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Alaska Northern Lights: How To See Them (The Ultimate Guide)

Wanderlust and an ever-growing bucket list? We’ve all seen the stunning photos and movies of dancing green lights in the sky, and wow are they amazing. Most of us want to experience the Northern Lights someday for one reason or another! And if you happen to be in the vicinity of the Alaska Northern Lights, then this is definitely a sight you shouldn’t miss.

Seeing the magical Northern Lights is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. These kaleidoscopic ribbons of brilliant light illuminate the night sky during the year’s coldest months.

Many Americans mistakenly believe they must fly to Norway or Iceland to see the solar-powered event when encountering the Northern Lights, but this is not true. You can see it right here in the United States. In inland Alaska, the multicolored lights are visible on 80% of clear evenings during optimal viewing season!

In this article, you’ll find all of the information and travel advice you need to maximize your chances of seeing the Alaska Northern Lights any time of year.

First Off: What Causes Northern Lights?

It’s helpful to know what actually creates the Alaska Northern Lights in order to figure out how you can easily see them.

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The lights seen in the night sky are caused by activity on the sun’s surface.

Solar storms on our star’s surface spew forth massive clouds of electrically charged particles. Some of these particles may crash with the earth if they travel for millions of miles.

However, some become caught in the earth’s magnetic field and speed up their descent to the poles, where they burn up in the atmosphere. This explains why the magnetic equator has the greatest concentration of auroral activity.

The atoms and molecules in the earth’s atmosphere are heated when these particles collide. Excitation is the scientific term to describe this process, although it’s more like heating a gas and making it light.

So when we’re looking at the Northern (or Southern) lights, we are witnessing atoms and molecules in our atmosphere interacting with particles from the sun. The lines of force in the earth’s magnetic field generate the aurora’s distinctive wavy patterns and light “curtains.”

Typically, the aurora’s lowest point (closest to the earth) is roughly 80 miles above the earth’s surface. The top of a display, or the lights that are furthest away from the earth, can reach several thousand miles above the planet.

What Produces The Aurora’s Many Colors?

When heated, many gases emit a variety of colors. It’s nitrogen and oxygen, the two most abundant elements in the earth’s atmosphere, that create the aurora’s colorful light show.

The green in the aurora is typical of oxygen, whereas tints of purple, blue or pink are created by nitrogen.

Oxygen at extreme altitudes interacts with sun particles to produce a beautiful ruby red color that we sometimes glimpse. This only happens when the aurora is exceptionally intense.

When Do The Northern Lights Appear In Alaska?

So now let’s get down to it: how to see the Northern Lights in Alaska!

Observing the Northern or Southern Lights with your bare eyes will be tough if you don’t have a clear night. You’ll definitely want to leave a few nights available based on the weather since a cover of clouds will hurt visibility.  must be at a clear night sky. Additionally, rural locations are superior to cities since they don’t suffer from light pollution.

Because the sun is now at solar minimum, we are less likely to see full-blown auroral events than when the sun is at a solar maximum. There will, however, be nightly displays of the northern lights until maximum solar returns in 2024.

The typical aurora season runs from August 21 to April 21 each year.

However, because of the earth’s tilt relative to the sun, displays of the northern lights tend to increase around the equinox months of September, October, and March, when the earth’s magnetic field is in sync with the solar wind.

March is considered the best time to observe the northern lights since clear skies are more common in Alaska during spring. Note that the best time to see the full-blown dancing lights can vary depending on your location.

If you can locate a dark and clear sky, stay on the lookout from sundown onwards, and you could get to witness an aurora. According to the Geophysical Institute, the ideal time to observe the aurora is at approximately midnight, give or take an hour. But they can occur at any time.

And don’t worry if you’re not specifically in Alaska during March. You can still have a chance to see the Northern Lights, especially if you head to a good location.

Where To See Northern Lights?

While the Fairbanks Alaska Northern Lights seem to be the most common, there are actually a few different places in Alaska to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis.

In Alaska, you can see the northern lights almost anywhere. However, they are more visible farther north.

This list is updated for the 2022/2023 season — we’ve compiled a list of the best sites based on frequency, quality, and accessibility to guarantee you have a good chance of seeing the celestial ballet.

1. Fairbanks, Alaska

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Fairbanks is one of the most incredible spots to observe the northern lights since it’s positioned just beneath the Auroral Oval. This ring-shaped zone extends above the earth’s geomagnetic north pole, the epicenter of aurora activity.

However, Fairbanks Alaska is also a great option to see the Northern Lights because there are so many different hotels and tours that cater specifically to viewings. It’s definitely the best place for a novice to head!

During the aurora season (August 21 to April 21), visitors can expect to view the lights on around four out of every five clear evenings. Taking a trip on the Riverboat Discovery or gold panning are two more options for tourists in the late summer.

For a joyful Christmas experience (if it happens you come in December), visit the Santa Claus House in the North Pole (about 13 miles southeast of Fairbanks). Visitors can take in the unique ice sculptures at the World Ice Art Championships in February and March and a dog sledding excursion.

