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.
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, we’ve got you covered. I (STG founder Valerie) grew up in Alaska and has seen the aurora many times there. Here’s all my knowledge and wisdom to help you plan an unforgettable trip to see the northern lights in Alaska.
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, and it’s got 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 – 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, and is 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, or even just to 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, and you can only drive 13 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.
Far North Alaska
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!
How to See the Northern Lights in Alaska
As you start planning your northern lights trip in Alaska, here are a few extra tips to keep in mind. These tips are great for any destination where you want to see the aurora – with specific tips for your time in The Last Frontier.
1. Plan Your Trip at the Right Time of Year
As mentioned above, there’s no point trying to see the northern lights during the summer in Alaska! Instead, plan your trip in the winter months. February is ideal, but any time between mid-September and late March will work. During that time, nights are long enough to afford aurora viewing opportunities.
2. Check the Forecast – But Be Flexible
As with many winter destinations, what makes them magical is the snow… But snow comes from clouds, which are quite common during the winter in Alaska! Check the forecast for your trip but be prepared to adjust your plans if needed.
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.
3. Bundle Up
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.
4. Be Patient
Unless you’re lucky to step outside and see the aurora right away (which can happen), you may need to wait a while for the northern lights to appear – or for your eyes to adjust to the low light to be able to see them. This is why it’s important to bundle up! But, it’s also important to be prepared to wait. You’re waiting on a natural phenomenon that doesn’t operate on any schedule or clock. That’s part of what makes seeing it in the end so magical.
5. Experience Awe
If you do finally spot the northern lights, don’t be surprised if you’re awestruck. Whether you see the common green, exciting red or purple, or rare white colors of the aurora, the dancing lights never fail to amaze. You may even find you’re quite emotional or spiritually moved by the experience. This is all totally normal! (I felt that way too even when I saw them all the time!)
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, which 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.
How to Photograph the Aurora in Alaska
After seeing all the photos in this article, you may want to photograph the northern lights in Alaska when you see them. To improve your chances of getting a great picture, you need the right camera and gear plus the right settings to capture the color and details. Here are some quick tips:
- You need a camera that allows for manual settings. You’ll also need a tripod and a remote.
- Keep your shutter speed short. If you keep the shutter open longer than 15 seconds, you’ll start to notice star trails (which admittedly look cool) but can distract from the aurora in your pics!
- Set your f-stop low (3-5) and your ISO no higher than 800.
- Don’t forget extra batteries. When shooting in cold weather and with long exposures, your battery will run down much faster than expected.
- Once you’re set up, be prepared to be patient and keep shooting. Once the aurora light up, you’ll have a chance to shoot some amazing dancing lights in the sky.
Have other questions about seeing the aurora in Alaska? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: Bob Wick for BLM via Flickr