Like most of us, you may have seen photos and videos of the bright curtains of green, red, and purple light in the night sky that make up the Northern Lights and wondered what it would be like to see them first hand. The good news is seeing them is easier than you may think. You don’t need to be in Alaska, Canada, or Iceland. You can see them in the mainland United States, and Minnesota is one of the best states to view them.
The Northern Lights, also called the Polar Lights or Aurora Borealis, have been seen as far down as the middle of Ohio and Missouri, but they extend further overhead the more north you go. Minnesota’s geographic location and its large number of lakes make it an ideal location to see the show – especially along its north and northeastern borders.
Minnesota is one of the best destinations to see the Northern Lights in the mainland United States; in fact, the upper portion is so good that the state is listed as one of the best locations on the globe. Its northern position provides overhead views along with numerous lakes that act as an engaging stage to watch the lights from an RV, campsite, boat, or cabin, while providing more scenic beauty and fun activities during the day.
What are the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights, also called the Polar Lights or Aurora Borealis, are vibrant lights in our sky visible in the sunset and nighttime hours. They come in every color of the rainbow, even multiple colors at once, with green being the most common.
This light is caused when solar wind from the sun travels to our planet and collides into our magnetic field. The field that surrounds our world is actually no round; it tapers like a long tail off the side of our planet opposite the sun. As the solar wind hits the field, its highly charged particles interact with the tail, bumping into oxygen and nitrogen atoms in our upper atmosphere, electrically charging them. As these atoms cool, they emit light.
The colors depend on the altitude where the solar wind meets the upper atmosphere and the type of particles with which they interact. Oxygen atoms are responsible for the famous green color as well as red. Nitrogen causes pink and purple colors.
When there are massive explosions of solar gas from the sun, the solar wind is stronger, which creates an even more dynamic display of color.
Do the northern lights happen all year round in Minnesota?
They do! You may be used to seeing pictures of the Northern Lights with snowy valleys and mountains, but that is because winter brings longer night times. Historically they seem to be most active around the first days of spring and fall.
The 9 Best Places to see Northern Lights in Minnesota
Thanks to its northern location and abundance of lakes, there are plenty of places to enjoy the lights. Here are some of the best.
- Voyagers National Park, Rainy Lake – This location is so good that it made the Forbes list of the 20 best sites in the world to see the northern lights in 2020. The park is high up near the Canadian border and a far distance from artificial, human-made light, giving you some of the best views. Here the vibrancy and range of colors shine and are reflected by miles of lakes. Some popular locations to see them are Rainy Lake Visitor Center, Ash River Visitor Center, Voyageurs Forest Overlook Parking Lot, Woodenfrog Beach, and in campsites along the lake. To make the most of the experience, rent a houseboat!
- Artistʼs Point, Grand Marais, Cook County – This location in Grand Marais supplies beautiful views of the lights at night and Lake Superior during the day. The jagged rock formations along the shore of the lake are popular with painters, which is what gives the location its name. At night, the Northern Lights are best viewed from the east so that the city lights of Grand Marais are behind you. You can see it from the comfort of your car from Coast Guard Station.
- White Sky Rock, Lutsen, Cook County – Located outside the town of Lutsen over Caribou Lake, this location gives you a full 360-degree view at a high altitude of 1,400 feet, making you feel like you have a front-row seat. For the best views, take a short, 230-foot elevation hike to the rock overlook. Park at the public boat launch at Caribou lake on Caribou Trail. Cross the highway and start hiking, staying to the right when the trail forks.
- Hawk Ridge, Duluth – This location off East Skyline Parkway on northeastern Duluth gives you amazing views of more than just the Northern Lights. During the day, you can watch migratory birds as well as enjoy a full view of Duluth and Lake Superior. At the Hawk Ridge Viewing Platform, you get unobstructed views over low hills with very few human-made lights to disrupt the show.
- Beaver Bay – At Beaver Bay, you can enjoy beautiful views of the Northern Lights at night and tasty food, hikes to rivers and waterfalls, and gorgeous views of Lake Superior during the day. The best times to see the lights are from September to May over North Shore. You can even book vacation rentals to make the most of the experience. Bring some cocoa, a warm blanket, and set your chairs positioned north.
- Hallock in Kittson County – Located in the northwestern corner of the state and just 30 minutes from the Canadian border, this location is away from the city lights, providing beautiful views overhead, and is also an ideal location to take a vacation. Like Beavery Bay, the area’s vacation rentals help you make the most of the experience. Watch for the lights at night and go fishing or bird and moose watching during the day. You can even take a day trip to Canada.
- Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – This scenic wilderness lets you take in the beauty of the lights while floating inside a canoe! Being on the water or the edge of the area’s many lakes are the best ways to experience the show. The lights are most prevalent here in the fall and winter.
- Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge – Located about an hour north of the Twin Cities, it has surprisingly little pollution, which allows for a good look at the lights. While you’re there, you can view the protected wildlife such as sandhill cranes and Blanding’s turtle.
Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in Minnesota
- The Best Times to Watch the Northern Lights: The ideal times of the day are from early sunset into the late-night time hours, between 5 pm and 4 am. For the best overall show of colors, you should plan to see them when the solar radiation is high, the sky is clear, and the moon is less visible. Having no moonlight is best. You should also have open views to the north and northwest, without hills or trees if possible.
- Check the Forecast The Northern Lights are notoriously hard to predict, but for the best odds, these sites can help. You can even receive alerts when the time is right.
- How long do the Northern Lights Last? Not long, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled. Most often, they last just a few minutes. A good showing lasts no longer than 15 to 30 minutes. If you are very lucky, it can go on for hours!
- Know What to Look For: Though the pictures show the Northern Lights in vibrant greens, reds, purples, sometimes the colors are less subdued such as a greyish-white, which can resemble clouds.
- It Gets Extremely Cold! Northern Minnesota is one of the coldest parts of the mainland United States, well below freezing in winter. The cities of Duluth and St. Cloud on the above list are among the top 10 coldest cities in the country. Standing outside while watching the lights during cold times of the year can be very dangerous, so enjoying the comfort of an RV with supplemental heating and plenty of water and antifreeze. This YouTube link should help you stay prepared. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5MBzWk9BAM. You can also rent a cabin or hotel. Since the lights can show most frequently during the start of spring and fall, you can enjoy a more comfortable experience these other times of the year.
- For a great map of driving routes to see the northern lights in Cook County (where Grand Marais and Lutsen are located,) click here.
- For the best ways to capture the lights on your smartphone or camera, click here, and don’t forget your tripod.
The pictures, videos, and first-hand accounts of the Northern Lights are undoubtedly mesmerizing, but when it comes to the Northern Lights, nothing compares to seeing them yourself. Knowing when to see them can be tricky, and the window of timing may be short, but viewing them with your own eyes is worth it. With Minnesota being closer than Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Iceland, you can experience the magic of the lights easier. With its northern location and its countless lakes to make the most of the view, the state is an ideal location to see them.