Reserve lodgings at the luxury Aurora Villa for good odds of aurora viewing. This is a great place to spend a week if you want the maximum chance possible to catch a glimpse of the Fairbanks Alaska Northern Lights!

Keep in mind: Fairbanks isn’t technically the best place to see the Northern Lights in Alaska, but it’s a good option. Fairbanks seems to be much more accessible than other spots in Alaska which is why it’s so popular with tourists who want glimpse of the Aurora Borealis.

2. Far North, Alaska

alaska northern lights

Despite its remoteness, the Alaskan Arctic is worth a trip to experience the seascapes, tundras, and mountains of the Brooks Range.

Nome is the closest city to the area where you can see the Alaskan Northern Lights. With a rich history dating back to the days of the Gold Rush and amazing scenery, Nome is a coastal town located along the Bering Sea.

You can also travel to Utqiagvik, the northernmost town in the United States. Visit Utqiagvik to learn about the traditional culture of the indigenous I*upiaq, who make up the majority of the town and operate the I*upiaq Heritage Center.

Take the 414-mile Dalton Highway from Fairbanks, or fly into Fairbanks and connect on to Nome or Utqiagvik.

3. Anchorage, Alaska

Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska and is a great place to see the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights can be seen right here in town!
If you prefer to escape Anchorage, Alyeska Resort is 45 minutes outside the city and a great place to keep an eye out for auroras while exploring the wilderness.

4. Coldfoot, Alaska

alaska northern lights

Coldfoot is an isolated town located on the Dalton Highway at the Brooks Range foothills. It’s one of the best places in Alaska to see the Northern Lights.

The town has a population of ten people and is only accessible by car, bus, or foot. There are no hotels in Coldfoot, but there are campsites available.

Coldfoot is also home to the Arctic Chalet, a restaurant and lodging facility that offers aurora viewings during its operating season (mid-September to mid-May).

5. Girdwood, Alaska

Girdwood is a town located about 40 minutes south of Anchorage. It’s in a valley at the base of the Chugach Mountains and is known for its moderate temperatures and alpine scenery.

The Alyeska Resort is located in Girdwood and is a great place to see the Northern Lights. The resort offers Northern Lights viewing tours and has been designated as an “Aurora Friendly” resort by the International Dark-Sky Association.

6. Chena Hot Springs, Alaska

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Chena Hot Springs Resort is a great place to see the northern lights, especially because of their efforts to be “aurora friendly.” This means they take measures to reduce light pollution in the area so the Northern Lights are more visible.

The resort also offers an aurora viewing package which includes a night of lodging, a tour to see the northern lights, and breakfast the next morning.

A Railway Adventure in Alaska

If you’d rather travel while viewing the Northern Lights in Alaska then consider the Railway Adventure. It’s a ton of fun!

Vacations by Rail’s six-day excursion explores the rough and expansive grandeur of The Last Frontier aboard the Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train. From your seat or the Vista Dome Car on the train traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks, you can enjoy stunning views of the surrounding landscape.

This vacation package offers overnight stays in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the isolated Bettles Lodge. The Bettles Lodge, located 35 miles above the Arctic Circle, provides visitors with some of the most incredible views of the aurora borealis anywhere.

During the daytime hours, try out other Alaskan activities such as exploring the area by snowmobile or gear up and go ice fishing. You can even try your hand at dog mushing with your team of Alaskan huskies. This adventure is offered between October and April.

Two nights at Bettles Lodge, five meals, Arctic apparel, and equipment, plus additional activities like cross-country skiing and guided snowshoe expeditions are all included in the price.

Tips For Chasing Northern Lights

After narrowing the list of prospective sites and determining the optimal time to visit, it’s time to learn about the best methods to watch the Northern Lights, including how to maximize your chances of viewing them.

The Alaska Northern Lights are pretty unpredictable. You can barely foresee when and where they will occur. Here are some tips to help make sure you get a solid viewing!

1. Regular Weather Checks

You can count on two things to see the northern lights: the weather and your luck. The weather can be your savior or worst enemy. There are two significant players here:

-Solar Activity

You can only witness the Northern lights when there is solar activity in your location, which means that the solar particles impact the atmosphere and produce light effects. Scientists use real-time data on solar winds to develop an Ovation Map for this purpose, and they update it regularly (thanks to advancements in technology).

With this map, you can monitor places from where the aurora can be visible during a period. The model’s Kp measure also informs us how powerful the anticipated aurora will be. If the sky is clear and Kp> 2 is present, you have a good chance of seeing auroras.

The Kp index, used by scientists to gauge the overall chance of visibility, ranges from 0 to 9. The bigger the number, the better the probabilities (anything over a four is considered “high activity”).

-Cloud Coverage

There must be clear, non-cloudy skies to view the lights with the naked eye since they are located well above the cloud cover. Even if the sun is shining brightly, clouds will obscure your vision. therefore you will also need some Cloud-God benediction

There’s no need to be put off by the difficulty of becoming an astronomer or a weather specialist; there are apps for both.

