The 21 Best Places to See the Northern Lights in Alaska This Winter
Alaska: The 49th State. The Last Frontier. The Land of the Midnight Sun. The Best Place in the United States to see the Northern Lights. The state where I grew up. To say I love Alaska is definitely an understatement, and the chance to see the northern lights is just one of many reasons.
If you want to see the northern lights (or aurora borealis) in Alaska, you’re not alone. Seeing the northern lights is one of the top reasons people travel to Alaska during the cold winter months, and it’s totally worth it. While Alaska is certainly not close to the rest of the U.S., this works out in its favor: it’s far enough north and sparsely populated so that you can have amazing aurora viewing opportunities, even near major cities.
If you want to see the aurora in Alaska, I’ve got you covered. I’ve seen the northern lights in Alaska many times – including twice on my most recent trip (August 2022). Here’s all my knowledge and wisdom to help you plan an unforgettable trip to see the northern lights in Alaska.
Featured photo credit: Bob Wick for BLM via Flickr
This post was originally published in February 2019, and was updated most recently in September 2022 for the coming winter.
What are the “Northern Lights?”
You know you want to see the northern lights… but maybe you’re not exactly sure what they are. No biggie – the science is actually pretty simple at its core.
In short, particles emitted from the sun – sometimes called solar wind – strike the atmosphere of Earth as they pass through space. When this happens, atoms in our own atmosphere react, getting excited and releasing energy. The energy they release is light, which we see as the northern lights – or more scientifically speaking, the “aurora.”
The northern lights (also called the Aurora Borealis) are the name for the aurora when viewed from the northern hemisphere. The southern lights (the Aurora Australis) are the exact same phenomenon when viewed in the southern hemisphere.
Now you know the basics, so it’s time to start planning a trip to Alaska to see the northern lights for yourself. Read on!
The Best Time of Year to See the Northern Lights in Alaska
The number one consideration when planning a trip to see the aurora in Alaska is traveling at the right time of the year. As you’ll learn in this section, if you try to visit Alaska during the wrong season, your chances to see the northern lights are nil.
- Autumn (August to October) – As the summer winds down, days become shorter and cooler. This also means that your chances to see the northern lights are growing each day, as the dark nights return to Alaska. From mid-September onward, the nights are long and dark enough to offer a good chance to see the aurora on any given night. If you’re planning a shoulder season trip to Alaska, autumn is a great time with some northern lights viewing opportunities too.
- Winter (November to March) – Winter is the best time of year to visit Alaska and see the northern lights. From November through March, you can expect snow and cold, dark winter nights that get longer approaching the winter solstice on December 21st. While the longest nights occur around the solstice, February is an ideal time to visit Alaska in the winter. Each year the Fur Rendezvous festival and Iditarod Race offer cultural experiences during the short days and plenty of long nighttime hours for trying to spot the aurora.
- Spring (April to May) – As the sunlight and warmth return to Alaska, your chances of seeing the northern lights slowly decrease. Nights become shorter and days become longer, such that each new day has a few fewer minutes of darkness to stargaze or see the aurora. April and May are a great time to visit Alaska because they’re cheaper and less crowded – but you most likely won’t see the northern lights during a trip at this time.
- Summer (June to July) – In the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun,’ that midnight sun definitely interferes with the ability to see dark skies! Alaska is located so far north that your chances of seeing the northern lights in the summer months are basically zero. If your main goal in visiting Alaska is to see the aurora, be sure to plan your trip several months before or after June 21st (the summer solstice) each year.
The Best Places in Alaska to See the Northern Lights
The great part about trying to see the aurora in Alaska is that it doesn’t require a lot of travel to see them. Heck, you already traveled all the way to Alaska – the rest is pretty easy. In this section, you’ll find a list of places you can see the aurora near some of the major cities and communities you’ll probably visit anyway on a winter trip in Alaska.
As the largest city in Alaska by population, most winter travelers will visit Anchorage at least once during a trip. You can see the northern lights in Anchorage if you know where to go. Based on my experience (more on that below), here are the best places to see the northern lights near Anchorage. (Note: you’ll need a rental car to reach any of these places.)
- Beluga Point – Located south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm, Beluga Point has a good parking area and limited light pollution to interfere with your view.
- Potter Valley – Potter Valley (or nearby Potter Marsh if you don’t want to drive up the mountain) are a good option to get away from the city lights a bit to try and see the aurora if they’re visible.
- Flattop – A popular hiking trail, Flattop Mountain lets you get above the city lights for a clear view of the night sky. The parking lot (near Glen Alps Overlook) can work for seeing the aurora, or if you’re feeling ambitious you can hike the trail for an even better view.
