When is the Best Time to Cruise to Alaska?By Christine Bartsch; Updated June 08, 2017
Set sail for the Land of the Midnight Sun state
A cruise to Alaska takes you on a voyage to view glaciers, wildlife and maybe even a glimpse at the Northern Lights. Alaska’s cruise ship season runs annually from May until late September, departing from Seattle, Vancouver, Anchorage or other Alaskan ports. Throughout the cruise, passengers disembark for whale and bear watching, glacier hiking and even dogsledding – although, due to the unpredictability of the weather, not all activities are available on a single cruise.
As surprising as it may seem, Alaska isn’t always cold and snowy. In mid-May and into June, the sun shines upward of 18 hours a day, bringing along the start of warmer weather and Alaska’s dry season. With temperatures averaging around 55 degrees along the Inside Passage and Southcentral routes, you’ll still need long pants and a light jacket, but leave the winter coat at home. Cooler temperatures means lower passage fares and fewer bugs to pester you on land excursions. Although wildlife sightings can never be guaranteed, spring cruises offer the best opportunity to see mothers and their offspring including moose, Dall Sheep and bald eagles.
In mid-June, July and early August the temperatures rise, and with warmer weather comes higher fares as Alaska’s busiest tourism season starts. Temperatures rising into the mid-60s and low-70s means you’ll be able to pack your shorts and t-shirts. Bring along a few warmer clothes as the evenings dip into the 50s. While most wildlife is best seen in the spring, bears are the one exception. Rivers running with salmon bring black and brown bears out in the open, a sight best seen on a bear-viewing tour with an expert guide. The best time for bear-watching is late June to early July.
As the days begin to shorten in late August and September, visitors to Alaska in the fall can expect cooler, rainier weather. Temperatures return to the mid-50s, requiring long sleeves, hats, gloves and sweaters. Cruise fares tend to remain high throughout August, then dip in September. While wildlife viewing starts to taper off, August offers berry-picking opportunities (just watch out for berry-loving bears!), and early September heralds colorful fall foliage. While the Northern Lights are rarely visible during cruise season and never as spectacular as in winter, the shorter days in mid to late September do offer a shot at catching Alaska’s Aurora Borealis.
Which way to go
While there are an assortment of cruises to choose from, Alaska cruises sail on two main cruise routes – along the Inside Passage and cross-gulf to Alaska. Voyages along the Inside Passage are typically round-trip, stay within the Passage and make stops at several port towns, such as Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. Cross-gulf tours tend to be one-way only as they cover a greater distance, traveling as far as Whittier in the south central region. Although these one-way cruises require the purchase of airfare home, they frequently include an option for a land excursion into Alaska’s interior where passengers can visit Denali National Park to view North America’s tallest mountain peak.