Alaska Travel Guide

The Unexpected Bonus of Midnight Sun Season in Alaska

PHOTO: By Elizabeth Hoverman/Shutterstock

Making the most of the night.

The day is done and dusk draws in. Slowly. Extremely slowly. The sun flirts with the horizon but never kisses the ground. Though it’s still 24 hours long, the day seems endless without the dark. So what does one do with all that extra daytime? For anyone traveling to Alaska or other locales (far) north, it means lucky, luxurious time. Actual time? Of course not. But presumed time is just as good, especially when it comes to having fun.

The natural phenomenon that is “the midnight sun,” when the sun is visible 24 hours a day, affects locations north of the Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle, a strange and unexpected bonus of travelers looking to explore Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia. For the many tourists who head to Alaska between April 22 and August 20 in droves, there’s more than just sunshine to enjoy. Midnight sun season encourages a whole culture of luxuriating in daytime. Let’s shed a little light on this unexpected perk.

Outdoor Perks and Recreation

Without the hazard of darkness (or the beck and call of sleep), travelers are free to soak up Alaska’s famous scenery (more than 57 million acres of designated wilderness that includes watersheds, mountain ranges, glaciers, wetlands, coastlines, volcanoes, tundra, forests, and rivers) at all times of day, and activities usually scheduled for morning and afternoon now have the flexibility of being enjoyed well into the evening or even wee hours of the night. And since there are seemingly infinite recreational opportunities to pursue in Alaska, it’s lucky to have the extra time.

Creek Street, Ketchikan
Salmon Fishing
1. Creek Street, Ketchikan Lawrence Weslowski Jr – Dreamstime.com 2. Salmon Fishing © Brian Scantlebury – Dreamstime.com

 

Start with the Alaska obvious and get outside: try out fishing, biking, river floating, or a round of golf when the crowds have gone to sleep, or even take a segway tour or guided hike after “rush hour” traffic dies down. Feel like enjoying a more passive participation? There’s plenty to take in. In fact, the Alaska Goldpanners baseball team hosts a historic solstice game at 10:30 pm–and the stadium doesn’t make use of electric lights. Schedule your birding tours for after the crowds have gone to sleep (Alaska is premier bird-watching territory, with nearly 500 species on record, and you’ve got a better chance of spotting them in midnight sun season when they can hunt fish like salmon in droves). Want some quirk with your activity? The Midnight Sun Run in Fairbanks, a 10K race that starts at 10 pm, includes a costume contest with categories like Alaska Frontier Days, I Love Music, and Anything Goes.

Looking for evening recreation with a smidge less nature and/or exercise? Alaska offers plenty of middle-of-the-night in-town activities. Festivals, block parties, and brew fests take place all times of the day in locations all across Alaska. Anchorage’s Downtown Solstice Festival is an annual event worth planning your trip around. Beyond the typical street fair revelry of live music and performance stages, food stalls, and art vendors, this festival offers unique Alaskan twists on revelry with its giant kayak pool, live axe throwing, and Alaska country swing dancing. Great for all ages, the Solstice Festival has everything from beer gardens to bouncy houses in celebration of the long days. Fairbanks’s Midnight Sun Festival draws 30,000 sun-worshippers annually, and the 12-hour festival turns the downtown into a pedestrian-only all-ages street fair with bands, local food and drink, and shopping and vendors galore.

 

Midnight Sun Festival
5Bathtub Races held at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks, AK
1. Annual Golden Days Festival in Fairbanks  2. Midnight Sun Festival 3. Bathtub Races lippyjr/iStock

 

Family fun is great, but adult playtime is always the most enjoyable, and Alaska doles out grown-up amusement in summertime spades. Solstice Brewfest, held annually on the edge of Denali National Park, at 49th State Brewing Co, hosts two days of music, dancing, and craft beer late into the night. Enter your own homebrew into the competition (or sample 15+ Alaskan breweries) at Southeast Alaska State Fair’s Beer Fest, and then camp onsite when you end up having too much liquid joy.

Vacation-Life Balance Without FOMO

You don’t have to overdo it in partying or fun and games while you’re traveling during midnight sun season since there’s plenty of time to balance out your schedule. Oftentimes on vacation, we don’t get to accomplish the more mundane things that keep our lives going–we’d like to respond to that email, or get in a run (or even a nap), or check in with things at home, all for the fear of missing out on every delicious minute spent away from all that typical-life bulls. But extra hours of daylight feel like extra hours of the day. Don’t want to miss your favorite TV show? You don’t have to feel bad about spending the hour indoors–it’s not like you have to go straight to bed afterward. Trying not to skip a workout just because you’re on the road? The gift of “extra time” allows you to juggle many priorities. Read a book, enjoy a garden, make art, or wander aimlessly without guilt–there’s no FOMO for daylight hours in which to enjoy your surroundings. And if you don’t get your wildlife viewing time in before dinner, don’t stress out–there’s plenty of evening to view the grandeur that is your surroundings in great scenic Alaska.

Nighttime in Chugach Mountain Range in Alaska  © Ayako Sheppard – Dreamstime.com

Another cumbersome travel necessity, is, well, travel. In a state like Alaska, which is twice the size of Texas, it can take some time to get from place to place. Luckily, there are planes, trains, boats, and all sorts of wonderful transport options to get you from sea to mountain to Northern Lights and back to the city for your flight. And while you’re covering so much beautiful ground, you have an opportunity to see it, no matter what time you’re cruising.

Good Old Fashioned Partying

There’s no question that day drinking is a particularly indulgent way to revel–festivities like dancing, karaoke, dates, sex, throwing back shots, and general debauchery is often reserved for the cover of night. There’s something about partying in the middle of the day that tricks one’s brain into thinking tomorrow might never come and the fun might never stop. Without the physical cue of darkness, the natural prompting to knock it off and go to sleep gets muffled, and the sunshine compels revelers to endure.

 

Late night partying in Seward, AK
IMG_5977
11 PM Partying in Seward Scott E. Whiteman

 

And Alaskans know how to party. Stop into your local watering hole to meet some of the friendliest locals in the U.S.–ones who will buy you a Duck Fart (Alaska’s “official” shot) and sign you up to sing ’90s karaoke and dance a two-step to old country songs. Don’t be surprised when you stumble out for “one more nightcap” and see a blazing sun still in the sky–it isn’t even morning, and you’ve got plenty of time for another round.

INSIDER TIPSeward is a fantastic one-main-street town in which to bar crawl. You’re likely to spend time in this stopover city on your way to Kenai National Parks, so why not use the opportunity to tie one on with the locals?

 

Bonus Nighttime Activity: Sun Dog

While most people think to head north and witness the phenomenon of Northern Lights, don’t miss the much-underrated “Sun Dog,” or parhelion special, an optical phenomenon that creates bright, rainbow-like spots that flank the sun in a halo, best witnessed when the sun is near the horizon.

© Serge Skiba – Dreamstime.com

Midnight sun season doesn’t actually give you more hours, but not unlike the Sun Dog, the illusion is a gift in itself. Far too often on vacation, we feel a need to cram in the fun and the experience, but with nature on your side (and literally tricking your brain), a full schedule itinerary feels like a leisurely bit of R&R.