- Hiland Road – Near Flattop and the Glen Alps Overlook area, Hiland Road works its way up the mountainside and offers some good views of the northern sky too.
- Point Woronzof – This park and nearby Earthquake Park (which includes the Downtown Viewpoint) is a good spot for okay aurora viewing right in Anchorage. There’s definitely light pollution from this area, especially as airplanes landing at Ted Stevens International Airport pass pretty much right overhead. You’ll also have unobstructed views to the north to try and spot the northern lights if they’re bright enough.
I (Valerie, the founder of STG) grew up in Eagle River, Alaska. I spent fifteen formative years living in this small community – which can sort of be considered a suburb of Anchorage in a very Alaskan way. As such, I spent fifteen winters enjoying the northern lights, and these are some of my favorite spots to view the aurora in Eagle River – ‘near home.’
- Beach Lake – This is my favorite viewing spot by far. There are two parking areas near Beach Lake, and depending on which one you can reach by car (depending on the snow). You’ll be well away from light pollution with great overhead views of the sky and the northern lights.
- Eagle River Visitor Center – Back in Eagle River valley, you may need to deal with some light pollution. But, the Visitor Center has some good viewing decks where you can stand and look out past the dark mountains to the stars and aurora above.
- Mirror Lake – Located a little way out of Eagle River, Mirror Lake is another good option for viewing the northern lights. If the lake is frozen over, you can walk out a bit and get an unobstructed view of the night sky.
- Baldy – Mt. Baldy is a popular hiking trail. It has a few great vistas on the drive up Skyline Drive to the top of the mountain, as well as at the parking area. You can choose to hike up the trail a little (keep an eye out for wildlife), or just look out over Knik Arm to see the aurora in the northern sky.
North of Eagle River, Eklutna Lake Road leads to Eklutna Lake. This is a popular spot in the summer for hiking, cycling, and boating to the Eklutna Glacier. In the winter, the road may not be totally accessible, but it works its way up a very sheltered mountain valley. This means there’s very little light pollution and a great chance to see the northern lights. Depending on the conditions you might be able to make it all the way to the campground. But, the trails and campground are closed each winter so don’t plan on staying overnight.
The primary road through Hatcher Pass is typically closed to vehicles in the winter because snow makes it impassable. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t head deep into the Talkeetna Mountains if you’re keen to see the northern lights! The primary road up into the pass (from Palmer) is typically open in some fashion for skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers who make their way up to the pass for daytime fun. At night, you can pull off into one of the parking areas and look up to see the aurora if it’s visible.
Talkeetna is a great spot on your itinerary if you’re planning a winter trip to Alaska – even if you’re not hunting the aurora. This small community gives you a great sense of what life is like outside the cities in Alaska. It’s full of opportunities to experience the ‘real’ Alaska. (Hint: it requires a lot of self-sufficiency, and is pretty snowy and cold in the winter!)
To see the northern lights in Talkeetna, you can drive out of town to get away from the ‘city’ lights and pull over pretty much anywhere. Head out toward Christiansen Lake or past the airport on Beaver Road. You can even just try Talkeetna Riverfront Park looking north toward Denali. Any of these spots will be good for a clear view of the night sky.
Denali National Park
Most of Denali National Park is closed in the winter. You can only drive a maximum of 15 miles into the park in your private vehicle year-round – and this road is hit-or-miss during the winter based on snow conditions. If you want to get a taste of Denali, drive as far into the park as you can, and try to spot the aurora from there.
Riley Creek Campground, which is located near the park entrance, is open year-round with no camping fees during the winter. This could be a good spot to base yourself; the big hotels near Denali are generally closed for the winter. Aurora Denali Lodge in Healy (a 20-minute drive to the park) is open in the winter and perfectly-named if you aren’t keen on camping.
Fairbanks is the second-largest city in Alaska and a popular spot on the tourist circuit. It’s definitely going to be on your itinerary during a winter trip because Fairbanks is ideally located for viewing the northern lights. (Fairbanks is substantially farther north than Anchorage, and more close to the Auroral Oval.)
In Fairbanks, you can see the aurora almost anywhere on a strong night. Here are some of the best spots to see the northern lights near Fairbanks if you want to improve your chances during your trip:
- Chena Hot Springs – Imagine viewing the northern lights from the comfort of a hot tub… That’s what you can do at Chena Hot Springs Resort! Are you sold yet?
- Creamer’s Field – Its formal name is Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, and it’s a huge open space not far from downtown Fairbanks where you can see the night sky with limited light pollution.
- Chena Lakes – Chena Lakes is a recreation area where you might find swimmers in the summer or ice fishermen in the winter. It’s also a good place out of town with less light pollution if you want to see the northern lights.
