Why visit Alaska in September
We visited Alaska in September to overlap with my 40th birthday on September 3rd. We hoped for fewer crowds, decent weather, and a chance — however small — to see the northern lights.
September is shoulder season in Alaska, so prices tend to be lower and the busy summer crowds are starting to fade—the best time to avoid people without going full winter. This was particularly true for us in 2021, when cruise ships weren’t fully operational yet.
It’s also prime time for autumn colors! Denali in September is an absolute paradise for the leaf-peepers out there. Even better, you won’t have to douse yourself in bug spray the way you might at the height of summer, a real selling point for a mosquito magnet like me.
Of course, there’s a reason September isn’t as popular with visitors as the summer months. The weather is cooler and can be unpredictable (think: rain, and lots of it), and your odds of seeing the aurora are still slim.
We hedged our bets with the weather by going in the first half of the month. The first several days were bleak and wet, but Alaska in the rain is still a beautiful place. We also got our fair share of sunshine, which we appreciated even more when it did happen.
And we got extremely lucky and caught a glimpse of the northern lights while in Denali. (It was amazing. I cried.)
10 Day Alaska road trip itinerary overview
We typically try to travel semi-slow and spend more time in fewer regions. We stretched that rule for our Alaska trip, adding in a few more hours of driving to get further north, hoping to increase our chances of seeing the northern lights.
We flew in and out of Anchorage, rented a car for the entire ten days, and stayed in a mix of hotels and Airbnbs.
And yes—technically this is an 11-day itinerary, but if I had my time again we’d cut out Palmer, making this a true 10 day trip.
Goals of the trip
Planning this trip was overwhelming. We had an entire itinerary with all accommodation booked, then scrapped it and started over. Then the pandemic hit and we had to rebook everything again for the following year!
The website Valerie & Valise was incredibly helpful, and we used her ten-day Alaska itinerary as a starting point. I highly recommend her site if you’re spending any time in Alaska! Valerie grew up in Alaska and has a TON of great tips for visiting at any time of year.
I really wanted two things out of this trip: to see Denali National Park and spend some time around Alaskan waters. I also really, really wanted to see the northern lights but knew I couldn’t plan the whole trip around that goal in early September.
We landed on Kenai Fjords National Park (Seward) for the water adventure, and allocated two nights to Fairbanks, as far north as we could plausibly go in such a short time. I would have loved to go to Katmai National Park to see the grizzly bears, but it just wasn’t on the cards this time around.
10 Day Driving Itinerary of Alaska: Destinations
- Day 1: Fly into Anchorage
- Day 2: Check out Anchorage
- Day 3: Drive to Seward
- Day 4: Check out Seward
- Day 5: Drive to Palmer (Flex day)
- Day 6: Drive to Denali
- Day 7: Check out Denali National Park
- Day 8: Drive to Fairbanks
- Day 9: Check out Fairbanks
- Day 10: Drive to Anchorage
- Day 11: Fly out of Anchorage
Days 1-3: Anchorage
Where we stayed: Sea Wolf Inn Private Garden Apartment $112/night, we paid $264.85 for 2 nights w/taxes
What we did: We got in late, so picked up our car at the airport and headed for our accommodation to start fresh in the morning. We woke to cool, drizzly weather, but put up our hoods and hit the downtown section of the Tony Knowles coastal trail to get a feel for the area. Anchorage city center is compact and easy to get around. From there we walked along 4th street to see the famed Iditarod statue, sidestepping the piles of dirt from the construction happening at the time.
We’d heard that you could sometimes see moose in the nature areas behind the airport, so after grabbing a coffee from Midnight Sun Cafe we drove along Northern Lights Boulevard to try our luck.
And lo and behold, we saw one. I couldn’t believe it—two years hiking in Colorado with nary a moose to be seen, and here we were in Alaska less than 24 hours and one appeared right in front of us.
On a moose high, we headed out to Flattop Mountain Trail not to hike but to get a bird’s eye views of the city. The clouds had other ideas but it was still a lovely spot with distinct Scotland vibes.
Where we ate: Anchorage was still recovering from the pandemic when we were there, and most restaurants had erratic opening hours. I tried a few times to get chowder from F Street Station, but every time we went it was closed. We went into 49th State Brewing but it was too crowded for comfort. We picked up groceries at Carr’s and grabbed a pizza from Moose’s Tooth but the real standout were the malasadas at Wiki-Licious, which was right by our Airbnb. HEAVEN.
