Best time to see wildlife in Alaska

The headline wildlife attractions in Alaska are the bears and the whales. Your best chance to see them is the summer months, and come as late as you can for the bears.
Most Alaska wildlife holidays operate between May and September, the exceptions being Northern Lights tours that hope to catch the aurora borealis in March, and tailor made bear-watching trips. Not only are spring, summer and autumn the seasons when Alaskan wildlife is most active and visible, but the winter climate that far north can be inhospitable, to say the least. Anchorage temperatures can drop as low as -10°C in January, and remote areas tend to be much more exposed. Come between June and September to watch grizzlies after the salmon in Katmai National Park, while May and June are the most likely months to see orcas, those magnificent predators, off the Kenai Peninsula.

Alaska wildlife, month by month

Alaska’s brown (grizzly) and black bears are emerging from hibernation in March, with quite the appetite. Clear skies make March one of the best months for viewing the aurora borealis in Alaska too. If you’re on an Alaska wildlife cruise then you also stand a good chance of seeing marine life such as walrus and seals, as the ice pack begins to recede in spring. With the progression of spring, wildlife begins making its way further north. Caribou are calving, and other members of Alaska’s ‘Big Five’, including bears and Dall sheep, can often be seen amid lush green vegetation. Off the coast, grey whales can be observed passing Sitka and Kodiak by April, with other species not far behind – orca whales are likely to be found off the Kenai Peninsula around this time too. May is a great month for birdwatchers, with migratory songbirds making an appearance, and seabirds nesting in coastal areas. June is an excellent time to visit Alaska. It’s the cusp of peak bear season, and just before the main summer season. Grizzlies can already be seen around Lake Clark and Kodiak Island in significant numbers as the salmon-spawning season gets underway. Bears are in their element in July, often seen along the Katmai coast, fishing for razor clams and mating. July is also the peak month to witness grizzlies snatching salmon mid-leap at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. It’s also the height of the season for whale-watching tours, when you might encounter humpbacks, belugas and more. August, mid-summer, is the warmest (16-17°C) and wettest month of the year in Alaska. The wildlife isn’t put off by the rain for a moment though. Moose are rutting and the bears, with one eye on the approaching winter, are very active hunting in order to bulk up. By September, Alaska’s short tourist season is already drawing to a close. Still, the later you can go the better as far as bear watching is concerned, especially if you want to photograph them against the gorgeous autumnal foliage. September is also another good month for viewing the Northern Lights. Whale-watching tours are winding down, and though expert crews know where to find them, you’ll want to wrap up well against the exposure. Alaska holidays in winter are few and far between, though some operators may be able to help with tailor made itineraries. As the weather turns, food is getting scarcer, and bears are starting to retreat to their dens in October and November. They won’t appear again until spring. The exception, of course, is polar bears, which don’t hibernate and are still active up in northern Alaska, though much less so than they are in summer. December, January and February are the coldest, bleakest months of the year in Alaska. In Denali National Park, temperatures can be as low as -24°C, eep! Wilderness tours aren’t running because remote areas have little infrastructure, and who wants to be camping when temperatures are well below zero? Some wildlife is around of course – wolf packs are on the hunt, and bald eagles – America’s national bird – are in the skies, looking out for any caribou or moose carcasses the wolves have left behind.
Travel Team
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Things to do on an Alaska wildlife holiday

Be prepared to rough it a little. If you want luxury, go to the Maldives. Alaska is all about getting out into these vast open spaces, often with just a thin layer of canvas at night between you and the wilderness. Wild camping is a common element of Alaska wildlife tours, as are long drives between parks. So bring ear plugs, a few good books and a comfortable pair of boots, because there are no chocolates on your pillow out here. Budget for a few little extras. Most of your time will be spent hiking, cruising, travelling between locations and setting up camp. But in many destinations there will be optional activities that you can add on at a supplement to make your Alaska tour even more exciting. That could mean strapping on crampons for a walk on a glacier, or even flying about it on a helicopter, rafting along a river, kayaking around icebergs, or enjoying a night out in Anchorage to enjoy a few Alaskan beers. Go with a small group. Alaska is really not the sort of place you want to go wandering around without a guide, unless you’re a very experienced outdoors person, and even they get into trouble sometimes. Not only will you be much safer in what can be hostile landscapes populated with sometimes dangerous animals, but you’ll learn so much more about the flora, fauna and culture of the places you’re travelling through. And given your group will be spending a week or so travelling, camping and eating together, you can expect to make plenty of firm friends too.

Things not  to do on an Alaska wildlife holiday

Neglect the cultural aspects. Wildlife watching will naturally be the focus of your trip, but the culture this far north is no less fascinating. You can explore old gold rush towns and Norwegian fishing villages, and discover Russian heritage in Kodiak (America bought Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million). In the far north, between polar bear-spotting expeditions, you might learn about traditional equipment used in whaling, and hear from community elders how tribes are adapting to modern times. And there will be lots of opportunities to sample local delicacies too, from reindeer sausage to salmon so fresh it’s practically still flipping. Bother going in winter. Grizzlies and brown bears are sensibly hibernating, and polar bears tend to be far less active. More remote areas can be inaccessible due to snow and ice, and there are few small group tours operating. Cruises are limited in where they can go with some waterways freezing up, and anyway, by now most whales have gone back south to warmer waters after the summer. True, the wolf packs are out and about stalking moose and caribou in the snow, but it’s so cold and bleak that the tiny chance of seeing a hunt in progress means it’s not worth it. Forget to look up once in a while. September and March are both good months to photograph the spectacular Northern Lights in Alaska, but any time of year is good for stargazing. There is so little light pollution here that you’ll be amazed by how clear, and numerous, the stars are. And if you’re there in autumn or spring, darkness comes so early that you don’t need to be a night owl to get a fabulous look at the Milky Way.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: John Yunker] [Bears: Rod Long] [Winter: Paxson Woelber]