2. Use Aurora Forecast

Aurora hunters rely on SolarHam’s three-day geomagnetic forecast. You can use the Aurora Forecast app to determine whether or not they will see the Northern Lights based on their location relative to the Arctic Circle (red means the Northern Lights are almost certainly happening directly above you).

The interface of the app is straightforward. You can specify your location, and it gives you the cloud covering and sun activity in a specified region. It indicates the Kp value, cloud coverage, and viewing likelihood. It works super well!

The Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also an excellent source for short-term forecasts of Northern Lights activity. There is even a 27-day aurora borealis prediction at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks.

3. Book A One Week Stay

Try to remain in these destinations for a week to optimize your chances and eliminate bad-weather days. Typically a week is excellent, with at least three days devoted to viewing the lights directly.

4. Examine Hashtags and Photo Sources

We spent some time looking at the best Aurora photographs posted on Facebook by travel firms that provided Northern Lights viewing trips and tracked the location of their pictures.

Tracking photos submitted by top photographers on 500pix.com will help you locate potential places. The Instagram hashtags #aurora or #northernlights can also be checked, but notice that they often feature the prominent city name.

It’s best to look a week or two before you’re trying to spot the Alaska Northern Lights since the variables change super often. In my opinion, this is one of the quickest ways to stay informed in real-time!

5. Find A Good Tour Operator

The most significant suggestion for someone who wants to go on a road trip by yourself is to pay for the agencies if you can afford it.

These agencies have so many distinct aurora viewing camps in various places surrounding a city, and they have their agents continually scanning the sky. This network makes it simple for them to communicate if the Northern Lights are observed in one area, and they will swiftly drive you to the proper spots.

Alaska Northern Lights Excursions:

Think of it as a mission. It is one of nature’s most spectacular events that you are attempting to watch. To find the aurora, one must be persistent and relentless. It’s a great experience! It’ll be worth it in the long run.

You’ll have to stay up late. The hours of 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. are the most popular for tours. Tour operators often provide oversized parkas, bunny boots, warm drinks, and little food. You can request a wake-up call in a lodge if you can’t keep your eyes open. You’ll get a good night’s sleep the following day, as the sun doesn’t rise until 10 or 11 a.m. in the winter. Dog sledding or snowmobiling could be a pleasant afternoon winter sport for you. Return to your lodge or hotel for an early nighttime snooze, and then get ready for more!

The following are some of the best excursions in Alaska to view the aurora borealis:

Lodges and Overnight Tours

Far beyond the Arctic Circle, Northern Alaska Tour Company provides 3-day/2-night (and longer) excursions from Fairbanks to Coldfoot Camp. It is a great place to get a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis.

Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Resort, a fly-in luxury wilderness lodge within Gates of the Arctic National Park, provides one of Alaska’s most unique opportunities to watch the northern lights.

One hour from Fairbanks is Borealis Basecamp, where you can reserve an overnight stay in a transparent igloo.

Once you reach Fairbanks, you’ll continue north, stop at Talkeetna along the route, and watch for the aurora borealis. From Anchorage, Salmon Berry Tours provides six-day/five-night trips. Wild Journeys Alaska offers unique, private multi-day trips lasting three or more nights from Anchorage.

Enjoy three nights of aurora watching as well as entertaining daytime activities. Each day has an aurora prediction, so you can choose which three nights you want to follow the lights.

Tour in the Evening

From Fairbanks: A northern lights viewing area called Aurora Pointe is about 15 minutes from downtown Fairbanks. While waiting for the lights to come on, you can relax in a lovely, warm room with complimentary coffee, tea, and locally-sourced snacks.

With Alaska Wildlife Guide, you can depart from Fairbanks and enjoy a dip in Chena Hot Springs while searching for the aurora borealis.

With Northern Alaska Tour Company, you can witness the Aurora Borealis in the furthest reaches of the Arctic Circle. Make your choice between driving and flying.

Get out on the ice with Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service for a memorable night of fishing. You can cast your line from a cottage overlooking the lake while sipping on a cup of coffee or tea. If the aurora happens to occur, the wide-open perspective is ideal.

From Anchorage: On Alaska Photo Treks’ Anchorage Aurora Quest, you’ll photograph snow-capped mountains, frozen landscapes, animals on snowy pathways, city lights reflecting on water at dusk, and maybe the Northern Lights!

Leaving Anchorage (or Wasilla/Palmer) between 9 and 11 p.m., you’ll spend the following seven hours searching for the aurora borealis.

Final Thoughts

Northern light viewing is undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime event for those not fortunate enough to reside close to its regions. We hope that this guide will be helpful to you.

We have no control over the weather factors, so you can only pray that the weather cooperates on the day of your visit. Given this, you still can increase your chances if you remain in these regions for a more extended amount of time to discover some lovely weather days.

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