Seeing the aurora borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights, is bearing witness to a sublime natural phenomenon, where during the coldest months of the year, kaleidoscopic ribbons of colored light ignite the night sky.
No two auroral shows are the same. Some last only minutes; others go on for hours. They can be displayed as bands, curtains, rays, or coronas. When activity is lower, the hues lean green, teal, and opal, but when it’s higher, it skews magenta and violet.
Many U.S. travelers think they need to go to Norway or Iceland to catch the solar-powered fête, but they could see them without leaving the country. In interior Alaska, the colorful lights are visible on 80 percent of clear nights during prime viewing season. Here’s how and where to see the Northern Lights in Alaska.
Best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Alaska
The best time to see the Northern Lights in Alaska is between September and April. Although the lights happen year-round, it’s only dark enough to catch them from early fall to early spring in much of Alaska.
Where to check aurora borealis forecasts
Even if conditions are right, it’s hard to predict when the dancing lights will take the stage or what magnitude it will be at. It all depends on solar activity.
In essence: The sun shoots electrically charged protons and electrons toward our planet, and when those elements collide with the Earth’s magnetic field, they’re drawn toward the poles, a move that excites the gases in our atmosphere. The mixing of the particles and gases causes the lights. The more active the storms on the sun are, the more active the displays on Earth are.
Scientists measure the general likelihood of visibility on a scale of zero to nine, known as the Kp Index. The larger the number, the better the odds (anything above a four is considered “high activity”). That information is available from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, along with a 27-day aurora borealis forecast.
The next few years should be good for geomagnetic activity. There’s an 11-year cycle that has long predicted when the lights would be most active. In the years closest to solar maximum (the next is in 2024), Northern Lights displays are more abundant and vibrant, whereas they’re more sluggish during solar minimum years. Auroral activity also tends to be higher around the fall and spring equinox due to the Earth’s tilt.
Where to see the Northern Lights in Alaska
Although the Northern Lights can appear anywhere in Alaska, some areas have more frequent auroral displays than others. If you’re serious about witnessing the swirling spectacle, plan a trip to an area that sits under the auroral oval—a band that hugs the northernmost latitudes where auroral activity has the highest concentration. Here are the best places in Alaska to go for viewing the Northern Lights.
Fairbanks in Alaska’s interior has two Goldilocks factors going for it for eager aurora hunters: the accessibility of an international airport and a location in the center of the auroral oval. The Fairbanks tourism board estimates that travelers who spend three nights in the city during the prime season have at least a 90 percent chance of catching the Northern Lights.
Though Fairbanks isn’t a large city, it’s bright enough that seeing the lights is challenging from downtown. To increase the odds, travelers should get outside the city limits and seek higher ground. Murphy Dome, Haystack Mountain, the Chena Lakes Recreation Area, and Wickersham Dome are good places to see the lights on your own.
If you’re looking to stack the deck, you might consider going out with a guide company. Salmon Berry Tours offers guided tours with hotel pickup, Last Frontier Mushing Co-Op offers the chance to see the aurora from the basket of a dog sled, and AK River Tours takes anglers out to wait for the aurora from an ice fishing hut.
Similarly, accommodations like Chena Hot Springs Resort and Borealis Basecamp are more removed from light pollution, so the likelihood of seeing the lights is higher (Borealis Basecamp’s units are igloos with clear domes, so it’s possible to see the show from bed.)
A bit further north in central Alaska is Coldfoot, which started as a gold-mining settlement. Eventually, it became a ghost town. And since the construction of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, it’s basically become a rest stop on the Dalton Highway—today, its so-called city center is an airstrip, a post office, a trooper outpost, and a gas station that doubles as a modest diner.
But considering it’s at 67° north (above the Arctic Circle) and there’s no ambient light, it’s a primo spot for catching the undulating ribbons of luminescence, even just from the windows of your lodging. Visitors can either make the long drive or catch a bush plane from Fairbanks (Northern Alaska Tour Company offers daily flights). Once there, Coldfoot Camp offers suitable, albeit barebones, rooms. For something more luxe, Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge is in the nearby Gates of the Arctic National Park.
Talkeetna and Denali National Park
It’s not uncommon to see the Northern Lights during the bookend days of the summer season in Denali National Park. However, the problem in seeing them there in the winter is a logistical one—much of the community goes dark after the last busload of tourists leaves the park for the season. There’s a grocery store, but that’s about it. None of the hotels or restaurants operate during the colder months.
Unless you’re a skilled winter camper or able to score a coveted spot at Sheldon Chalet (a mountain hotel 10 miles from the summit of Denali), you’ll have better luck trying to search the sky from Talkeetna, a quirky little hamlet (the show Northern Exposure was based on it) that sits halfway between Anchorage and Denali National Park.
For lodging, Talkeetna Roadhouse, Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, and Denali Overlook Inn are perennial favorites for locals and visitors. Aurora Dora does photography expeditions if you’re interested in going on a tour.
Utqiagvik and Nome
Alaska’s most rural communities aren’t easy to reach—more than 200 cities in Alaska’s bush don’t have roads connecting them, so it’s only possible to get there by plane, ATV, hiking, or dogsled. But given how remote they are, they’re worth making the trek because the Northern Lights don’t have to compete with artificial ones.
Formerly known as Barrow, Utqiagvik is the northernmost city in North America. At 71° north, the city doesn’t see the sun for 67 days each winter. Be sure to ask your hotel (Top of the World Hotel is popular) to give you a wake-up call if the lights appear.
Another city with good aurora borealis displays is Nome. Situated on the western coast, the town is also known as the spot where the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finishes. The three hotels in town are the Aurora Inn & Suites, Dredge 7 Inn, and the Nome Nugget Inn.
For something really far-flung, you might consider Winterlake Lodge. Formerly a trapper’s cabin (also located on the Iditarod Trail), it’s now a swanky backcountry retreat.
>> Next: The Man Who Sits With the Sky