Your Guide to Seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska
While many travelers think they have to head to Europe to see the Northern Lights, you can actually spot this phenomenon without leaving the United States. Northern Alaska is where many Americans head for the chance to see the aurora borealis. It may be cold in winter (temperatures can drop to -30°F), but the inland Alaskan Arctic — where skies tend to be clearer — is one of the best places in the world to see this famous light show.
When Is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights?
Historically when’s the best time to see the Northern Lights in Alaska?
The Northern Lights occur because of solar activity — and because the sun is presently near what is called solar minimum, some aurora hunters have decided to postpone their trip. This is misguided, however. Although there is a smaller chance now of experiencing a full-on auroral storm than during solar maximum, there will be nightly displays of Northern Lights right through until solar maximum returns in 2024. The real trick is finding clear skies.
What’s the forecasted best time to go in 2018?
Displays of the Northern Lights tend to intensify around the equinox months of September and March, because of Earth’s tilt in relation to the sun. Combine that with a higher chance of clear skies in Alaska during spring, and March at an inland location is the best time and place to maximize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights from Alaska.
It's also helpful to avoid the full moon, and a week on either side, to avoid the sky being washed out by moonlight. If you can find dark and clear skies, be on alert from 10 p.m. through 2 a.m., and you might get to see an aurora. According to the Geophysical Institute, the best time to see the aurora is at around midnight, give or take an hour.
Northern Lights Season in Alaska
Alaska's Northern Lights season is between mid-September and late April, peaking in March, though that's to do more with the long, dark nights than solar activity. Forecasting the Northern Lights means predicting solar activity, which is virtually impossible with our current technology.
We do know, however, that the Northern Lights are best seen in Alaska between 65° north and 70° north latitude. Fairbanks sits at 64° N and enjoys sporadic Northern Lights, though it's best to forget the more southerly destinations of Anchorage and Juneau, which see dramatically fewer displays during solar minimum (which lasts until the early 2020s).
For those wanting to maximize their chances now, head for the more remote northern villages of Coldfoot in the Yukon Territory, or Prudhoe Bay and Barrow in the extreme north.
Best Places to See the Northern Lights
The further north you travel in Alaska, the more likely you are to see the Northern Lights.
Northern Lights Near Fairbanks
The old gold rush boomtown of Fairbanks is the undisputed capital of the Northern Lights hunt in Alaska. It's not the very best place for aurora viewing — it's just below the Arctic Circle — but auroras do occur frequently here.
Its popularity for Northern Lights seekers has a lot to do with its accessibility. There are frequent flights and plenty of options for accommodations. A good place to head to in the vicinity is Cleary Summit, about 17 miles from Fairbanks, which is easy to get to, has good parking, and a solid view of the horizon.
Other good observation places nearby, according to the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, include Haystack Mountain, Ester, Wickersham, and Murphy Domes. If you fancy watching the show from an outdoor hot tub, try Chena Lakes Resort or the far more remote Manley Hot Springs, which is about four hours west.
Northern Lights Near Coldfoot
Once a gold-mining settlement, but now little more than a truck stop ay 67° north latitude on the famed Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, Coldfoot is a prime Northern Lights observing location in the Alaskan Arctic. That's largely because it's home to the rustic Coldfoot Camp in the Brooks Mountain Range. Many aurora adventure tours take guests here, and to Wiseman just 11 miles north, for the high chances of a Northern Lights show. Another option nearby is the fly-in luxury Iniakuk Wilderness Lodge.
Northern Lights Near Barrow
This small town on the extreme northern edge of Alaska at 71° north latitude is home to the Top Of The World Hotel, which organizes tours and outdoor adventures connected to the native Iñupiat culture (think: dog-sledding). Alaska Airlines flies to the town's Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport from Anchorage.
Northern Lights Near Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Spanning 13.2 million acres, this national park is the largest protected reserve in the United States. Travelers can bed down at the 8-person Ultima Thule lodge for a wild adventure filled with glacier trekking, rafting, fishing in Lake Tebay and (of course), waiting for the Northern Lights to flicker across the sky.
Resources for Northern Lights Forecast
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a Space Weather Prediction Center, which is a great resource for a short-term forecast of Northern Lights activity. Fairbanks also happens to be the headquarters of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, which issues a nightly forecast on Aurora viewing alongside a 28-day forecast.
SolarHam gives a reliable three-day geomagnetic forecast that's often used by aurora hunters, while the Aurora Forecast app shows travelers the position of the auroral oval around the Arctic Circle — and also indicates the probability of seeing them where you are (green, not so much — red, and the Northern Lights are probably happening right above you).
Alaska Northern Lights Tours
It's likely that you'll get to Coldfoot on an organized tour, and if you fly to Barrow, your accommodation will also act as a local tour guide. If you're going to be in Fairbanks, however, you have excursion choices to make. The Northern Alaska Tour Company runs round-trip van tours 60 miles north of Fairbanks to the town of Joy for an increased chance of seeing the Northern Lights. And 1st Alaska Tours run nightly trips to the Chena Hot Springs 60 miles north and to Murphy Dome, one of the highest peaks in the Fairbanks area, which has a 360-degree view of the horizon.
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