Spring is a fantastic time to go camping in Alaska! Just like in the fall, on a spring camping trip, there are fewer bugs, less crowded conditions, and usually prices are less expensive! (Check out the Shoulder Season special!) Even though maybe not everything has opened up yet, and even though there might still be some snow left, there are plenty of things to see and do—more than enough to keep you occupied during a spring camping trip!
Bike the Denali Park Road
Before Denali National Park’s official summer opening around Memorial Day, it’s still possible to access the park and the Park Road on a bike! Add-on a bike rack, load up your gear and head to the Riley Creek Campground (open year-round). You can usually drive in to about Mile 13 on the Park Road before you have to stop, and from that point, access is non-motorized before the road is officially open. Head out as far as you like, and then turn back. In the spring, you’ll still have opportunities to see the Big 5, and smaller animals like snowshoe hares and ptarmigan are in the process of losing their winter white and adopting their summer coats/plumage. (Note that this is the season bears wake up: make sure you’re bear aware, and check at the Visitor Center for recent bear and other animal sightings.) Also, pay attention to the Park’s road conditions: Sometimes the road opens to private vehicle traffic up to about Mile 30 before the park opens.
Go Whale Watching
Boat tours from Seward begin as early as mid-March, when gray whales pass by Kenai Fjords National Park on their way to the Arctic. Tours from Whittier usually begin in mid-May, and tours from both places at any time of year give you the opportunity to see orcas, which reside in these waters year-round. You’ll also start to see the earliest humpbacks arriving around mid-May, so you can get started on your marine mammal wildlife sightings right away! And don’t forget about the other sea life, too: Sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, puffins and sometimes even goats and bears are possible sightings on these tours.
It’s also possible to see beluga whales in Turnagain Arm—from the shore—during late April and early May. Use the pullouts along the Seward Highway to look for them at high tide, when they chase schools of eulachon (pronounced, and sometimes spelled, “hooligan”) up the Arm. Belugas are usually easy to identify when you see their bright white bodies surfacing out of the brown water. Eulachon fishermen watch for the belugas to let them know where the fish are.
Find a Spring Festival
Celebrate the return of migratory sea birds in Homer or Cordova the first weekend of May at the Kachemak Bay or Copper River Delta Shorebird Festivals. (You can take your Travel Van or SUV onto the state ferry to get to Cordova!) Both festivals are designed to be educational and fun, with classes, lectures, organized birding excursions, kids’ activities and social hours built into the festival schedules.
If your interests in the sky are less avian and more aviation, consider the Valdez Fly In air show, held in mid-May. Learn about Alaska’s storied aviation history and why bush flying is so iconic—and also still so essential—in the state. Plus, you’ll get to take in the famous STOL (short take off and landing) Competition.
The weekend before Memorial Day, head down to Seward for the Seward Mermaid Festival. With live music, food trucks and local craft vendors, it’s one of the first outdoor festivals of the summer and kicks off the season at the Seward boat harbor.
Do some Winter Things
In May, there are probably still places where winter is hanging around, and that means that you can do winter things during summer! You can rent snowshoes or cross-country skis from a local shop to have access to all those hiking trails that are still snowed in. The experience is different on skis, but no less spectacular! You can also take a guided tour, which is a good idea if you’re worried about avalanche danger, often still a concern even in the spring. Go Hike Alaska offers both snowshoeing and summer hiking tours.
Dogsledding is a popular sport in Alaska, and in the spring, you can get an idea of what it’s like to be out on the Iditarod Trail. Many kennels’ summer tours involve attaching the dogs to a cart instead of a sled, but in the spring, if there’s still snow on the ground, you might just get to do the real thing (without those below-zero winter temperatures, of course)!
Riley Creek at Denali National Park, Seward’s Iditarod waterfront campground, ADF&G’s Susitna Landing Campground, and Bird Creek Campground south of Anchorage are all open year-round. The campgrounds along the Homer Spit usually open the last weekend of April, and many private campgrounds open in mid-May, depending on their location and the winter’s snow load. Many State Park and Forest Service campgrounds open the gates as soon as most or all of the snow is melted, and often operate on a no fee/no services basis for the first week or two, before they’re quite ready for full operations. For State Parks, check the Campground Open page to see which parks are open or about to open.
It’s true that the temperatures can still be a little cooler in May than in mid-Summer, but they’re usually not dropping below freezing any longer, so icy roads and frozen water pumps are not something to worry about. We will send you out with extra bedding in the early part of the month, though, and we also recommend you bring your long underwear and wool socks, along with your rain gear.
But the days in May get longer and longer, and by the end of the month, we’re officially into that period of summer where there’s no darkness at all. As long as you’ve got the right gear, spring camping, or camping when there’s still a little snow on the ground, is a big adventure. For us Alaskans, as long as there’s enough bare ground to set up a camp chair, that’s summer enough for us! Come join us!