- Cleary Summit – Cleary Summit Aurora Viewing Area sounds like a promising place, right? 30 minutes north of Fairbanks, there’s virtually no light pollution here and it’s a fantastic aurora viewing spot.
- Murphy Dome – Murphy Dome is a 45-minute drive out of Fairbanks. You’ll ascend up to a great open area with views of the night sky in every direction.
Want to sleep under the aurora? Borealis Basecamp has domes designed especially to offer you a view of the northern lights from the comfort of your bed.
If you’re looking to go way beyond the beaten path and experience Alaskan winter at its truest, you may want to head even further north than Fairbanks to try and see the northern lights. Think Ice Road Truckers meets the greatest night sky show on Earth. There are a couple of towns to look at visiting – but you may need to charter a plane to get there!
- Coldfoot – It’s a 7-hour drive north from Fairbanks to Coldfoot. But as you might guess, that means you’re quite far from any major cities or sources of light pollution!
- Utqiaġvik (née Barrow) – Formerly called “Barrow,” the small community of Utqiaġvik is as far north in Alaska as you can get. You’ll need to fly here if you want to set feet in this northern part of the world or see the aurora here.
- Nome – Most people who know much about Alaska remember Nome as the destination where the Iditarod race ends each year. You’ll need to fly here too. But, there’s very little light pollution to interfere with viewing the northern lights in Nome!
These destinations are for die-hard aurora chasers… Be prepared to invest if you want to visit one of these remote communities during the cold winter months!
The Best Aurora Alerts for Alaska
Many hotels in Alaska will offer an aurora wake-up service. When you’re checking in to each place, inquire if they offer this. Then you’ll receive a call if the staff know the aurora is out! (This may be at 2 am, so be prepared to wake up in the middle of the night if the aurora beckon!)
In terms of forecasting, the University of Alaska Fairbanks has a great website with real-time data. There’s also a service called Aurora Borealis Notifications where you can sign up for email alerts.
No matter what time of night you’re viewing the northern lights in Alaska, you need to bundle up. Winter temps in Alaska range dramatically depending on where you are. In Fairbanks, it’s not uncommon for it to be as cold as −50 °F (−45.6 °C) at night! In Anchorage, it’s more temperate, with average lows in the 10-20 °F (-12-6 °C) range.
Grab that scarf and hat plus those gloves, hand warmers, wool socks, and proper boots! You’re going to need them all.
Popular Tours & Day Trips to See the Northern Lights in Alaska
One great part about visiting Alaska to see the northern lights is that U.S. citizens don’t need a passport… No immigration, no customs! Another great part is that there are many tour operators offering aurora tours in Alaska – you’ve got a lot of options. Here are some of the ones that stand out:
- The Alaska Railroad offers the Aurora Winter train. This is a fantastic way to see Alaska and visit some of the spots in this guide where the aurora viewing opportunities are ideal.
- Northern Alaska Tour Company offers several aurora tours, including several overnight tours of varying length, a fly-drive tour (including a visit to Coldfeet), and a ‘day’ tour that ends at 1:00 am (naturally!).
- Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge is the ultimate getaway for a multi-day winter experience. You’ll learn dog sledding by day and chase the aurora by night. This is a bucket list trip with most options starting above $5,000.
- Salmon Berry Travel & Tours has lots of options too. From a full day Chena Hot Springs/northern lights tour to a 10-day Iditarod/Denali/northern lights tour… They offer something for everyone!
- 1st Alaska Outdoor School has good budget-friendly aurora tour options, ranging from $99-$275 per person.
As you can tell, you have plenty of choices! These will inspire you to find the tour that’s right for you and includes daytime experiences you want with nighttime aurora-viewing opportunities.
Have other questions about seeing the northern lights in Alaska? Let me know in the comments.
My friend and I are,taking a cruise between Sept.,7and Sep. 12, then a land trip .by rail from
Whittier to. Denali Princess Wilderness lodge, 14 and 15th, then to Princess Wilderness Lodge
On the 15th then coach back to Anchorage.
Do we have a chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis? We are so excited.
Thank you for all the info.
Hi. My husband and I are looking for a trip to Alaska. And we where wondering when is the best time to see the Aurora Boreals. Thank you!
Debora, thanks for your comment. Please read the section in this post on the best time of year to see the aurora in Alaska.
We had the most fabulous holiday, we saw Aurora Borealis, learnt dog sledding, snow shoeing, snow-machining. The train trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks was breathtakingly beautiful – we saw many moose and caribou and Bettles Lodge was absolutely loved. Since we wanted to combine the northern lights viewing with activities, we ended up booking a package on Alaska Active. Part of the package was the Alaska Railroad Tour from Anchorage and we enjoyed it very much. Everything worked out very smooth and I am looking forward to return in a couple of years to Alaska.
