Despite all the mind-numbing advancements in science that have come to be a part of our everyday life, many – us included – are still awed by some of the most fundamentally natural occurrences on our planet. The Aurora Borealis is a free lazer show, but even better than the man-made event because it’s 100% natural. Providing an organic watercolor show to the night sky, the Northern Lights dance only 60 miles above the earth. Geomagnetism keeps this show close to the north pole, but there are plenty of places to witness the beautiful display.
Alaska is one of the best places in America to view the Northern Lights. Latitude matters. It’s best to be within the Arctic Circle to get the full experience. The further north you are, the better the chances are to see a full show
Fairbanks is known as one of the best places to see the Aurora. That’s probably because it’s the last major settlement in the Interior. It’s actually a city, boasting a central population of over 30,000 people. Home to a variety of bars and restaurants, a cinema – even a Planet Fitness – its cosmopolitan offerings make it a good mix for the less outdoorsily-inclined (it’s a technical term) who still hope to catch the Northern Lights. There are airports higher up in the state, but Fairbanks has the most northern international airport, allowing easy access for far-away visitors.
2. Chena Hot Springs
Chena Hot Springs is a luxurious getaway just over an hour’s drive northeast of Fairbanks. You can choose your level of outdoor experience – stay in a yurt, RV or camper van, cabin, or the Moose Lodge hotel. During the day you can relax with various massage treatments and have a dip in the hot springs. Adventure seekers can sign up for a sled dog tour of the local wilderness. Be sure to have a nap in the afternoon, though, so you’re ready for your exciting late-night show. This far from the city, your view should be spectacular.
3. Eagle River
Eagle River is a small town just outside Anchorage, still technically part of its municipality. It’s a step down from a busy city getaway. Enjoy staying in civilization (Starbucks and all!) while still having the option to experience nature. Eagle River boasts its own brewery, Odd Man Rush Brewing, and still has a myriad of cuisines to choose from for dining out. It’s located on Alaska Route 1, the perfect gateway for day trips further north into the Alaskan wilderness. You will have to leave the town center for the best Aurora viewing.
Hatcher Pass isn’t really a place to stay, but a must-do activity if you’re vacationing in the Interior for the Northern Lights. Driver further up Route 1 from Eagle River and you have the chance to travel about 60 miles worth of country road. Drive the full length or park up somewhere and have a scenic hike. We’d suggest avoiding the hike, if you’re going for the late-night Aurora. Although, some people do do an intensive hike, staying in mountain cabins – in which case we want pictures.
As their tourism website says, “There’s no place like Nome.” Feel at ease staying in this gold rush town set on the tip of the Seward Peninsula. It’s the location of the famous Iditarod race’s finish line. There is a local airport for intrastate travel making access to this remote town easy. Several sites of interest about local history will keep you busy by day. By night, a mere mile outside of town will grant you beautiful views of the Northern Lights.
How north are you willing to go? The city of Utqiagvik sits on the northern-most tip of Alaska, 330 miles within the Arctic Circle. Suffice to say they get a good glimpse of the Aurora. It’s actually not just one of the most northern settlements in the U.S, but in the world. After Tiksi, Russia, it is the second most populated, most northern permanent settlement. Home to less than 5,000 people, it has been featured on T.V. and in films and documentaries. It’s steeped in native culture as over 60% of the population is Inupiat Eskimo. We can’t imagine a more local experience.
The southernmost location on our list, Denali is home to the third tallest, isolated mountain on the planet. The surrounding National Park offers a myriad of activities for experienced outdoorsmen. The Park is ideal for viewing the Northern Lights as there is virtually no light pollution; the National Park only has campgrounds as lodging. If that’s too wild for you, there are some privately-owned lodges in the area offering much more permanent accommodation. Either way, the views will be spectacular.
