The northern lights are a must-see for any serious stargazer or outdoor enthusiast, and North Dakota, sitting just beneath the Canadian border, is one of the best places in the continental U.S. to catch a glimpse!
That’s right. One need not go all the way to Canada or the northernmost regions of Scandinavia to catch one of these famously colorful sky shows.
Even travelers who know that North Dakota as a prime northern lights viewing place tend to assume they can only be viewed from certain areas of the state. In reality, they can be seen across the entire state if conditions are right and light pollution is low.
Technically, the northern lights can be viewed year-round, but for your best chance, try planning your trip during fall or winter.
These months have the kind of long and dark nights that make for good viewing sessions, but remember to be prepared for the cold and snowy terrain that may come along with travel during these times of the year!
North Dakota weather can be unpredictable, so whether you’re on the road, camping, or venturing in another way, be sure to plan ahead.
Don’t forget—the northern lights can be sporadic.
If you’re lucky enough to spot them, they may last a few minutes or run well into the following day.
It’s best to go with the flow, and enjoy any chance you get to see them in person!
The Best Places To See The Northern Lights in North Dakota
1. Crow Flies High Butte
Easily accessible by car, Crow Flies High Butte gives visitors an expansive overlook of Lake Sakakawea, and the elevation of the site may be a good option for increasing one’s chances of catching the lights.
While this isn’t a place you’ll be able to camp, the butte is a short drive from the city of New Town, which sits on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and has several hotel and lodging options.
Crow Flies High was named after a Native American chief who once lived in the area, so to get the full experience, be sure to look into some of the local histories of the area when visiting!
2. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
(photo by Sharon Mollerus)
Located in Western North Dakota near the unincorporated town of Medora, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is possibly one of the country’s most underrated national parks.
With three main campgrounds, this is yet another great place in North Dakota to see the northern lights while taking in the scenic badland formations surrounding the area.
One of the campsites is even friendly to visitors sightseeing on horseback!
If your goal is to set up shop for the evening and spend the night stargazing beneath the Dakota skies, this may well be your all-around best option!
3. Mystical Horizons
If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind stop on your trip through North Dakota, consider Mystical Horizons.
Engineer Jack Olson was the mastermind behind Mystical Horizons, and his dream was for this site to become a type of “21st century Stonehenge.”
The stone structures at the location make it so travelers can view both the winter and summer solstices, and views of open farmlands nearby add to its expansive feel.
Located not far from the remote town of Bottineau, North Dakota just south of the Canadian border, this Mystical Horizons experiences little traffic outside of the solstices, so if you’re the crowd-avoidant type and looking to view the northern lights, look no further!
4. Turtle Mountain
(photo by Ken Lund)
One of the best ways to see North Dakota’s Turtle Mountains is by way of the Turtle Mountain Scenic Byway.
This 53-mile venture starts at Mystical Horizons and runs to Rolla with options of stopping at places like the International Peace Garden and the historic Coghlan Castle.
This drive as well as the Turtle Mountain State Forest located on the western end of the byway make for a great choose-your-own-adventure way of seeing the northern lights.
RVers and those addicted to van life will be sure to appreciate this option.
5. Beaver Lake State Park
Surrounded by Prairie, Beaver Lake State Park allows overnight visitors to either camp or rent a cabin on-site.
For the mildly adventurous, a cabin rental can allow one to search for the Northern Lights from the comfort of their porch.
With views of the lake itself complementing the awe inspiring beauty of the northern lights.
6. Lake Sakakawea
(photo by David Becker)
Lake Sakakawea is a man-made reservoir that formed after the Garrison dam was built in 1947 flooding the town of Sanish.
Today, you’d be surprised to learn of its complicated history, as it draws large numbers of tourists.
With more shoreline than the state of California, there’s plenty to explore here and several spots to view the northern lights.
If you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse, the views of the northern lights over the lake can be spectacular.
7. Fort Ransom State Park
For anyone who’s ever dreamed of homesteading and breaking away from many of the pressures of modern life, Fort Ransom State Park may be the perfect play to spend a weekend.
Located in the Sheyenne River Valley, this park is something of a memorial to North Dakota’s homesteading culture complete with a farmstead for you to explore.
Lodging options include a stay in an on-site yurt. See the northern lights and experience what life was like before light pollution was much of a problem at all!
8. Lake Metigoshe
Lake Metigoshe State Park is a perfect place to visit any time of year.
It has many trails that allow for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, biking, and even snowmobiling.
With the option to rent your snowshoes or cross-country skis within the park, you won’t even have to pack your own before arriving at the site.
The park also maintains campsites, lodges, and dorms to rent while you’re away, so to see the northern lights here, all you’ll need is your camera, sleeping bag, and a good set of binoculars!
9. Cross Ranch State Park
Cross Ranch State Park provides a rare chance for visitors to see what the North Dakota landscape looked like long ago, as it showcases one of the last stretches of the Missouri River that hasn’t been touched by development.
Sites like these can be hard to come by no matter what state you find yourself in.
The park is also considered an archaeological district through its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning travelers who spend time in the area can imagine themselves in a locale that stands apart from the rest of the region.
Taking in the northern lights in this park will give tourists a
Tips On Seeing The Northern Lights In North Dakota
With all of these great sites to choose from, keep in mind that the more you can avoid light pollution, the better your chances of having that sought-after encounter with aurora borealis.
Light pollution, the excess of artificial light typically most concentrated in urban spaces, can make it hard to see the lights, so increase your chances of seeing them by taking a short venture outside of town.
This isn’t so hard in North Dakota because the towns tend to be small, making it easy to get away from the light.
If you’re the type who likes to closely track your outings, try taking a look at the Space Weather Prediction Center website before you head out.
This NOAA site is a trustworthy way of finding out if the space weather—influenced by things like solar flares—will increase your chances of viewing.
You can also look to sites like spaceweatherlive.com for even more aurora tracking updates.
Once you’ve made it to your viewing destination and all of your research has been done, try waiting until after the sun has set.
If the skies are dark and conditions clear, then your chances of seeing the lights will be all the better.
Just don’t forget your camera and tripod so you can prove that you were able to track down one of these infamous light shows.
North Dakota might be one of the best-kept secrets among northern lights stargazers.
With so many sites to explore and choose from, all of which provide a unique experience of their own, this state often flies under the radar of many travelers.
This is sure to change once travelers realize the untapped potential of both aurora tracking and outdoor exploration that this state harbors.
Hurry up and plan your trip! Once the word is out, you may have more competition when it comes to staking out the perfect place. Happy hunting!