Great Article – THANKS! Several Questions…Agree that Alaska is a great place to go since we currently have travel bans in Canada. We live in Washington State on Whidbey Island so travel (flying won’t be too bad). About 10 years ago my wife and I went to Iceland. Saw so many beautiful things, but no Northern Lights. Northern Lights is on my Bucket List! I am into landscape photography.
1) I read about the 11 year cycle, we are at the low end of the cycle jut starting up. Should I wait 2-3 years or go this year/next?
2) My wife and I are both retired. I do NOT get around the best, not able to do long hikes. We don’t want to do a lot/any winter driving. Once we are at a lodge/location we plan on taking tours out into the wilderness for viewing. Based on these things, what is your best recommendation for a trip? We are thinking October thru February. Like a lodge/small town atmosphere as long as we can get some good meals!
3) We are retired! We would like to plan a week trip. But if the lights were bad that week with good viewing the following, we would like to extend our stay. Flexible schedules.
4) I am into Landscape Photography. Hope to photograph Northern Lights with as little light pollution as possible, with lakes/mountains in the scene.I would like to keep our budget to around $10,000-$12,000 (lower if possible) – for flights, accommodations, food and tours for the both of us. Would like to go out viewing most nights we are there – don’t want to miss anything!
Stay Safe and Healthy!
Chris and Kathy
Chris & Kathy, thanks for reading! I actually have another article on my other site that might help you answer some of these questions: https://www.valisemag.com/alaska-northern-lights-trip/
NORTHERN LIGHTS FOR SENIORS
Thank you for the very helpful article, Valerie!
1. Am thinking about going to travel up to Alaska in March, will there still be a good chance to see the Aurora Borealis?
2. Traveling with my almost 80-year old mother (she has always wanted to visit Alaska!), she does NOT get around best, i.e. no hiking for her, are there tours available so that she could enjoy watching the Aurora Borealis at her own pace?
3. In connection to the above, are there accomodations you could recommend suitable for an elderly person, where we could see the Aurora Borealis right there on the spot at night?
Looking forward to hearing from you. Stay safe and healthy! Enny
Thanks for reaching out, Enny. If you haven’t started planning yet, I think you’ve waited too long – this year there is a lot of interest in visiting Alaska and it’s hard to find hotels and cars in March since this is prime Aurora season. I recommend booking your Alaska trip at least three months in advance – six months if you want to visit during the peak season of March and May through August.
Going on a cruise June 15th-22nd if we wake up like 3am -5am is there a chance of seeing a glimpse of the northern lights, will it be dark enough in that time slot?
Sorry, Edward, not at all. The Northern Light are not visible in Alaska in June.
Inspiring article. My wife and I are planning on getting to Alaska in mid-October or very early November from Australia in the hope of seeing glaciers at Seaward and the Northern Lights, somewhere.
A few of those amazing sights and animals would also be handy! 🙂
A very basic question, at that time of year, are we being hopeful or are the Northen Lights a reality? And if yes, where? Fairbanks sounds absoultely magic if only for the trip to get there.
Your thughts would be appreciated.
Souuther nLights in Tasmania are better than people believe.
Thank you for your time,
Phil and Carolyn
Going to Alaskaaugust 1st-9th; what are chances of seeing northern lights
None. There is not enough darkness to see the aurora at that time of year.
I have only full days to spend in Alaska. But I’m a little worried about booking a flight to Fairbanks and trying to find the best option to try to see the lights…flying in Nov 11th and leaving 11/15…can you give me some insights on what the best options for me can be?
Hi, Berny. I’m a little confused with your question. I cover how to see the Aurora in different parts of the state, so even if you’re only in Anchorage, I have suggestions in this post.
Fantastic post! Born and raised in the Dominican Rep. (Caribbean) watching the Aurora Borealis is in my bucket list. I am considering a family trip around Feb.-March. In order to increase my odds, I am considering a family trip for Feb. or Mar. Already monitoring ticket prices from Orlando, FL to Fairbanks.
Thanks Valerie for your help. Best of luck!
I plan to travel to Anchorage and Seward, around 09/16-24/2023.
Is there any chance to see the Northern lights this shoulder season?
Is there a chance, yes. Is there a guarantee, no. You’ll need to check the forecast within a week of your arrival to see what the KP is forecasted to be.
Traveling to Alaska on cruise late August 24 where can see Northern lights?
It is very unlikely you will see the northern lights in Alaska on August 24 during a cruise. I would not plan on it.