8. Big Lake
60 miles north of Anchorage is the town of Big Lake, situated on its namesake. The town has stunning views across the lake of the surrounding mountains. In the summer there’s loads of lakeside activities, but staying in the winter for a chance to see the Northern Lights is also popular. It’s a big sled dog town, offering chances at mushing your own team by day. At night you can try to catch the Aurora’s reflection in the lake.
9. Murphy Dome
Murphy Dome is so named because it used to be home to an Air Force Station. Now, it’s a mecca for hikers and ATV riders. It’s a short but rough drive from Fairbanks so, if you want to drive up there at night to see the Northern Lights, we’d strongly advise caution – there are potholes and tricky bends along the route. Just make sure your eyes are on the road when driving and on the Aurora when parked.
10. Robe Lake in Valdez
Robe Lake is a bit of a drive if you’re coming from Fairbanks. On the other side of the Chugach Mountains, it sits just inland of Port Valdez. There isn’t much built up around the lake, meaning that you’d most likely stay in Valdez, but it is an ideal location to drive to for clear, night-time skies perfect for viewing the Aurora. Don’t be put off by the experience – the car park is set right on the banks of the lake, so you can just sit on the hood of your car to take in the night sky rather than wandering about in the dark.
These are generally agreed upon to be the best locations to get the best view. This doesn’t mean that you should eliminate a vacation in south-central Alaska, though. Locations around Anchorage still have a pretty decent shot at catching an eye full of wonder. Odds are more likely in the north, though.
Tips on seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska
1. If you’re set on having an unforgettable experience, remaining in a town or densely populated area can severely impact your view of the Northern Lights.
It’s best to get to the very outskirts of civilization, if not forgo it completely, to get the full experience. The local, earth-bound lights will compete with the Lights up above and end up blocking out the rich palette of colors in the night sky.
2. The Northern Lights aren’t technically seasonal. They can be seen almost year-round, or about nine months of the year from fall through spring.
The winter’s very short daylight allows for greater stretches of darkness upon which the Northern Lights can display themselves. Conversely, in the summertime when it’s possible to have 24h daylight, any attempts to view the Aurora would be futile.
According to the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), the equinox produces a better Aurora than the solstice, so February to April are the best months in their opinion. Since they’re the guys doing the research, we’d suggest following their recommendation.
3. The Northern Lights is most visible at night, of course!
Soon as the sun is down and twilight’s turned inky black, there’s a chance to see it. However, the darkest of night will allow for the most vibrant of displays, so between 9pm and 3am is the time to be looking skyward.
4. There’s no guarantee that the Northern Lights will happen every night of the week. There are, however, ways of predicting it.
UAF has a website dedicated to the forecast of the Aurora. There are still many elements about this phenomenon that scientists are working on explaining, but in the mean time they’ve got a pretty solid grasp on predicting the Lights.
If you have any concerns about hitting it right, there are many hotels that offer a night-time wake-up call, buzzing your room to let you know the sky’s begun its show.
5. Most cruises that go to Alaska – especially travelling above the Arctic Circle – provide guests with a chance to catch the Aurora.
Just like being on land, the view you’d get of the Northern Lights depends on your location: if you’ve got an unobstructed view, if they skies are clear, and if there isn’t much light pollution nearby. Some cruises recommend taking advantage of the phenomenon at certain ports of call. Princess Cruise Lines pulls into Fairbanks, which as you now know is a great place to catch them.
Once in 1958, the Northern Lights were seen as far south as Mexico City! Such a unique event has not been recorded since, and we wouldn’t put our money on it happening too often – we’d rather spend it on a breath-taking getaway to northern Alaska where you can mix winter sport, pampering spa breaks, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience under the Aurora Borealis. There are so many options to choose from that homebodies and adventures alike can book their ideal accommodation and get to see this natural marvel.
Mariska is a recovering attorney who gave up her professional job to discover new perspectives of life while traveling in a 2009 Ford Transit.
She has been living the van life for 3 years and has not looked back since.