There’s nothing cruel about April in Alaska. It’s versatile. Though not the best month for a first visit, Alaska in April can be a blast for veterans who know what they want to do, or for those who seek sun-blasted snow adventures. First, a few downsides: Alaska’s extensive summer and winter visitor networks—the restaurants, the lodges, guides and tours—are largely closed up. Ski areas start scaling back or suspending operations. Backcountry hiking or front-country camping can be difficult, if not absolutely sloshy. The shriveling snowpack unveils lots of gunk and can generate big puddles, so Alaska is not at its most scenic either. (Break-up is best experienced with a sense of humor.)
But the upsides can be dazzling. One of the driest and sunniest months, April is the time when daylight effectively banishes darkness to the middle of the night. The retreating snowpack triggers the first green-up and exposes dry hiking routes near sea level. The adventurous can find some of the best winter sports conditions of the year at higher elevations and when night freezes have created a morning crust. The mountains and foothills remain white, while flatlands and shoreline awaken to spring. It’s beyond postcard worthy.
What It’s Like
April marks Alaska’s second annual phase shift. Breakup of ice and disintegration of the snowpack rules everyday life. Light is returning fast, with an additional six minutes or so of direct sunlight (in southern Alaska) every single day. That’s more than 40 minutes a week! Daytime temperatures often hit the high 40s, but can still dip below freezing in the wee morning hours. Not a lot of visitor activities or services have gone live yet. Denali National Park hotels are shuttered, for instance, and most of the park road remains snowbound. You’ll find any open venues and activities pretty much dominated by locals. Except for snow-sport enthusiasts and die-hard hikers, most residents are focused on community or town activities and family life. Independent travelers should plan on driving themselves because rail, shuttle and motorcoach services don’t generally ramp up until mid-May. Those venturing out of urban Alaska for overnight excursions should make reservations for lodging. Outside of town—especially on weekdays—the sunny, melting landscape can feel vast and empty beneath stunning blue skies.
What about outdoor sports?
Depending upon the speed of breakup, the first half of April can provide the same incredible snowpack as March, with extensive grooming of trails and almost infinite travel possibilities. And yet, a lot of people will have moved on from their winter mindset, leaving venues often empty. April is also the best time to find crust. A late afternoon melt that saturates the snow, followed by a hard freeze overnight, creates a firm surface that can temporarily support skiers, bikers, snowmachiners and hikers. There may be nothing more exhilarating than zooming across a white expanse that fully supports your weight. For skate skiers, in particular, the effortless glide feels a bit like suddenly being able to fly. The prime time of the day is temperature dependent, often limited to early morning. But what if you’re seeking exposed dirt and new growth? Turnagain Arm Trail southeast of Anchorage along the Seward Highway and the Eklutna Lakeside Trail inside Chugach State Park both dry out for the some of the earliest hiking in the region. The last weeks will see the year’s first plants and tree buds.
Will I see wildlife?
Very similar to March. Moose are enduring the final tough stretch before they can feast on spring greens. Ravens become extremely active, while resident forest birds like chickadees and redpolls continue to forage in noisy flocks. As the snow disappears, the very earliest migratory birds begin to appear, especially on exposed tidal flats and in sea-level forests. Bears sometimes begin emerging from winter dens, though they are rarely seen. The annual gray whale migration begins to pick up in the Gulf of Alaska, with cruises out of Seward and Kodiak. The marine world begins to awaken. Bald eagles and gulls might start showing up in town, with a few ducks and geese making appearances in rare ice-free spots.
What should I wear?
April days can be relatively warm and sunny, and locals often stow winter gear and begin wearing the same clothing and jackets they use in summers. Still, nights can drop into the teens. It’s best to bring a medium weight insulated jacket combined with hat, buff and gloves and insulating layers. (Snow sports enthusiasts heading into the mountains still need to be prepared for 100-proof winter.) A pair of waterproof shin boots—often called “break up boots”—can ensure dry feet in a world of puddles and mud. If traveling through a snowy landscape, bring sunblock and sunglasses: The solar power of April matches August in intensity, and this will be magnified by brilliant snow. Though April can be very dry, a spell of rainy weather will feel especially chilly. Rain gear is recommended.
Things to Do in April, in Cities and Towns Across Alaska
- Hit the trails In-town snow may be melting fast, but maintained routes and ski venues can still provide excellent skiing, biking and hiking during the day’s temperature sweet spot. Good reports on temperatures and grooming conditions are key to knowing where and when to go. Check the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club daily grooming report and the local trail blog with dispatches from locals.
- Want to bike? Winter biking over snow and ice has become a passion for many Anchorage residents. Rent fat-tire bikes from Downtown Bicycle Rental or book a snow-bike tour with Alaska Trail Guides.
