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September trip to Alaska - advice, suggestions?

September trip to Alaska - advice, suggestions?

Old Feb 8, 17, 8:19 pm
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September trip to Alaska - advice, suggestions?

Looking to plan a trip to Alaska for this September. Aurora Borealis is a priority but based on my research (here and on other websites) seems like there's plenty of other things to see.


Hoping to spend 8 - 10 days and hoping to see if anyone has any advice or suggestion on the plans below:


Day 1 - Arrive ANC
Day 2 - 4: Seward, Kenai Fjords (day cruise)
Day 5 - 8: Fairbanks with day trip to Denail on one of the days
Day 9: ANC


2 big questions: how is the weather and amount of daylight in mid-Sept? Is it worth driving from ANC to Fairbanks or just fly there and rent a car at Fairbanks (and going to Denali as a short trip)? Cost is not an issue; driving long hours in pre-winter conditions is not much of an issue unless the road conditions are.


Thanks!
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Old Feb 9, 17, 6:49 pm
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Mid-September is just before the fall equinox, so day length is quite close to night length, 12 hours (this is actually true in mid-September all over the earth's surface, not just in Alaska). Day length will be a little bit longer before the equinox the further north you go, e.g. Fairbanks. The Navy's website at http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/Dur_OneYear.php can tell you exactly for all of the locations you mention. For the places you are going, and the length of night in September, I don't think it is likely you will see the northern lights. I have seen northern lights in late September, but it was in places like Barrow where night length is significantly longer than day length by the end of the month.

The weather can be OK, such as it was during President Obama's September visit to Exit Glacier outside Seward but snow by mid-September at Denali Park is also not unheard of.

As far as the time you have budgeted, it seems like a lot of ground to cover for the amount of time. If you are driving from Fairbanks back to Anchorage, you can stop at the entrance to Denali Park, but a one day visit to Denali Park from Fairbanks is just a lot of driving and you won't be going very far into the park. Driving Anchorage to Fairbanks takes most of a day (~360 miles). It wouldn't be that interesting with your short visit to do it both ways.
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Old Feb 9, 17, 8:58 pm
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Thanks drseagrass.


Thought about the driving and actually thinking of reversing my itinerary and flying directly into Fairbanks to save time:


Day 1 - SEA - FAI
Day 2 - 4: FAI with day trip to Denali (not planning to go too far into Denali, probably spend 1 - 2 hours there)
Day 5 - 8: Fly from FAI to ANC, Seward, Kenai Fjords (day cruise)
Day 9: ANC - SEA


About the Northern Lights...what about in October? I'm hesitant about going after September as I worry that some things may be closed after the summer season but will need to do some more research.
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Old Feb 9, 17, 10:08 pm
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My inclination would be to do a relatively short northern lights trip separately. October is better for seeing the northern lights, but you are right, many seasonal attractions are closed and the first snows of the season make for much more challenging driving. It is difficult to enjoy Alaska in both comfortable weather and also see the northern lights. I would embrace the winter, including the dark nights between November and February when many of the Japanese and Chinese visitors come to specifically see the northern lights, and some of the hotels in Fairbanks specialize in that. There are a lot of winter sports activities that are possible too around town---dog mushing, crosscountry skiing, etc. Of course there are many other places around the Arctic Circle that are also good bets for northern lights that you could fly into with their own local attractions such as Akureyri in Iceland, Kiruna in Sweden, or Tromso in Norway.

It is about 120 miles from Fairbanks to Denali Park, which is itself about 1/3 of the way to Anchorage by the time you get to the park entrance, so I am not sure it makes sense to spend 3 days in Fairbanks, including a day trip to Denali, and then drive back to Fairbanks. The park is quite large and you can't see the park's namesake mountain from the park entrance. The park web site can give you details on the restrictions relating to driving personal or rental cars into the park---and the park road will be shut down by the time of the first snow, which most years is in September.
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Old Feb 9, 17, 11:49 pm
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Originally Posted by drseagrass View Post
My inclination would be to do a relatively short northern lights trip separately. October is better for seeing the northern lights, but you are right, many seasonal attractions are closed and the first snows of the season make for much more challenging driving. It is difficult to enjoy Alaska in both comfortable weather and also see the northern lights. I would embrace the winter, including the dark nights between November and February when many of the Japanese and Chinese visitors come to specifically see the northern lights, and some of the hotels in Fairbanks specialize in that. There are a lot of winter sports activities that are possible too around town---dog mushing, crosscountry skiing, etc. Of course there are many other places around the Arctic Circle that are also good bets for northern lights that you could fly into with their own local attractions such as Akureyri in Iceland, Kiruna in Sweden, or Tromso in Norway.


Count me as one of those Japanese/Chinese tourists I'm based in Hong Kong now but grew up in Canada. Many Hong Kong/Chinese tourists will prefer the Europe route, but I thought Alaska has more variety when it comes to landscape and attractions.


