To watch the aurora borealis feels downright otherworldly. Shimmering and swirling, somewhere between smoke and paint, this glowing colorful phenomenon, though natural, creates a surreal experience for any viewer.
Your chances of viewing the Northern Lights greatly increase the more north you travel—think: Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia. However, during a year when the aurora is particularly strong, you’ve actually got a shot at seeing this magical occurrence in the northernmost states of the lower 48. And though there are no guarantees, fall is the perfect time to try, with its dark skies and warm weather. Some scientists assert that the aurora ring is most active during the equinoxes (September 20 and March 20, approximately).
Because this phenomenon can be very hard to predict, use forecasting tools, like NOAA’s tips to viewing the aurora, to deduce what your highest likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights may be.
Here are some of the best places to see the Northern Lights (some more easily than others):
Six million acres of wild land, bisected only by one ribbon of road, Denali offers solitude, tranquility and wilderness in low-elevation taiga forest, high alpine tundra and snowy mountains. You’ll most likely want to head to Alaska in the fall, before the Alaskan winter darkness envelops the area; by mid-winter, Denali sees little more than five hours of sunlight. View Denali's Lights in Motion time lapse video for a glimpse of these dancing lights.
Chena River Lakes
Explore over 2,100 acres and view the brilliance this night sky has to offer—including the aurora borealis from autumn to spring and the midnight sun in summer.
Anchorage Recreation Sites
This recreation program manages the Iditarod National Historic Trail, the Unalakleet National Wild River and the Campbell Tract in Anchorage. With so much to do in the Anchorage area, witnessing the Northern Lights is just part of your experience here.
Just 20 miles from the Canadian border, a visit to this wildlife refuge will up your chances at seeing the aurora borealis and nesting bald eagles.
Located near the border of the U.S. and New Brunswick, Canada, Aroostook is one of the most northeasterly spots in the United States. Even though the refuge closes at sunset, the entire area is known for clear night skies unspoiled by light pollution. September is one of the best times to see the refuges' wildlife. Though the aurora borealis isn’t a common occurrence, the radiating nighttime event does sometimes grace the skies here at the right time of year.
Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness
Managed by the White Mountain National Forest, this Wilderness contains 12,000 acres, encompassing both Caribou Mountain and Speckled Mountain. Rugged terrain, deep notches, open ledges, ridges, pine forests and mountain streams provide a most enchanting place in which to wonder at the night sky.
Northwest Minnesota is just north enough to occasionally play host to this show. With plenty of opportunities for solitude and contemplation in Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, a peaceful jaunt here will be sure to fill your best memory banks, whether you’re able to witness the aurora or not.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest
There may be only one place where you can star gaze while floating in a canoe within a million-acre wilderness. Those special places are the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. You are in for an extra special treat if you happen to be there when the aurora borealis lights up the night sky. Once you’ve seen the northern lights, you understand why indigenous peoples attributed the phenomenon to the work of powerful spirits of the sky.