Alaska in May

Welcome to shoulder season, the early portion of spring that starts in May. It is a time of yearly renewal when the majority of the snow has melted and foliage is growing.

These changes bring about an awakening of wildlife movement to feed on the plant growth as well as human rejuvenation in exploring this state in all it has to offer.

May is a good time to avoid crowds and save money in Alaska. This month allows a quieter, less stressful trip compared to the summer season. The weather is pleasant enough for most outdoor activities. Some facilities might be closed until mid- or late May.

With May being the early shoulder season, it has a magical feeling for us compared to September in Alaska, the late shoulder season. It’s the start of the most beautiful time of year when everything is in bloom and on the move.

Having lived in Alaska for over 10 years, we can provide you with every detail you need to know about:

  • The weather conditions
  • What to wear in May
  • How busy it is
  • How to get around (transportation tips)
  • The best things to do

 

Weather

The Alaska weather in May varies across the three regions: Arctic, interior, and coastal. Average high temperatures range from 34°F (1°C) to over 60°F (16°C). The amount of daylight varies between 16 and 22 hours. Snowfall is possible at higher elevations.

In the most visited places in the interior and coastal region of Alaska, the average high temperatures range from 52°F (11°C) in Homer to 64°F (18°C) in Fairbanks.

Arctic area. The coldest area in May renders around 22 hours of daylight and high/low temperatures of 34°F (1°C)/18°F (-7°C). The northern region of Alaska has the longest days and coolest climate in May.

Interior area: The Interior region’s daylight lasts about 18 hours during May and offers high/low temperatures of 60°F (16°C)/33°F (0°C).

Coastal area: The southern coastal region can boast about the warmest temperatures with 16 hours of daylight, resulting in high/lows of 55°F (9°C)/40°F (4°C). Cloud cover and wind conditions can affect daily temperatures.

Temperature progressions during May:

  • Arctic Region: 14°F (-10°C) increase. Highs climb from 24°F (-4°C) to 38°F (3°C)
  • Interior Region: 14°F (-10°C) increase. Highs climb from 54°F (12°C) to 67°F (19°C)
  • Southern Coastal Region: – 9°F (-12°C) increase. Highs climb from 53°F (11°C) to 62°F (16°C)

Average high temperatures in May at popular places:

  • Anchorage: 62°F (16°C) – South Central
  • Denali National Park: 54°F (12°C) – Interior
  • Fairbanks: 64°F (14°C) – Interior
  • Katmai National Park: 53°F (8°F) – Southern Peninsula
  • Homer: 52°F (8°C) – Southern Kenai Peninsula
  • Juneau: 56°F (11°C) – Southeast
  • Seward/Kenai Fjords National Park: 53°F (10°C) – Southern Coastal

Mornings and Evenings:

  • Arctic region: 20°F (-7°C)/28°F (-2°C)
  • Interior region: 33°F (1°C)/45°F (7°C)
  • Southern Coastal region: – 42°F (6°C)/50°F (10°C)
Wind

The wind in Alaska depends upon the topography of a location as well as the weather conditions. Across the state, wind conditions vary greatly. Average wind speeds for May range from 13 mph to 26 mph. Please make sure to follow our clothing advice below, as the wind can make you feel a lot colder at certain places in May:

  • Aleutians Islands – 26 mph
  • Denali – 20 mph
  • Fairbanks – 18 mph
  • Haines – 16 mph
  • Nome – 16 mph
  • Juneau – 13 mph
  • Anchorage – 7 mph

Find the windiest locations in Alaska within our special section at the end of this article.

Rain/Snow

May is one of the driest months in Alaska. Sometimes there is a slightly higher chance of rain than in June and July, with a small chance of snow earlier in the month.

The average amount of rainy days is below:

  • Arctic Fairbanks area – 4 days
  • Southcentral Anchorage area – 7 days
  • Inside Passage Juneau area – 7 days
  • Southwest Kodiak/Aleutian Islands area – 17 days

Rain can be quick showers or all-day downpours. Always check the weather forecast and be prepared for anything.

Snow: There is little snowfall in May in Alaska. Being shoulder season, the snow seen in the state will mainly be in the far north region and at elevations above 3,000 feet (914 m). During this time of year, the majority of the snow will have melted, and the state is transitioning from winter to summer.