Wanted to kill 2 birds with 1 stone but I think it's back to the drawing board for now.
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Old Feb 10, 17, 8:42 pm
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A lot depends on when in September you come. The shuttle buses into Denali stop by mid-month, and I'm not sure when the Kenai Fjords cruises stop.

If the aurora are visible (i.e. active plus clear skies) you can see them just as easily from the Denali area as you can from Fairbanks. Hotel deals ought to be available near Denali (end of the season) so I'm not sure you'd need to go to Fairbanks at all.

You might give a thought to taking two days (maybe the ones dedicated to Fairbanks) and hop a flight from ANC to Kotzebue instead. Kotzebue is an Inupiat Eskimo community on a branch of the Arctic Ocean. It's above the arctic circle, and (again, if Mother Nature cooperates) you will have longer nights and being farther north ought to have a good view of the aurora.

Or, same idea, fly to Nome instead. Rent a vehicle (a couple of sources) and drive out one of the several roads that radiate from Nome into the Seward Peninsula. Muskoxen, moose, caribou or reindeer, maybe bears, and spectacular autumn color on the tundra. Nome is a historic gold rush town on the Bering Sea (still a lot of loony gold miners about) with a real frontier feel and a lot of history. It's a terrific experience.

Both OME and OTZ are around $320 - $350 round trip on AS from ANC, or good value with relatively few AS miles if you have any.
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Old Feb 12, 17, 3:45 pm
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Originally Posted by Chromie25 View Post
Thanks drseagrass.


Thought about the driving and actually thinking of reversing my itinerary and flying directly into Fairbanks to save time:


Day 1 - SEA - FAI
Day 2 - 4: FAI with day trip to Denali (not planning to go too far into Denali, probably spend 1 - 2 hours there)
Day 5 - 8: Fly from FAI to ANC, Seward, Kenai Fjords (day cruise)
Day 9: ANC - SEA


About the Northern Lights...what about in October? I'm hesitant about going after September as I worry that some things may be closed after the summer season but will need to do some more research.
Either way, don't drive. Take the train! Much more relaxing, and safer too.
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Old Feb 13, 17, 10:29 am
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Yes, the train is another possibility, but the last day for daily service from Fairbanks to Anchorage in 2017 is September 17, then it goes to once a week, so it might not work for the OP.
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Old Feb 13, 17, 10:52 am
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I have seen the aurora (not a bright display but still...) in early September near Palmer, AK (north of Anchorage), but it was during a new moon without any other ambient light.
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Old Feb 14, 17, 12:50 am
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Based on the moon phases it looks like 2nd and 3rd week of Sept is better (full moon being on Sept 5 according to this https://www.timeanddate.com/moon/phases/usa/anchorage) in order to see Northern Lights.


Going to skip the driving from ANC - FAI and will fly instead to save time (which also explains why I won't take the train).


Although planning is half of the fun, it's a challenge to get all the timeslots set up because of accommodations. I was looking through some lodges/cabins around Fairbanks that's good for Northern Lights.


I know some of you have suggested I can see them from around Denali but I prefer Fairbanks just because there are things that I can do in town, even if it's as weird as just spending hours in Walmart or Fred Meyer; you will miss these supercenters after having to shop in cramped little supermarkets in Hong Kong. I can also hop on day tours to the Arctic from FAI if available.
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Old Feb 14, 17, 6:04 am
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Agree with comments about driving. Check the Princess Lodges - the Denali one was great several years ago, good location, etc.
Glad you checked moon phase for Lights viewing - extremely important. If you don't manage to see them this trip consider a trip to Whitehorse, Yukon. A great small outfit Northern Lights Resort and Spa is perfect for Lights viewing. It is small and booked up early during season. It is outside town and perfect - doesn't require a separate "tour" to go out to a viewing location. We did 5 nights and managed to have great viewing 4/5 nights - unusual!
Good Luck and enjoy!
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Old Feb 24, 17, 5:57 pm
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September is a wonderful month to go and I've probably done 15 trips in September since my very first in 1997 (in October). Have also noticed that fall seems to come later and some of the roads have lots of dips due to collpsing permafrost (i.e. climate change).

With Fairbanks I usually aim for the weekend after Labor Day, as you see the fall colors with the aspens in the nearby hills (some views are like a sea of gold and green, from evergreens). The Friday after Labor Day is usually the last day of the season for the Pioneer Park salmon bake, where they also usually have prime rib and crab legs to draw in locals (but the salmon is still the best).

Denali has always been tricky for me. I booked a bus tour but it couldn't go the full route one year, while on another I was able to drive maybe 30 miles in about a week after the road-lottery days because the roads were still passable. Hard to tell. There's also uncertainty about whether the mountain is clouded over, etc. My composite for all those years is pretty good, but to come out with a big prize like the alpenglow photo of the mountain reflected in Wonder Lake you really need everything to align at once, which is rare.

