Shimmering and swirling, somewhere between smoke and paint, this glowing colorful phenomenon creates a surreal experience. Your chances of viewing the aurora borealis, otherwise known as the northern lights, are greater the farther north you travel – think Alaska, Canada, and 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 although 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).
The Space Weather Prediction Center at NOAA offers helpful hints for an optimal aurora viewing experience. Head for the darkest spot you can find between 10pm and 2am local time for the best chance of success. You can also check the 30-minute forecast for more detailed planning information.
Spend a night like no other under a blanket of stars and the iridescent dance of colorful auroras
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Daniel Seurer, Share the Experience)
The Apostle Islands of Lake Superior offer 720 square miles (1865 square kilometers) for recreation, adventure, solitude, reflection, and beauty. There are 21 islands in the National Lakeshore archipelago, sea caves, lighthouses, 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) of mainland accessible by car, and wilderness to discover.
Several times a year, the green and yellow hues of the northern lights reflect off the glassy surface of Lake Superior. Combined with the sounds of nature, like waves crashing, ice sheets shifting, wind blowing, and wildlife calling, viewing the auroras from these islands is like stepping back and seeing the world come alive for the first time.
Badlands National Park (Erik Fremstad, Share the Experience)
Removed from bustling cities and bright lights, Badlands National Park is a great place to view the night sky. On occasion, the familiar collection of stars, planets, and nebulae are accompanied by the glow of the northern lights.
Even if the northern lights are too shy to show off, the sky above Badlands is filled with astronomical wonders. Catch a Night Sky Viewings program, offered every night during the spring, summer, and fall, to learn more about the planets, constellations, meteors, and satellites visible from the park. Camp out at Cedar Pass Campground or in the backcountry while you wait for aurora borealis to take the stage.
Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (Andrew Porter, Share the Experience)
Take the road less traveled and find yourself immersed in the breathtaking beauty of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. This forest offers stunning views of the Cascades and unparalleled recreation opportunities year-round.
If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of the auroras during the spring, Heybrook Lookout Trail is one of the first trails to be snow-free in this area, making it an ideal early-season hike. From May to October, you can even stay in this historic fire lookout with sweeping views of glacial peaks surrounding the valley. Book early -- reservations are available six months in advance and lookouts like Heybrook are popular recreation sites. Always check weather, road, and trail conditions before arriving, especially if you decide to chase the northern lights in the winter season.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Mike Mercer, Share the Experience)
No need to head to Canada, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is sure to amaze you with its gorgeous and vibrant multicolor auroras. The park is one of the last remaining dark sky destinations in the country, which makes aurora viewing even more magical.
Spring and fall are the best times to spot the northern lights, but opportunities arise during the winter as well. Winter, spring, or fall, there are endless activities to pass the time waiting for night to fall, from hiking or snowshoeing, swimming (polar plunge, anyone?) or paddling, to dune climbing or sledding. In the fall, guided astronomy programs are offered to expand your horizons and enjoy all of the wonders the sky above Sleeping Bear Dunes has to share with you.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (Liz Wang, Share the Experience)
Experience level: Expert. If you want to see the northern lights as people have seen them for thousands of years, then this hardcore expedition is worth the trek. Located in northern Alaska, this park has no roads, trails, or established services – visitors may wander across 8.4 million acres (3.4 million hectares) of outstanding, unyielding wilderness. Please be aware, visitors to the park must have the knowledge and skills to be truly self-sufficient in the remote location and demanding climate and terrain.
For those visitors who don’t have the time, or the backcountry skills to mount an expedition into the park, there are other options. Local air taxis provide flight-seeing trips, day trips or overnight campouts at remote locations. Air taxis will also take visitors into neighboring Kobuk Valley National Park for an equally impressive experience.