Average May snowfall amounts:

  • Far North Barrow area – 3.4“/8.6cm
  • Interior Alaska – Fairbanks area – 0.6”/1.5cm
  • Southcentral Anchorage area – 0.3”/0.8cm
  • Southeast Juneau area – 0.0”
  • Southwest Kodiak area – 0.5”/1.3cm
Cruise Temperatures

Cruise temperatures in Alaska range from average lows around 40°F to highs around 55°F in May. Near glaciers, it gets colder and windier on the open decks. Bring enough layers or a winter coat.

Daylight

During May, the daylight in Alaska is increasing, giving travelers the ability to extend the amount of time for sightseeing. Daylight hours range from 16 to 17 hours in May.

Civil Twilight is about one hour of time before sunrise and after sunset when the sun drops just below the horizon, but there’s still enough light for activities.

  • Anchorage – 17 hours
  • Juneau – 16 hours
  • Seward – 16 hours
  • Nome – 17 hours
  • Fairbanks – 17 hours

Northern Lights

With the amount of daylight in May, it is not the best time to view the Northern Lights in Alaska. There is enough darkness at night at the beginning of May that gives a small chance of catching a glimpse of this beautiful phenomenon, but they are most easily seen from September – to April.

May Quick Facts

Good to know:

  • May travelers can benefit from lower prices and often special deals.
  • May is less crowded than the summer high season, which starts in June.
  • Often, May experiences the least amount of rain. It is one of the driest months.

What to Wear/What to Pack

Layering is key in Alaska, particularly when visiting in May. The weather can change quickly and vary significantly across the state. At higher elevations and during morning and evening hours, it will be cooler. Additionally, the wind has an effect on the perceived temperature as well.

Layering tips: Moisture-wicking fabrics such as nylon and spandex are great when visiting Alaska in May and are easy to layer. We wear waterproof/resistant clothing as a top layer because it is essential for Alaska’s climate. For cooler days, wool/fleece sweaters and socks work well in layering and are very warm.

Clothing Quick Tip:

In May, you wear a waterproof jacket, water-resistant shoes, and waterproof pants on most days in Alaska. Additionally, inner layers for colder regions and chillier days are important.

 

Shoes: Insulated, durable waterproof/resistant shoes/boots with good sole traction will provide you with a cozy and dry experience during any excursion. Some boot suggestions are Baffin or BOGS brands (check prices on Amazon.com). They have many designs and are very well suited for Alaska’s environment.

Our pants tips:

Outer Layer: A fleece or nylon blend jacket or any other waterproof/resistant jacket can serve as your outer (shell) layer in May. Additionally, bringing a toboggan, scarf and waterproof/resistant gloves is essential.

How many jackets? We recommend packing two light jackets and one thicker coat (see below).

Our jacket tips on Amazon:

Do you need a winter coat? The recommended inner layers are usually sufficient from mid-May. However, we suggest packing a warmer jacket for early May and if you go on a day cruise or camping.

Clothing to pack:
  • Nylon/Spandex shirts and pants/leggings – skin layer or top layer
  • Wool/Fleece Sweaters – mid-layer
  • Waterproof/Resistant pants – outer layer
  • Waterproof/Resistant coat with hood
  • Optional (see above): Winter coat
  • Toboggan
  • Scarf
  • Waterproof/resistant gloves
  • Merino wool socks or any warm moisture-wicking socks
  • Waterproof/Resistant shoes and or boots

Two tips: If it does get hot in May, wearing lighter-colored clothing absorbs less heat so you stay cooler. Cotton clothing is not preferable due to its ability to absorb moisture

Items to pack:
  • Travel First Aid Kit
  • Paracord Bracelet – If going to remote areas
  • Sunglasses
  • Windproof umbrella
  • Eye mask
  • Portable charger
  • Chapstick – Alaska’s climate is dry
  • Lotion, moisturizing shampoo, and conditioner
  • Reusable Water Bottle – Tap water is ok to drink
  • Binoculars (some tours may provide them as well)
  • Cash – In some areas, vendors may not take credit/debit cards or digital payments
  • Hand and Toe warmers for colder days

Crowds | How Busy Is It?

May is not a busy month because it is still outside of Alaska’s peak travel season. It’s an excellent month for avoiding many of the summer crowds. It can also be cheaper because hotels regularly lower their rates for the first couple of weeks of the month to entice travelers.

