Can You See the Northern Lights in California?


northern lights california

The Aurora Borealis is one of the world’s most stunning natural wonders. It occurs from March to September along the vernal equinox. While you can see it in many areas around the world, not all locations display it well – including California. This post will explore more about whether the Northern Lights are noticeable at all in the Golden State. 

Can You See the Northern Lights in California? 

While there have been instances of the Northern Lights being visible in California, it is a incredibly rare occurrence and dependent on unusual solar activities.

In most cases, the Northern Lights aren’t visible in this state because of its geographic location, which sits outside the auroral oval.

The Auroral oval encompasses latitudes between 60 and 75 degrees, although they can appear at lower latitudes.

northern lights auroral oval

Have the Northern Lights Ever Been Visible in California?

In 2001 and 2012, a large portion of the Bay Area witnessed a dazzling Northern Light show.

This rare occurrence was due to an unusual explosion of gas from the sun.

The eruption allowed the gas to travel further than normal allowing residents to get a once-in-a-lifetime sight.

It’s believed that this solar storm occurs every 11 years so there’s always a potential that it could happen again. 

What Kind of Conditions Make it Possible to See the Northern Lights in California?

Quite a few things need to happen for the Northern Lights to occur in California. One is the weather. The atmosphere needs to be very clear and dark for any colors to peek through. Also, while there are countless remote areas in California, major cities might have difficulty seeing it because of air pollution. 

Another key aspect is the local geomagnetic activity. This relates to the current condition of the surrounding magnetic fields. The stronger they are, the more likely they will form the Aurora Borealis because they transmit a lot of gas toward the magnetic fields. This then explodes and generates its beautiful colors. 

Because of this, you’ll need to visit a sparsely populated and highly elevated spot in the state. One area that fits these needs is Mono County which rests along the edge of Yosemite National Park. 

How Far North of California Do You Have to Go to See the Northern Lights?

You’ll have to travel a state or two up to get a good view of the Northern Lights. Here are some of the top destinations near California for watching them.

Fairbanks, Alaska

While a few hours from California, Fairbanks is one of the best spots for the Northern Lights, particularly from August to April. Its cool temperatures and open skies make it a prime site for sky-watching. 

(Related: 6 Best Places To See The Northern Lights In Wisconsin, The 7 Best Places To See The Northern Lights In Montana)

Crater Lake National Park

Situated a short drive away in Oregon, this national park is considered to be one of the finest places in the Pacific Northwest to see the Northern Lights.

Its secluded position makes it free from skylines and air pollution giving you a terrific view and encouraging the celestial wonder to be as vivid as possible. 

Priest Lake

You could also take a journey to Idaho’s Priest Lake to see them. The sky’s green, purple, and blue hues create a jaw-dropping contrast against this body of water. There are many campgrounds and resorts nearby so you can easily access it. 

Big Sky

Located near the Rocky Mountains in southern Montana, Big Sky offers vast open fields that are ideal for hunting the Northern Lights. The best time to spot it here is from late fall to early spring around midnight. 

California might not be the greatest spot for viewing the Northern Lights year-round, but it does host this beautiful sky display in rare occurrences. And when it does, it certainly doesn’t disappoint. 

Mariska Lee

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.

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