- Get caffeinated. Kaladi Brothers and Steamdot are favorite local hangouts when it’s time to warm up. Both have multiple locations.
- Enjoy a show. Anchorage’s Performing Arts Center and local theatre scene continues to hop. The very popular Anchorage Symphony—whose concerts often completely sell out—generally holds a season finale in early April.
- Attend the annual Native Youth Olympics. In a unique celebration of traditional Alaska Native skills, more than 500 athletes from across the state compete in at least 10 events at UAA’s Alaska Airlines Center area during the last week of April. Experience acrobatic feats like the one-foot high kick and the scissor broad jump, along with traditional dance, music and food.
- Learn more about Alaska cultures and history. Alaska has an amazing history, which you can explore with an exclusive Alaska Native Heritage Excursion with Salmon Berry Tours. Or spend half a day at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmussen Center or the Aviation Museum. On First Fridays (when many galleries all over town featuring creative works) admission to the Anchorage Museum is free.
- Ride the rails on the Aurora Winter Train. View the snowy backcountry on a weekend trip to Talkeetna or Fairbanks. The train heads north on Saturday and returns to Anchorage Sunday. (Or you can ride one way to Fairbanks, spend a few days, and fly back with RavnAir).
- Escape: Head to Alaska Escape Rooms, and spend an hour solving to puzzle so you can "escape". A great family activity, especially if the weather outside isn't ideal!
- Hike Kincaid Park bluff or beach. The bluff trail overlooking Turnagain Arm is sun-blasted and often dries out by early to mid April. You’ll find a spectacular view of vast Cook Inlet. The Kincaid beach will already be snow-free and may offer a glimpse of early migratory flocks if you stroll southeast along the arm.
- Let the fur fly. Check out the sport of dog sledding with Salmon Berry Tours or Alaska Mushing School. (Really depends upon trail conditions, with best prospects early in the month.)
- Explore Anchorage’s beer renaissance! For a behind-the-scenes encounter with Anchorage’s most interesting and innovative micro-breweries, book an afternoon with Big Swig Brewery Tours.
- See Alaska indigenous bears, moose, owls, eagles and wolves (and many others) up close and personal at the Alaska Zoo. Many of its wild residents were orphaned or rescued.
Girdwood (inside Anchorage but 35 miles southeast of urban area on Seward Highway.)
- Ski Alyeska Resort. April delivers spring conditions all over the mountain, with slopes often not crowded at all. Big wet dumps are still possible.
- Celebrate breakup! For the past 40 years, Alyeska Resort has put on a raucous Spring Carnival & Slush Cup to climax the season, with hilarious competitions that push the boundary between skiing on snow vs water. Mid-April.
- Treat yourself to old-world luxury. Enjoy the spa, dining and nightlife at Hotel Alyeska, and hike through a temperate rainforest on the nearby Winner Creek Trail.
- Ride the Aerial Tram. For an experience that rivals anything you’ll find in the Swiss Alps, join skiers and photographers (and sightseers) on a 2,300-foot ascent from the Hotel Alyeska to an overlook station featuring one of the most spectacular views in the world. The Bore Tide Deli & Bar and the high-end Seven Glaciers Restaurant are inside the upper tram station, and a way-cool ski museum with free admission is a few steps away in a historic roundhouse with its own incredible views.
- Explore dining hot spots at sea level. Head to The Double Musky for Cajun Alaskan, Jack Sprat for “fat & lean world cuisine,” and Chair 5 for pizza and pub food.
Portage and Portage Valley (inside Anchorage but 45 to 50 miles from the urban area at the head of Turnagain Arm)
- Visit the animals. Tour the Wildlife Conservation Center (open year-round, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. this time of year) for guaranteed wildlife viewing as the snow peels back and animals become more active.
- Go for the crust. Afternoon thaws followed by night-time freezes can turn Twentymile, Portage Lake, the Placer River Valley and just about any backcountry expanse of snow into a friction-free playground for skiers, snow-bikers, snowshoers, hikers and snowmachiners. April in Alaska is famous for this extraordinary crust, which can be limited to a few hours in the morning. (Inside urban Anchorage, the coastal flats off Kincaid Park and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail have the similar potential.) Scan the temperature reports to gauge crust formation and check the trail blog for advice on when and where to go. Then check the forecast and don’t forget your sunglasses.
- Flightseeing: Year-round flightseeing tours around Denali are one highlight of this picturesque community, which you can get to on an easy train ride from Anchorage.
- Stay in a B&B. With the main visitor season between mid-May and mid-September, the Denali Park hotels, restaurants and venues are mostly closed. But there’s still much you can do. With snow on upper slopes and green-up spreading low, the scenic potential will never be higher.
