When to Go
The best time to visit is June through August, when the weather is mildest (though you should still anticipate cool, wet, windy, and sometimes stormy weather), daylight hours are longest, and the wildlife is most abundant. Because summer is so short, though, things happen fast, and seasonal activities may need to be crammed into just a couple of weeks.
May and August are best for birding. The peak wildflower season is usually short, particularly in the Arctic, when most flowers may not blossom until mid-June and then go to seed by late July.
Salmon runs vary from region to region, so it's best to do your homework before choosing dates. For the most part, though, you're looking at July and August, which is also when the tundra starts turning from its summer hues to autumnal colors. The best times for bear viewing coincide with salmon runs. Note that fishing, bear viewing, and other wildlife exploration often involve licenses and permits that must be secured ahead of time, sometimes many months in advance. Few things about Alaska, especially during the too-short summer season, can be arranged on the fly. Plan ahead for best results.
Just because this is a remote area, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on, and some of the festivals and events in the Bush could well sway your decision about when to visit. These are among the highlights.
Cama-i Dance Festival. Each spring, the Bethel Council on the Arts hosts a regional celebration called the Cama-i Dance Festival (in Yup'ik, cama-i means "hello"), a great time to experience Native culture. Held in the local high school's gym either the last weekend in March or the first two weeks of April, this three-day festival of Native food, dance, music, and crafts draws hoards of visitors from Bethel, surrounding villages, and beyond. Not to be missed if you're around town! Bethel High School, Bethel, Alaska. www.camai.org.
Heart of the Aleutians Festival. If you are lucky enough to visit Unalaska in August and able to catch the Heart of the Aleutians Festival, you'll get to experience a beloved local tradition. The free, two-day festival hosted by PCR (the Department of Parks, Culture, and Recreation) brings residents of all ages together for Alaska Native art and crafts, specialty food, a Kids Tot Trot (fun run) and a 5k for adults, a bounce house, an egg-toss competition, and a variety of concerts by local musicians. It's a much-anticipated celebration of summer, friends, family, and the community. Kelty Field, Unalaska, Alaska, 99685. 907/581–1297; www.ci.unalaska.ak.us/parksrec/page/heart-aleutians-festival.
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. This Olympics of dogsled racing is famous enough, and fun enough, to persuade spectators from all around the world to brave the Alaska winter to witness this massive feat of endurance for mushers and their dogs, and join in the celebrations at the finish point. The race, run in March, covers 1,049 snowy backcountry miles between Willow, 90 miles north of Anchorage, and Nome. Alaska. 907/376–5155; www.iditarod.com.
Kuskokwim 300 Dog Sled Race. Each January, the Kuskokwim 300 dogsled race—“K300” to locals—brings mushers and fans from afar to Bethel, where the 300-mile race both starts and ends. Similar to the Iditarod’s rooting in Alaska history, the K300 course commemorates one of the earliest mail routes used in the Bush. Weather conditions at this time of year are notoriously harsh and the trail is difficult, but the $100,000 purse for the winner —the largest of any mid-distance dogsled race—is a nice reward for such grueling work. Smaller, shorter races happen later in the winter in Bethel as well. All are a sight to see! Downtown, Bethel, Alaska. 907/545–3300; k300.org.