Days 3-5: Seward
Where we stayed: Studio-Alaska’s Point of View-Private & intown $169/night, total w/taxes was $422.90
What we did: Seward is an ideal base for visiting the Kenai peninsula. Our focus was on Kenai Fjords and Resurrection Bay, a spectacular region teeming with wildlife and glaciers. The 2.5 hour drive from Anchorage on the Seward highway along Turnagain Arm was one of the highlights of the trip. We stopped anywhere that looked interesting—a salmon spawning spot (where we sadly only saw one belly-up fish) and a stunning lookout where we saw multiple beluga whales from shore (tip: bring binoculars).
I was obsessed with planning something for the day of my birthday, because I didn’t want to spend the day going ‘now what should we do?’ so we had booked a 6-hour cruise that departed soon after we arrived in Seward. I wrote about it here, but I had mixed feelings about the experience due to the rough seas. We did see puffins, which I was really excited about, and hearing pieces of Holgate Glacier cleave off and crash into the ocean was something I’ll never forget.
The helicopter ride
The next day is when things got really good—as a last-minute birthday gift, we booked a 45-minute helicopter ride with Seward Helicopter Tours. The pilot asked what I wanted to see. Bears? Moose? I said bears, since we’d already seen a moose, and off we went.
We saw several bears, including a mother and her twin cubs loping across the ridgeline, along with mountain goats. We also flew over Harding Icefield and across Bear Glacier, which was incredible from above. I felt like I was in a movie and didn’t have an ounce of regret when we eventually touched back down to earth.
The next stop was Exit Glacier, a thick mass of ice that spills down from Harding Icefield and is accessible by road. It’s of course not as pristine as the comparatively untouched glaciers we saw from the sky, but it’s impressive. It’s also humbling to see the markers indicating how much the glacier has retreated over time: over 2,300 feet since 2004. The park service constructed viewpoints decades ago that now look out into a glacier-less mudflat.
We unfortunately didn’t make it out to Homer on Kachemak Bay—the extra drive was a little too far on limited time.
Days 5-6: Free day (Palmer)
Where we stayed: Quaint Comfort in Downtown Palmer $92/night, we paid $78.74 for 1 night w/taxes
What we did: We stopped in Palmer because we thought it would be cool to go to the Alaska State Fair. By the time we got there it didn’t sound that appealing and we needed to find something else to do.
That something was visiting a musk ox farm.
I can confidently say I’d never done anything like it before. Musk oxen are hairy creatures from the ice ages that wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Neverending Story. The farm raises musk oxen for their hair (fur?), which is called qiviut and can be spun into yarn that is apparently eight times warmer than sheep’s wool. They seem like friendly little creatures and are clearly loved, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit them.
Where we ate: Palmer has a ton of breweries with great reviews. We got lunch and a beer at the cozy hole-in-the-wall Palmer Brewery and Cider House.
Days 6 – 8: Denali National Park
Where we stayed: Denali Park Hotel $199/night, we paid $352.60 for a king room, 2 nights w/taxes
What we did: DENALI. Now this was my favorite part of the trip. We lucked out and the fall colors were absolutely stunning. On the way up we stopped in the adorable town of Talkeetna to look at the cute shop fronts and wish we’d stayed there instead of Palmer.
Denali National Park is named for Denali, the highest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet. We pulled over at every lookout on the way, hoping to be part of the 30% of visitors who see her peak. The clouds parted at one point, revealing a snowy spike that was breathtaking in real life but refused to be captured on an iPhone camera.
We have an annual National Parks pass, so even though we didn’t arrive until late afternoon, we ducked in for a sneak peek before a full day in the park. Cars can only drive up to mile 15 and visitors can only go further on a designated national park bus, currently running up to a landslide at mile 43.
Minutes after driving into the park, we noticed one of these green buses pulled over with all of the passengers glued to the far side, looking at something. Obviously, we also pulled over. This doesn’t always pay off, but in this case it did—a moose and her two calves were munching their way through the brush just off the road.
Denali National Park by transit bus
The next morning we returned to the Denali Bus Depot to catch our own transit bus, which we’d booked in advance. These differ from park-run tour buses, which have a set itinerary and narration from a tour guide. Denali transit buses are theoretically hop-on hop-off, so you can do your own thing, then flag down a passing bus when you’re ready to move on.
There is a flaw to this system, which I’ll get to in a minute.
We took the bus all the way to mile 43, planning to hop off at Savage River on the way back to do a hike. The driver was excellent, providing commentary and pointing out wildlife along the way. We saw a grizzly, two bull moose, and caribou as we wound our way through the spectacular wilderness.
We disembarked at Savage River as planned, a hub for hiking trails. We chose the mildly strenuous four-mile Savage Alpine Trail, and I couldn’t shake my fear that we’d encounter a grizzly.
