Alaska is big, wild, incredibly beautiful, and in fall, glowing both with autumn leaves and the aurora borealis.
The weather is likely to be a little cooler and wetter than it is in summer. Figure highs of 40 in Anchorage (but low chance of rain), near 50 in Juneau (but almost guaranteed rain). And some attractions are closed for the season.
But there’s still a lot to do and see here ― great outdoors experiences, fascinating towns, amazing wildlife.
Transportation and lodging are noticeably cheaper than they are in summer. You can travel in comfort on the Alaska State Ferries. And with the rest of the tourists heading back home, Alaskans will see you for what you are: a true adventurer, just like them.
Two great Alaska fall trips:
1. ANCHORAGE AND THE KENAI PENINSULA
This trip starts in urban Anchorage but quickly heads into the spectacular Kenai Peninsula to the south.
Allow at least a day to see the city. Stick to downtown for the best dining and shopping options and the summer flower displays. Start at the Anchorage Visitors Information Center(546 W. Fourth Ave.; 907/274-3531), located in a log cabin. Visit the Anchorage Museum of History and Art ( Seventh Ave. and A St.; 907/343-4326) for exhibits of contemporary and native artists' works.
Kenai Fjords National Park
The roughly 670,000-acre park(907/224-3175) is home to sea mammals, thousands of nesting birds, and tidewater glaciers best seen from the deck of a Seward-based tour boat. We chose Kenai Fjords Tours(800/478-8068), which offers 6- or 10-hour trips from $109. Hikers can take a strenuous all-day, 7-mile round-trip hike to the icy, glacial edge of the massive Harding Icefield. In Seward, the Alaska SeaLife Center (800/224-2525) is an excellent aquarium-like research facility.
2. SOUTHWEST ALASKA: JUNEAU AND HAINES
We think these two Southeastern Alaska towns are two of the most appealing destinations anywhere. Juneau is served by Alaska Airlines; smaller regional airlines (including LAB and Wings of Alaska) connect to Haines, Glacier Bay NP and Admiralty Island. The Alaska Marine Highway System ferries connect Juneau and Haines; the ferries are inexpensive, comfortable and scenic; for information contact 1-800-642-0066.
Clinging picturesquely to the mountains above Gastineau Channel, Juneau’s attractions include the excellent Alaska State Museum, Mendenhall Glacier, and good nearby wildlife watching, detailed in the Juneau Wildlife Viewing Guide. Juneau Convention and Visitor Center; 888-581-2201.
Set on the Lynn Canal with the Chilkat Mountains behind it, Haines has the heart-stopping geography you come to expect in Southeast, and an architectural charm that is less common.
That’s mainly due to Fort Seward, the early 1900s Army base whose creamy white buildings group around a parade ground, as neat as the crease on an officer’s dress uniform.
Good things to do in Haines include staying at the Hotel Halsingland, once Fort Seward’s officer’s quarters and now a rambling, comfortable hotel with a superb restaurant. In late fall, the Chilkah River near town hosts some of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in North America ― some 4,000 birds.
They’re honored every November with the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival. The American Bald Eagle foundation’s museum is also worth a visit.
WHERE TO STAY
AK Fireweed House Bed and Breakfast. A cozy retreat on 4 wooded acres on Douglass Island, across the channel from Juneau. Superb breakfasts. Three rooms and guest house from $200; 800-586-3885.
Westmark Baranof. In downtown Juneau, 1940s-era hotel with small but comfortable rooms, posh Gold Room restaurant. 196 rooms from $139; 800-544-0970.
Hotel Halsingland. A trio of officers’ quarters in Haines’ Fort Seward is now a sprawling hotel, rustic but welcoming. The restaurant is one of the best in Southeast Alaska. 60 rooms from $100. 800-542-6363.