Cruises: Alaska cruises start in May. However, unlike June, July, and August, when there are four to six large cruise ships that arrive in the ports in Juneau, Ketchikan, or Skagway each day, in May, there are only one or two ships that dock.

Another plus for not having as many crowds in May: The majority of cruise travelers don’t venture into the interior of the state. That fact usually makes highly-visited areas like Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Kodiak Island much more pleasant to see during this month.

Because it’s the shoulder season, the need for booking well in advance is decreased, which is a plus for last-minute trips.

Booking in Advance

Although May is not as busy as the peak summer months, it is recommended to book well in advance. This will secure your spot and still give you time to cancel.

Some tours can be booked on short notice, but we always recommend making reservations in advance

Reservation tips:

Tip: Bookmark the links if you want to browse for the best prices later.

Activities

May is the month when activities get started in Alaska. Several excursions don’t run over the winter until April. However, from mid-May, more ventures are open and running. With fewer crowds and lower prices, you can receive great deals and enjoy quiet, uncongested experiences during this month.

Listed below are activities that travelers can book in mid-late May across the state.

  • 4 Wheeling/ATV Tours
  • Glacier & Wildlife Cruises
  • Gold Panning & Mining
  • Hiking
  • Kayaking, Canoeing & SUP
  • Railroad Tours
  • Summer Dog Sledding
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Photography Tours
  • Rafting & River Trips
  • Flightseeing
  • Fishing: Ocean and River (more information: Best Time to Fish in Alaska)

Good to know: Mid-May is an approximate time for activities to start. You need to be aware that all the travel agencies and tour groups offer tours at different times so it is good to check with more than one if you can’t find the type of tour they are interested in.

 

Flightseeing | Day Cruise | Arctic Circle

Alaska is a wonderful and magical place to experience in May. The state is so large one could travel the whole month and not see the entire territory. From May to August, we recommend at least one of these three intriguing experiences below. You will be touched by the magical spirit only Alaska can offer:

  • Talkeetna (between Anchorage and Denali): On a jaw-dropping plane flight you will experience glaciers, massive mountains, and the majesty of Denali itself. Visit Talkeetna when driving from Anchorage to Denali. Reservations: Talkeetna: Mountain Voyager with Optional Glacier Landing
  • Seward: On an incredible day-cruise through the Kenai Fjords National Park, you’ll see whales, wildlife, mountains, and glaciers. Enjoy the incredible beauty of Alaska’s pristine waters. Reservations here: Seward: Kenai Fjords National Park 6-Hour Cruise
  • Fairbanks: On this unique tour with excellent and super-friendly guides, you visit the spectacular Arctic Circle and walk through the breathtaking landscapes around Yukon River. Reservations here: Arctic Circle Adventure – Full-Day Tour

Getting Around

  • Car: Throughout May
  • Motorcoach (Bus): From mid-May
  • Train: From mid-May
  • Winter Train: From early May to mid-May (only Anchorage <> Fairbanks)

Once you arrive in Anchorage via plane or in Seward via cruise ship, the best ways to travel in Alaska during May are by car, train, or motorcoach/bus. Each method has its own unique benefits. A great idea is to combine train and motorcoach for example. By using the train on at least one route, you are able to view jaw-dropping landscapes that can only be seen by train.

Tip: Most locals say, that the most scenic landscape via train is the train route from Anchorage to Seward. The views are truly unique on this 4-hour ride.

In May, you have access to the following modes of transportation:

  • Car (throughout May): Renting a car is the best way if you want maximum flexibility. Since the major roads are clear of snow and accessible in May, you can drive to most places during this month. Make your reservation for a rental car in Anchorage well in advance.
  • Motorcoach (from mid-May): The Alaskan Park Connection Motorcoach is a very convenient way to get to and from Anchorage, Denali Park, Seward, Talkeetna, and Whittier. There are two daily departures from Anchorage to both Seward and Denali National Park. They start to operate in mid-May. Make sure to check the current schedule: Official Alaska Coach Park Connection Schedule
  • Train (from mid-May): Experience Alaska by train is more expensive than the motorcoach, but a truly unique adventure. Trains are available to the major destinations: Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali Park, Fairbanks, Whittier, and Seward. The train schedule typically starts in mid-May. Check the schedule here: Official Alaska Railroad Schedule
  • Winter Train (until mid-May): If you plan to visit in the first half of May, you can still take the train. The Aurora Winter Trains runs throughout the winter until mid-May. However, it only operates on weekends and selected dates mid-week. This train connects Anchorage and Fairbanks. Check the schedule here: Alaska Railroad – Aurora Winter Train 

Tip: If you visit Alaska via cruise ship and arrive in Seward or Whittier, you can make use of the many transfer options offered by Alaska Train & Motorcoach.