- Poach first pavement. Every year, road crews begin plowing the Denali Park Road in March. Depending upon conditions, the public may be allowed to drive the first 15 miles to Savage River as early as the first weekend in April. Crews also push to open to mile 30 at the Teklanika River as quickly as possible.
- Explore the trails by snowshoe. Borrow a pair at the Murie Science & Learning Center, open 9 am–4:30 pm.
- Guided Tour to Denali National Park. Join Northern Alaska Tour Company on a guided tour to Denali National Park. Stop in at the Murie Science & Learning Center and enjoy a guided nature walk.
- Do the Arctic Man. Thousands of spectators, snowmachine enthusiasts and others spend a mid-April weekend in a plowed-out complex near Paxson in the Alaska Range to watch an extraordinary downhill ski race where the skiers are towed over a 2,500-foot mountain before they make a harrowing, high-speed descent. You’ll probably need to rent a motorhome, and come prepared for winter conditions. It’s like a carnival, a motorsports delight, with bonfires at night and touring during the day. It’s 175 miles from Fairbanks, and 250 miles from Anchorage.
- Watch the northern lights. You can check them out on your own, or opt for a guided excursion or overnight experience. Recommend tours: Arctic Circle Day & Overnight Adventures, Aurora Pointe, Multi-Day Winter Northern Lights Tour, Northern Lights & Chena Hot Springs, Borealis Basecamp clear-roofed igloos & Aurora Ice Fishing. Aurora viewing remains viable until about April 20.
- Warm up naturally. Visit the historic Chena Hot Springs to take a soak, see ice sculptures, and try dog sledding or snow machine tours when there’s enough snow (usually by end of month). The lodge and complex exudes that old-time Alaska ambience.
- Explore the Arctic. The Northern Alaska Tour Company offers multiple snow season adventures into Alaska’s Interior and Arctic zones.
- Learn about the north. Fairbanks has great museums for open all month.
- Walk with Reindeer. Visit Running Reindeer Ranch, the home of local Alaskans Jane and Doug. Take the reindeer for a walk, pause for photos, and learn about these magnificent animals.
- Travel like a local. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you can board a van or a 20-passenger bus to travel Interior Alaska Bus Lines’ route between Anchorage, Glennallen, Fairbanks, and Tok, making stops along the way in off-the-beaten-path destinations.
- Rendezvous with gray whales. The annual epic migration from Baja California to the feeding grounds in the Arctic accelerates during April, with these long-distance travelers seen crossing the mouth of Resurrection Bay almost every day. This 10,000-mile roundtrip is thought to be the longest mammal migration on the planet. Check out tours with Major Marine and Kenai Fiords Tours.
- Meet other marine mammals. Tour Resurrection Bay by boat with Seward Ocean Excursions or visit the public aquarium inside the Alaska SeaLife Center to see seals, sea otters, ocean fish and more.
- Curl up with a coffee. Local hangouts include the SeaBean and Resurrect Art Coffee House.
- Enjoy winter sports. Skiing and snow machining are favorites if there’s enough snow.
- Take in a live performance or art show. Look at the Homer Arts Council calendar.
- Get back to nature. Learn about the area’s natural history at the Pratt Museum and the Islands and Oceans Visitor Center.
- Take an early season cruise. Uncruise Adventures offers multiple options for exploring the vast maze of islands, fiords and channels of the Alexander Archipelago during spring’s frontier. Think snowy slopes above and an ocean coming alive below. These “Alaska Awakening” trips experience less rain—and fewer people. Lower rates too.
- Attend a local carnival. The annual spring fling will bring barbecue, dancing, live music and games to the Southeast Alaska State Fairgrounds on the last Friday in April.
- Explore spring snow. Chilkat Pass and the surrounding coastal mountains can deliver great spring snow conditions for visitors who come prepared with their own gear. The Olen Nash Memorial Big Air Competition—a friendly, one-day snowboard and ski competition aimed at locals—is put on every April by volunteers in the area.
- Stop at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum for a better understanding of Juneau's cultural heritage and community history. During the winter months you'll enjoy programs from local experts and artists that allows you to really experience the local culture.
- Engage both brain and palate. Tour the Alaska State Museum and then swing by the Alaskan Brewing Company.
- Sing your heart out. Or just listen at the Thursday night Open Mic at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar.
- Find solitude and inspiration. Visit the Shrine of St. Therese, 22 miles north of Juneau. Stroll peaceful trails and even stay the night in a cabin.
- Learn about salmon. Make an appointment during the week to visit the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery and view its saltwater aquariums.
- Enjoy spring conditions. The Eaglecrest Ski Area remains open through second week of April, depending on conditions.
- Take a hike and explore natural history. The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center remains open all year.