9 Places to See the Northern Lights
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 on viewing the aurora, to deduce the highest likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights.
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 National Park 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. Winners of the Denali Road Lottery may find their permit to drive the park road coincides with an aurora display. View Denali's Lights in Motion time lapse video for a glimpse of these dancing lights.
Chena River Lakes
Explore Chena River Lakes' 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
The BLM's Anchorage Recreation Sites include 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.
National Forests (Craig Goodwin)
Priest Lake is about 30 miles south of the Canadian border (as the crow flies) and when conditions are right, its clear waters reflect the aurora's ribbons of light. Two group campsites—Bartoo Island and Kalispell Island are accessible only by boat, but open year-round for those who don't mind bundling up. The lake also offers dramatic scenery and plenty of outdoor recreation adventures in any season and the possibility of spotting moose and other wildlife.
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.
Isle Royale National Park is one of the few national parks to close during the winter (November 1 through April 15). Your best bet to see the aurora from this remote and rugged island in the northwest corner of Lake Superior is from late spring into late September (when regular ferry service ends). Even if you're in the area when the park is closed for the season, you can drop by the park's Houghton visitor center (open year-round) to ask about Northern Lights hotspots in the area.
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 stay in the area to witness the aurora or not (the refuge is open during daylight hours).
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest
There are few places where you can star gaze while floating in a canoe within a million-acre wilderness. One of those special places is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness within 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.