Estimated Travel Times

Anchorage to Seward:

  • Car: 2.5 hours
  • Motorcoach: 3 hours
  • Train: 4 hours

Anchorage to Denali:

  • Car: 4.5 hours
  • Motorcoach: 5 hours
  • Train: 8 hours

Denali to Fairbanks:

  • Car: 2.5 hours
  • Motorcoach: 3 hours
  • Train: 4 hours

 

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes in Alaska don’t hatch until late May and into June. Their peak season is late June and early July so it shouldn’t be a problem in May. Additionally, locations along the coast with consistent breezes won’t have any issues with these tiny critters during the spring and summer seasons.

Wildlife Viewing

May gives travelers ample opportunity for wildlife viewing. The foliage hasn’t grown in completely so it helps tourists to be able to see land animals easier from the ground and air.

Water Wildlife:

  • Gray whales and harbor seals – Ketchikan, Sitka, Seward, and Kodiak

Birds:

  • Migratory songbirds and pelagic seabirds that are arriving on the coast

Land:

  • Moose: Popular spots – Kincaid Park, Potter Marsh, and the Chugach Mountains
  • Dall Sheep: Popular spots – Rocky mountain slopes and alpine areas near Denali
  • Wolves: Popular spots – mainland Alaska, Unimak, and the Aleutian Islands
  • Bears emerge from their dens usually around late March into April but will be lethargic for weeks. They can be seen in May especially because the foliage isn’t as thick but the prime time to view them is the summer season.  Tip: From mid-May, you can watch mother bears with their cubs in Katmai National Park

Salmon Run – Katmai (Special):

  • May is too early to watch bears catching fish during the intriguing salmon run at Brooks Falls.

Facilities | Openings and Closures

May is like the summer awakening in Alaska: Many facilities that have been closed are starting to open. Most of the openings aren’t until mid – to late May when most of the snow has melted and warmer temperatures are on their way. However, when it comes to what facilities are open during May, there isn’t an exact answer.

Tip: At the end of the month, you get the chance to do everything: cruise, hike, flightseeing, and encounter an abundant wildlife selection, the 49th state offers travelers an unparalleled, amazing experience. The most detailed resource about open and closed facilities, including hundreds of other tips, is the Milepost Alaska Travel Planner (via Amazon).

Campgrounds: The best way to know which campsites are open during May is to check the Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation website. Breakup (snow melts and ground thaws) controls when campground managers will open. Most usually won’t permit camping until the snow has melted from roadways, the winter debris is cleared and wind damage repaired. This date can vary each year.

Year-Round Campsites: There are campgrounds open year-round in the state. Travelers need to check what amenities are available during the winter because some may be closed such as the dump station and shower facilities. Some year-round campgrounds are listed below:

  • Alaska Big Bear RV Park: Located in the Wasilla/Palmer area
  • Fox Run Lodge & RV Campground: Located in the Mat-Su Valley
  • Golden Nugget RV Park: Anchorage

Restaurants and hotel openings depend upon whether the area they are in shuts down over the winter. For example, the Denali area is open from mid-May through mid-September. All the restaurants, hotels, shops, and gas stations close over the winter. The one stop light in the area is even turned off.

Quick Tip: Those who close from fall to spring, open mid-to-late May. Thus, traveling toward the end of the month is the best time to capitalize on facilities being up and running for the season.

Kenai Fjords National Park is open year-round, but they reduce the services being offered in May and September. You can visit the US National Park Service website to plan your trip.

Denali National Park is also open year-round but the summer season officially starts on May 20, when services like the bus on the park road start on May 20. Please check the official site for details: NPS Denali National Park Basic Info.

Driving/Roads

  • Major roads are snow-free

Driving around the state of Alaska can be mind-blowing. The absolute beauty it offers can render someone into a state of awe but planning ahead is key in being able to experience a wonderful as well as safe trip.

Many major highways in Alaska are not maintained in the winter so travel on them is not advised from October through April. The State Department of Transportation (511.alaska.gov) has all the information for when the Alaska highways reopen.

