Your chances of viewing the aurora borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights, greatly increase the more 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 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).
Shimmering and swirling, somewhere between smoke and paint, this glowing colorful phenomenon creates a surreal experience.
Denali National Park and Preserve (David Bassett, Share the Experience)
Six million acres (2,428,113 ha) of wild land, bisected only by one ribbon of road, Denali National Park and Preserve 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.
White Mountains National Recreation Area (Bob Wick, BLM)
Located just an hour’s drive from Fairbanks, Alaska, the one-million-acre (404,000 ha) White Mountains National Recreation Area offers stunning scenery, opportunities for solitude and endless outdoor pursuits!
Explore the area's 240 miles (386 km) of maintained winter trails surrounded by jagged limestone mountains and cliffs, high mountain passes, and broad, rounded valleys. Whether you choose to explore by ski or snowshoe, snowmobile, dog team, or even fat bike, you’ll find crisp, clean air, dazzling views, and if you’re lucky, shimmering northern lights against a star-studded sky.
One of the highlights of a tour through the White Mountains is reserving an overnight stay at one of the public recreation cabins — the perfect place to warm up after a day on the trail.
Priest Lake, Idaho Panhandle National Forests (Craig Goodwin)
Priest Lake is about 30 miles (48 km) south of the border with Canada (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 (both accommodate from 10 to 30 people) 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.
White Mountains National Forest (Jonathan Baskin, Share the Experience)
Managed by the White Mountain National Forest, this wilderness contains 12,000 acres (4,856 ha), 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 and catch a glimpse of the northern lights.
Isle Royale National Park (Carl Terhaar, Share the Experience)
Isle Royale National Park is one of the few national parks to close during the winter (November 1 through April 16). 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.
Superior National Forest (Christopher Glenn, Share the Experience)
There are few places where you can stargaze while floating in a canoe within a million-acre (404,685 ha) 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 will understand why indigenous peoples attributed the phenomenon to the work of powerful spirits of the sky.
Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge (Bryan Worth)
Although Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge is located just north of the Twin Cities, the refuge has very little light pollution allowing the northern lights to be visible during certain times of the year. Plan a visit to this special location and you're likely to witness much more than the aurora borealis—these dynamic upland habitats range from grasslands to oak savanna supporting diverse wildlife from sandhill cranes to Blanding's turtle.
Voyageurs National Park (Sam Brueggeman, Share the Experience)
Located on the Canadian border, Voyageurs National Park offers visitors some of the best conditions to view the night skies. Surrounded by miles of lakes and wilderness, the skies above Voyageurs are free of the excessive, misdirected, and obtrusive artificial light produced by the large urban cities across America.