The FAI-ANC drive can be great in itself, especially if you can go the Parks Highway (past Denali) in one direction and the Richardson in the other. The Richardson (+ the Glenn) are actually more scenic IMO, but both are very worthwhile even though it's 6-8 hours without stops.

I see the aurora on only maybe 1 in 3 trips...you have some chance in September but it's usually not like the colder months. Last year some Koreans at my hotel went on a night trip with an aurora-hunter tourguide, so maybe people are doing that.

As for roads, most should be fine in September as far as ice & snow...Denali is one of the first places to get it, but I've never had a problem anywhere else except one year around the Dalton Highway Sept. 20-ish. Fall and the fall colors can really be delightful, though it seems to be slipping to closer to the second weekend after Labor Day in FAI for the peak (maybe call it 9 days after Labor Day) and the Sept. 20-30 range for ANC.

I do want to get to Nome one of these days, but the lodging choices and car choices always seem extremely limited, like the place is still largely off the grid.
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Old Feb 27, 17, 4:19 am
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Originally Posted by RustyC View Post
September is a wonderful month to go and
With Fairbanks I usually aim for the weekend after Labor Day, as you see the fall colors with the aspens in the nearby hills (some views are like a sea of gold and green, from evergreens). The Friday after Labor Day is usually the last day of the season for the Pioneer Park salmon bake, where they also usually have prime rib and crab legs to draw in locals (but the salmon is still the best).

Another reason to be in Fairbanks!


Haven't got around planning this week due to work but looks like the 3rd week of Sept better suits my schedule.


Thanks for the all the great info so far! Will keep everyone posted.
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Old Jul 18, 17, 10:09 pm
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Just want to update this and looking for advice on car rentals. My tentative schedule now is:


9/15 - 18: ANC, Seward
9/18 - 22: FAI (will drive to Denali from there, also noted North Pole, AK seems interesting with the Santa Claus house)


When checking out rental cars for FAI, seems like all the major rental companies have restrictions on Dalton, Steese, Dempster, Elliott, Denali and Taylorhighways because they are gravel roads. Alaska Auto Rental has fewer restrictions for standard rentals (e.g. can drive on Elliott highway up to Livengood) but their office hours are a pain if I want to catch the early flight from FAI to SEA on 9/22. They are located outside of the airport and I'll somehow need to find transportation to the airport once I drop off the car.


I guess my question is how strict are the big rental companies when it comes to road restrictions? Or is it similar to Alaska Car Rental who provide more specifics when it comes to what is off-limits? I was hoping to drive up the Dalton Highway up to the Arctic Circle marker (at Mile 115) but that's pretty much out of question now.

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Old Jul 19, 17, 1:42 am
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Originally Posted by Chromie25 View Post
Just want to update this and looking for advice on car rentals. My tentative schedule now is:


9/15 - 18: ANC, Seward
9/18 - 22: FAI (will drive to Denali from there, also noted North Pole, AK seems interesting with the Santa Claus house)


When checking out rental cars for FAI, seems like all the major rental companies have restrictions on Dalton, Steese, Dempster, Elliott, Denali and Taylorhighways because they are gravel roads. Alaska Auto Rental has fewer restrictions for standard rentals (e.g. can drive on Elliott highway up to Livengood) but their office hours are a pain if I want to catch the early flight from FAI to SEA on 9/22. They are located outside of the airport and I'll somehow need to find transportation to the airport once I drop off the car.


I guess my question is how strict are the big rental companies when it comes to road restrictions? Or is it similar to Alaska Car Rental who provide more specifics when it comes to what is off-limits? I was hoping to drive up the Dalton Highway up to the Arctic Circle marker (at Mile 115) but that's pretty much out of question now.

I've driven as far as you can go on all the roads out of FAI that are paved, as some of the stretches are beautiful and you can get as far on the Elliott as the Dalton turnoff (plus maybe a mile on the Dalton) and 80 or so miles on the Steese, and also all the way to Chena Hot Springs, on paved roads. I always get the sedan and wouldn't consider taking on the non-paved sections with that...something like an SUV would be up to the task, but IIRC the majors still won't allow those on the unpaved sections, possibly because of concerns over emergencies, damage from rocks or what-not, or whatever the reasoning is. I shudder to think what a towing cost would be. The specialty companies would charge quite a bit, of course (the thing I'd want to do is try the Top of the World Highway to Dawson City, BTW, but it's quite a drive to get to that). I think the town of Circle at the end of the Steese Highway is also on the Arctic Circle (hence the name) and the Yukon River and with a hot springs as well, but alas is still too far down the unpaved section. You could still try on an SUV (and maybe wash when back in town before turning in) but you'd be assuming the risk of something going bad. The Dalton, BTW, has a trickle of trucks and commercial vehicles, while the Steese is mostly locals.

Your timing for that weekend used to be a bit iffy for Fairbanks (less so for Anchorage) and one year I went around that time and there was snow at the higher elevations. OTOH, with climate change that time has gotten pushed later and later, so you may see quite a few leaves on the trees in the north and maybe even some green leaves in the south.
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