Driving in May: Because of May shouldering winter, driving on your own through Alaska should be done with caution. Snow may have melted from major roads but drivers need to stay informed of constantly changing weather and road conditions. In the higher elevations, roads may still have snow cover as well as lakes still being iced over.

Unmaintained highways over the winter:

  • Denali Park Road: Open year-round but only maintained to park headquarters at mile 3.4 and the road is open to the public from late April until the shuttle buses start running in mid-May. Check the park website for road conditions: nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/conditions.htm – Only the first 15 miles paved
  • Denali Highway: Typically reopens by May 15 – Partially paved
  • Taylor Highway: Runs from the Alaska Highway to Eagle, Alaska – Only open during the summer and partially paved
  • McCarthy Road: – Wrangell-St. Elias National Park – Open year round – Unpaved

Highways open and maintained over the winter:

  • Dalton Highway: Fairbanks to Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean – Partially paved
  • Seward Highway: Anchorage to Seward – Completely paved
  • Alaska Highway: Southeast Alaska to British Columbia, Canada – Completely paved
  • Glenn Highway: Connects Anchorage and the Alaska Highway – Completely paved

When renting vehicles, rental car companies may require renters to sign compliance forms agreeing not to drive off paved roads. The choice of rental depends on where you want to travel to. If renting a car, inquire at the rental agency as to which vehicle is best for the area you are driving.

Good to know: Off-road and higher elevations need vehicles like a Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Tacoma, or 4 Runner.

Having the proper items with you during a road trip in Alaska is essential. Important items needed are shown below:

Vehicle Preparation:

  • AWD/4WD
  • Studded Tires for snow covered roads
  • Test car battery
  • Change the oil
  • Clean battery terminals
  • Lubricate door locks, door hinges, and window weather stripping
  • Check tire tread and air pressure

Essential Items to store in your vehicle:

  • Emergency Kit: Jumper cables, car tools, water, non-perishable foods, flashlight, first aid kit, and warming blankets
  • Tow rope and snow shovel

Hiking

It’s possible to hike in May in Alaska but the trails may be muddy from recent snowmelt and in certain areas snow still may be present. Since this time of year is quieter in the state, hiking the trails can be a very peaceful and relaxing experience.

We recommend the following hiking trails in May:

  • West Glacier Trail – Juneau:
    Moderate, 4 miles, 567 ft elevation
  • Winner Creek Trail – Girdwood:
    All skill levels, 4.9 miles, 866 ft elevation
  • Caines Head Trail – Seward (Check tide table since part of trail goes along the beach and can’t be hiked during high tide)
    Difficult, 14 miles, 4796 ft elevation
  • Grewingk Glacier – Kachemak Bay State Park:
    In May this trail might have a small amount of snow and you have to take a water taxi to get there and back
  • Kesugi Ridge Trail – Denali State Park:
    During May will most likely still have snow and be very muddy in areas from the winter snowmelt. Take microspikes for snow traction and gaiters to deal with slippery conditions
  • Difficult, 36.7 miles, 2000 ft elevation
  • Byers Lake Trail – Denali State Park:
    Primitive trail and can be muddy during May. Easy, 5 miles, No significant elevation change
  • Tony Knowles Coastal Trail – Anchorage:
    Easy, 11 miles, No significant elevation change (entire trail paved)

Windy Locations

Turnagain Pass:

  • The highest point on Seward Highway between Anchorage and Seward near mile marker 68
  • Its elevation exposes this area to high winds which can reach 12 – 15 mph in May
  • Average temperatures range from 37°F (3°C)/58°F (14°C) and travelers should be prepared with warm, windproof layered clothing along with windproof umbrellas
  • Kite Flying, Kitesurfing, and Windsurfing are popular in this area during the Shoulder and Summer seasons

Aleutian Islands:

  • Located in southern Alaska separating the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean
  • Islands are devoid of trees making them vulnerable to wind.
  • As seen above, this area has the highest wind speeds in Alaska – 26 mph
  • Average temperatures during May range from 36°F (2°C)/47°F (8°C)
  • Warm, windproof layered clothing and windproof umbrellas are essential in this area

Denali:

  • Located in the interior of Alaska
  • Second highest wind speed location at higher elevations- 20 mph
  • Average park temperatures in May range from 34°F (1°C)/49°F (9°C), (will be cooler at higher elevations