October is perfect for viewing the aurora borealis from Fairbanks. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): See spectacular fall colors along the Glenn Highway National Scenic Byway. // © 2017 Getty Images
There are several reasons that travel agents like to recommend a late September and early October Alaska visit to clients.
Driving through Alaska during the fall season rivals the eastern U.S. in both variety and unique displays that enliven the senses with their color palette. Alaska has alpine mountainsides covered in blankets of red foliage from alpine berries and other shrubs, and these are complemented by yellows, greens and oranges; spectacular glaciers and snowcapped mountains; winding rivers; and, best of all, nightly displays of the aurora borealis.
If that weren’t reason enough, Alaska’s shoulder season starts after Sept. 20, which means few crowds, making for a more pleasant visit; and travelers can experience autumn colors twice — once in Alaska and again in the Lower 48.
For those who decide to make the trip, self-drive tours are the way to go, and there are options aplenty, with good food and accommodations along the way. One of my favorites is the Glenn Highway National Scenic Byway out of Anchorage, which is part of America’s Scenic Byways. The scenic byway winds for 135 miles (though the highway stretches much farther), boasting breathtaking views of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (knows as “Mat-Su”), Matanuska Glacier and the Chugach Mountains. Stop at Eureka Summit for a must-take photo of the fall colors; it features a panoramic backdrop of four of Alaska’s major mountain ranges: the Alaska Range and the Chugach, Talkeetna and Wrangell-St. Elias mountains.
Another of my favorite drives is from Anchorage to Palmer, then east to Glennallen. Some of the best scenic stops along the way include Matanuska Glacier Overlook, as well as various pullouts along the Mat-Su. A great side trip just 30 minutes north of Palmer is Hatcher Pass, which features old gold mines.
Once clients head toward Glennallen, suggest they spend the day at Eureka Lodge, one of Alaska’s favorite roadhouses. Established in 1936, the family-owned lodge — which sits at a 3,200-foot elevation — still offers 25-cent coffee, as well as a chance to catch a glimpse of the Nelchina caribou herd. The property makes a great base camp from which to enjoy extensive mountain biking and hiking trails, berry picking or float trips throughout the Copper River Valley.
From Glennallen, clients can drive south to Valdez to see Worthington Glacier, Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon. Or, they can drive north toward Fairbanks, where they’ll find some of the best autumn views of the Tanana River Valley. On the way to Fairbanks, recommend a stay at The Lodge at Black Rapids, which provides a scenic backdrop of the Black Rapids Glacier. It offers rooms large enough for families as well as packages that can include dog mushing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snow machining (dependent on snow pack).
Once travelers hit Fairbanks, I suggest a stop at Chena Hot Springs Resort, located a little over an hour outside the city. Here, clients can partake in a variety of activities, including dog sledding, aurora borealis viewing and, of course, soaking in the relaxing outdoor hot springs.
October is a prime time to see the aurora borealis, according to Amy Geiger, director of communications for Explore Fairbanks. The weather is enjoyable right after the equinox, and there are three times as many places that cater to those who wish to view the northern lights than there were three years ago. She recommends that visitors take in the natural display from Murphy Dome or Cleary Summit, both a short distance from Fairbanks’ city center.
For me, I find that the autumn equinox — the few weeks after Sept. 21 — is the best time of year to observe the aurora borealis in comfort. I’ve sat outside my cabin for hours, huddled in a sleeping bag, reading by the light of the aurora or simply basking in the band of Milky Way stars that can mesmerize viewers for hours. During the autumn equinox, pesky mosquitoes are gone and evening temperatures are in the 30s and 40s. Sitting on a colored carpet of fireweed, cranberry and dwarf willow, with a glass of wine or a hot beverage in hand, is one of the year’s highlights for me.