We saw a cute gopher and just missed a bobcat, but were otherwise free to enjoy the gorgeous reds, oranges, and yellows of the changing leaves. At the end of the hike we were pleasantly exhausted, looking forward to catching a bus back to the parking lot and going for a beer.
We started walking down the main road and flagged down the first bus we saw. The driver shook her head at us as she flew past, indicating that the bus was full.
OK. That was fine. We’d go across the road and see if we could catch the Savage River shuttle.
Another green bus came by, and this one actually stopped. One person got off, and the driver denied us entry.
The next bus wasn’t for another hour, and we were twelve miles from the park entrance. We did the only thing we could think of, and that was to start walking. Within a few minutes, a car pulled over to offer us a ride. We said yes to the young German nannies without hesitation, and finally got to our car and, soon after, that beer.
The Northern Lights
I’d been tracking the aurora forecast throughout our trip, but didn’t like our chances. The aurora in September is possible, but not probable. We’d just missed a showing in Anchorage, and the rainy weather hadn’t infused me with hope.
That night at 1am, I heard low voices and crunching footsteps outside. I got out of bed and pressed my face to the window, where I was almost certain I saw lights. Jared and I hastily got dressed and put shoes on, just in case.
Several people milled about, heads tipped back towards the sky where a mysterious green swirl danced in the darkness. The northern lights. It wasn’t the brilliant prism of colors you get in the winter, but it was unmistakeable and tears sprang to my eyes.
We watched the green lights undulate into different patterns across the sky, fascinated by how dynamic and alive they were. I recognize how cheesy this sounds, but that moment will live in my heart forever.
Where we ate: We had a very tasty lunch at the Flying Squirrel Cafe on the way out of Talkeetna. Dinner was from Healy Thai Food, a food truck near the hotel. It’s also next to another location for 49th State Brewing, where we had that well-earned beer and appetizers after our longer-than-expected day at the park.
Days 8-10: Fairbanks
Where we stayed: Comfy/Private Alaskan Style Cabin #1 $117/night, we paid 283.01 for 2 nights w/taxes.
What we did: We built in a stop to Fairbanks, the gateway to the Arctic, specifically to increase our chances of seeing the northern lights in early September. After seeing them in Denali, the pressure was off and we just enjoyed our last few days in our cozy Alaskan cabin.
We started at the Fairbanks Visitors Center, where you’ll find the oft-photographed moose antler arch. From there it was up to North Pole (not to be confused with THE North Pole), which capitalizes on its name in an underwhelming way. There’s a giant, nightmare-inducing, frozen-in-time Santa, a small reindeer enclosure, and a very large gift shop bursting at the gills with all things Christmas.
Since North Pole did not take up as much time as we allotted, we had a free afternoon to spend at Chena River State Recreation Area, where we hiked the Granite Toors two-mile loop trail and I again spent the whole time paranoid about bears that didn’t materialize.
That night we tried to chase the Northern Lights by driving up to Murphy Dome, a popular viewing spot. It was a rough ride to the top of the dome—we’d done a practice run in the daylight which made it much less stressful. We were one of many cars parked at the top, but it wasn’t to be. There was a faint green glow at the horizon which didn’t eventuate into anything more.
Where we ate: I am a sucker for a good crepe, which is why we went to The Crepery twice. I nearly cried when they put the crepes in front of me, they were so beautiful.
Days 10-11: Anchorage
Where we stayed: Anchorage Grand Hotel $135/night, $151.37 for 1 night w/taxes. We’d originally booked at the Copper Whale Inn but there wasn’t availability when we had to push our trip to the following year.
What we did: This was a driving day: six hours from Fairbanks back to Anchorage so we could catch our flight the next morning.
Where we ate: Malasadas. Obviously.
What to pack for Alaska in September
The weather was cool but not freezing, and wet but not torrential. Overall pleasant and atmospheric but I was never in danger of overheating. We were relatively active and spent plenty of time outside.
This packing list is hardly ground-breaking, but here’s what I brought (carry-on only) and it served me well:
- Packable puffy vest (mine is similar to this one, it was a castoff from my MIL that I use far more than I ever thought I would)
- Hiking boots
- Darn Tough socks
- Rain jacket
- Thin fleece or hoodie for layering
- Tank tops or t-shirts as base layer
- Flannel button-down
- Sports bras for hiking days
Was this the perfect 10-day driving itinerary for Alaska? No, but it was a perfect first trip for us. I hope that we do get back to Alaska one day, but if we don’t, I’ll always feel good about what we experienced. This was truly a bucket list trip, and an exceptional way to spend a milestone birthday.
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