-resident visitors. Until the mandate has been lifted, polar bear tours are on hold indefinitely.
If You Don’t Like the Weather, Wait 10 Minutes
The weather in Alaska can change quickly, so always be prepared. There’s a good reason for the advice to dress in layers. During one fall trip to Denali, we started with sunny skies, and then it started snowing. The next day, we were hiking in snow up to our knees. A day after that it was raining. All that was followed by the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen.
What is your favorite time of year to travel in Alaska? Please share your comments below.