Late August and early September in Denali National Park - I think the best time for wildlife and landscape photography, and fewer visitors.
This is a frequent question – what is the best time of year to visit Alaska for photography? It is a great question, and not one that is easily answered as it depends on where in Alaska you are looking to visit, and what types of subjects you are hoping to photograph.
Like most Alaskans, I certainly have my opinions on my favorite times of year. Of course this is a very subjective answer in which not everyone will agree – if you think otherwise, share your thoughts – it adds to the discussion. I must also admit I had a hard time ranking these and constantly changed my mind. Really, for many of the prime months it is a 4 or 5 way tie, you can’t go wrong with any of them!
Maybe July is my top month because I began writing this in July. July brings long days of sun, lots of wildflowers and everything is very green. It is the last of the “dry” season as well. As one of the driest months on average; the coast in Seward averages only 2.6 inches of rain in July. That number will climb to over 10 inches by September. Denali and Juneau average just over 3 and 4 inches for the month of July respectively.
I would say July is the best time of year for travel type photography as the streets and many business are lined with colorful flowers pretty much everywhere from Juneau to Fairbanks. It is also a wonderful time for landscape photography – everything is green and many wildflowers are in full bloom. It is a decent time for wildlife photography, especially marine mammals. Other mammals don’t look too good right now, especially the likes of sheep and caribou who will be molting their coats.
The biggest drawback to July is the crowds. It is the most popular month, so count on hotels, campgrounds, RV rentals and restaurants to be crowded and expensive – reservations are a must. Mosquitoes are also a drawback – they can be thick. Especially in certain areas like the west end of the road in Denali or on the Arctic slope.
August is a wonderful transition month as we go from Summer to Fall. In fact, the fall colors begin appearing in early August in the northern portions of the Brooks Range, and will be nearing peak by the end of August in Denali. The rest of the state is often covered with thick fields of fireweed – a wonderful, colorful foreground for landscape photography. It is a bit wetter in August on the coast – both Seward and Juneau average over 5 inches of rain in August, although Denali drops to about 2.5.
Really August is great for landscape photography thanks to the fireweed, but it is also a good time for wildlife. The racks on moose and caribou will be reaching full size, and will be dropping their velvet covering by the end of the month. Other mammals like fox and wolves will begin putting on their thick winter coats. The bugs aren’t bad in August either – mosquitoes are almost always gone by August 1. There are some other bugs around, but I don’t think I have ever needed bug spray in Denali in August, although I have encountered bad mosquitoes in early August on the Arctic / North Slope.
The drawback to August – again the crowds. It isn’t as busy as July, but it is still a peak summer month.
When we get nice weather in September I think they are some of the most beautiful days of the year! Unfortunately in Seward and Kenai Fjords, we are just as likely to get a day with a half of inch of rain as a day of sun. Seward averages over 10 inches of rain in September, while Juneau is over 7. Denali drops to just over an inch and a half – in fact I love Denali in September, especially the first half. The fall colors are absolutely amazing as the tundra turns bright red. The wildlife looks its best – the fur bearers have their winter coats, and moose and caribou have full size, velvet free racks. It seems like huge moose come out of nowhere for the rut activity.
Really September is probably the best time of year for wildlife photography, and one of the best for landscapes. By the end of the month it can be one of the best times for Northern lights as well. There are other advantage to September – the hotels, restaurants and cruise-lines are all still open, but not crowded. You can often find good values and bargains this time of year, and usually can get by without reservations except for photographer popular places like the Wonder Lake campground in Denali. Gee, maybe I should have listed September number 1.
June is the tale of two halves. Take Denali. The first half is often a landscape of brown interrupted by streaks of old snow that hasn’t melted out of the gullies. After September, the first half of June and late May is probably one of the best times for wildlife photography – lots of cute newborns along with a corresponding increase in predator activity. In Denali, mosquitoes don’t begin to show until the second half, although they seem to be appearing earlier in recent years. Now the second half of the month brings a wide variety of wildflowers – some very unique and beautiful. The second half also brings the bugs and the visitors.
The same it true throughout Alaska. Even down on the coast as far as Juneau it takes time for things to green up. But, in mid June Alaska is awash in lush, green vegetation. On the coast comes the first wave of wildflowers – the most notable are the fields of lupine that can be very plentiful in some years.
The visitor numbers make a noticeable jump in mid June – it goes from to somewhat quiet to July / August type of numbers, so you need to plan accordingly. June is also one of the driest with average precipitation totals of 2.3 inches for both Denali and Seward, and 3.3 inches for Juneau.
May is like September in that most the visitor based business are now open, but aren’t very busy. This is another great time to find travel bargains. There are some unique photo opportunities in May, particularly the bird migrations. Shorebirds, ducks etc., they are very plentiful. Near the end of May is the beginning of the birthing season for many mammals – great for the cute baby animal opportunities, along with the predator activity. It is also a good time for marine mammals, and you won’t have to worry about any bugs! May is a fairly dry month, Seward and Juneau average around 4 inches of rain, with Denali receiving less then an inch.
There are some drawbacks to May – it isn’t that great for landscape photography, and it is difficult to get anywhere into the back-country. Nothing has turned green yet, and the hills are full of dirty, rotten snow in which you can’t really ski or snowshoe, nor can you hike. I find April and May frustrating in this way as it is the only time many of my favorite back-country trails are accessible.
March is a great winter month – growing up near Wrangell-St Elias National Park I used to say March was my favorite month of all. We have lots of snow, long days and decent temperatures. The snow usually has a nice crust layer – perfect for skiing, snow shoeing or snow machining. It is funny how the same temperatures in November feel so much colder. It is also a great time for travel photography thanks to events like the Iditarod. Northern lights tend to be most active around the two equinox, so it is a great time for snowy aurora photos.
There are a few opportunities most notable would be the northern lights thanks to the fall equinox. There is still plenty of wildlife activity – my favorite would be the swan migration. But, it can be a wet, cold time of year – Seward for example averages 9.8 inches of rain during the month. Leaves will be off the plants in most parts of Alaska, but hasn’t been replaced with snow.
Late September, October and November can be so nice in much of the lower 48 from Jasper to Zion, I’m rarely in Alaska during this time of year. Couple the wonderful opportunities elsewhere with the somewhat limited ones in Alaska, and frankly unless you are specifically after northern lights, I would travel elsewhere during this time of year.
April is right there with late October / November as my least favorite time of year. Unlike the fall months, in April you can count on finding plenty of snow, but it is often dirty and a bit rotten making it a poor subject for photography and a bit difficult to travel on. Birds haven’t arrived yet, and bears are typically still holed up in their dens.
Now as a Alaska resident, April can bring lots of sunshine and warmer temperatures which can be invigorating. And as an avid cross-country skier, I absolutely love the early morning crust skiing that is often found that time of year. But, for photography purposes, I would rather be chasing wildflowers in the Southwest.
November / December / January / February
No surprise here, this is winter time in Alaska. Of course you can find plenty of northern lights this time of year, but March and October tend to be better for aurora activity, and have more moderate temperatures. If you are into winter activities, this is a nice time of year, and the winter landscape opportunities can be amazing.
The downside is the cold weather and short days. You can find many of the same winter photo opportunities in March when you will have more moderate temperatures, and much longer days.